Thursday, January 03, 2008

A high Flying Beirut Vet!

Flying Back in Time, In His Own Warplane
Ex-Test Pilot, Bold and Quirky, Pursues a Costly Love

Art Nalls with his Sea Harrier FA.2. After an emergency landing, he had it towed on St. Mary's County roads, riding in the cockpit dressed as Santa.

A crewman at St. Mary's County Regional Airport directs Art Nalls to the taxiway in his Aero Vodochody L-39 Albatros. The former Marine test pilot, who made a fortune in real estate after retiring from the military, owns three jets.

Nalls with his Albatros. As for his Harrier, which he purchased two years ago, it suffered problems on his second flight. He hopes to repair it soon.

St. Mary's County Regional Airport is home to a fleet of single-engine Cessnas, many of them owned by amateur pilots and parked in tidy rows just off the runway. But in a hangar at the edge of the grounds sits a Harrier, a hulking jet that takes off and lands vertically, cruises at speeds in excess of 600 mph and is similar to the Marines' primary attack aircraft.

That is Art Nalls's plane.

Nalls, a 53-year-old former Marine test pilot who made a fortune in real estate, has turned flying into an extraordinarily expensive hobby. He believes that his newest acquisition -- the Harry, as he calls it -- is the world's only privately owned, flyable Harrier. Although Nalls wouldn't say how much he paid for the plane, he said fuel alone costs about $75 for every minute in the air.

But in jets, Nalls says he has found a fountain of youth.

"When I am up there, it's just like I'm 25 again," he said.

He and his planes are regular topics of conversation at the small airport in Southern Maryland, a stomping ground for retired military pilots, some of whom trained at the nearby Patuxent River Naval Air Station, one of only two military test pilot schools in the country.

On a recent morning, in a lounge facing the runway, pilots swapped stories about Nalls's latest adventure: Problems with the Harry's hydraulic system forced an emergency landing at the military base in November, on its second flight. Since he couldn't fly it back, Nalls had the jet hooked to a pickup truck and towed nearly eight miles to the airport, escorted by a half-dozen police cars. He sat in the cockpit, dressed as Santa Claus.

"Ho! Ho! Ho!" Nalls bellowed, waving at truckers and other motorists as the jet limped along Route 235, narrowly missing traffic lights and straddling a median as it turned onto Airport Road.

Such antics explain why Nalls has earned a reputation as a cowboy, a millionaire fond of indulging idiosyncratic interests. In the 1970s, he held a Guinness record for building and riding the world's smallest rideable bicycle, which was less than five inches tall.

Nalls, who was born and raised in Fairfax County, learned to fly as a midshipman at the Naval Academy. On his second flight, he was flipping loops and executing rolls. In 1985, he was the only Marine to attend the test pilot school at Edwards Air Force Base.

After graduating, Nalls began to test the Harrier II and another jet. One test required him to shut down the engine in flight, falling like a rock as the engine cooled, and then restart it. His total flight time in planes with their engines off is more than six hours.

Nalls spent most of his career in Harriers, including an AV-8A that he launched off ship decks more than 400 times. He traveled widely and was in Beirut for a stint that ended just before the Marine barracks there was bombed in 1983.
Flying Back in Time, In His Own Warplane

A crewman at St. Mary's County Regional Airport directs Art Nalls to the taxiway in his Aero Vodochody L-39 Albatros. The former Marine test pilot, who made a fortune in real estate after retiring from the military, owns three jets.
Nalls with his Albatros. As for his Harrier, which he purchased two years ago, it suffered problems on his second flight. He hopes to repair it soon. (
Then, in 1990, Nalls took a beer bottle to the face when he intervened in a Marine bar fight; his nose was broken and his hearing was affected. Grounded for medical reasons, Nalls was reassigned to a desk job investigating Saddam Hussein's use of chemical weapons. He soon retired from the military.

He turned to real estate and development, buying and renting apartments, houses and commercial buildings in Northern Virginia and the District, where he lives with his wife, Pat. Nalls, whose holdings have included more than 250 units and buildings, did well in real estate, but he missed flying.

So, in 2001, Nalls began to buy jets.

First there was the Russian Yak-3, a jet he calls Red Heat. Then came a Czech Aero Vodochody L-39 Albatros, an "absolute rocket ship" that he refers to as the Black Jet.

But what Nalls really wanted was a Harrier. Getting one from the Marines was out of the question because the Corps' retired Harriers are dismantled. Two years ago, Nalls found a British dealer selling a Sea Harrier FA.2 that had been used by the Royal Navy.

Nalls flew to England. The plane's engine wasn't working and its wiring was a tangled mess, but he bought it. Although he wouldn't say what he paid, a similar plane in working condition was once valued at more than $20 million.

At the St. Mary's airport, a crew of mostly volunteer mechanics and plane enthusiasts brought the Harrier back to life, cobbling together parts from eBay and elsewhere. Nalls prepared for the maiden flight in simulators -- after all, it had been 16 years since he had made a vertical landing.

Questions remained, however, even on the eve of the flight. "We didn't even know if it would hover," Nalls said. "You don't know until you get up there."

On Nov. 10, he successfully flew the Harry, lifting off and then landing from a perfect hover at the St. Mary's airport.

The next day brought the emergency landing at the naval base. About 12 minutes into the flight, a hydraulic warning light clicked on, and the Harrier's landing gear would not lock into place. Nalls asked for permission to land at the base, threw the plane into a hover and slowly lowered it to the ground, where a crash crew waited.

The plane fell the final three feet, landing with a smack. Nalls said officials at the base weren't thrilled with the spur-of-the-moment visitor or the large, slightly damaged British jet.

It was the second civilian emergency landing of the year at the base, said John Romer, a base spokesman.

Nalls hopes to fix the problem in the next two months and have the Harry back in the sky soon. Until then, he is left to fly his other two jets.

So it was that on a recent Saturday he pulled on thick boots and zipped up an olive flight suit decorated with badges he earned as a test pilot and with his call name, Kaos. He jumped into the cockpit of the Czech plane and strapped himself into a parachute-packed ejection seat.

The glass dome came down, sealing him inside but not tightly enough to lock out the smell of burning jet fuel. Nalls adjusted his headset.

"Ready to rock and roll?" he asked. Then came the speed.

The runway ran out, and the jet was hoisted into the air, swept up in the wind and blown away like a dandelion. It drifted higher and higher, then tilted to one side, opening up the view below.

Nalls pointed out landmarks below: the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant, the Gov. Thomas Johnson Bridge, the approaching blue of the Chesapeake Bay. He rolled to the other side and felt the push of 2 Gs. The only bumps came when he jiggled the controls, gently rocking the jet from side to side.

He sat perfectly still as the world rushed around him in a swirl.

"I love it out here," he murmured into his headset. "I love this plane."

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