So You Wanna Fly a Warbird
Your Guide to the Warbird Experience
Is there an aviation enthusiast alive who hasn’t wished that he or she could taste what it was actually like to be at the controls of a World War II fighter or manning the gun positions in a bomber—preferably, without being shot at? No, that individual doesn’t exist. The visceral attraction of the warbird is universal, and at one time, that was quite frustrating. One has to go back only a couple of decades to find a time when it was next to impossible to even get a ride in something like a Mustang, much less receive flight instruction. Plus, there were so few B-17s and other bombers flying that dreaming of hitching a ride in one wasn’t even worth wasting the mental energy on. That, however, has changed—big time!
Today there are numerous operators—some working out of fixed facilities and others literally barnstorming around the country, giving rides or instruction in a wide variety of warbirds.
This is the result of an interesting intersection between warbird operators and the regulatory agencies, specifically the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
The Regulations Rule
Very few combat warbirds were ever licensed in FAA’s transport or normal category, which is necessary for an owner/operator to carry passengers for hire. When in civilian hands, most ex-military birds fly in limited, restricted, or experimental-airshow/exhibition categories, in which the carriage of paying passengers is strictly forbidden. In 1996, several not-for-profit organizations (e.g., the Collings Foundation and the Experimental Aircraft Association [EAA]) petitioned the FAA to allow them to carry passengers in nonstandard category warbirds, citing the historical nature of the aircraft and the importance of being able to expose the public to the aerial artifacts while, at the same time, generating cash flow to help maintain those aircraft. The regulations that the meetings generated now come under the heading of Living History Flight Experience (LHFE) operations, and the organizations now using those regulations to expose the public to their historical aircraft are doing so only at the will of the FAA. That is another way of saying that there is no guarantee how far these organizations will be able to operate in the future simply because of the changeable nature of governmental regulations. So if you’ve been wanting that warbird experience, do it sooner rather than later.
The Warbird Experience Community
The warbird experience community is populated by several types of organizations offering experiences in many different types of warbirds— trainers to fighters—in many different operational settings. Some are working out of a fixed location, often museums, while others constantly tour the entire United States. Others set up at aviation events, airshows, and fly-ins.
Some entities are purely commercial and are recognized as such by the FAA, while many others, like the EAA, the Collings Foundation, and the museums, are 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations, which utilize the funds generated to keep their aircraft flying while, at the same time, giving the aviation community the chance to live out some of their fantasies. Also, since they are operating as nonprofits, a portion of the cost of a ride is (theoretically) a taxdeductible donation.
It should be noted that some of the operations are strictly limited to giving rides, while others, like Stallion 51 and Warbird Adventures, give flight instruction in their airplanes. Inasmuch as under FAA definitions, a student receiving flight instruction is not a passenger for hire, these organizations have gotten permission to operate their aircraft in the flight instruction role. Whether you’re a pilot or not, you’ll actually fly their airplanes under the guidance of their experienced instructors.
What follows is a general guide to some of the major operations and a list of some of the smaller ones. A complete guide to warbird experiences worldwide is also included. Be sure to look at the guide closely because you’ll see quite a range of warbirds available from Stearmans to Helldivers.
A rider’s view from the bombardier position in a B-17. (Photo courtesy of the Collings Foundation)