From about the age of 4, I knew I wanted to fly. Nobody in my family was an aviator, nor did we know anyone who was, so I don’t know where that passion came from. My mother was a stay-at-home mom at the time, and my father was a musician. I just knew that was what I wanted.
My parents divorced when I was 5, and I lived with my dad and stepmom. Weekends were spent at my mom’s. When I was 7, my mother went to work for an oral surgeon who, it turned out, owned some airplanes. I begged my mom to ask him for a flight, which he gave me in a C-172 that same year. My stepmother knew I wanted to be a pilot but continually told me every time I spoke about it that I was too stupid and that I’d never be a pilot. This, I think, is what drives me to always be better and to improve myself. But between then and when I joined the Army at 18, I had to make do with model airplanes and my dreams.
A knee injury during training kept me from flight school in the Army, but while I was stationed at Fort Ord in Monterey, California, I completed my private license with the Naval post-graduate school flying club in Beech T-34 Mentors.
Later, when I had gotten out of the service, I was going through A&P school and pumping gas at the San Carlos airport while building my hours in those T-34’s.
It was then that I flew my first airshow, in 1987, at the Wings Of Victory airshow at Hamilton Air Force Base in Novato, California. All I did was fly formation passes past the crowds with other T-34s, but I was hooked. My new goal was to become an airline pilot.
My son was born in 1986, while my friends without kids were going to the regional airlines, starting at $9 an hour. I was struggling to make ends meet as it was, and there was no way I could live off that kind of pay, let alone pay for all my ratings that I needed to continue and take care of my family. So, with a newborn and stay-at-home mom to think about, too, I finally had to drop out of A&P school to became an air traffic controller, where I spent 27 years at Oakland Center while continuing to fly and build up my hours, as well getting the opportunity to fly an occasional show in the club’s T-34’s. But I still dreamed of flying jets.
By the 1990s, I had the chance to buy a jet, an L-29 jet out of Romania for just $8,000, and started flying that and cutting my teeth in the jet world. I only still had a private license at the time but got type rated in the L-29. Back then, the only requirement was to have 1,000 hours’ total time. Soon afterward, I got typed in the L-29’s big brother, the L-39.
My insurance company told me if I had an instrument rating, my insurance would drop, which sounded good to me, so I went to a seven-day instrument course. Because I had a lot of hood time flying with my friends (though only an hour of dual with a CFII), I ended up taking my check ride on the second day there, as I had the required time already, and I passed. The remainder of the week, I took my multi and commercial written and those two check rides. So I went for an instrument rating and left with multi instrument and commercial in just a week.
Fast-forward again a few years to late 2007. It was then that I got the chance to fly a friend’s T-33 Shooting Star, which was one of my favorite planes as a youngster, and right away, I knew I had to have one. I soon found one that was priced in the low $100s and managed to scrape together enough money to put a down payment on it and get a loan for the balance. Five flying hours later, I was type rated in the T-33.
I felt as if I had been flying it all my life. And the price was right, though when you buy a jet, you soon learn that the purchase price was so low because the fuel consumption is so high. Luckily, at the time, jet fuel was running about $1 a gallon, so I figured I could afford to fly it 20 to 30 minutes (about 200 gallons per hour) a week.
Unfortunately, within a few months, the economy tanked, and in the span of a month, jet fuel skyrocketed to almost $8 a gallon. At that price, I couldn’t afford to fly my T-33.
So, to support my Jet-A habit, I decided to become a professional airshow pilot. I came up with a business plan. With no formal aerobatic instruction, I read the Royal Canadian Air Force maneuvers manual for the T-33 and taught myself aerobatics and came up with a routine. Soon after, I got my first SAC (statement of aerobatic capability) card. Those approvals go down in altitude as your skill and experience go up. My first card was for 800 feet, which is almost pattern altitude, but it was a start.
In business at last, I named my plane Ace Maker and the company Ace Maker Airshows. I did a couple big shows my first season—Seafair in Seattle and Fleet week in San Francisco. I didn’t earn any money for flying there, but I got the jet fuel comped and expenses covered. More importantly, a lot of organizers of other airshows saw me fly. It was great exposure. That first season flying, with an 800-foot card, I wound up flying about 100 hours, and I made a whopping $500; not a lot, I know, but I was flying my jet.
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And I was building the brand. My second season, I booked more than 20 airshows. And with my increased experience, I started my second season with a 500-foot floor on my SAC card, and halfway through the year I got bumped down to 250 feet. I wasn’t getting rich, but that year, for the first time, I made enough money to cover my expenses, which included insurance, hangar rent, maintenance and more.
By my third season, I had been granted a surface-level, unrestricted SAC card, which I’m proud to say I earned in just under two years, after starting at 800 feet. I felt like I had finally come into my own. That season, I flew another 25 shows, and I was now, believe it or not, the No. 1-booked warbird airshow act in the country, a position I’m proud to say I’ve held now for 10 years in a row.
And, finally, I was making as much money flying airshows as I was as a controller at Oakland Center. I would leap-frog my jet across the country, going from show to show. In between shows, I’d stage the jet at the next venue and airline home. With the T-33’s ability to fly 800- to 1,000-mile legs, hopping from show to show was easy.
With the airshows doing so well, I retired from ATC. In 2014, I purchased another jet, Ace Maker II. I kept one jet on both sides of the country, so I was nonstop anywhere in North America, and with that increased flexibility, I flew a record 30 venues in 2014.
“I felt as if I had been flying it all my life. And the price was right, though when you buy a jet, you soon learn that the purchase price was so low because the fuel consumption is so high.”
And the company was growing. In 2018, I hired an ex-FA/18 demo pilot full time and had East and West Coast demo teams, allowing us that year to fly at 50 venues.
After all this time, I’m not just a jet pilot any more but also a jet instructor. After a long selection process, 2018 ended with me being awarded a five-year contract to instruct at Edwards AFB’s Air Force Test Pilot School, and I also purchased Ace Maker III, as the tax savings easily justified the purchase. I flew as a target for the F-35 test squadron while at Edwards. (Don’t worry. They don’t really shoot you down.)
The past year started with another contract, to instruct at The United States Naval Test Pilot School at Patuxent River, Maryland, along with flying another 23 airshows, 30 for the company. Now, all three jets are painted in authentic Korean-era colors. And a three-ship performance is on the horizon as well.
It’s taken years, a lot of hard work, lots of money and a little luck. But I reached my dream of flying jets at airshows. Today, the people I idolized growing up I now call my friends. I am truly living the dream.