| Warbird pilot and rebuilder Steve Hinton paused with the F7F Tigercat he flew to AirVenture 2013. (photo by Frederick A. Johnsen)
By Frederick A. Johnsen
August 2, 2013 - Steve Hinton doesn't know offhand how many warbird types he's flown, but he's made more than 100 post-restoration first flights. If that sounds nonchalant, it's an indicator of Steve's down-to-earth outlook.
The man many warbird pilots and would-be warbird pilots envy is in high demand to fly exotic warbirds to events and for owners who want an experienced flier in the cockpit. He's logged about 7,000 hours in warbirds as a result.
That has included opportunities to fly a genuine German Fw 190 fighter as well as newly made full-size reproductions. "I'm the only one who has flown the real one," Hinton says. While the reproductions are fine flying machines, he says the genuine German wartime version was impressive for its flight control harmony: "an extremely well-designed, good airplane."
Hinton says he works with restorers and owners to make sure things are as reliable as possible before testing a new restoration. "We go out of our way not to have any heroic first flight," he explains. Hinton talks to other pilots and reads up on a particular warbird before flying it.
"I'll find out everything I can about it before first flight," he says. He emphasizes the importance of communication among warbird pilots to share information. He says, "If you're smart, you'll talk to people."
Steve is quick to credit others with helping him become a reliable warbird pilot. His affinity for warbirds goes back to early childhood, when his family lived at Naval Air Station China Lake in the Mojave Desert where he was born. The movie Hunters, about F-86 Sabre pilots, impressed the young Hinton. To this day, he says the F-86 is his favorite airplane.
Soon his family relocated to Claremont, California, where young Steve became best friends with Jim Maloney, whose father Ed Maloney was the visionary force behind the evolving Planes of Fame Museum. Steve and Jim spent hours at the museum, working on airplanes and getting opportunities to expand their knowledge and capabilities.
"I was fortunate enough to be around an aviation museum," he says. "I came at the right time." And he had opportunities to fly ex-military aircraft as a result.
"Truth is, all these planes were built for 19-year-olds to fly," he says modestly. As Steve built his warbird flight hours, he says he had help "and watchful eyes" from experienced pilots.
"The sky was the limit."
Air National Guard pilot Roscoe Diehl taught Steve how to fly an F-86. "The very first job I had where I got paid to fly an airplane was an F-86 for Bob Hoover," Steve recalled. That was a delivery flight to Oshkosh in 1974. Since then, Steve says "I've never missed more than about eight months without flying a Sabre."
If the F-86 is this warbird professional's favorite aircraft, where does the list go from there? "I have a favorite airplane and then 10 of them tied for second place," he says. Tops in props for Steve is the Grumman F8F Bearcat; from there he lists P-51, P-38, F6F, P-40, Spitfire, and genuine Zero as seven of those 10 second-place finishers.
"My desires and my dreams are filled with these kinds of airplanes," Steve says. "I enjoy the history of the airplanes; every plane has a story."
Steve's warbird logbook is impressive by itself, but that's hardly the sum of his rÃ©sumÃ©. He's an accomplished Unlimited air racer and the head of Fighter Rebuilders, a warbird restoration shop that has breathed life into about 40 warbirds-many for repeat customers.
And then there's his movie career. Steve has flown fighters and bombers for motion pictures including Pearl Harbor, Valkyrie, Always, and his first efforts in front of the cameras, the Baa Baa Black Sheep television series.
Steve likes the challenge of performing movie shots, working out the precision needed to make the shot look right on film.
The memorable opening scene in Always, where a water-scooping PBY Catalina skims over a small fishing boat in an unforgettable head-on telephoto shot, was directed by Steve.
Steve's love of warbirds is permanent and infectious. "They talk to you," he says. And he listens.