ERIC WESTERVELT, HOST:
The Harrier jet combines the speed of a fighter plane with the maneuverability of a helicopter. These single-seater jets are know for their vertical takeoff and landing. Ideal for close air support near the frontlines. Designed by the British and now flown by the U.S. Marine Corps, Harriers have an accident prone track record and are notoriously difficult to fly. But why not have one for your private collection? Yesterday a 1976 Harrier sold at the Silverstone Auctions in England for the equivalent of nearly $180,000. The weapon systems are dismantled and the engine isn't fitted to the plane but with a little work it could fly again. If a civilian flying a Hairier sounds ridiculous, well, there's already a guy doing it.
ART NALLS: Hi, my name is Art Nalls and I'm a retired Marine Corps pilot.
WESTERVELT: Nalls says he's the only civilian in the world to privately own and fly a Harrier. He's got a history with these planes. The first time he sat in the cockpit of one was 35 years ago.
NALLS: I had the great fortune to fly about 75 different type model series of airplanes, most of them pretty exciting - F-18, F-16. But my absolute favorite has and always will be the Harrier.
WESTERVELT: That's why Nalls bought one. Back in 2006 a Sea Harrier went up for sale in the UK. Like the Harrier from this weekend's auction it had no weapon systems and it was no longer equipped to fly. But Nalls was determined to get it back in the air.
NALLS: The FAA was on board, the bank was on board. He offered it up for sale and I was the first one there with a checkbook.
WESTERVELT: As for what he paid for this rare 1979 Sea Harrier, Nalls won't say.
NALLS: We shook hands on a deal and signed a one- page contract written in sharpie. And I headed back to the United States.
WESTERVELT: Meanwhile the plane was taken apart loaded onto a ship and sent to the U.S.. Then Nalls and his crew painstakingly put it all back together. If you're wondering what a manual for a Harrier looks like.
NALLS: It's about 400,000 pages.
WESTERVELT: Instructions on landing gear, gas, turbine jet engine starters, wiring diagrams.
NALLS: We started following the instructions step by step by step by step.
WESTERVELT: Finally his plane was restored and airborne.
NALLS: It can come to a complete stop in the air. It can back up, it can turn sideways.
WESTERVELT: Those big Rolls-Royce engines roar. It takes a lot of thrust to keep these planes hovering.
NALLS: Well, it burns a little bit of gas. And when we're in a hover, we're burning a gallon of fuel - jet fuel, every two seconds. One thousand one, one thousand two, that was a gallon of jet fuel right there.
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UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER: Stand and watch and be amazed at Art Nalls.
WESTERVELT: Nalls now travels the country, taking his Sea Harrier to air shows like the Langley Air show in Virginia.
SPEAKER: How 'bout that? He backed it up like a school bus. Art Nalls.
NALLS: When we're at an air show, I love the opportunity to be able to share it with other people.
WESTERVELT: And now with another private collector buying a Harrier at this weekend's auction. Nalls is also willing to share his expertise. He says he's available to help get that Hairier back in the air too.
NALLS: There's no reason that a competent pilot, who had been properly instructed and trained couldn't with the right supervision safely fly this airplane.
WESTERVELT: Retired Marine Aviator Art Nalls. The pilot of his own private Harrier Jump Jet.
This is NPR NEWS.