By Julie M Vessigault
What is on your Aviation “Bucket List”? If you are reading this I bet I can guess without even knowing your background:
1. Fly the T-6
2. Fly the Mustang
3. Become a Warbird Pilot
4. Get checked out in the T-6
5. Get checked out in the Mustang
Let me take you back to the day you discovered warbirds. Was it through a book, magazine or TV program? Did you see a proud T-6, noble P-51, or ferocious P-40 on static display? Did a mighty Wright-Cyclone or Rolls-Royce Merlin vibrate your entire body as it thundered past you in the famous “Banana pass” at your hometown airshow? Then did you picture yourself in the pilot’s seat commanding the maneuvers of the magnificent machine of World War II?
Gone are the days when you could buy surplus T-6’s and Mustangs without breaking the bank, then teach yourself to fly it over some isolated wild country. Because of such pioneers of “warbird availability” as we know it, you have a chance to be taught at the helm of the aircraft with an experienced instructor.
Let me introduce you to Thom Richard, owner and Chief Pilot at Warbird Adventures. As a newly minted glider pilot from Sweden, Thom immigrated to the United States to pursue his passion for aviation, which included his burning desire to win the Reno Air Races and build a career in warbirds. Quickly studying to be an aircraft mechanic, as well as earning his U.S. Citizenship, he worked hard to earn his pilot ratings and build a network that would help him build time in the Pilot Maker- the venerable T-6. He knew his passion and pursued it deliberately and unapologetically.
Now, as a T-6 owner of 20 years and Certified Flight Instructor of 20+ years with 5,000 hours in type, his experience and instruction is sought after by prospective warbird pilots from around the world, to be their foundation of their most critical stage of T-6 training and check rides. It is fairly safe to say that Thom has provided more T-6 checkouts than all other operators combined over the last 19 years. For the T-6 checkouts, just bring some piloting experience, and the staff at Warbird Adventures can get you on the right track to your tailwheel, high performance and complex aircraft endorsements, if you don’t have them already. Did you know that most certified pilots with tailwheel, high performance and complex endorsements can safely solo the T-6 with 5-10 hours of dual instruction? However, there are some exceptions. Thom said his longest student took 43 hours, but very few finish with less than five because there is a systematic syllabus that must be adhered to. If you want an advantage, Thom recommends that a prospective student gets every minute of tailwheel exposure possible. Time in the Pitts is the perfect stepping stone.
Apart from a couple of seasons of barnstorming with the T-6’s across the U.S. with his business partner, Graham Meise, the T-6’s have been based at the Kissimmee Gateway Airport in Central Florida since 1998. Thom estimates that Warbird Adventures has flown over 40,000 people in the T-6’s.
Warbird Adventures had humble beginnings, offering T-6 Flight Experiences out of a kiosk at Tom Reilly’s famous Flying Tigers Warbird Restoration Museum. After Hurricane Charlie forced Tom Reilly to relocate his business to Douglas, Georgia in 2004, Thom and Graham built a new facility to house their Kissimmee Air Museum and a shelter hangar to house their prized T-6’s. Ever since Graham sold his share of the business to Thom, the primary personal mission Thom set for Warbird Adventures is to run the administrative and executive aspects of the business while he teaches 5 and 10 hour T-6 familiarization and checkout courses to experienced pilots. He also often serves the second of the two-ship formation Flight Experiences for anyone who wants to realize their dream of flying the T-6 while flying next to a friend or stranger also.
You don’t have to be a pilot or even know the difference between an aileron and an elevator to experience a flight at Warbird Adventures. That’s why you fly with Thom or one of his specially trained instructors who will teach you as you fly. The pilots at Warbird Adventures take pride in taking anyone off the street and teaching them the right way from the get go. And of course, no flight adventure can be called an adventure if you’re not allowed to turn the airplane upside own yourself, at altitude. That is part of the deal for any flight of 30 minutes or longer.
When Thom isn’t at Warbird Adventures, you can likely find him stretching his wings in the likes of the American Airpower Museum’s P-40 WarhawkThe Jacky C II, the Commemorative Air Force Dixie Wing (CAF) FG-1D or the Collings Foundation’s TF-51D Mustang, Toulouse Nuts. If you ask Thom what his favorite airplane to fly is, he will tell you it is the P-40. This year, Jacky C II resides in Thom’s museum hangar between appearances at airshows and special events such as the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of. In April 2017, she made her first appearance at Sun ’n Fun with Thom flying her in a solo aerobatic demonstration, as well as off the wing of Cavanaugh Flight Museum’s B-25, Barbie III flown by Doug Jeanes. In May, Thom will fly her back home to American Airpower Museum on Long Island for the annual Bethpage Federal Credit Union Airshow at Jones Beach on Memorial Day Weekend.
Last year in Atlanta, Thom celebrated another warbird pilot milestone when he checked out in the CAF Dixie Wing Corsair. He earned the responsibility and privilege of ferrying the show plane to Pennsylvania for a few airshows, then on down to Florida. Just think, that T-6 checkout you have next year with Thom can be your ticket to commanding this rare and beloved B1RD in your future! Let me help you add that to your bucket list!
The Collings Foundation recently unveiled its TF-51D Mustang Toulouse Nuts and Thom was one of the first pilots to fly that pristine machine. You can catch a ride along as his passenger! Whether it is for the thrill-of-a-lifetime flight, or for a serious time building type rating, Thom can show you and your bucket list a good time as he equips you with solid training and mentoring that will enable you to fly a Warbird confidently. Then you may find yourself wondering, “What else can I add to my bucket list?”