Proud Owner of the Last Flying Wildcat
How Steve Craig keeps his Grumman F4F-3 Wildcat in working order.
Steve Craig, a hospitality industry entrepreneur in Lawrence, Kansas, is one of those rare and happy people who owns the last flying model of an aircraft. While he wasn’t part of the Navy rescue mission that recovered his Grumman F4F-3 Wildcat from the depths of Lake Michigan in 1991, Craig fell in love with it after seeing it at an airshow three years later. In addition to the Wildcat, he owns and flies a 1931 Waco, a 1936 Bucker Jungmeister, a 1945 North American P-51D, and a 1946 Beech Staggerwing. Air & Space associate editor Diane Tedeschi asked Craig about the acquisition and restoration of his famous warbird.
A&S: How and when did the airplane come into your possession?
Craig: I actually acquired it from a friend of mine, who acquired it from the Navy. Dick Hansen and Jim Porter actually acquired the plane in—I believe it was in 1991 or early ’92—from the United States Navy through the company that the Navy contracted with to recover it: A&T Recovery out of Chicago, Illinois. They obtained the plane, did much of the restoration, got the plane flying, and then I acquired the plane. I have continued some of the necessary restoration, all in an effort to keep it extremely original but at the same time operable and safe.
A&S: How much did you pay for the Wildcat?
Craig: Well, I would prefer not to say that. But it involved some cash and a classic aircraft on trade.
A&S: What kind of shape was the aircraft in when you got it in 2002?
Craig: It was overall in excellent shape. Except there were some things that had been overlooked [which were discovered when] a friend of mine, Matt Jackson, flew the plane from Kansas City out to California. I wasn’t yet qualified by the FAA to fly the airplane. So Matt, who flies all sorts of warbirds, made that flight, and discovered that there were some issues with the fuel system, the wiring, and in particular, some issues with respect to the engine and the exhaust system. And so we worked on a lot of that over the next year.
A&S: Was the work done at Jackson’s restoration shop at Van Nuys Airport in California?
Craig: Matt did some of the work. But most of it was done by another friend—Matt had a lot of projects going on. And so another very good friend of mine, who’s a very talented fellow, Pete Regina of Pete Regina Aviation in Van Nuys, did the bulk of the work.
A&S: Why did you want to add an F4F to your collection?
Craig: Well, I’m not a major collector. I do have three or four very historic airplanes. And of course the Wildcat has such a tremendous history. Many years ago, I spent some time in the Navy Reserve, and I had some basic understanding of [the F4F’s role] in the early war in the Pacific—the first two years. So that caught my interest. As for this particular plane, I happened to be at Oshkosh in 1994 with my son, who was then 11 years of age, and we were at our first Oshkosh together. That was the show where Dick Hansen and Jim Porter displayed this airplane—the first public appearance of the plane. And I was fascinated by how original it was and what fantastic shape it was in. That’s when it began. I didn’t ever dream [then] that I’d ever get to own and fly the plane.
A&S: How long did it take you to get your type rating for the Wildcat?
Craig: It took the better part of a year. A big part of that was [that] the plane was down for some significant maintenance issues. Of course it’s a single-seat airplane, so there are no trainers. So I worked with Matt Jackson in particular and Pete [Regina], and Matt told me what to expect. And then we went out to Mojave and I made the first flights in it.
A&S: What kind of reaction does it get when you fly the Wildcat at airshows?
Craig: It is really well received because of its history. It’s particularly gratifying when veterans of World War II come up to the airplane at an airshow, maybe with their adult sons and their grandchildren. People appreciate it, and of course that’s why you do it.
A&S: Do you fly the same routine at each show?
Craig: I do not fly aerobatics. I’ve never obtained a low-level waiver. I will certainly do low passes and pull the plane up steeply and do wingovers and things, but as far as low-level loops and rolls, I don’t practice enough to do that.
A&S: How many times do you fly the Wildcat during an airshow season?
Craig: I had a fellow help me with that because my business interests still keep me pretty busy. I’m trying to semi-retire, but I haven’t gotten there yet. So in 2005, we flew the plane at about, gosh, 12 airshows, but I only did three of those. And nine were flown by Mark Watt, who’s an Air Canada captain.
A&S: Do you get paid for your airshow appearances?
Craig: We do try to get paid. And most of the time we do. I recently [September 2006] flew the plane out to the University of Iowa for the dedication of the Nile Kinnick Memorial Stadium. Nile Kinnick was “Mr. Everything” at the University of Iowa in the late 1930s. He was president of the senior class, captain of the football team, track team. Heisman Trophy winner. Phi Beta Kappa. And on top of all of that, he was a very modest person. So he’s attained mythical, iconic status within the state of Iowa, as well he should. He joined the Naval Reserve and then was activated two days before Pearl Harbor, went into Navy flight training, and tragically was killed flying a Wildcat. And so the University of Iowa was rededicating its stadium—after a $90 million renovation—to Nile Kinnick and unveiling a 12-foot bronze statue [of Kinnick]. They learned I had the world’s only flying Wildcat, and asked me to come up and participate. That was very special. And I waived that fee.
But for most of these airshows, there’s a promoter involved who’s making money. So most of us [who] fly these [vintage airplanes] try to get compensated because they are expensive to operate.
A&S: Getting back to Nile Kinnick, was his a combat death?
Craig: He was killed training in the Caribbean off the coast of Venezuela in preparation to [deploy] to the Pacific. He had an engine failure. I’ve actually had a couple of people come up to me, including one man who saw him crash, a gentleman that was on a destroyer that was “plane-guarding” when the crash happened. It looked like a textbook ditching—that [Kinnick would] just climb out of the cockpit and be rescued. But it didn’t work out. Who knows what happened? A parachute harness—something—got caught, and he went down with the plane.
A&S: Do you maintain the F4F yourself?
Craig: I participate, and I read a lot. I view myself not only as the pilot of this airplane, of course, but as its caretaker and crew chief almost. But a talented aircraft mechanic I am not. So I’m not even qualified to do much of the work under FAA regulations. So I enlist people like Pete Regina and Matt Jackson in particular. Pete’s done a tremendous amount of wonderful work on this airplane to keep it historic and original and safe.
A&S: How do you find replacement parts when needed?
Craig: The instruments are relatively easy to find, and engines and engine parts are relatively plentiful. The propeller is a little tougher to find, but I have a spare. Now airframe parts are tough [to find].
A&S: The four guns have been demilitarized, right?
Craig: Yeah, the ATF, the FBI, and all those people would really frown on me having operable .50-caliber machine guns—[the ones on the airplane] look real but they’ve been rendered useless.
A&S: Have you outfitted the aircraft with modern radio and navigation equipment?
Craig: The radios that were in the plane, interestingly, are still there, but they’re not operable—the tubes and things on the inside have been removed. Over in the corner, we have two [modern] radios and a transponder, which is required to fly in today’s airspace. About a year after flying the plane, I installed a GPS that mounts in an area that doesn’t detract from [the Wildcat’s] originality. It’s a Garmin 500, which is probably, if not the best, certainly one of the two or three best GPS systems today.
A&S: How does the F4F compare to other aircraft you’ve flown?
Craig: It actually is a lot of fun to fly. And relatively speaking, as these warbirds go, it’s a simple airplane. And it’s a very straightforward airplane. It has a big Grumman wing—forgiving. It has a gentle stall. It was designed for young men to bring aboard carriers, and to operate out of primitive airstrips in the Pacific. It does not handle crosswinds well at all, so you have to be very, very careful. But it actually is a very nice airplane to fly.