The T-28 in question belongs to Mick Thorstenson of Marco Island. The airplane is retired from decades of service to the United States Navy, and so is the pilot. Thorstenson, 63, served 23 years in the Navy, retiring as a Commander, the equivalent rank of a Lt. Colonel in land-based service.
The airplane is massive for a single engine craft, dwarfing the Cessnas and Beechcraft as Thorstenson taxies it out to the runway at Naples Airport. To pull it out and back into its hangar, he keeps a Jeep in the hangar specifically for the purpose. Once out on the tarmac, though, the former Navy trainer (the plane, not the pilot) moves very well on its own, powered by a roaring 1,425 horsepower nine-cylinder rotary engine.
He does not do any serious aerobatics, said Thorstenson, before taking a thoroughly unqualified co-pilot through a series of maneuvers including diving "strafing runs" at unsuspecting boats north of Marco Island, and "aileron rolls," which flip the aircraft upside down and back upright again. Proving he has nerves of steel, the pilot allowed his passenger to take the controls, and as he said over the intercom, "you have the aircraft. Do whatever you want."
For an armchair pilot who has shot down literally thousands of Zeroes and Messerschmitts – on his computer – the experience is the thrill of a lifetime. The T-28 is amazingly responsive, allowing even an inexperienced flyer to play fighter jock and comprehend the joy of flight in a high-powered warbird. For the next five minutes, this duo ruled the skies over Keewaydin Island.
Clearly, the Navy wanted to train its pilots in a high-performance aircraft, not an underpowered air taxi. In fact, the T-28 worked out so well, it was adopted for a wide variety of military roles, including reconnaissance and ground attack missions in Vietnam that saw over 130 T-28s lost in action.
Standard equipment on Thorstenson's T-28 C model includes an arrestor hook, to allow landings on aircraft carrier flight decks. On Saturday, he limited himself to landing back at Naples Airport, where he keeps the plane, but while serving in the Navy, both he and the plane we flew in had performed carrier landings, perhaps the most dangerous operation pilots are called on to perform. Studies have shown pilots' stress levels are significantly higher landing on an aircraft carrier than while actually being shot at in aerial combat.
Thorstenson retired from American Airlines as a pilot, after his time in the Navy, and also worked as a test pilot for Lockheed. While flying for American, he met Joanne, his wife, who was a flight attendant for the airline. It's great, he said, to have a spouse who supports his avocation.
"It's fun to do the same thing," he said. "I couldn't do this without her support." Mick Thorstenson spent years ferrying passengers back and forth between Miami and Paris or Madrid, and never found it boring, he said.
"If it was a nice, smooth, perfectly boring flight, I loved it," he said. The couple are also part-owners in a four-place Beechcraft Sundowner, so family flying outings are possible. The T-28 holds just two, and they are strapped in tight.
Many Marco Islanders saw Thorstenson and his plane overhead during the Memorial Day celebration on the island, when he participated in a fly-by. Drawing on his Navy background, the pilot performed a second "dirty" pass, with gear and tailhook down, and afterward peeled off toward the west, as if to salute a fallen comrade.
Thorstenson takes his T-28 to airshows all around the country, and just returned from a show in Kentucky. He also works with youth groups, including the Marco wing of the Civil Air Patrol and their cadets.
The plane still has the Navy paint and insignia, showing it as assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Lexington, and specifying tire pressures for both land and carrier operations for the tricycle landing gear. That nose wheel gives great forward visibility while taxiing, even from the rear seat under the bubble canopy, unlike tailwheel aircraft that must weave back and forth on the ground to be able to see ahead.
The T-28 was one of the most successful designs ever, used as a primary trainer for the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard from the 1950s well into the 1980s. 1,948 were built by North American, the company that also created the P-51 Mustang, and was absorbed into Boeing.
About 200 remain, said Thorstenson, and "maybe 75" are flying at any one time. "This is a great way to stay involved with aviation, and give back a little."