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From a young boy growing up at Naval Air Station China Lake to a highly qualified forty-something warbird pilot, most people equate Steve Hinton with the ability to fly anything. Hinton certainly has that ability, but many overlook his mechanical, managerial and business skills. As president of Fighter Rebuilders he gets to exercise all of these traits; many on a daily basis. He is a warbird pilot, unlimited air racing champion, movie pilot, airshow performer, husband, father and businessman. His is a story that will likely never be repeated; one of being at a crossroads in time and space when the warbird movement really caught momentum in southern California.

High Desert Kid

Born to a Marine father, Hinton spent part of his youth at NAS China Lake where he and his dad would watch the fighters take off and land. "When I was three or four, ĎThe Huntersí came out," Hinton remembers. "It was that Korean War F-86 movie. I can remember my dad taking me and standing in line. It was a ten cent movie at the base."

The impressionable boy soaked up every detail of the jets and their wartime exploits with MiGs over the Yalu River. "That F-86 is my favorite airplane," he says. The irony of this isnít lost; Hinton just climbed out of one all these years later after putting on an aerobatic display at the Glendale, Arizona, airshow.

Hinton followed the same road as many airplane kids; drawing them and building models. After his father retired from the Marine Corps, they moved to Claremont, California. At his new school, Hinton met and became best friends with another kid named Jim Maloney. Ed Maloney, Jimís father, had a vision to preserve examples of warbird aircraft for future generations to see. As Ed took the first steps to establish the Planes of Fame Air Museum, Hintonís future was being shaped without his knowledge.

Hinton and Maloney spent much of their spare time down at the museum, as it were, when the parents could drive them there. "I could only go when my parents could take me, which was once or twice a week," Hinton says. "We basically knew how to sweep, pick up Coke bottles and sit in the P-12. Thatís about the extent of what seven-year olds can do," he smiles.

"Ed Maloney opened the door for us to be involved. We were volunteers. Occasionally there would be a group getting together to sand an airplane to paint. I can remember working on a P-63 fuselage that sat in the air museum. Ed would hand out sandpaper and weíd sand the airplane." In terms of building mechanical skills, that was the starting point. "You just keep going," he says.

A short time later, the museum moved to a location in Ontario, California. At this point, there was a core group there. Bill and John Muszala entered the scene, and Al Redick was one of the few paid employees. Hinton recalls Redickís influence when he was young. "Al had that Ďcan-doí attitude. We were just going to do it," he recalls. "Whether it be moving an airplane from A to B in the middle of the night, or taking a propeller apart, you just find a way to do it."

When Hinton got his drivers license, he was able to spend more time at the museum. Working on all of the airplanes was giving him a depth of experience on how they were built and how they worked. He wasnít getting paid a lot of money for his duties, but Hinton was gaining experience that would become the foundation of his life.

About this time, a man named Roscoe Diehl took Hinton for his first airplane ride in the Museumís AT-6. As Hinton puts it, Diehl took the lads under his wing with an aire of affection. They would sit around Diehlís house and watch 8mm handheld movies of his F-86 days in the air force. "He had the stories to go with them, too," Hinton says. "He knew everything about that airplane. It was his favorite, too."

Hinton didnít really have a life plan at this point, but the idea of being around warbirds was there. He got a job loading and unloading Wall Street Journals in a Convair 240 in the middle of the night. "The museum didnít have a lot of flying going on, so this allowed me to be around running engines and such. A lot of the guys worked on the Convair, so it involved you in a melting pot. My only plan was that somehow I waned to fly these airplanes and I wanted to be involved on a daily basis."

The museum had moved several times, but this move to Chino airport was final. Ed Maloney took over some property where a trailer factory used to be, allowing the museum to establish a stable foundation with room to grow.

The Chino Kids

Today, the group of young people wrenching on warbirds and flying them at the Air Museum would have raised an eyebrow or two. But in the 70's, ĎThe Chino Kidsí had skills and got the job done. They included John and Bill Muszala, Steve Hinton, Jim and brother John Maloney, Mike DeMarino, Charley Barnes, Mark Calderwood and several others.

Remembering those days, Hinton says, "We had a good group of volunteers. Those were the guys I kind of grew up with, 1970 and on. Jim and I, of course, would do everything together. We were all seventeen to nineteen years old, hanging out and doing things together. We even spent one summer in Buckeye, Arizona. Al Redick was working over there on some A-26s. We flew the L-5 out there and spent the summer with Al. We were taxiing airplanes all over the place."

Steve Hinton the Pilot

With his pilotís license in hand, Hinton was flying Cessnas trying to build up time. He also would wash the local flight school planes and could fly them whenever he wanted. "We flew them at night, during the day... Just did a lot of things. I got checked out in the T-6 and then flew the Mustang and the Hellcat."

An opportunity for Hinton arrived when Leroy Penhall moved his company to Chino. With the intention of sprucing up F-86 and T-33 jets and selling them, Fighter Imports put up one of the first hangars at Chino. Penhall was partners with Bob Hoover at time, and would also bring it Bob Laidlaw. Hintonís home, so to speak, was the air museum, but he was free to work elsewhere. "Museum resources were tight, so the volunteers only got paid on a sporadic basis at best,í he says. This was no problem with Hinton, because he felt he museum was his home. "We were going to be there, anyway. But Jim and I were free to pick up other work, so we started working at Penhallís," he says.

