Words & Photographs: James Woodard
One of the coolest and most desired airshow acts is that of a Harrier, and outside of seeing the US Marine Corps Harrier AV-8B Demo, there is only one other way to witness a Harrier Performance: Art Nalls. As the only civilian to own and fly a Harrier, Art Nalls and Team SHAR perform shows across the United States and are fan favorites. Once part of the British Royal Navy, Art was able to secure his Sea Harrier after the British surplused some of their fleet. I recently had the pleasure to spend some time with Art at his hanger in southern Maryland.
Growing up with a fondness for aviation, he was nominated to attend the US Naval Academy where he mastered in Aerospace Engineering. He graduated with merit and was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the US Marine Corps. After completing Marine Basic School, he began training in the T-28 while based at Pensacola. He soloed with a T-28 after only 28 hours and 14 flights, which was normal for Naval Aviation Students at that time. Once he got selected for jets, he began Basic and Advanced Flight Training in Kingsville, Texas, where he flew the T-2C “Buckeye” and the TA-4J “Skyhawk.” He became carrier qualified with both aircraft while aboard the USS Lexington.
In 1979 he was designated as a Naval Aviator and awarded his Golden Wings, all this with just over 283 flight hours. He was then assigned to VMA-231 at MCAS Cherry Point where his first operational aircraft was the AV-8A Harrier. In 1985 with over 900 hours in the AV-8A and over 400 shipboard landings, he was the single Marine selected to attend the USAF Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base. He was assigned to NAS Patuxent River upon test pilot graduation where he joined three other marine test pilots to complete flight testing of the new AV-8B Harrier II.
With the AV-8B project, he was a test pilot for numerous harrier programs including the initial test of the Italian and Spanish ski jump ships, performing the first ski jump takeoffs in the AV-8B. Art took part in the dangerous flight testing of airborne engine restarts; the testing involves shutting down the only engine mid-flight, letting the engine cool down and then restart the engine at a specific altitude and speed. Art led several single-engine restart programs and even became an instructor for other pilots performing the same tests on other types of aircraft. He has accumulated over 6 hours of flight time in military jets, WITHOUT the engine running.
After retiring from the Marines, he started a real estate venture focusing on the neglected areas of DC. This grew successful and has allowed him the financial resources to refocus on his love of aviation. He focuses on apartment buildings and commercial property in the DC metro area. “It has turned out to be a pretty good investment; I started with nothing. I did everything myself and I took every one of those infomercials that [you] see about no money down and how to flip houses. I never made any money flipping a house so I went right to apartment buildings, which is where they teach you to get to. I still took all of those seminars; my bookshelf has books on real estate investing, buy and hold, how to make nothing but money, No Money Down by Robert Allen, which is the bible...all those types of books, I have read all of them and I have little yellow stickies in them.” With the business paying the bills, he had the freedom to join the airshow circuit; first with a Yak-5.
He remembered the Yak-5 as a great little plane that could outperform the P-51 at low altitudes but had a hard time making ends meet with it. In addition to the financial issues with the aircraft, the little prop plane did not give him the thrill that he was hoping for; he wanted to try something different. He acquired an L-39 “Albatross” as his next airshow machine after another successful real estate deal. The L-39 is a two-seat, single-engine jet trainer, capable of speeds up to 480 knots. It can take off and land in approximately 2,000 feet of paved runway. The L-39 gave him the thrill he was looking for. Another thing Art loves about it is that “the thing almost never breaks.” Art describes it as “super easy to fly, super reliable; get in it and go. It's as close as you can get to the family car as an airplane.”
Still looking for more enjoyment from flying and after reading some articles about the British surplusing some of their Royal Navy Sea Harriers, Art began to think about the possibility of owning his very own Sea Harrier. He treated it as he did with his hugely successful real estate projects, weighing options and researching. He discovered a survey from ICAS (International Council of Airshows) on what the most desirable airshow act was. Something caught his eye; the Marine Harrier Demonstration was right up there with the US Navy Blue Angels and the US Air Force Thunderbirds. He dug in deeper and found that at that time, the Marines got more requests for the Harrier demo than the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds did combined. At that time, there was a Marine order out that did not allow the Harrier demo to participate at any air shows that also had the Blue Angels or Thunderbirds; an order that is no longer in effect. All of this sounded like a great opportunity, and after finding one of the surplus Harriers and receiving an email about it on a Monday, Art was in England laying his eyes on the jet by weeks end and with the support of his wife and business partner Pat, made the purchase of a lifetime.
The biggest challenge with Harrier ownership is making it work financially. Parts for the aircraft are few and far between. When sellers know he needs a specific part, the price becomes gold. One of the main pieces that present a significant struggle is the very unreliable “gas turbine starter” which is used to start the Harrier engine. This part alone runs about $250K. Two years ago, team SHAR went through all 5 spares they had. The team is looking at alternative methods to start the Harrier engine and are hoping to have it all worked out very soon, alleviating some of the financial burden of the aircraft.
