By RAEANN SLAYBAUGH
A generous airplane collector — and the chief pilot for his cadre of stunning World War II aircraft — are helping to make the Copperstate Fly-In, which kicks off today, a world-class destination for aviation enthusiasts, both on the ground and in the air.
One of the most consistent attractions at the fly-in, which is based at Casa Grande Airport in Arizona, is Chandler, Ariz.-based pilot Larry Perkins and a pristinely restored World War II P-51 Mustang called “Red Dog” — just one in a stunning cache of vintage aircraft owned by famed collector Ron Pratte, also of Chandler.
Today, he owns and operates LP Aviation based in Stellar Airpark in Chandler, Ariz. “That’s my ‘doing-business-as’ name,” Perkins explains. “I’ve used it as a contract pilot, aviation consultant and pilot examiner for about 49 years — 22 of those in Arizona.”
Most of the business Perkins has conducted as LP Aviation has been in addition to full-time aviation employment. His first airline job was flying Douglas DC-3 freighters in the 1960s. “The DC-3 was commonly known by its military designation: the C-47,” he points out. “Naturally, the C-47 has always been my favorite transport aircraft.”
In fact, it’s so near and dear to his heart that Perkins and his aviatrix wife, Peggy, led the restoration of “Puff the Magic Dragon.” The couple then flew the C-47 on tour to honor Vietnam veterans.
In the mid-1970s, Perkins worked as a pilot examiner for the B-17 bomber and had the opportunity to fly several that are still in the air today. This includes 10 years as the pilot of “Sentimental Journey,” which is based at Falcon Field in Mesa, Ariz.
Having flown B-17s on and off for more than 30 years, Perkins says it’s his favorite vintage bomber — not only for the role it played in winning World War II, but also for its tail wheel. “Don’t you think all vintage airplanes should be tail draggers?” he laughs.
Now, as the chief pilot and aviation promoter for the vast aircraft cadre owned by Pratte, a notoriously private — and equally philanthropic — collector, Perkins has the chance to fly his favorite aircraft more often than he ever could have imagined.
Having flown Pratte’s Super Corsair, “Race 57,” the Corsair has emerged as Perkins’ second-favorite fighter. But, the P-51 Mustang remains his lifelong favorite.
“My first flying model airplane was a control-line P-51,” he recalls. “I built several plastic static-display models. I’d remove the canopy from one of the larger models, put the windshield up to my right eye like a monocle, and then walk through the house banking for the turns. It’s amazing how similar the view over the nose of the model was to the full-scale aircraft.”
As a senior in high school, Perkins had a recurring dream about flying a P-51. In an interview with a young aviation enthusiast and blogger, he recounts the details:
“I was taxiing out at the Merced [California] Airport in the afternoon. The sun was shining on the back of the propeller, and I could see the reflections of the sun. I would run up the engine, taxi on the runway, push up the throttle — and then wake up, every time. It was very frustrating. In fact, I can remember my mother coming in and saying, ‘Larry, you need to get up and get ready for school!’ And I said, ‘Mom, just give me a couple of minutes. I’m trying to finish this dream!’”
Sixteen years later, a friend of Perkins — an aerobatic pilot — offered to let him fly his P-51. It was his first (and, as he figured at the time, only) chance. So, he took it. During that flight, Perkins was able to take off from the Merced Airport. “It was just like in my dream,” he recalls. “It was the most eerie experience.”
Now, Perkins has what he calls “a dream retirement job”: Flying a private jet, as well as a collection of airplanes and helicopters for a friend. “It just doesn’t get any better,” he says.
The Copperstate Connection
According to Copperstate Fly-In President Mike Still, Pratte and Perkins have been showcasing incredible aircraft at the fly-in since it moved to Casa Grande in 2006. Perkins affirms this: “We try to support the Copperstate and Cactus fly-ins each year.”
While he says the aircraft most people probably associate with Pratte and himself is the P-51 and Super Corsair, they have also displayed a Beechcraft Model 18, Cessna 195 and Spartan Executive at Copperstate in the past.
Copperstate Fly-In Manager Jim McChesney has a particular fondness for the Twin Beech (Model 18) Perkins mentioned. “Ron Pratte’s Twin Beech is the most amazingly beautiful example I’ve ever seen,” he says.
Paid flights in the aircraft aren’t offered, nor is compensation of any kind accepted for displaying them. In fact, Pratte and Perkins have been known to give away incentive rides to volunteers who make the fly-ins possible.
For his part, McChesney recalls two particularly memorable volunteer appreciation rides from last year’s Copperstate Fly-In. One was extended to Doug Slade, a long-time volunteer who passed away this spring. For more than 20 years, Slade served as head judge at Copperstate and was also part of the judging staff at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh in Wisconsin.
“Doug had commented as he walked past ‘Red Dog’ that, ‘Man I’ve always wanted to ride in one of those!’” McChesney remembers. Copperstate photographer Rick Fernau heard Slade’s comment and approached Perkins. “As soon as it was mentioned, the deal was sealed,” McChesney recalls. “Doug had his Mustang ride that day.”
The other flight was offered to Marty Skalon, a long-time electrical power volunteer at Copperstate, in recognition of his above-and-beyond contributions to the fly-in. “Marty was the tallest guy on the field after that flight,” McChesney recalls. “Two weeks later, his feet still weren’t on the ground!”
Pratte and Perkins’ generosity isn’t lost on the organizers of Copperstate.
“Larry is a supreme gentleman — an enthusiastic aviator who’s generous with his time and always kindly answers questions from anyone who’s interested enough to approach him,” McChesney says. “He tells people that he never flies ‘Red Dog’ with an empty seat; it’s too precious an experience to waste.”
McChesney is also quick to point out the magnitude of Ron Pratte’s contributions. “He’s the real unsung hero,” he says. “[Pratte] is the man behind the scenes who really makes this happen.”
Although McChesney says he has written Pratte thank-you letters in the past, he suspects it’s not his style to take a lot of credit for being generous with his treasures. “[Pratte] seems to feel less like an owner of these aircraft, and more of a steward and custodian,” he suggests. “I’m thankful he has seen fit to acquire this collection and to care for it the way he does. This way, they’re available for future generations.”
Although Perkins’ appearance at Copperstate is always tentative, depending on his private flying schedule, he says he plans to bring “Red Dog” if he’s able to make it to the Copperstate this weekend. And if he does, you can’t miss him — just follow the siren song for almost any aviation enthusiast: The unmistakable rumble of a P-51 starting up.
For more information: Copperstate.org