Steve Hinton of the Air Force Heritage Flight program flew the P-51 during the Super Bowl’s historic Heritage Flight celebrating the U.S. Air Force’s 80th anniversary.
From restoring and rebuilding more than 40 vintage aircraft, to Hollywood blockbusters, and the upcoming Super Bowl LVI flyover in Los Angeles, he has cemented his legacy in the warbird world. He is also the President of Planes of Fame Air Museum in Chino, California, and founding member of the Motion Picture Pilots Association.
The Air Force Heritage Flight interviewed Steve before he flew last Sunday, in his final flight with the program.
Q: Do you have a specific moment that sparked your passion for flying?
A: My passion for flying began at a very young age and hasn’t waned since. It’s an honor to be chosen to be a founding member of the AFHFF and have the privilege to fly these historic airplanes in a manner with purpose. I’ve enjoyed going to air bases, airshows and different locations all over the world to honor this mission.
Q: Do you have a favorite Heritage Flight of all time? Do you remember your very first Heritage Flight?
A: I remember the very first one from the beginning of the Heritage Flight program. Jim Beasley and Ed Shipley originally started this 25 years ago as liaisons with the Air Force and it’s all grown from there. I had no idea it was going to evolve into something as special as it has today. I have some great memories of many Heritage Flights. The excitement stems from not just how well you fly, but the atmosphere of some of the places we visit are second-to-none. No two shows are the same. I recall taking a certain P-38 out across the Midwest about 12-13 years ago, and I can’t tell you how many times I spent working on its engines and changing propellers. It’s very rewarding to be a part of both piloting and restoring these vintage warbirds.
I’ve been fortunate to fly most all different aircraft that are authorized, including the P-51 Mustang, F-86, P-38, P-40 and P-47. The only one I haven’t flown is the A1-Skyraider for Heritage Flights during my tenure. The F-86 is my favorite airplane, a 600 MPH high-speed performance jet that’s really fun to fly. I do it for the love of it because there’s no paycheck involved and it’s an honor to be chosen to be a part of inspiring the next generation of aviators.
Q: You have dedicated much of your life to warbirds. What caused you to fall in love with these planes?
A: It always starts when you’re a little kid, and in my case, my dad was in the Marine Corps and worked in the guided missile program back in the 50s. I can remember being captivated by the Korean War film “The Hunters” and then started building models of the F-86. When my dad retired and moved out here to Southern California, my best friend’s father introduced me to the Planes of Fame Museum. It’s one of the very first non-military or non-government owned aviation museums in the United States. I’ve been president of the museum for 25 years, and it’s enabled me to foster this love of flying, rebuilding and restoring vintage aircraft ever since.
Q: Which aircraft restoration has been the most important to you? Tell us about the craft of restoring these iconic warbirds.
A: There have been 43 aircraft that my team and I have proudly rebuilt over the years. The P-38 we built from a bunch of throw-away crash parts is a personal favorite. I’ve been fortunate to have a hand in rebuilding at least 10 P-51 Mustangs (like the one I’ll be flying Super Bowl Sunday), a couple of Grumman F6F Hellcats, Vought F4U Corsairs, a Supermarine Spitfire, and so many more. A lot of these rebuilds start with acquiring parts, oftentimes only half of the warbird shows up on the truck upon arrival.
We’re rebuilding a Lockheed Constellation right now which was Douglas MacArthur’s VIP airplane. It’s a big four engine that’s over 110,000 pounds with a 125-foot wingspan. It’s been a labor of love six years in the making and we’re hoping in another six months we’ll be ready to fly it. I enjoy the adventure of overcoming the inevitable obstacles that come with a rebuild project like this and finding a way to do it.
Q: From “Dunkirk” to “Pearl Harbor,” your Hollywood credits stretch back nearly 50 years. What film project has been the most memorable?
A: I’ve been fortunate to have been a part of these film projects. The first job I had was for “Baa Baa Black Sheep” – a TV show back in the 70s. In comparison to the way we used to do things and how filming has evolved now, it’s a day and night difference. Back then it was helicopters and true film cameras and we only had a few opportunities to capture what was needed. Now, with the advent and popularity of digital cameras mounted on the nose of the jet, it’s simply amazing what we can do.
As recently as last year I worked on a film called “Devotion” which hasn’t come out yet. It’s a story of the Navy’s first Black fighter pilot Jesse Brown and his contribution to the Navy and combat. It’s a Korean War story, based on a best-selling book and a very memorable one. We spent almost four months on it. We were up in Wenatchee, Washington exactly a year ago in the snow and ice to simulate being in Korea with three Corsairs – which were Navy fighters that flew in World War II and in Korea.
To have had the opportunity to work on so many over the years has truly been a great adventure. I’ve been fortunate to fly with some of the greatest pilots and get to do some amazing things to help tell the story in an entertaining way. It’s been a great ride.
Q: How do your Heritage Flight demonstrations compare with your film work?
A: Each time you go up in the air, the job is different. I could be a on floatplane in the Caribbean or fly an extra 747. It doesn’t really compare to the missions with the Heritage Flight Team, but instead builds upon your experience as a pilot and representative honoring our U.S. Air Force past and present.
Both are very regulated and very scripted. Each flight is planned and executed, trained for and briefed upon conclusion. It’s not a thrill-seeking endeavor, but rather the joy lies in performing and executing it as briefed. When everything falls into place, it is a great feeling.
Q: Do you have a particular title or accolade that you’re most proud of?
A: I’m really proud of what I have been able to do with my friends and some of the incredible people I’ve met along the way. I’m proud of my family, my job, the friends I’ve gained, and all the cool things and I’ve lived through…even some things that maybe I shouldn’t have lived through. Yesterday, I was in one of four existing Mosquitos (famed World War II fighter bombers) that still fly at nearly 70 years old. I still pinch myself that I get to do this job every day.
Q: This will also be your last flight with the Heritage Flight program after an impressive and extensive career. What has this program meant to you?
A: I was fortunate enough to get in at the beginning at Langley to talk about the potential of putting together the Heritage Flight program more than 25 years ago. My profession has allowed me to have the time to do it and grow my network within the warbird community. I’ve been fortunate to borrow historic airplanes across the country for the cause. It’s quite an ask – asking your friend or acquaintance, “Can we use your plane for a Heritage Flight?” It’s not like renting a car. The owners of these airplanes dream about and collect these priceless pieces of aviation history. They understand and are supportive of who we are and our AFHFF mission. It’s been a very successful program and is very safely operated and executed. We take a lot of pride in that along with the privilege of being included in this elite group.
Q: With no more Heritage Flights in your future, what is next for you as a pilot?
A: I’m not done yet. In the meantime, I’m actually jumping ship to the Navy. I’m approaching my 70th birthday and the Navy has a more flexible age restriction limit. I’m going to help honor the Navy legacy and will continue working with Planes of Fame Museum and on film projects until I decide otherwise. I’m looking forward to expanding the museum from Chino, CA into Santa Maria as another adventure on the horizon. Other than a few new aches and pains, I’m still full throttle most of the time.