F-86F Sabre
F-86F Sabre

Buying (and Maybe Flying) a Jet Warbird

A surprising range of decommissioned military turbines are joining the used-aircraft market.

Forget for a moment the search for a practical business aircraft—the preowned warbird market has entered the jet age. Where World War II veterans like the iconic P-51 Mustang and trusty T-6 Texan trainer formerly ruled the civilian warbird skies, today a growing number of decommissioned military jets—from first-generation trainers to modern-era supersonic fighters—are available on the aftermarket, and some 1,000 turbine warbirds are now registered to private owners in the U.S. 

Business jet owner/pilots looking for something a little faster and flashier to fly, and collectors seeking a jewel for their fleets, can find an assortment of choices in the warbird sections of publications and websites featuring aircraft for sale. Many of the listings are priced significantly below the seven-figure sums that a fully restored Mustang or other top World War II warbird commands. 

But attention shoppers: purchase price aside, costs of operation and maintenance are much higher for a military jet than for a business jet or piston warbird. Additionally, regulations and operational limitations hobble their use. And piloting them safely requires a professional-caliber stick. Serious consideration of any one of these three issues is enough to shoot down many top-gun dreams, so before you start shopping, make sure you understand all the pros and cons. 

Early turbines—including the USAF F-86 Sabre fighter and T-33 Shooting Star trainer and Russia’s supersonic MiG 21, along with the second-generation Czech L-39 Albatros trainer—are among platforms popular with this jet set. That’s thanks to attributes such as large production numbers, maintainability, availability of spare parts, and relative simplicity of operation. But more contemporary military jets are also available, with current inventory including a McDonnell Douglas F4H-1F Phantom, Dornier Alpha Jet, Folland Gnat, and UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters. (The U.S. military no longer sells operable tactical aircraft to the public due to concerns about terrorism, but they come to market from non-U.S. military operators upgrading their fleets.) 

Some jets have been restored and updated with glass-panel cockpits; others are untold hours and dollars from being airworthy; and you can find everything in between. But establishing value is much more difficult with a turbine warbird than with a business jet.

“No two are the same—it’s such a one-off situation, and you can’t compare any of the aircraft to each other in terms of restoration,” says Jason Zilberbrand, president of aircraft appraisal service Vref.

L-39ZA Albatros
L-39ZA Albatros

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The Classic Jet Aircraft Association (CJAA), which represents the private owners of turbine warbirds, and the Experimental Aircraft Association’s Warbirds of America division, longtime champion of warbird owners and operators, should be at the top of any shopper’s resource list for subject-matter experts. Several aircraft brokerages specializing in warbirds also freely share their expertise.

But be aware that once in private hands, former warships can be operated only in the Experimental, Exhibition category, which limits them to static and aerial displays demonstrating the airplanes’ characteristics for the public and films; flights to and from these locations; and flights to attain and maintain pilot proficiency in the aircraft. In other words, they cannot be used for personal transport or to carry paying passengers. 

But jet warbirds make poor cross-country transports, anyway. Designed for flights of about one and a half hours, trainers have limited range; and while a modern fighter doesn’t necessarily require aerial refueling to cover the distance of an average business jet flight in a lot less time, these seemingly invincible machines lack conventional de-icing systems and are not reliable all-weather aircraft. Military jets are also at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to cabin comfort.

“They have a usefulness for historical display, but they’re not a substitute for a Citation or Pilatus,” says Mark Clark, president of Courtesy Aircraft in Rockford, Illinois, a longtime warbird brokerage.

Moreover, just because you have a pilot’s license and can afford a warbird jet doesn’t mean you’ll be able to fly it. Pilot requirements include a minimum of 1,000 hours of pilot-in-command flight time, and an experimental type rating in the jet, earned in a check ride with a designated examiner for the aircraft model; the flight examiner who gave you your IFR or multi-engine check ride will not suffice. Additionally, meeting all the pilot proficiency requirements doesn’t guarantee you’ll be able to get insurance for the aircraft, particularly if there’s a disparity between its complexity and your flight experience. 

But if you’re willing to contend with all these hurdles, “the expense seems insignificant in relation to the sheer thrill provided by piloting a high-performance jet aircraft,” the CJAA says.

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MiG-21
MiG-21

You can find a flyable MiG-21 for around $70,000, according to Zilberbrand (a later model MiG-29 in good condition costs about $5 million), and Courtesy has a listing for a Fouga CM-170 Magister for $79,900.

“It’s easy to fly, very straightforward, has a reasonable total time, and comes with a tremendous amount of spares” for replacement parts and components, Clark says of the Fouga.

Note that the weaponry on military aircraft imported into the U.S. must be removed or rendered permanently inoperable; and they are typically inspected by three federal agencies to assure compliance: U.S. Customs, the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, and the Federal Aviation Administration. 

However, there is exemption available for bypassing both the U.S. requirement for defanging privately owned warbirds and for operating solely in the Experimental, Exhibition category: some privately owned turbine warbirds are flown under government contract, in some cases providing aerial combat training services such as playing aggressor or enemy aircraft roles. These jets are equipped with modern combat radar and other weapons systems necessary for such realistic training. Draken International, based in Lakeland, Florida, has a fleet of warbirds for this kind of work, including the MiG 21B1S, Aero L-39, and L-59, and Mirage F1M and Atlas Cheetah supersonic fighters.

If you’ve got the credentials to qualify for such airwork—and the funds for purchase— consider that current for-sale turbine warbird listings include a Douglas A-4D Skyhawk for $1.6 million, advertised as having all inspections completed and being “ready to fly on a government contract.”

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