The flight of the fatcats

Ex-military jet fighters are the latest executive toys, writes Cole Moreton
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FAST CARS and posh yachts are no longer good enough for Britain's stressed-out businessmen - their latest executive toy is the jet-propelled fighter plane.

Sales of decommissioned military jets have soared over the past few years, as the Ministry of Defence has sought to offload old RAF machines. Civil Aviation Authority records show that only 15 privately owned ex-military jet aircraft had a permit to fly in 1991. Now there are at least 79.

Among the more exotic are three powerful Canberra bombers and a MiG 15 from the former Soviet bloc. There are also six flying examples of the Folland Gnat, once favoured by the Red Arrows display team.

But the Jet Provost is by far the most popular choice for thrill-seeking businessmen with money to burn and influential friends to impress. Used by the RAF from the Sixties on to train its front-line fighter pilots, the two-seater 'JP' is a reliable and safe machine and comparatively easy to fly.

The Ministry of Defence is cagey about who has bought the planes and for how much, regarding this as "commercially confidential information". However, it is known to have sold more than 60 Jet Provosts in 1994 to Global Aviation, a company based on Humberside, for around pounds 1m. Many of those aircraft are thought to have gone overseas, mainly to America, where the market for classic ex-service aircraft is booming.

Other sales have been by auction, to individuals or syndicates. An informal "fly-in" at the North Weald airfield in Essex last month was attended by 16 privately owned Provosts - the first time so many had been gathered together outside the RAF. Most of them are maintained and kept for the owners by McCarthy Aviation, a company based in hangars at North Weald.

"Most people want to fly two-seater planes like the Provost, because they can take friends for a ride," says Bob Thompson, the company's chief pilot. "They can also take the trouble-and-strife to the other side of the country to visit relatives in an hour, while pursuing their hobby."

McCarthy Aviation is owned by a member of Richard Branson's crew of expert balloonists, Rory McCarthy. Its clients include the managing directors and chairmen of at least seven companies, the sales director of another, and rock guitarist Dave Gilmour.

Mr Thompson is a former RAF instructor who has been performing aerobatics at displays for 25 years. He bought his first jet in 1980. "Then you could pick up a Provost for pounds 500," he says. "The only people interested in taking them off the RAF's hands were scrap merchants. The market didn't really pick up until the Nineties." Now the RAF has sold its last Provost, the cheapest will cost you pounds 35,000. Prices can rise to pounds 80,000 depending on age and condition.

Running costs can be more than pounds 25,000 a year, including insurance at around pounds 5,000 for full cover. To gain its permit to fly, the aircraft will need to be serviced - cost around pounds 4,000 - and annual maintenance is likely to cost pounds 5,000. Hangar space will cost pounds 3,500. Privately owned Jet Provosts are in the air for an average of 50 hours a year, for which the fuel bill will approach pounds 10,000.

Many jets are owned by groups of three or four pilots who share costs, making it reasonably economic. "Let's put this in perspective," says Mr Thompson. "How much would it cost to own a yacht and keep it moored in a decent marina?" The answer, says Yachting Monthly, is up to pounds 5,000 a year.

For roughly the same amount, enthusiasts like Robert Hinton, a 48-year- old businessman from Hertfordshire, indulge what he readily admits is "a schoolboy dream". Having earned his pilot's licence on propeller planes, he took extra training with Mr Thompson, then bought shares in a Provost. "I sometimes have to pinch myself to believe I actually own half the bloody thing. It was impossible until now - even the ejector seat must have cost the equivalent of half a million in its day."

Mr Hinton's City-based company specialises in graphic design and packaging. He owns a Ferrari and a 1938 Bentley, but denies the jet was an ostentatious buy. "It's not about having the financial clout to buy one, it's about having the skill to fly one. You can go up on a winter's day, fly through the cloud level and into a sunny atmosphere, and do aerobatics."

Trying to understand his passion, I took off with Bob Thompson, in the Provost he shares with Mr Hinton, to fly out over the Essex coast. "First rule: don't touch anything," said the pilot, after training me to use the ejector seat. Later he let me take the controls, saying, "Look straight at the horizon. It's just like a great big computer game."

It wasn't. With his expert hands back on the joystick we performed a series of rolls and turns that threatened to empty my stomach, before diving from 3,500ft to almost sea level over the uninhabited Osea Island, in seconds. By the time we reached the top of a steep climb, the G-force was making my body weigh three times more than its normal (considerable) amount. As Mr Thompson eased the aircraft back down to earth, my fear had turned to exhilaration, and an intense craving for more.

Should we worry that a new breed of gung-ho entrepreneurs are flinging themselves about the sky in high-performance fighters? Not according to Ken Delve, editor of Fly Past magazine. "The British public is not very air-minded," he says. "It thinks jets are noisy, dirty, smelly and dangerous things, but the CAA rules for flying these things, and the engineering regulations, are tighter than they were for the RAF."

As ex-military aircraft, Provosts do not have a conventional CAA licence but a "permit to fly", which means they can only go up during daylight in good weather. Since most of them are still in military colours, they cannot leave British airspace. The pilots cannot charge people for a ride - or take business clients up, at least officially. But as one owner, who did not want to be named, said: "There is nothing to stop you taking up friends, who also happen to be business associates."