When asked what one of the rewarding things is about flying the Sea Harrier, Art, with a sense of pride, responded “it is simply that not everyone can fly a Harrier.” He remembers that while in the service, they tried to take helicopter pilots and convert them to Harrier pilots, but they were not as good with the tactical flight training involved. It seemed that it was easier to teach an A4 pilot who was good with tactical flight how to hover, rather than turn an helicopter pilot who was good at hovering how to become proficient with tactical maneuvers. Once a pilot made it over 75 hours in the Harrier, the chances of an accident went way down.
Looking back at his Marine days, he recalled one of his most hair-raising experiences; an engine failure over Richmond, Virginia. He was flying a routine flight from Cherry Point to Quantico. “As I looked down over Richmond, the engine quit. A big loud boom; my wingman said I was on fire, flame coming out of my tailpipe. I shut the engine down, but I happened to be right over Richmond at 17,000 feet which was more than enough energy to get the airplane on the ground. With snow on the ground, I was able to see the black runway; as I looked down I was able to see an airplane take-off. I knew which way the duty runway was, and I was in exactly the right position for a flameout approach in the manual.” Art had never tried a flame out approach or practiced one.
After shutting the engine down, the flame went out. “The airfield was right there, and halfway through my pattern I am trying to slow down, I actually got way too much energy. I didn’t know how to handle that at the time. Now I do, after test pilot school I know what I would have done differently. But I had gone through a re-light in manual fuel and as soon as I came up on the throttle, the engine stalled again. It obviously did not like running at any other power setting than what it was. I managed to get the plane on the deck safely and stopped at 9000 feet. The engine was very roughly running and very roughly idling. I thought I was able to taxi it, but the plane shook so bad so [I] shut it down and abandoned the airplane. It was smoking from both ends; smoke coming out of the back and smoke coming out of the front.” It turned out that a snubber, which is a piece of metal about the size of your thumb between the front section of blades, cracked, fell off and went right down the center of the engine. It took out the majority of high-pressure compression blades. Art received a ribbon for the incident.
That wasn't the only hair-raising experience of Arts career. Another time his Harrier landing gear failed as he was attempting a rolling landing. While aboard a carrier, another pilot had a very rough landing. After they examined the gear, the decision was made that they were going to fly the Harrier to the coast and get the gear replaced. Well, who was going to make this dangerous flight? The decision came down; “Art, you do it.” Art flew the plane from the ship to the beach after they debated what they were going to do if the gear falls off. The consensus in the ready room was to do a rolling landing and if he noticed anything unusual he could go back around and do a vertical landing. Upon landing, as you probably assumed, the gear immediately fell off.
With the plane yawing right because of a wing dragging the ground, he had a full boot of left rudder and his hand on the D Ring. If you are leaving the runway, the procedure is to eject. Keeping the boot in full left rudder, the plane was able to straighten out, which was a very good thing. His wingman, who was behind him on the right-hand side and in a position to do nothing, was telling Art not to eject. Had he done so, he would have ended up colliding with his wingman turning things from bad to worse. Once stopped, he shut things down and slid down the right wing, jumping over a small fire that had started from the friction of the wing dragging the runway. Looking back at it now, Art still has a hard time understanding why they didn't just go with the vertical landing to begin with, but as the junior guy competent enough to make the flight, he took the advice he was given.
While those two flights certainly qualify as hair-raising experiences, Art told me he remembers “maybe a total of five flights” where at the end of the day he would categorize them as “truly memorable.” Most of those days were when he “had to eat his Wheaties” in the morning; really felt on top of his game and involved some air to air dogfighting and bomb drops. It is not hard to imagine Art exiting his cockpit, sweating through his flight suit with an enormous grin on his face thinking to himself “man, I can not believe we get paid to do this.”
In his civilian airshow performing life, one story he found memorable was his first time at the Culpeper Airshow. He had just completed his check ride with the Harrier a week prior; he called the people at Culpepper up to see if he could perform a few passes with his plane to show it off. Art had not received his aerobatic rating yet, but a he wanted to wow the crowd with a fast pass. He was instructed not to do the high-speed pass towards DC (Culpeper is about 60 miles southwest of DC), and Art followed the request. Art screamed by the crowd at 600 knots, pitched up, and while climbing towards the moon he looked back and couldn’t find the airport. Imagine, you are doing your first airshow, and you get lost in the middle of your performance. Luckily he had GPS that he switched on and was able to find the airfield to finish his act. The Culpeper Air Fest is a terrific little airshow which Art loves attending. When asked what his favorite show is, it’s “Culpeper, Virginia, Culpeper, Virginia, Culpeper, Virginia, not even close.” [Author’s note: 2017 was my first time at the Culpeper Airshow; I absolutely loved it and highly recommend it...by far the best atmosphere at an airshow to date.]
Arts resume includes a staggering amount of aircraft; over 65 in total. These include the B-52, C-141, C-130, A-7, A-37, T-38, F-4, F-5, F-15, and F-16, and F-18. He was also NATOPS Qualified for a special flight test in the back seat of the F-14 “Tomcat.” When asked if there is anything he hasn't flown but really wants to, he responded “Yeah, I want to fly the BD-5J.” If you are unfamiliar with the BD-5J, it is known as the “World's Smallest Jet” and he owns some of them as well.
