Archive for Saturday, August 12, 2000

Restored planes fill need for speed

August 12, 2000


— Some boys who built models of jet fighters never grew up. They held on to their dreams of soaring through the clouds, searching for enemy aircraft.

Ken Bryant is glad they did.

However, his clients are not just any wannabe aces. They are civilian pilots with deep pockets.

Bryant is owner of Air Capitol Warbirds, a Wichita company that restores and sells former U.S. military jet fighters at Jabara Airport. But don't assume that because the jets are used, they come cheap.

A U.S. Navy A-4T, for instance, costs $1.6 million and $1,020 an hour to fly at more than 500 mph.

If pilots missed that bargain, there's another gem in the pipeline.

Bryant is restoring an 11-year-old Navy Blue Angels aircraft, a McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet that tops out at nearly twice the speed of sound. The jets go for about $40 million new, but Bryant will sell one for a mere $15 million to $17 million. A nonrefundable $100,000 deposit is all it takes.

The F/A-18 is a model still on active duty. Bryant bought the jet from a scrap dealer who got it from the government. Restoration will take two years.

"I understand the plane had been used as a parts airplane," he said. "It had been cannibalized so far that the Navy didn't feel it was economical to put it back together.

"It probably wasn't for the government, but we can do it," Bryant said, adding that he heard the Navy isn't too happy to have one of its airplanes on the civilian market.

Bryant, 48, was a pipefitter in the military. He worked at local aircraft factories before moving to Tulsa. In the late 1990s, he was asked to restore an F-5 Northrop fighter. The F-5 was designed in 1970.

The jet is an Air Force trainer used as a fighter by nations worldwide.

"So I said I would take on the job and spent about a year on that one," Bryant said. "Then another person wanted me to do another F-5. From there on, it just kind of kept going."

Based in Wichita since 1997, Bryant said his firm was the only one devoted solely to jet restoration, which has refurbished and sold eight jets in three years.

"I'm not sure it is profitable, but it is a lot of fun," he said.

Bryant's 10 employees are attracted by the uniqueness of the business.

"These people were not made for a factory at all," he said, laughing. "None of them here."

Bryant buys aircraft from government surplus and individuals who bought jets and decided not to restore them. Usually he has a buyer before taking on a restoration.

Many customers flew the jets in the military and long to be back in the cockpit. Those experiences are relived flying at air shows.

At his customers' request, he doesn't identify them, but they include chief executives, successful entrepreneurs and other wealthy individuals.

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