Restorative Genius

A young military airplane craftsman makes his mark.

wunderkind Erik Hokuf and a friend in Minnesota. Xavier Meal

Twenty-eight year old Erik Hokuf is considered something of a prodigy in the world of warbird restoration. His remarkable work on a couple of rare Curtiss P-40K Warhawks garnered him respect as well as awards. At 2006’s EAA AirVenture show in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, one of Hokuf’s P-40s won Grand Champion Warbird. The two aircraft belong to businessman Ron Fagen, who has the same devotion to authentic restoration methods as Hokuf. Air & Space’s Bettina Chavanne spoke with Hokuf from his home base in Granite Falls, Minnesota, where his restoration company, Warhawks, Inc., is based.

A & S: Why do you think people are so interested in how young you are? Have you met any other people of your generation who are as avid about warbirds as you are?
Hokuf: That’s the first question I get when people come in [to Warhawks Inc.]. I was born in 1979. There aren’t many people my age actually restoring airplanes, although there are plenty of enthusiasts.

A & S: How did you become interested in warbirds?
Hokuf: I grew up on a farm in Minnesota. My dad was an industrial arts teacher and I had three brothers. Three of the four of us are now in aviation, and my dad surprisingly had nothing do with it. Neither did mom. No one in the family was involved in airplanes or aviation. It actually started with 4-H [the National 4-H Council is a national youth leadership organization]. One of the projects we had involved aerospace. You could build model rockets, plastic models, and radio-controlled airplanes. That’s what really got us interested in aviation.

My oldest brother, Shawn [age 35], went to the United States Air Force Academy. I was in junior high school when he was at the Academy, so that served as inspiration for me too. He got his pilot’s license when he was 17, and I was always tagging along. I got to ride in the back seat when he was working on his instrument rating. He’s an airline pilot for SkyWest now.

My younger brother’s an airplane mechanic for Bemidji Aviation. He still lives in Bemidji, Minnesota. The farm where I grew up is halfway between Bemidji and the Red Lake Indian Reservation, where my dad taught for years. My younger brother sort of followed what I was doing. I was so interested in airplanes and aviation by the time I got to high school that I figured out how to get a job at the airport as a mechanic the summer before my senior year in high school. I was a mechanic’s apprentice at the time. Then I worked on the job-training program in high school, so the second half of the school day I spent out at the airport getting high school credit and working toward my airframe & powerplant license. Very few people go that route today because it takes 30 months of on-the-job experience before you qualify. Then you take the same FAA test that technical school students do. I got my A&P license when I was 20, and at that time already had three years of experience.

A & S: How did you become involved with this P-40K Restoration project in particular?
Hokuf: After working for Bemidji Aviation, I worked for a charter company in Minneapolis for about four years. While I was there, I worked with Ron Fagen’s two nephews. That’s just one of my many connections to Ron. I knew of him because both of his sons went to college at Bemidji State University. Evan, Ron’s youngest son, is only two days younger than me. I used to see him up at Bemidji Aviation, when Ron would fly his P-51 Mustang up there. In an even stranger twist of fate, my parents actually grew up about 10 miles away from Granite Falls, so Ron knows my dad’s cousins and family.

I always knew about Ron and about his airplanes. When I was working with his nephews, I kept bugging them to tell their uncle that he needed to hire a new mechanic. One day, Chris actually did say, “Ron, you’ve got to hire this guy.” Then I didn’t hear anything for six months. One morning, a 6:00 a.m. call came in from Ron’s office. I was working second shift at the time. Finally, Ron said, “Come on out [to his headquarters in Granite Falls].”

A & S: Do you have any flying heroes?
Hokuf: I think that [Charles] Lindbergh is somebody I definitely look up to. His accomplishment, what he did at that time…it was very cool. As far as World War II aviation, a couple of books I can remember reading in high school…Robert Johnson’s Thunderbolt and Pappy Boyington’s book about the Black Sheep Squadron.

A & S: Did you learn anything particularly interesting about the P-40K during the restoration process?
Hokuf: This was the first World War II-era aircraft I worked on. I think the thing that struck me at first, and probably always will, is the effort that was put into building these airplanes. Just the manufacturing part of it. Rosie the Riveter. You can imagine…people just basically off the street were brought in to work at an airplane plant. They were putting things together they had no idea about…I’ve heard stories like, “I built the trim tab on the elevator for the [Lockheed] P-38 [Lightning] and I never saw what the [completed] airplane looked like.” They just had one very specific job. It was a phenomenal effort that was poured into [the manufacturing process]. World War II was about five years long. Five years today, for us working on these airplanes, feels like it goes by in a flash. To think that they designed, put into production, and then built 10,000 of them in that amount of time is really just amazing. And then they learned how to fly and operate them.