Art revealed to me that he had just agreed to become the owner of Aerial Productions International. API has provided the US Government contract services for over 17 years. The fleet of BD-5J’s that he now owns have been modified to reduce their radar cross-section signature, which is already very small. The modifications provide a higher top-end speed and are certified as a Type-1 Cruise Missile Simulator. API is the only company that can supply manned, flying aircraft that simulate cruise missiles for research and development. While this part of Nalls Aviation is currently based in Tucson, AZ, Art sees an increasing demand around the county in the coming years. Don't be looking for them to be flying at airshows as they’re registered as national assets due to the government work they do. However, one of the jets will likely be part of a team as a static, non-flying display to educate the public on how small an aircraft the BD-5J really is.
In his Harrier, his next goal is to break the record time-to-climb with the Sea Harrier. They are getting close to the end of the engine life even though it is still running strong. Art says “It is a superstar of an engine. Time to climb is figured by weight class; in this weight class, I think this plane can shatter the time to 10,000 feet, I don't think it would beat the Russian record to 40,000 feet. The rules for the record are from a vertical takeoff, past through 50 feet and then start your accelerated climb. The Russian Yak 141, which I have flown the simulation on, has an afterburner. It has just one huge engine, they don't use the afterburner on takeoff, but once through 50 feet they light the wick on that thing, and it would just go straight up. The Harrier beats it to 10,000 feet, and I am sure we can do that. I think [we] can get to 10,000 feet in under a minute; it climbs like a rocket ship. It is 100 knots faster than the AV-8B. The roll rate is eye-watering; I don't use anywhere near full stick deflection or limited full stick deflection on anything I do in an airshow. I would throw my head up against the side of the canopy; there is no need to do that. You're demonstrating the airplane; you are doing a safe roll. But it won't turn like the AV-8B; it doesn't have big flaps and leading-edge root extensions.”
One of the things I have quickly noticed about the airshow circuit is the sense of family between the airshow performers. This feeling seems to also spread to aviation enthusiasts who try to attend as many aviation events as possible. I tried to get a favorite airshow performer out of Art, but he was adamant that he likes all of them. “I am good friends with many of them, you see them, and it is like a mini family reunion. I think they all do a really good job”
With Art having flown an impressive list of aircraft, I was curious if there was anything he would like to fly formation with. Having experience flying the L-39 in formation with a Corsair, he would like to do the same with the Harrier. The Corsair is one of the aircraft he mentioned that he wants to own, if only it weren’t such a dirty bird. Radials leak a lot of oil and can be pretty messy to maintain, which is a far cry from the L39 and Harrier.
How does a man like Art who has an L-39 and a Sea Harrier become even cooler? He gets a TMk-8 Two Seat Harrier. He is currently working on getting this one airworthy, and it should be up soon. “The biggest challenge has been the electrical system because we didn't have the drawings. Now we have adequate drawings that we can do decent trouble shooting to the basic systems which is the same all two-seaters. The emergency gear blowdown which we designed ourselves and put in this airplane, we just checked it from the front cockpit to the rear cockpit, so we are confident that is going to work. The two-seater flies almost identical to the single-seater except it is obvious that the nose is heavier, they tried to balance it and get the CG (center of gravity) back. There is a lot of ballast back in the back. When you do a short take off the nose wants to tuck a little bit. Visibility from the front cockpit is just fine, visibility from the rear cockpit….I got a lot of time with the rear cockpit, I did shipboard landings from the rear cockpit in a TAV-8B, and I thought ahhhh, there's no need to be doing that.”
For the younger audience who have a passion for aviation and are looking in that direction as a career path, Art stressed the importance of finding a mentor who will drill the importance of following the regulations into you. “The biggest thing is maturity; when you are performing in front of a crowd, you have to be mature enough.” Arts mentor was Dan McCue, and Art is currently mentoring Jenna Dolan, whom he hopes to have performing at airshows in the TMk-8 by year’s end.
With the start of the show season upon us, I was glad to see Art once again as he performed his first show of the 2018 season at the Leaseweb Manassas Airshow. He pulled off a great practice day, first dominantly flying his L-39. He taxied back to his area, jumped in the Sea Harrier and fired her up. He ended one performance and started another within a 15 minutes time span. A pretty impressive feat for anybody. The fence line at Manassas allowed the crowd to get closer to the Harrier running than I have previously experienced; standing at the crowd line looking left we saw the SHAR make a right turn and realized he would be taxiing about 20 feet in front of us. As the Harrier got closer, I couldn't help but get excited; it’s not often you get to experience the sight, sound, and on this day, the pollen (mixed with dirt and gravel) that coated the taxiway being blown in my face by the world's only civilian-owned Harrier. If you have not seen his performance and you ever get the opportunity, go check him out. I look forward to the remainder of the show season with the possibility of catching him fly the L-39 and Harrier in a way that only he can, and I am keeping my fingers crossed to be able to witness the TMk-8 Two Seater Harrier in the air at some point this season as well. Culpeper would be a great show for this to happen, being Arts favorite show and all.
Images from 2017 Culpeper, Visit with Art at his hangar and 2018 Manassas Air Show.