Then Mark Clark is the man to see
When he was just 14, Mark Clark bought a life-changing ride in a Mustang. That 35-minute flight set the course for his career as a broker specializing in warbirds.
But when you ask Clark, owner of Courtesy Aircraft in Rockford, Ill., what it was about that flight that changed his life, he says what many pilots already know: It’s hard to quantify just what it was that sparked such a passion.
“It’s hard to say,” he said, “but it gave me a different perspective on the world. Maybe it was because I was able to do what a lot of people aren’t fortunate enough to do. I think it was the sound, the power, and the history,” he continues. “It’s all pretty interesting.”
Whatever it was, it was just a few years later that Clark earned his private pilot’s license. By the time he was 18, he had begun flying T-6s and managed to sell the first of thousands of warbirds he’s sold over the years.
It helped, of course, that Clark grew up around the airplane business. His father started Courtesy Aircraft in 1957 as a Cessna aircraft dealer, adding Piper and Champion sales in the 1960s. By the 1970s, thanks to Mark Clark’s interest, the company became involved in the warbird market. In the early 1980s, Mark bought the company from his father and moved it to a 13,000-square-foot facility at the Greater Rockford Airport.
Over the past 35 years, he’s sold close to 3,000 aircraft, while logging more than 6,500 hours, including more than 1,500 hours in high-performance ex-military aircraft.
One of the best things about selling warbirds, he notes, is the people he gets to deal with every day. While it’s a “small, narrowly defined segment of aviation,” it’s also a community that stretches around the globe.
“We have customers all over the world,” he said, noting that just on the day we talked, he had 23 emails from customers in Australia, South Africa, the Czech Republic, Brazil, New Zealand, and Canada. One was from a customer in Namibia in South Africa, who had just bought a Huey helicopter.
“The Huey is g……r……e……a…..t!” the customer wrote, attaching several pictures of the Huey in flight and him in the cockpit.
Even after all these years, Clark seems amazed at the journey that aircraft took before arriving at its new home. “It had been in Atlanta and after it was sold it was disassembled and went to Dallas for some upgrades and avionics work,” he recounted. “It was then shipped to the African continent where it was reassembled and now it’s flying over there.”
That global reach helped Courtesy Aircraft continue its brisk sales during the recent economic downturn. But now Clark says he’s seeing things start to pick up in the U.S. market. One reason, he believes, is pent-up demand.
“People are tired of not doing what they want to do,” he said, noting that a lot of his customers say to him, “I’m 50 years old and I’ve worked all my life and now I’m in a position to do the things I want to do.”
He notes that many see this time in their lives as a “window of opportunity” before they get too old or lose their medicals.
He adds that it helps that the warbird market has “turned out to be a relatively stable place to invest money.” Most owners find that they get their initial purchase price back when they are ready to sell their warbirds — plus a whole lot more.
“The dollars are easy to measure,” he said. “But the return you can’t measure is the camaraderie of going to airshows and hanging out with pilots and the interest of the general public. You can’t put a price on that.”
He notes there’s something special about sitting under the wing of your warbird at an airshow and having a World War II veteran come up with his children and grandchildren and say “I flew this in the war,” then start telling stories about his experiences.
“In just a few years, the World War II guys are all going to be gone,” he said, noting, “it’s amazing that people continue to be interested.”
And as time goes on, planes from other wars, including Korea and Vietnam, are getting more attention from collectors and aviation enthusiasts.
“Nobody wants to glamorize war,” he adds. “I think they want to commemorate the people who stood up for our rights and our freedom.”
Clark’s customers vary from museums, such as the Palm Springs Air Museum and the Cavanaugh Flight Museum, to the Commemorative Air Force, to individuals. In fact, about 85% of his customers are individuals.
“Looking at my customer list, it’s amazing what some of these people do,” he said, noting that some are on the Forbes 400 list, while others “used to be” on the Forbes 400 list. But there’s also doctors, lawyers and business owners, who tell Clark, “this is where I want to stick some of my funds for a while.”
A lot of it comes down to the camaraderie of the aviation community, he emphasizes. Some owners rarely fly their warbirds, instead finding the pride of ownership the real value. “It’s a very social thing,” he said, describing how some will go out to the hangar on a Saturday and start wiping the plane down, attracting people from all over the airport who want to see a warbird up close.
Others want to fly, he said, telling the story of one customer who bought his first warbird about seven years ago, informing Clark that he wanted to experience a wide variety of aircraft. He started with a T-6, then bought a T-28, then a Mustang, then a Corsair, and now flies a Bearcat. “In a year or two, he’ll probably be looking for something new,” Clark said.
