John Muszala II had a very different childhood than his peers. Starting life in Chino, CA then moving up to Idaho Falls when he was 10, John was immersed in the world of aviation—his father founded Pacific Fighters, a leading provider of aircraft restoration for some of the world’s rarest planes.
By the age of 17, John was learning to fly in a Cessna 140. By 19, he was flying an AT-6 Texan and at 22 he soloed the P-51 Mustang for the first time. John soon started flying an A1E Skyraider out of Gillespie Field, CA, performing in airshows and private events along the California coast. He dedicated his early life to learning by example from the world’s top pilots and aviation experts.
Today, John is an accomplished commercial pilot and among the few people to have flown the P-51 Mustang Series. Like his father, John raced in the elite Unlimited Class in the Reno National Air Races in 2017—his passion for aviation and restoration runs deep.
We recently had the opportunity to interview John about his experience restoring historic planes, test flying and aviation in general.
What is Pacific Fighters and how did you get involved?
Pacific Fighters specializes in all aspects of aircraft restoration: disassembly, reassembly, painting, hydraulics, sheet metal work and test flights. Other services include aircraft crating, as well as buying and selling ex-military aircrafts. I really got started in the company cleaning and painting parts. That was really my fist job. Out side of sweeping the floors and cleaning planes.
The company was founded by my father and mother in 1987 in Chino, California and then later relocated to a larger space Idaho Falls, ID. My brother and I soon joined. Some of Pacific Fighters very first projects included the restoration of a P-63 King Cobra and a T-20 Sea Fury that became the famous “Cotton Mouth.” Over the years, Pacific Fighters has earned more than 25 awards, including the NAHI Smithsonian Institute Invitational Grand Champion award twice. We have customers all over the world and have worked on over 50 different types of vintage aircrafts.
When did your interest in flying/airplanes begin?
It’s always been part of my heritage. I’m the 4th generation of pilots in my family—my great grandfather was a WWI fighter pilot. Growing up, I was always going to airports and surrounded by airplanes, and very interesting ones at that. Before I settled on pursuing an aviation career, I dabbled in a few other things but eventually decided to pursue being a mechanic and private pilot full time—it just made the most sense. Looking back I’m very glad I did.
What is your favorite thing about flying?
I’d have to say it’s the freedom and ability to go in any direction I wish—no road to stick to, just pick a destination and go. It also allows me to see many different things and experience all different types of people and places, which I find so rewarding. There is also something about the speed; you can go 500 miles per hour in some of these aircraft, and there is nothing like that feeling of flying around the clouds altitude!
What is the most interesting/unique plane you’ve every refurbished?
All of the planes are unique in and of themselves. I find the ones most interesting to fly were those that were used in the beginning and the end of WWII. The level of technology in these planes is astounding. I also find it fascinating to see how much the airplane’s evolved in pursuit of winning the war; and it’s even more exciting to relive those moments when you take off and experience what they where like 80 years ago.
What are the biggest challenges of test flying and restoring an airplane?
Safety! It is the #1 most important thing for a plane. Back then they where trying to win a war and not exactly thinking about longevity so a lot of the planes we restore require a lot of work and testing to ensure they are safe enough to fly and meet all current FAA standards.
What was one of your scariest moments as a pilot?
I had a flight control failure during practice for a show; the horizontal stabilizer pitch change motor ran away and the airplane pitched down. It all happened so fast in reality, but in my head it was like I was watching it in slow motion. Luckily I was able to stabilize it and get it on the ground. All pilots train for system failures, but flight control failures they don’t really prep you for! It was terrifying but thankfully had a good outcome.
You mentioned that you do a lot of test flying. What does that entail?
I do a lot of this for the job. The only way we can fly these refurbished airplanes is if they pass maintenance check flights.
It takes about 2-3 years to restore a plane. After they are refurbished, we take off our mechanical hats and put on our pilot hats for the “First Flight.” What happens next hinges on this flight, where anything and everything could go wrong. The First Flight proves that the plane can actually fly, and entails flying over the airport for about 10 minutes to ensure that it handles and runs like it should. Then we fly the plane again and again, we go through a bunch of checklists to make sure everything is crossed off and checks out ok.
How many planes have you worked on?
We’ve restored well over 40 airplanes, always working from the ground up. We hope to have the opportunity to work on many more!
What’s your biggest piece of advice to a pilot or fellow adventurer?
Follow your dreams! Don’t be afraid to work hard for what you want even if it means starting at the bottom. Always remember big opportunities can come from the smallest jobs; just keep at it and keep your eyes on the prize. If you’re interested in being a Warbird pilot, I suggest volunteering at a museum or collection somewhere—there is always something to learn from the people around you.
Essentials needed for the cockpit?
- Nomex Flight suit and gloves.
- Crash helmet with visor on it.
- A watch to help manage time and keep track of fuel based on time in air. It allows you to accurately document what time you took off and what time you landed. Along with other things. A good watch is a must have.
What was your greatest aviation-related accomplishment?
Being able to race in a P-51A Mustang in the 2017 Reno Air Races; there are only two of this kind of aircraft that fly today. Competing in this race has always been my lifelong dream. Growing up, my dad raced every year and he’d sneak me in with him. To this day, my whole family goes to the big race in September and it’s like having a big family reunion once a year.