Thom Richard

Interview: Christian Gross
Photography: Christian Gross, Nicholas Pascarella, James Woodard

Full Disc Aviation recently had the privilege to speak with Thom Richard, warbird pilot, and President of Warbird Adventures, Inc.  On the airshow circuit you will often find Thom behind the controls of American Airpower Museum’s P-40, “The Jacky C” and most recently, their P-51 “Jacqueline”.  Watching Thom fly his aerobatic routines doing airshows, it’s clear he loves what he does and he’s darn good at it.  We were excited and grateful for Thom to take time out of his schedule to answer our questions and give us some insight into how he ended up in his aviation career.

 FDA: Can you tell us a little about yourself, where you’re from, what age did you start to notice your interest in aviation?
Thom: I was born in Örebro, Sweden in 1972, and like any other young boy, I was fascinated by technology. Airplanes were certainly a big part of that. I built a lot of small balsa wood contraptions, which I attempted to fly all the time. They weren’t all successful, but some performed well, which spurred on new designs. I folded a lot of paper airplanes and even built some rubber-powered helicopters. I could never afford RC airplanes, but found them very intriguing. Like any others, the first plastic model I ever built was a Flying Tigers P-40 with an iconic Shark’s mouth.

You were born and grew up in Sweden, what brought you to the US?
I realized very early that pursuing aviation in Europe was nearly insurmountable due to the high cost and lack of general aviation. When I realized I would not get in to the military as a pilot due to my eyesight at the time, I decided moving to the US was the only realistic option. I now have the eyesight required for becoming a fighter pilot, but now I’m too old and they still don’t want me! But, I get to fly the fun stuff without getting shot at, so I certainly can’t complain.

Can you look back and point to any one event or one specific person of influence that set you down the path of aviation?
Yes, It was an article about the 1979 Reno Air races, specifically a sequence of pictures about the Red Baron Griffon-powered P-51 racer in a Swedish flying magazine; Flygrevyn. I was completely blown away with how cool Unlimited Air Racing was and decided, right then and there, that’s what I was going to do when I grew up! I was 7 at the time. 

What was the first aircraft you learned to fly? How old were you?
I started in Gliders, or Sailplanes, as we preferred to call them. The minimum age in Sweden was 16, so I learned to fly a few weeks after my birthday in 1988 at Vängsö flygplats (ESSZ) in Gnesta. The aircraft was a Sheibe Bergfalke III, registration SE-TVZ. I had 20 starts, which was the minimum and a total of 3 hours 20 minutes to my name when I soloed. By far the most exciting thing I had ever done!

How many flight hours do you have in the air? How many of those are in warbirds?
As of this morning, 11,984.2 hours, of which half is in Warbirds. Nearly a quarter of my time is in Helicopters. All in General Aviation.

Thom CEG-June 03, 2017-03.jpg

We often see you flying the P-40 on the airshow circuit.  What was your first flight in the P-40 like and how did it make you feel? 
Dan Dameo of the American Air Power Museum in Long Island needed a replacement airshow pilot as he was starting to think about retiring and the first airplane they put me in was the P-40M “The Jacky C”. It was an incredible airplane. I already had a bunch of T-6 and P-51 time, so the transition was very natural. It was almost as if everything I had ever done in Aviation was meant to prepare me for the P-40. The airplane just ‘fits’. It’s the only airplane I’ve ever flown where every time I’m about to start it, it makes me giggle. I’ve now toured it on the Airshow circuit for over 5 years and I still giggle when I get in it. It’s as if it was designed for me. I felt completely at home in it after I advanced the throttle for the first time. 

When you fly the airshow circuit, you put on quite an amazing show of aerobatics.  From your perspective what is the most notable thing about performing? 
Performing on the Airshow circuit in these irreplaceable historic flying monuments is a tremendous honor and privilege. We’re responsible for keeping our audience and our aircraft safe at all times. So, much like air racing, you need to have a sterile and professional approach to low-level aerobatics in front of a hundred thousand people. With that said, it’s great fun and the best part may be the positive feedback after the show. It’s exceptionally rewarding to make people excited about Warbirds, history and what you do for a living.

Thom CEG-June 03, 2017-02.jpg

Where has been your favorite place to perform? Why?
Geneseo, New York, “The Greatest Show on Turf” is by far my favorite. I’ve been going there for 25 years, it’s all about Warbirds, a tremendous setting and just fantastic people. Love it!

