THE DESERT AIRPORT is quiet in the early morning hours. As the sun breaks the horizon, the silence is disturbed by the sound of a single J-57 turbojet engine. It begins first as a whine and slowly builds to a confident roar as air is compressed and heated, and fuel flows through old but reliable machineiy. The unmistakable aroma of burnt jet fuel floats gently across a ramp mostly occupied by Cessnas, Pipers, Beechcrafts and the like.
A few moments later the Vought F-8
Crusader stirs from its resting place and creeps slowly past the rows of brightly painted civilian machines. It won’t take long to reach the end of the runway and prepare for takeoff, In the cockpit, behind visor and oxygen mask, the pilot runs through his checklist. He quickly yet methodically scans the aircraft’s instruments. There is no sense of urgency, however it would still be nice to get the big Navy fighter off the ground before the temperature gets too high. Eight thousand feet of runway isn’t much to play with when you’re flying something like 30,000lbs of fire-belching steel off a desert airport.
For the people at Thunderbird Aviation it’s the beginning of another day. Located at Deer Valley Airport on the outskirts of Phoenix, Arizona, the firm specializes in providing support to organizations requiring the flight testing of their products. «We provide military-type test-beds to both the Department of Defense and private industry,” advises Ed Jeszka, Vice President and General Manager of Thunderbird Aviation. «We basically serve as a sub-contractor and assist other firms in their research and development efforts.»
The Thunderbird hangar is a beehive of activity as employees tweak, tear down, and inspect any number of aircraft. As a full-service fixed base operator, the company sells fuel, performs overhauls, and completes inspections on anything from your tired Cessna 172 to the latest high-performance twin. But it’s the ex-military hardware that grabs your attention. It’s the sparkling Canadian-built T-33s, the F-8s, and the heavy-weight Douglas A-3 bombers which set Thunderbird apart from other airport denizens. In fact, about 70% of the company’s business stems from these old war-planes and the research and development contracts they service. «We presently have about twenty fulltime employees,» Jeszka explains. «Other part-time talent is on call as the workload demands. We tend to use retired military pilots and airline types, both active and retired, depending on what’s on the schedule.»
It is common for Thunderbird’s schedule to include operations at military ranges in California, New Mexico and Florida. Air and groundcrew deploy when and where required by the client to ensure the testing is done on time and within the budget. «Basically, the customer hires us to see if his product will fly, fit and function as designed,» Jeszka advises.There are about four or five similar operations in the country which are serious competition. Likewise, there are numerous outfits which come and go. The flight test business is much more complex than it appears.
Often, operators will enter the business under-financed or without the proper skills on board to make a contract «happen». They will underbid a job just to get the deal signed and not really take into account sick pilots, lacking spare parts, or a broken aircraft. The next thing you known, they’re in serious trouble. «One thing you learn in this business real fast,» according to Jeszka, «is that customers don’t want to hear about your problems, they just want the job done.» And when asked if Thunderbird Aviation advertises, the six-foot-two aviator smiles thinly. «Generally, when you’re good at what you do, people already know who you are.»
Ed Jeszka knows aviation and it shows. With the firm for the past five years, he may be unique in the fact that he manages a company based on military high-performance aircraft yet has no military flight training himself. But he’s no slouch in the cockpit of a T-33 either and before his tenure with Thunderbird, he flew an ancient prop-driven T-28 as a drug interdiction pilot. Likewise, the company’s owner is no stranger to aviation.
William Hauprich has been in the flight test business since 1966 and has owned the firm since March 1987. He was recently inducted as a member of the prestigious Society of Experimental Test Pilots. The skills of the technical staff are similarly impressive. The A-3s are generally maintained by ex-US Novy crew chiefs and both the T-33s and the pair of F-8s were assembled from spare parts.
Despite its age and complexity, the Thunderbird fleet is maintained in accordance to Federal Aviation Regulations. The Martin-Baker ejection seats are operational and the ‘chutes are all packed by FAA certified experts. Thunderbird Aviation is always looking for new aircraft as long as they can perform a useful role for the company’s clients. However, Jeszka says that he’d be careful before he diversifies the fleet too much. «It can be a logistic nightmare trying to maintain a single example of an aircraft,» he says.
Walking across the Thunderbird ramp we pass one of the T-33s. Boasting a blue Thunderbird company logo on its polished tail, it is obvious this is an aircraft maintained to the highest standards. There isn’t a hydraulic leak or oil stain to be seen. Under the left wing, a block and yellow pod hangs from a rack. Jeszka tells me it houses cameras to record flight tests for a customer,
A few minutes later we enter the innards of Thunderbird’s C-123 transport and he leads the way across the cargo bird’s tail ramp and forward to the cockpit. Everything about this veteran transport is immaculate and if this writer didn’t know better, he’d think it just rolled off the Fairchild assembly line. It must certainly be one of the finest C-l 23s in the air today, and like all the aircraft at Thunderbird, it’s primary purpose is to serve as a test-bed. However, this particular bird is a bit of a movie star. Ed Jeszka flew the machine during the filming of ACES: Iron Eagle III, and as a result, the company may pursue other movie and television work.
«The C-123 was acquired in a trade with the Lone Star Flight Museum in Texas,» Jeszka explains. «It was simply too big for them to display and we were operating an ex-US Army OV-1 Mohawk at the time. To make a long story short, we figured the large cargo capacity of the ‘123 would be useful and the Mohawk was small enough to display properly at the museum. We made the trade and never looked back.»
When your business is based on ex-military aircraft, it’s only natural that private owners-will approach you for assistance. Thunderbird’s latest restoration project is a Cessna A-37 attack jet. Resting in the hangar, the dimunitive Warbird is stripped down almost beyond recognition. New wiring is being installed and sheet-metal control surfaces are being fabricated and fitted. «We’re doing this project for the Lone Star Flight Museum,» Jeszka explains with a hint of pride. «As the Eostern European countries sell their MiGs and jet trainers we just might see more of this kind of work. It would be an interesting sideline.»
Meanwnile, somewhere over the Arizona desert an F-8 Crusader tears the sky with the sound of ripping fabric. The US military may well consider her an obsolete eagle, having retired the type from active duly. Nonetheless, she will continue to earn her keep, just like her ageing stable-mates, in the highly specialized world of flight test and Thunderbird Aviation. ^