ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — Less than two weeks before the Atlantic City Airshow, Greater Atlantic City Chamber President Joe Kelly thought he had the show’s lineup settled.
Then, Art Nalls called.
What Nalls offered was a highly unusual act that airshow organizers say will elevate the excitement of this year’s show with a plane that’s almost never seen outside of military demonstrations.
Nalls, a part-time Washington, D.C., resident, has the only flyable privately owned Harrier in the world. A retired Marine and former Harrier test pilot, the 59-year-old had just completed shows in Virginia Beach and Ocean City, Md., when he was reminded of Atlantic City’s show.
With so many airshows canceled in light of federal budget cuts that shut down nonessential military flying, Nalls has found his act in the single-seat aircraft has been a commodity for airshows like Atlantic City’s, where organizers have committed to putting on a show even without military participation. Wednesday will be his first show in Atlantic City.
“I’ve been performing in airshows for 11 years or so, and I have a heck of a lot of fun doing it,” said Nalls, a 1976 U.S. Naval Academy graduate. “When I get done a flight, I’m grinning for ear to ear. I cannot believe I get paid to do this. Everyone should have a job like that a couple of times in their life.”
The Sea Harrier was designed for the British Royal Navy and is best known for its hovering and vertical takeoff capabilities. Aircraft like it were used in the 1982 Falkland Islands War between the United Kingdom and Argentina. It burns nearly two gallons of fuel per mile while cruising and one gallon of fuel every two seconds while hovering.
“We burn fuel faster than you can dump it out of a five-gallon bucket,” said Nalls, who pointed to fuel costs as the biggest expense that his company, Nalls Aviation, has when booking performances. He’s had to pay as high as $7.50 a gallon fueling the Harrier’s 653-gallon tank.
The Atlantic City Airshow has seen two military Sea Harrier performances in years past, but with more performance flexibility than military acts are allowed, Nalls will be able to complete some maneuvers that wouldn’t be possible in military demonstrations. Among them: a “salute” in which Nalls will hover at about 200 feet and then lower the nose of the aircraft to about a 35-degree angle to acknowledge the crowd.
In other passes, his speed will be as high as 600 knots or more than 690 mph.
“It’s a spectacular aircraft,” said airshow boss David Schultz, who coordinates the show. “It will bring back the thunder to the thunder on the Boardwalk this year.”
Of about 75 Sea Harriers built, Nalls has the oldest surviving aircraft and the second one to ever roll off the assembly line in 1979. The story of how he came to own the ultimate guy’s toy traces back to a town in England in 2006.
Of the dozens of planes Nalls flew in the U.S. Marine Corps, the Harrier was by far his favorite, so a trip to England wasn’t out of the question when he found a man in the United Kingdom who had bought the jet as surplus and wasn’t able to fly it. He’d discovered that the plane’s owner was living in a large English Tudor-style mansion surrounded by junk aircraft.
Within a day, Nalls was ready to purchase the jet. He won’t disclose what he paid for it.
“I thought this was a financial opportunity and it was something we could put on the airshow circuit,” said Nalls who said he’s still hoping to find a sponsor for the aircraft, which would help with costs. “The Harrier gets more requests each year than the (U.S. Air Force) Thunderbirds and the (U.S. Navy) Blue Angels put together.”
A team of about eight volunteers now helps Nalls keep the company running. He has two other flyable aircraft in his personal fleet — an L-39 Albatros and a 1939 Piper Cub. He’s also working to restore a second Harrier currently in pieces in a hangar in southern Maryland.
Fellow retired Marine Joe Anderson also splits time with Nalls piloting the plane.
“The payback is to get a chance to go to these airshows and show off what we’ve been able to do that no one else is able to do,” Nalls said. “We get treated like kings, and we love showing off what these planes can do.”