“Why would someone want to do anything else?”
It’s a good question. This was Tom “TK” Kurtz’s response to me asking if given the chance to do it all again, he’d end up in the same job he has now, and who could blame him?
For those that don’t know Tom is the General Manger for the Fighter Factory, the maintenance/restoration facility for Gerald Yagen’s Military Aviation Museum.
The Fighter Factory was founded in 1996 around the time that Mr. Yagen began restoration work on the P-40E, ever since the company has been responsible for maintaining and restoring countless historic aircraft.
For a number of years the Fighter Factory was based offsite at Suffolk, Virginia, but the team moved into a new purpose built hangar at the museum site in April 2011. (Though some projects, as well as the Me262 remain at the Suffolk site.) Throughout the year the aircraft from the collection rotate through the hangars as work is required.
Tom and his team are responsible for the care of 40 airworthy aircraft, ranging from pre-war designs such as the Curtiss pusher right up to the Me262, one of the first jet fighters.
Tom was exposed to fixing up and maintaining vintage aircraft right from the start, his father used to rebuild aircraft and Tom grew up learning the craft from his father and others around him. Looking back he can see that his father focused him into working with old aeroplanes.
Tom’s first proper restoration was a Pitts S1C. He was tutored by his father throughout the project, or as Tom put it “he yelled a lot and hit me with a rolled up Trade a Plane!” Following this restoration he became exposed to the feeling of watching a restoration break ground for the first time and admits he was hooked in that moment. That feeling of watching something he put together fly is what feeds his passion.
While restoration was a big part of Toms life, there was a time where this side of the work was put aside and he focused on learning about running a business in the world of aviation, though he still found time to work on some classics.
It was after working freelance on warbirds for a while that Tom managed to become involved with the Fighter Factory, he heard that they were looking for vacancies, spoke to the then manager and was working there with in a week. The rest, is history.
Of course working for what can only be described as one of the leading historic aircraft collections in the world must be both an amazing and daunting prospect, with aircraft from all manner of countries and eras it must be a challenge to keep up with the different mechanicals. In particular I was curious about the impending arrival of a 109G with a rare DB605 engine.
Tom is very philosophical about this however, remarking:
“It’s an engine. What makes us different from most shops is that we don’t see it as this country or that….They all work the same way just some parts are in different places.”
This atitutde is of course essential for such an operation to work, unlike many collections around the world which specialize in one era or area of aviation or another. The wide range of types which Tom has been able to work on does present an insight into the ease of maintenance from the different countries.
The easiest aircraft to work on Tom says, would either be the TBM Avenger or the T-28, which are “built for ease of maintenance.”
On the other side of the coin however Tom goes on to say that “the worst is anything British!” A favourite saying of the Fighter Factory is “If the Americans make it work with 4 moving parts then we [the British] will do it with 10.” He goes on to say; “and the Russians will do the same job with 2 parts hammered out of quarter inch steel.”
Tom does jump to the British designers defence however. “Please realize that most of the British planes were built while the Germans were bombing them. Couldn’t have been easy to drive rivets while ordinance is whistling down!”
Out of all the aircraft in the collection it’s the family connection which leads Tom to his personal favourite of the collection. “The Corsair, it was my fathers favourite and I can feel him smile whenever I work on it.”
Of course the chance to speak to TK couldn’t be passed up without asking him for some more detailed thoughts on some elements of the collection.
One area in which the Fighter Factory’s inventory is growing very quickly is the First World War aircraft. A number of First World War replicas are currently being built offsite while some of the existing aircraft are having some modification work done.
In the shop at the time of writing are; one of the Museum’s Fokker DR.1 Triplane’s, currently in a fully stripped down stage, an Albatros D.Va replica, which is undergoing an inspection having sat for 16 years, as well as a Neiuport replica nearing completion that was recently delivered.
The collection’s First World War replicas have a few modifications from the original aircraft of the era. They all have disc breaks as well as having tailwheels fitted, this is to aid safe operation from the Virginia Beach runway. The aircraft are all mostly fitted with “modern” (though many dating back from the 60s themselves!) engines. Tom’s team are currently in the process of changing this.
A number of La Rhone rotary engines are being put together at the moment, Tom comments: “We found some good parts to build a few original engines. In keeping with what we do it would be dumb not to fly them!!” Going into the world of rotary engines is an exciting prospect from an enthusiast’s point of view, with only a handful of organizations operating them around the world.
