Flying Back in Time, In His Own Warplane
Wednesday, January 2, 2008
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.