I have six people working for me now, so I think about the organization of all that as well. You have to get people to know and understand what they’re doing. You’re teaching and keeping them busy on projects. You think back to those days when they taught hundreds of thousands of people to build planes.
Looking through original drawings here, we see, for example, a pilot’s seat with such-and-such office furniture company printed on it. Everything, everyone, was for the war effort. Today is so different. Society is so independent. With today’s society, I don’t know if we could do what we did back then.

A & S: Are there any other warbirds you’re interested in restoring in the future?
Hokuf: After working on the P-51 and being part of that project (Ron is having another shop restore it and I’m managing the process), and now with the P-38…those are neat planes. I would love to restore a [Republic] P-47 [Thunderbolt]. The list goes on. Every airplane is interesting. For me, warbirds are awesome, but I like every part of aviation. It’s still fun to help someone fly an ultralight. I own a [Aeronca] Champ myself.

A & S: Are you now the P-40 specialist? How many other P-40s do you think are out there to restore, and would you be able to undertake a rescue and restoration operation by yourself? Would you partner with a team or particular person?
Hokuf: I’d say I’m known as a P-40 specialist. That’s kind of what we want and what we try to do. We’re still learning. I can’t say we’re the first to do this, but maybe the first on such a large scale.

Our whole business plan is to own the projects outright. So what we’ll do is take a project, build and restore it here, and then put it up for sale when it’s ready to fly. Most shops take on a restoration, do a few different airplanes at a time, and not really specialize. And then they’ll bill the aircraft owner for the work they do. But it’s a two- to five-year process, and when you’re billing someone about $30,000 per month for five years, that’s a challenge. It’s hard on the owner, and sometimes halfway through they’ll say they’re burnt out and lost interest, so the project will end up getting sold. Projects like that tend to end up on the back burner. That’s not good for the shop and it’s not good for warbirds on the whole. They’re just not getting restored like they should be. The other issue is that sometimes an owner will arrive and try to tell the shop how to perform the restoration. And there are very few guys who know exactly how a plane should be built. They think they do, but they really don’t.

I kept the originality of the airplane and I do it correctly. I think that’s actually going to help the sale, because if you build a plane that’s totally stock, you generate hype and that adds to the value. We hope to have a plane ready to sell and then have several people interested in buying it. We’re also producing parts as well as selling airplanes. We do it production style. If there’s one part that we need and I’ve already had a few other guys ask for that part, we’ll make ten of them. Once you build the tooling and do the research, that’s where the time investment is. If you can make one correctly, the rest are pretty much free. That spreads out the cost. That’s making parts cheaper for us and for other people. And when you produce the part exactly the way the factory did originally, you have the original part. That’s what makes it a good restoration.

I tell the guys it’s kind of like a big puzzle. You could [use other parts], but that’s like taking a puzzle and jamming the wrong piece in to make it fit. You start building other puzzle pieces off the wrong one and that’s when your problems multiply. It’s easier, and some will disagree with me, to reproduce and make the part exactly the way it originally was rather than try to come up with a modern part. That’s where the arguments come in—is it really an original plane if you drill all the rivets out and re-make the parts? I think it’s fun to do things like put original stamping and marking on parts and to match paints.

That’s something we’re losing—there’s a place for flying airplanes and a place for airplanes in museums. People that argue those two sides of the coin—we’re trying to do a good job of documenting when we take something apart, and if there’s an original decal, we take photos and catalog it before we clean up the part. We try to preserve it. That’s where those original things are lost. Unfortunately, many of the planes restored since 10 years ago to just before the war, the original details weren’t very important. For us it’s exciting to find the original parts and uncover the mysteries.

More and more people I talk to and the more I learn, I’m sure there are hundreds of airframes just lying around the world waiting to be found. There are very few P-40s left that are projects sitting around that people don’t know about. We hear rumors every once in a while about a P-40 sitting in a barn. The numbers of airplanes and parts that were built…most of these parts are in other countries. The number in the U.S. is pretty low. With us and the P-40, we’re getting pretty close to being able to build the airplane from scratch. At some point we’ll be able to do that. It wouldn’t be an original airplane, but it would still sound and fly like one.

Jerry Beck of Tri-State Aviation in Wahpeton, North Dakota, has been a role model for us. He’s getting ready to build ten A-model P-51s. He’s actually produced all the fuselage parts. The Midwest is getting know more and more for warbird restoration.

A & S: Will you be showing the same P-40 at Oshkosh again this year? If not, what will you be bringing to the show?
Hokuf: The goal is to bring the P-40, the P-38, and our P-51. The P-38 flew into Granite Falls two and a half years ago and just needed a whole lot of TLC. We hadn’t done anything on it until January 2007. It’s all torn apart right now and we’re working hard on getting it to fly to Oshkosh.

wunderkind Erik Hokuf and a friend in Minnesota. Xavier Meal
A glimpse inside the P-40's gleaming engine is a testament to Hokuf's mechanical skills. Xavier Meal

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