Not every eight-year-old is lucky enough to know what he wants to be when he grows up, and that is especially true for those who have had to deal with a life-threatening illness. That's not the case for Dallas resident Manuel Acosta, who has known for more than half of his short life that he wants to be a pilot, and is fascinated by all things aviation. When he’s not flying remote-control aircraft, he’s flying computer simulator programs. As he recovered from treatment for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma earlier this year, his local Make-A-Wish foundation learned that his dream was to visit New York’s Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum, and they contacted the metro-N.Y. chapter of the charity to help make that happen.
Around the same time, Jim Hefelfinger, a New York City real estate developer, was planning to take delivery of his fully refurbished 1976 Learjet 24F and wanted to do something special to celebrate its return to flight. Hefelfinger had purchased the vintage private jet from New York-based charter and management provider Northeastern Aviation. Company founder, president and former U.S. Air Force pilot Michael Russo had had a long history with the aircraft, having flown it new off the Learjet assembly line, then serving as its owner’s pilot for several years. Russo subsequently founded his Republic Airport-based business, and when the owner was forced to sell the aircraft six years later, Russo gathered a group of his friends to buy it as a “short-term” investment.
Nearly 40 years later, the twinjet, while grounded for noise concerns, was still on the company’s certificate, bearing the vanity N-number 56MM, for the year Russo married his wife Maureen (the company also still has its very first aircraft, a Piper Navajo, which it has owned for nearly four decades). Refusing to let the aircraft go to the boneyard, Russo began talking it up with his charter client-turned close friend Hefelfinger, who as a private pilot was interested in upgrading to a light jet. In fact, he made and eventually lost a sizable deposit on an Eclipse EA500, when the initial manufacturer of the VLJ went bankrupt.
Eventually he agreed to buy the Learjet, which hadn’t flown in nearly a year, and committed to financing a complete renovation. He obtained a ferry permit and flew the aging aircraft first to Butler Avionics in New Century, Kansas, where the old cockpit was rewired and enhanced with the addition of dual Garmin GTN 750 multifunction display units, Waas/LPV, dual ADS-B in and out, and it was prepared for RVSM. Next, it went to nearby Learjet modification specialist and Butler sister company Avcon, in Newton, Kan., which replaced the landing gear, installed hushkits on the General Electric CJ610s and USB charging ports throughout the cockpit and cabin, and performed structural repairs. Another modification was the replacement of the “potty seat” with a fully functioning toilet that can be blocked off from the rest of the cabin with sound-deadening curtains.
Finally, the twinjet was flown north of the border to New United Goderich in Ontario, for an interior restoration and paint job. According to Hefelfinger, who is currently a copilot on the aircraft, the cost of the seven-month project—including acquisition of the aircraft itself—was “just shy of $1 million, soup to nuts.”
“The original price of the Eclipse was right about what I’m in this for,” he told AIN, "and it’s a far more incredibly performing airplane than the old Eclipse was. [It] is a Part 25 airplane, it has only 10,000 hours on it, it’s in great shape, so it’s going to serve me for as long as I’m going to fly, and beyond.”
The aircraft had been back from the shop for less than a week before Acosta and his family arrived at Northeastern’s facility at Long Island’s Republic Airport, where the Learjet will be based.
“It’s better than the day it came out of the factory,” said Anthony Russo, executive vice president of family-owned Northeastern, who also served as the project coordinator, and shepherded the vintage 24F through the restoration. “It’s amazing, it can still climb, no matter what weight, straight to 45,000 feet and fly 1,100 nautical miles, so we can do New York to Miami no problem, and it’s a fun aircraft to fly.”
It was the younger Russo, at Hefelfinger’s behest, who reached out to the local Make-A-Wish chapter and offered the use of the airplane. Just a day later, that office received the wish request from Dallas. “It was an amazing alignment of stars that [Russo] just called out of the blue and volunteered his services,” said Tracey Anton, the charity’s marketing and communications manager for the Metro N.Y. region. “It was meant to be, and there’s a lot of that in wish-making.”
Russo and Hefelfinger crewed the flight. Acosta, outfitted in his very own pilot uniform, shared the cabin with his parents and two sisters. Taking off into the clear June sky, the Learjet headed toward New York City, flying over La Guardia Airport, passing over Brooklyn and around the Statue of Liberty. Heading up the Hudson River along Manhattan, at Acosta’s request the crew pointed out where Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger made his water landing now known as the “Miracle on the Hudson.” The aircraft then headed out over Long Island Sound for the return to FRG, and once the aircraft came to a stop, an exuberant Acosta bounced down the airstair. “It was awesome,” he said, and was every bit as enjoyable as his long-anticipated trip to the Intrepid the day before.
But his dream aviation experience didn’t end there. After lunch at Northeastern and a walk through the company's cavernous hangars packed with bizjets, the family toured the airport’s control tower and rode in one of its fire rescue trucks. Then at the conclusion of the whirlwind visit, Russo arranged for his friend Al Cerullo, owner of Republic-based helicopter operator Hover-Views Unlimited, to shuttle the family back to Manhattan’s West 30th Street Heliport aboard an Airbus Helicopters AS355 TwinStar.
But the star of the day was the flight in the light jet, judging by Acosta’s repeated trips to the parked aircraft and his reluctance to leave its cockpit, where he clearly felt at home. “We thought it was a great rebirth of the aircraft, and to do something so nice for a needy child made it that much more special,” said Anthony Russo, whose company will continue to operate the aircraft as it has since the early 1980s, as well as support Hefelfinger’s growth as a jet pilot.
“Obviously the big tradeoff here is that’s not a single-pilot airplane, but I don’t know that at my proficiency level I’m ready for a single-pilot jet,” Hefelfinger explained. “On a transition like this, I can’t emphasize enough how important the support and mentoring and tutoring and having this great organization behind it has been.”
N56MM will be relisted on Northeastern’s AOC, joining its fleet of charter and managed aircraft, ranging from G650s down to a LongRanger.
“I don’t expect to make a huge profit off of it, but it will offset some of the cost of ownership by having it on the charter certificate,” noted Hefelfinger, who expects to earn his type rating on the aircraft by the end of summer. “It’s a great airplane to go to Florida, Boston, Washington, shorter-range trips.” In particular, he expects it to be used this summer on flights to Nantucket or Martha’s Vineyard, a 25-minute trip in the speedy Learjet.