"Leroy was a very polished kind of guy," Hinton says. "He was a contractor from Newport Beach and was into boat racing and cars. Everything of his was chrome, polished and super clean. When he came to Chino, his Mustang was like that. It was one of our first jobs aside from the museum."

Penhall liked the kids, and ended up letting Hinton fly his Mustang. "The deal was if I took care of it, I could fly it, so I did that," he said. Of course, the F-86s he worked on had a special place in Hintonís heart. Unfortunately, business wasnít picking up as fast as planned. "They thought the best way to convey these airplanes were easy to fly was to get the kid to fly them. So Leroy came out to me and said if I got my instrument rating, heíd check me out in the F-86. I could take it to airshows for Bob Hoover."

Hinton had his instrument rating in two weeks.

After that, opportunities came his way quite often. He was now looking at being an airline pilot, as those around him always seemed to be off of work, and had the money to play with warbirds. Though he got a job with one, he was eventually furloughed. He had earned his multi rating in a B-25, and also put an A&P license on his resume. He also got to know Ed Browning while at his airshow in Idaho. A little later on, Hinton got the call to race his Red Baron Mustang.

"Where Iím going with this," he says, "Is that I was available and upbeat. And not by intention; I am generally pretty positive. Thatís my personality. That has afforded me opportunities growing up."

Enter Fighter Rebuilders

When the airline job evaporated in 1980, Hinton and Maloney had to come up with a plan to support themselves. "Back in about 1974 or 1975, we had talked about a business. We were getting checks from Leroy Penhall, and I think we were making $3.50 an hour," Hinton says. That was pretty good then, as minimum wage was $1.65 an hour. "We were happy with that. We would do other things for other people, too, but they donít want to pay you in cash. So we got this little dba and called ourselves Fighter Rebuilders. As time goes on, we have a little money coming in here and there. Just enough to keep alive, so to speak."

Hinton was positioned at the right point when rare forces aligned. From no plan to a business owner that specializes in warbirds, Hinton seized the opportunity and ran with it. He had flying skills, mechanical skills, all the proper pieces of FAA paper, and the personality to make it all come together successfully. As time went by, the business grew and it became their life.

"In 1979 or 1980, we were 25... Our first official job at Fighter Rebuilders was putting a P-40 together for Flying Tiger Airlines. It just kind of went from there. We got a contract to put some Mustangs together with leftover parts from Indonesia," Hinton says. Shortly after in 1982, an accident in a PT-22 claimed the life of Jim Maloney and Jim Orton. Understandably, this was a blow to Hinton and the entire group at Chino.

Business Takes Off

One reason Fighter Rebuilders became so successful was their direct support of the Air Museum. But they also drew business from a select group of other customers. Since those early days, Fighter Rebuilders has been a shop mainly for the Planes Of Fame, British collector Stephen Grey, and collector Bob Pond. "Weíll do other projects," Hinton said, "but we donít advertise for it."

Hinton clearly feels fortunate when he says, "Iíve had a lot of repeat business. We did over 20 airplanes for Bob Pond. Weíve done six or seven for Stephen Grey. Now we do a lot of planes for Tom Friedkin and the Museum. Iíve done a few individual planes for people, too."

When asked how he comes to an agreement with a customer, Hinton explains, "We have a certain relationship with our customers. Itís really not a detail thing at all. Stephen Grey, for instance, bought a couple of airplanes this last year. He says he wants this one really stock, and this one real stock. Well, what is stock?"

Their relationship allows them to get the details smoothed out as the project goes along. "He tells me to make them look stock, but any real expensive items, I go to him and discuss it and see if itís necessary. That is the kind of conversation we have. That is the type of operation we have, rather than advertising," Hinton says.

The shop employs a number of individuals with a wide variety of specialty skills. From sheet metal to system fabrication, there are one or two people in the shop that can handle the job. John Hinton, Bob Lewis, Kyle Roman, Rick McCoy, Cory OíBrian, Alex Gonzolas, Rene Masqaute, John Maloney and Kevin Eldridge all have their own areas of expertise. The shop also has a new generation of Chino Kids with Joel Swaggard and Hintonís son, Steven.

Where does Hinton figure into all of it? "I think my best skill is working as a personality within our group," he says. Besides the networking and his reputation, Hinton also contributes on projects as a troubleshooter. "I have a good understanding of how systems work, so I can come in and try to help fix a problem during a restoration." He also understands his limitations as a worker bee, too. "Iím not the best painter or a good sheet metal guy. If we have a person that shows talent in an area. We tend to steer people to where their talents lie."

The Projects

Of the shops that restore vintage aircraft, few have the wide ranging experience of Fighter Rebuilders. The shop has built, rebuilt, restored, modified or fixed almost every major type of warbird as well as a number of unlimited air racers. Hintonís interest in these aircraft, as well as how they were designed and built, surfaces easily.

