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Badass Pilot: How to Buy a Fighter Jet

Episode 1: If Art Nalls makes the deal happen, he’ll become the first private citizen to ever own a Harrier

The Royal Navy Sea Harrier is not for the faint of heart. At full throttle, the British military “jump jet" flies three times faster than a stock car at top speed — and it also can hover, and take off and land vertically. And Art Nalls had to have one.

Nalls, a 65-year-old retired U.S. Marine Corps lieutenant colonel, has flown over 75 military aircraft during his service. He became a real estate developer and investor as a civilian, but the joy of flying never left him, and he began buying military planes.

He bought a WWII-era Soviet YAK-3 fighter and then a Czech L-39. And when Britain’s Royal Navy announced it was replacing the Harriers with new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets, he saw an opportunity.

“The Harrier is the real deal,” Nalls says. “It’s a dragster, it’s a Ferrari, it’s a helicopter all rolled in one.” And he wanted it.

So did his wife, Pat Hatfield-Nalls. Co-owner of Nalls Aviation with her husband, Hatfield-Nalls grew up around planes. Her father once piloted Air Force One, and after he left the military, he managed a community airport in Manistee, Mich. She is a U.S. Navy veteran.

With that background, she understands and shares her husband’s passion for the Harrier. “It’s having that car you always, always wanted, and it’s like a ’57 Chevy,” she says.

This is the story of how Nalls got that plane and convinced the Federal Aviation Administration to let him fly it. It’s also the story of the two years it took to reassemble the plane and get it working after it was shipped from England. The purchase makes Nalls the first private citizen to own a Harrier, and it comes perilously close to killing him.

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