Courtesy Aircraft sells between 40 and 60 aircraft a year. About 20% are typical general aviation aircraft, such as Cherokees, Mooneys, Barons, Bonanzas, King Airs and Cessnas. The rest are warbirds. The company inventory at the beginning of this year included a P-51 Mustang, a Skyraider, a Japanese Zero replica, a Boeing PT-17 Stearman, and several T-28s and T-6s.
In fact, the T-6s (pictured below) are the most popular planes, according to Clark, who notes the T-28s also appeal to the broadest segment of customers.
In the fighter category, the P-51 Mustang is without a doubt the most popular. “There are only 140 in the U.S., so a lot of people would love to have one but they don’t have the resources or the skills required to fly the airplane,” he said.
Clark noted it’s important that the company match potential customers with the right airplanes. “We certainly don’t want them injured or something to happen to these rare airplanes,” he said. “But we also don’t want them to have an unsatisfactory sales experience. If they end up buying an aircraft that is really not suited to them, they are not going to be happy.”
It’s not unusual for a customer to come to Clark with the idea of buying one type of plane, but buying another. “I’ll lay the facts out on the table,” he said. “Most people are pretty intelligent and it clicks into place that maybe this isn’t the right airplane for them right now.”
For instance, a pilot with just a few hundred hours and no tailwheel experience is not ready for a Mustang, he said.
The insurance companies also help match customers with the right airplanes, he said. “The insurance companies are tighter than the FAA regulations,” he notes.
Also impacting the market is that there is a finite inventory of warbirds, Clark said, adding that, unfortunately, a few airplanes get damaged every year, “but an equal amount are freshly restored every year.”
And the restorations have improved over the years, he said.
“What was 20 years ago unrestorable projects are being built into prize-winning airplanes with the talent that the restoration shops have these days,” he said. “The restoration shops do a fantastic job of recreating these airplanes, but in the big picture there is still a finite number. I say I’ve been in the recycling business a long time.”
The availability of spare parts, as well as high-octane fuel, are concerns in the warbird community, he acknowledges. The price of fuel? Not so much.
“If a guy is spending $6 a gallon for fuel and it goes to $8 a gallon, will he still fly his $2 million warbird? He probably will,” he said, noting his customers in Europe are already paying $8 to $10 a gallon for fuel these days.
And for many, it’s well worth it, noting that even though a Beech 18 burns 50 gallons an hour, pilots are willing pay the price.
“That plane has a 1957 Chevy, American muscle car mystique,” he said. “People want a piece of that.”
People will always find a way to do what they enjoy, he continued.
“No matter what the industry, whether it’s aviation or pleasure boating or downhill skiing, we all face economic, ecological and government regulatory issues,” he said. “That’s just the world we live in.”
The bottom line
So how much do you need to buy your own warbird?
You can get a small trainer or liaison aircraft for between $35,000 to $100,000. Next are the T-34s, T-6s or T-28s, which are priced between $130,000 to $200,000.
Got $300,000 to $500,000? Then you can consider a TBM Avenger, a B-25, an A-26, or a Yak. Next category is $750,000 to $850,000, which will get you a SkyRaider or a Sea Fury.
Heart set on a fighter? One that is in even “half-way decent condition” is going to cost “well in excess of $1 million,” Clark said.
“When you are talking about a couple of hundred thousand for a new glass cockpit Cessna 172 or $500,000 for a glass cockpit Cirrus SR22, a couple of hundred thousand for a T-28 doesn’t seem that bad,” he said.
If you could have just one…
Mark Clark is often asked to name his favorite warbird. It’s a question he’s put a lot of thought into.
“If I woke up one morning and there was a note on the bathroom mirror that said ‘Mark, you can only have one warbird,’ it would be a T-6,” he said. “It’s the first warbird I ever flew. It’s got that great radial engine sound and it trained thousands of American pilots and lots of foreign pilots. It’s also fun to fly, as well as nostalgic.”
He adds parts are readily available and maintenance is very straight forward. “There are not a lot of complicated systems,” he said. “It’s an easy airplane to take care of.”
Next choices: An A-26 Invader and a T-33 Shooting Star. His fourth choice: A P-51 Mustang.
“From there, I don’t know what I would choose,” he said. “There are so many choices and all of them are good choices.”
For more information: CourtesyAircraft.com
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