In our current world, it seems like everybody has restored a P-51. We expressly avoided asking those dreary old questions and skipped to some of the more interesting projects from Fighter Rebuilders.

"I have to admit, the P-63 wasnít that difficult," he says. "I donít know why that is. Itís very simple compared to the P-39. With the -63 we did for Bob Pond, his specification was to make it a good, safe, flyable airplane. It looks stock, but it didnít have to be stock. It wasnít a big deal at all. It has push/pull tubes whereas the P-39 has cables and pulleys and a lot of parts. The -63 is bigger and spaced out inside."

With their recent P-39 project for Stephen Grey, Hinton had some interesting challenges to orchestrate. It was desired the cockpit be stock, and the systems installation was no big deal. But the airframe had a lot of corrosion. "The structure was taken down to the smallest components. We had the fuselage drilled down to the wing carry-through, and even that was taken apart. Many of those pieces went back into it, but a lot had to be replaced. It was very involved since parts for the -39 donít exist. We had to look really hard," he explains. The result was a successful series of test flights and the delivery of the airplane to Grey in England.

Although Fighter Rebuilders have worked on a variety of aircraft, each brings a special challenge due to its unique design or rarity. A prime example is the P-38 Lightning. "The P-38 we did for Stephen got a lot of criticism from people. They thought the airframe was kind of beyond saving, saying Ďwhatís the point? Itís a waste of time.í But that makes us work a little harder," Hinton says. "That was one especially rewarding first flight, rolling down the runway and taking off. I remember breaking ground, flipping the gear up, and looking out at those wings. ĎWow, this is cool!í It performs nice, itís just not really fast."

On the more complicated side, the Spitfire holds court. Hinton has a certain perspective of foreign airplanes. "If you get past the weird British stuff," Hinton chuckles, "Itís a really beautiful airplane. What I mean is, itís different... Instead of having a lock nut, theyíll have a nut on a bolt and then pound the threads over so it wonít come off. Their cotter pins are the stingiest things ever. They also use a pneumatic system that we didnít deal with back then. My point is, your first impression of a foreign airplane is that itís a piece of crap. ĎLook at this! Why did they do it that way?í But when you finally understand how it works or why they did it that way, all of a sudden you think, ĎOh yeah!,í" In the case of the Spitfire, Hinton is talking about the gear handle. "It turns out itís not just a gear handle, itís the one valve that controls the entire system. Itís just a different mentality, but it works well," he says.

Hinton and his crew are one of the few shops that have restored an early model P-40, specifically the P-40C. The late Ď30's design proved easy to work on according to Hinton. "Itís a really simple airplane, although parts are hard to find. Itís straightforward, well designed, and I donít think it gets enough credit," he says. "It flies good, the engine is good, and the systems are simple enough to be really reliable. Itís just not real fast, either."

First Flights

With so many aircraft coming through the shop, Hintonís skills as one of the most experienced warbird pilots is priceless. You name it and heís flown it, saved it or raced it. "We take first flights really serious. You try not to do anything haphazard. In the 40-plus first flights weíve done, we havenít really had a major problem. There are little problems, like a landing gear that wouldnít lock on a Tigercat, and a carburetor failed on a T-28 first flight."

He also recalls the first flight of Tsunami, a purpose built unlimited racer. "The horizontal stabilizer wasnít set right, so I had to fly it with two hands on the stick to fly around the pattern. It was controllable... But thatís why you test fly right over the top of the airport," Hinton explains.

By the time a project is completed and ready to fly, it has been looked at by many sets of experienced eyes. But there is still a level of apprehension. With the more recent P-39 project, the airplane had not flown since 1943, and Hinton had never flown one. "It had a new propeller, the radiator was brand new, and the engine was a new overhaul," he says. "You try your best not to have problems, to avoid them. I think weíve been good with that."

The Future

In a business sense, Hinton sees a bright outlook for Fighter Rebuilders. "The goal," he says, "Is to tailor the work to the workforce that we have. What we like to do is accomplish a project and earn a living. Weíre not just picking up every project that comes around; itís not that kind of business at all. Our main goal is in support of the Air Museum. So, how do we remain an integral part of the air museum and still function as a business? That is how weíre using our efforts, so weíre not out hunting projects."

As for the next generation of Chino Kids, Hintonís son Steven is making strides to join those ranks and continue under his fatherís tutelage. "Heís very anxious to get involved with his kind of stuff. Heís gaining experience, as well as Joel. Theyíre both doing just great. Weíre looking for them to be the future of the Air Museum, too. The young people are what itís all about," he says.

Hinton pauses for a second and says, "Weíre caretakers right now. Hopefully this will last longer than my life and our current group here. Weíve got to make sure these airplanes and the veteranís stories are out there forever. Thatís the whole magic of these airplanes. They inspire. Iím lucky to be a part of it."

 

Story and Photos by Scott Germain - WarbirdAeroPress.com. Additional Photos by Gerald Liang and 

Ralph Emerson (via Pete Law). Copyright 2006. All Rights Reserved.

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