Story by Jamie Clark Tiralla
It's not that unusual for a Southern Marylander to own an airplane, but to own a Sea Harrier, now that's a story. Retired Marine Corps test pilot, Art Nalls, is the world's only civilian to own a Harrier, and he actually owns two. Art and his wife, Pat, operate Nalls Aviation at St. Mary's County Regional Airport in California, Maryland, where they hangar their Harriers along with an L39, a high performance jet, and a Piper Cub, a small light aircraft.
Art purchased the Sea Harrier, affectionately known as the SHAR, from the British Royal Navy in 2006. "Most people want to know, why buy a Harrier," Art says. The SHAR was built and designed for air to air combat and has a reputation as a dangerous plane. It also consumes fuel at an alarming rate. "In a hover, I burn a gallon of fuel every two seconds," Art says. But, "of the 75 [aircraft] I've flown, it was my favorite. Nothing else comes close."
Flying is more than a hobby for the Nalls, he participates in about six air shows a year. This year, Art has flown as the headline act in major air shows including the thirtieth anniversary of the Fair St. Louis on Independence Day in Missouri and the EAA AirVenture Oshkosh in Wisconsin. From the later event, he brought home the Warbirds judge's choice award for a foreign jet. Pat loves to see the crowd's reaction to Art's performances. "They are always clapping and then after, they swarm him for autographs and pictures. He is one of the few pilots who goes into the crowd after a show," she offers. The SHAR performs many tricks including the "moon walk" and a signature "bow" to the crowd where Art tips the nose at a thirty degree angle and then realigns to the horizon in a hover.
After Art retired from the military, the Nalls landed in Southern Maryland and loved the area, especially its people. The couple owns a waterfront home in Calvert County where they enjoy relaxing and enjoy the water view.
Art is a graduate of the United States Naval Academy and served with the Marine Corps for 22 years. During that time, he attended Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base in California. "They only select one Marine a year, and I was lucky enough to be that guy," Art says proudly. He also says that it was one of the toughest years of his life, physically, mentally and academically. He was stationed at Patuxent River Naval Air Station, testing aircraft including a Harrier, before heading to Cherry Point, North Carolina, to prepare for the first Gulf War.
Then more challenges occurred. Art was grounded for medical reasons and a knee injury forced him out of the cockpit. He was devastated and explains it this way: "It's like practicing for the big game and then getting cut." The rest of his military career was served from behind a desk in Washington, D.C. Still, Art couldn't stay grounded forever. Following his military career, he met a doctor who treated him so successfully that Art was able with the FAA's approval to fly again.
Art's passion for flying and performing is rivaled only by the importance he places on interacting with fans and forging strong relationships in the community. "People will drive out and say they heard about us and wanted to see if we were real," he says. Nalls Aviation occupies several large hangars at the St. Mary's airport. His aircraft are stored there along with a second Harrier that is ninety percent complete. Art welcomes his guests into the hangar, giving them his VIP tour that features a ten foot climb into the cockpit of a partially completed Harrier. No one leaves without every question answered. It's obvious Art relishes speaking about his passion.
Art has hosted several groups, including the St. Mary's county Civil Air Patrol and most recently, a group of aviation enthusiasts. Joe Spelz, a Young Eagles coordinator, was captivated with Art's presentation and the SHAR. "How cool is it that there is a flyable Harrier at our airport," Spelz says. "We have had many excellent speakers, but Art's presentation is up there at the top." The Nalls are proud of the SHAR, which has the distinction of being the second Sea Harrier built and the oldest at 31 years. Art hopes to one day perform for his friends and neighbors at the Naval Air Station Patuxent River Air Expo. "I love performing," he says, grinning ear to ear, "I get energy from it."
For more about Nalls Aviation and the SHAR, visit www.nallsaviation.com. Please contact Art Nalls for visitor information.