What are the most challenging and rewarding aspects about flying warbirds?
That’s a broad brush, lots of challenges. The combined cost of keeping them flying is probably the most difficult, but maintenance, availability of parts, lack of skilled pilots, insurance, regulations etc. The list goes on. It’s not easy, but we have to keep them flying. We have to make up for the lack of history taught in our schools today. Getting people excited about aviation is a great way to do just that. We cannot risk making the same mistakes that were made leading up to WWII. I have introduced a lot of people to Warbirds and aviation. The best thing is probably when I receive a message from someone 6 months later, telling me they just completed their Private Pilot’s Certificate and flying with me was the catalyst.

In your piloting experience, what can you tell us was your most memorable flight?
Other than my first solo? I have had so many fantastic experiences in so many different aircraft; it would probably require a separate article with chapters and sub categories to cover them all. Bottom line is I’ve exceptionally lucky over and over. Both to be able to experience all the things I’ve been part of, as well as coming out alive from various marginal situations. 

 In your piloting career, what was the hairiest situation you’ve been in and how did it resolve? I’ve had numerous engine failures, some closer calls than others, but been lucky so far not having bent an airplane. The most famous of my situations, was when I was run over by another airplane on the runway while racing in Reno in 2016. That was probably my closest call and became a YouTube sensation. 

We’ve seen you pilot a wide variety of warbirds, racers, even bombers.  Do you have a favorite aircraft to fly and what makes it so?
All Warbirds I’ve ever flown are all fantastic in their own right. Comparing them to each other is a little like comparing Apples and Oranges. That being said, if I have to spend the rest of my days in one airplane, it would be a late model P-40. I call it the Pitts of the Warbirds. For my purposes, having fun, flying Airshows under our current operating conditions, you just can’t beat it. If we were going to war, I would probably have a different answer, but that’s not our current mission. It’s 1,300lbs lighter than a P-51 with the same horsepower (at low altitude); it has the highest roll rate of any fighter and is a tremendously awesome airplane. Just a pure joy to fly!

Thom CEG-June 02, 2017-01.jpg

Looking at those aircraft you haven’t yet had an opportunity to pilot, which aircraft is on your bucket list and why?
Interesting question. I technically fulfilled my “bucket list” of airplanes a few years ago by flying the F-4U Corsair. Everything from this point on I would consider “gravy”. That said, I love trying on new machines. Just this past weekend, for example, I flew a turbine powered Air Tractor crop duster and had a ball! I’d like to exceed the speed of sound some day and fly to 100,000’ to see space. Other than that, I think the Harrier Jump-Jet and the Williams WASP would be really high on my list. I’d be very excited to try any airplane from the WWII era. P-38 or the F7F Tigercat sound pretty tasty…

What advice would you give to those budding pilots, as they start down the path of aviation?Don’t wait!!! The key to getting somewhere is to start the journey. The sooner the better. The more you immerse yourself in whatever you want to do, the more opportunities will arise. When I was young I realized very early that the most successful people, in whatever field they practiced, were the people that started young. Don’t waste another day, go to the airport!

You’re the President and Chief Pilot for Warbird Adventures, Inc.  What can you tell us about the company?
We’ve been teaching in the T-6 for over 20 years and probably provide more T-6 checkouts than everyone else combined. We’ve been trying to standardize Warbird pilot training over the years and I think we’re succeeding. I’ve always wanted to add a two-seat P-40 to the operation, it’s been a long and very difficult hill to climb, but we’re finally here and now proudly offer the same service in the P-40 that we’ve been providing for decades in the T-6.

Photo Courtesy of Mike Killian

Photo Courtesy of Mike Killian

We recently saw the exciting announcement that Warbird Adventures acquired a dual seat/ dual control P-40N.  What kind of capabilities does this bring to Warbird Adventures?
For Warbird training, pretty much limitless. The T-6 and P-40 can prepare you for any WWII tailwheel single engine fighter from both the Allied and Axis side. We can cover both air-cooled and liquid cooled engine operations. The P-40 not only provides the high performance spectrum of the training, but also the narrow gear issues you have with some fighters can be addressed. When we’re finished with you, you should easily be able to transition in to any high performance tailwheel fighter.

Finally, what’s next for you?
Onwards and upwards! I’m sure the TP-40 training and Airshows will be more than a full time job for now. I do however have numerous exciting projects brewing in the background. Sitting still is not something I like to do a lot of.

Thanks so much for your time Thom, best of luck to you with “American Dream”, we look forward to seeing you on the airshow circuit!

Special thanks to Mike Killian for his American Dream photo. You can follow him on Facebook or Instagram