Not many people can say they fly upside down every day, but that’s exactly what 81-year old Bud Pinkston does. The retired corporate pilot once flew for Davis Mud and Chemical of Great Bend, and now is a flight instructor operating out of the Great Bend Airport. He teaches acrobatic flight in his Bellanca 8KCAB Decathlon, but when he wants a real thrill, he takes out his American Electric 1966 Piranha. The one of a kind plane can make two complete rolls in one second, he says. Pinkston will have both planes on display at the upcoming Great Bend Airport Airfest on September 20 through 22.
Only one in existence
“The Piranha is one of only seven built, and is the only one left today,” he said. Originally built as a counterintelligence fighter for the U.S. military in the mid-1960s, the small plane (with a mere 17-foot wingspan, about the length of a Ford Taurus) was capable of carrying rocket tubes on the wingtips and a 500-pound bomb on the centreline, could stay in the air for 10 hours, and normally flew at speeds of 230 mph.
“It was designed to shoot up the Ho-Chi-Minh trail in Vietnam,” Pinkston said. The planes were meant to take the place of larger, more expensive aircraft, but ultimately, Piranhas never saw combat.
Pinkston’s plane underwent 200 hours of test flight for the U.S. military before the owner of the small munitions company that designed and built the plane died unexpectedly. According to Pinkston, the heirs killed the contract, and the military had the other six planes destroyed, making Pinkston’s Piranha an orphan.
The military had taken possession of the other six planes, but would not be able to devote the resources to train pilots to fly them. The Piranha is a tail-wheel design, rather than a nose-wheel design. The difference requires pilots to master different skill sets. At the time, the only military pilots certified to fly tail-wheels were U2 pilots, Pinkston said. The planes could not be supported, and because of an earlier ruling by the Federal Aviation Association, it was no longer legal to purchase military airplanes, leaving no other options to destroy them.
“Today, the only military planes owned by private parties are either resurrected wrecks, or from overseas,” he said. “That’s why we so many Russian aircraft these days.”
Pinkston’s Piranha became an orphan.
“The original contract stated that the first plane belonged to the owner, so it was never owned by the military,” he said. Pinkston purchased the plane from a private party in 1979, and he flies it about twice a week. With a daughter in Oregon, and another Ariz., he finds the fast, fuel-efficient cross-country plane a fun and convenient option for making quick visits.
“It flies great, but it doesn’t go slow very well,” he joked.
In addition to teaching other pilots to do loops and rolls, Pinkston also completes first flight testing for owners of kit-built planes.
“Great Bend has an abundance of home-builts that are really excellent planes,” he said. Kit built planes can be built in as little as a year, but he recently did a first flight for an owner that took 40 years to complete his project.
Pinkston plans to perform aerobatics in the Piranha at the Great Bend Air Fest, and will be on hand to answer questions. He’ll be easy to find.
“I’ll be the oldest man out there, and I’ll have the smallest plane,” he said. How small?
“I’ve got britches looser than that plane when I get in it,” he said.