The La Rhones aren’t the only vintage engines being experimented with, an anzari engine has recently been restored as well. While a suitable aircraft to place it on is sought, Tom and the team placed it on the front of the Museum’s modern Bleriot replica after some modifications to the airframe.
It was never intended to get the Bleriot in the air, as it only provides 35hp but as can be seen Tom himself took the aircraft for a Taxi run at the Biplanes and Triplanes event in October.
While on the subject of engines, another interesting project, if something of an aside is the Pulse Jet from a V1 flying bomb. There are a number of videos on the Factory’s Facebook page showing some attempts to get the engine running, which are certainly impressive (and explosive!). Tom remains confident though, “We will run the Pulse jet engine. We just haven’t had the time to work it out yet. Too many planes and not enough time or people to get everything done.”
This seems a good time to point out that despite this high pressure working environment Tom still finds time to connect with an audience of enthusiasts through the Fighter Factory’s facebook page. He regularly posts updates and photographs showing the comings and goings of the collection. Without doubt this page is one of the best in the business and it is worth noting that Tom takes the time out to post on it.
Having visited the Fighter Factory this summer, which I spoke about in my Mosquito piece, I can also confirm he is very welcoming in real life too. Though he won’t like me saying it!
Speaking of the Mosquito, for British enthusiasts at least, it has to be one of the most interesting aircraft under Tom’s care. Speaking about its arrival in May 2013 Tom says:
“The Mossy was a dream to put together and get into the air. The guys at Avspec did such an outstanding job on rebuilding the plane that is has made life so much easier on us.”
But what about the “difficult” reputation British aircraft have within the company?
“To date she has not given us any more trouble than any of our other planes. That is saying something when talking about a British bird!!”
With such a large collection, the Military Aviation Museum makes for an impressive air show. The “Warbirds over the Beach” show takes place in May each year and participation is largely made up from the collection’s flying aircraft.
This makes for a tough job for the team to get all the aircraft ready and flying for those three days. Tom took me through the process of getting them ready:
“Because of the high level we keep our planes too it really is not that big of a headache to get them ready for the May show. We usually start in January doing inspections and run 2 or 3 planes through the shop a month. Last year was a fluke in that we started inspecitions just 11 weeks before the show.”
Of course, while this post is largely focused on Tom as manager of the Factory, it is important to remember the team of engineers working with him to keep everything going.
“All of the credit for getting them done should go to the incredibly talented guys working for me. They really knuckled down and got it all done. Every plane got a real and full inspection. No shortcuts were made!! I don’t know what other organization could do that.”
Tom’s last words there certainly ring true, the Fighter Factory is a unique environment, I’ve visitied a number of museums and hangars in my time and have never seen such a mix of jobs and skills being presented and tested all at the same time.
There are countless interesting aeroplanes waiting in the museum hangar that no doubt one day will see air under their wheels, including an aircraft that will be familiar to UK enthusiasts, the Lavochkin LA-9. The aircraft spent the summer of 2003 displaying with the Old Flying Machine Company. This is “on the list” but not of high priority at the moment. It will be great to see it flying as from what I remember it’s a seriously impressive piece of kit, almost a Russian Bearcat!
Tom has a toy box I think we’d all be envious off, let alone his job! But with so many aircraft and projects already completed or in the pipeline, what do you get the man who has everything, what would Tom like to see?
His response was short but sweet:
“STUKA. Nuff Said.”
Now wouldn’t that be interesting?
As for what is actually next for the Fighter Factory, aside from the number of First world War aircraft projects, they also have a BF109G under restoration in Germany which is soon to be completed, as well as the impending arrival of a FW190.
I wholeheartedly recommend a visit to the Military Aviation Museum and the Fighter Factory and only wish I could be over there for the Warbirds over the Beach show in 2014.
I would like to thank Tom very much for his time and insight.
More information on the aircraft at the Military Aviation Museum and Fighter Factory can be found at the respective websites below:
As mentioned above regular updates from the Fighter Factory can be found at the Facebook page here:
I hope you have enjoyed the first in this post in the Warbird People series, I hope to bring more of the same as the year goes on. Don’t forget to follow Warbird Tails on Twitter and Facebook to keep up to date.