Kapiti Observer : January 5th 2012
5 THURSDAY, JANUARY 5, 2012 NEWS FEATURE Man on a mission: The Vintage Aviator's test pilot and production manager Gene Demarco at the controls of a World War I Sopwith Camel over Wairarapa. Photo: PHILIP MAKANNA/GHOSTS Time machines By PIERS FULLER Scenic flight: An FE2b pusher biplane midair with the Ruamahanga River meandering along the Wairarapa Valley below. Photo: PHILIP MAKANNA/GHOSTS Knows his stuff: Gene Demarco is one of the world's most experienced pilots in World War I aircraft. Photo: PIERS FULLER The Vintage Aviator has quickly become one of the most important manufacturers and restorers of World War I aircraft in the world and in doing so is making an incredible contribution to avia- tion's living history. With a workshop in Wellington and hangars in Masterton and Omaka, The Vintage Aviator has brought to life some extraordinary machines. A key member of the team is production manager and test pilot Gene Demarco. The New York native's passion for early aircraft goes back to when his father was an inspector for Pan Am during the golden age of commercial flight and his mother was an air stewardess for the same airline. As a child Demarco was fasci- nated with airplanes and was privileged to fly on some commer- cial flights when flying was reserved for the wealthy. I always wanted to be a pilot from as far back as I can remem- ber,'' he says. He built scale models of many classic aircraft, including the big World War II fighter, the Vought F4U Corsair, an example of which is now housed in the Masterton hangar which is also home to many of the Vintage Aviator's classic fighters. Demarco started his flying lessons when he was just 14 years old and flew solo for the first time when he was 16, earning his pilot's licence shortly after. Demarco is one of the world's most experienced pilots when it comes to flying World War I air- craft and also knows how to build them. He restored his first airplane, a 1940s Piper J-5 Cub Cruiser, when he was 16 and flew it solo around the United States in 1980 at the ripe old age of 17. It was one of the best experiences of my life. I have fan- tastic memories of landing in airfields and people were really nice to you. Like here, they are often small, tight-knit flying com- munities,'' he says. He flew across 32 states and had no problems with his trusty J-5. After that adventure Demarco went to college and graduated as a mechanical engin- eer. He got a job with IBM, which he hated, and left when he became too busy with a flying wholesale rose delivery business that he started in college. He bought a Cessna 182 with the profits of the business and started another venture in upstate New York, leasing an air- field from where he operated a range of aviation services. During that time he was restor- ing more airplanes and started his own restoration business. He became involved with the famous Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome on the Hudson where he got his first experience with old World War I airplanes. It took four or five years before Demarco was allowed to fly one of their Golden Era' (1920s and 30s) planes and a couple of years after that before he got to fly a genuine World War I fighter -- the Sopwith Camel. Because each aircraft's design varies, their mechanics and flying characteristics have their own quirks and idiosyncrasies. There's a huge difference from modern planes and you really have to be around them to learn about them,'' he says. Some early aircraft don't have throttles, or brakes or even ailerons so are notoriously tricky to operate. His vast experience in the Sop- with Camel meant he was in demand to come to New Zealand and fly a plane for Sir Peter Jackson's King Kong movie. Sir Peter has long been an enthusiast of early aircraft and is one of The Vintage Aviator's biggest customers and supporters. A significant part of the com- pany's work is in the movie busi- ness, creating props and replica vehicles. As production manager at The Vintage Aviator, Demarco oversees the completion of some seriously cool projects. The 50-person team based in Welling- ton and Wairarapa builds aircraft exactly as they were built in the early 20th century. They use orig- inal parts where they can and will even reverse engineer engines so the aircraft is authentic. New Zealand may seem like a strange place to base such a specialist enterprise, but Demarco says this country has some big advantages, not least of which is our wealth of engineering talent and staff with the right attitude. The whole thing about Kiwis being able to think outside of the box is true,'' he says. It's phenomenal what the guys are accomplishing in the short time that we've been around.'' The Vintage Aviator has more than 50 aircraft in its collection. Half of those are at Masterton's Hood Aerodrome and the other half at Omaka Aviation Heritage centre. With about 20,000 man hours going into each aircraft, they are extremely valuable. By putting on regular airshows at Masterton's Hood Aerodrome The Vintage Avi- ator brings that exciting era of military history back to life. Being a test pilot of these early and unpredictable aircraft may sound like a dangerous business, but Demarco does everything he can to avoid potentially fatal mishaps. When a new reproduction is completed they extensively test all the components. The aircraft are never pushed beyond their limits. But even with the most careful preparation, the occasional crash does happen. While flying for Old Rhinebeck in the United States his engine had a magneto failure, lost power and Demarco knew he wouldn't be able to make the airfield. He says it is a really discon- certing feeling'' knowing that you are going to crash and contem- plating whether you are going to get hurt. He ended up slamming into trees before the airfield. The plane was caught in the high branches and then fell to the for- est floor. Demarco escaped with only scrapes and went back to the air- field to get in another plane and complete the airshow. I find it hard to believe that kids went to war in these airplanes,'' he says. People can see for themselves at one of the Vintage Aviators Air- shows in Masterton -- The Joyeux Noel evening show on January 21 or the Anzac show on April 28.
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