Martin Hollmann, one of the world's foremost airplane designers, works... (VERN FISHER/The Herald)
Planes descending to the runways of Monterey Municipal Airport fly directly over the building where Martin Hollmann works, which is why he loves his little office in Monterey's Ryan Ranch.
"If I forget where the landing gears go, I just run outside, look up, and see that the gears are on the bottom," he says.
Then he laughs, because that is a joke. Hollmann, 67, ranks among the best-known designers of private aircraft in the world and figures he has designed more planes than anybody else. His flying machine, The Stallion, is a graphite and fiberglass six-seater with a 35-foot wingspan, a cruising speed of 235 mph, and a fuel capacity that enables it to fly from Monterey to Boston, nonstop, in about 11 hours.
"There's nothing like it — no other airplane comes close," he says. "The Cessna 210s and all the other metal airplanes have a lot more drag, which is why a lot of airline pilots buy the kit to build my plane. They like it because it's like having your own little airliner."
Hollmann designed many of the aerobatic airplanes that have performed over the years at the California International Airshow in Salinas, including those that were used by Richard Giles, Pete Celiers and Salinas legend Wayne Handley.
As a teenager, Hollmann designed and built the world's most-famous hot rod, a 1915 Ford Model-T roadster that appeared in TV shows and movies — "77 Sunset Strip," "Bikini Beach," "Son of Flubber," "Dobie Gillis."
It was replicated by the Lindberg Co. as one of those models, still available in stores today under the name Bobtail T Hot Rod, that boys glued together in their bedrooms.
It graced the covers of numerous magazines, including Car Craft, Rod & Custom and Hot Rod, which, in 1961, called it "the wildest street roadster ever constructed." Hollmann's T-bucket, as it was called, was easily capable of 94 mph in second gear and 155 in third.
After getting an education at San Jose State, San Diego State and the University of Central Florida — earning a bachelor's degree in aeronautical operations and a master's in mechanical engineering — he embarked on a career designing high-tech parts for airplanes, helicopters and cruise missiles for companies like Convair Aerospace, Martin Marietta, Lockheed, Ford Aerospace, Westinghouse and FMC.
Since 1986, he had his own business, Aircraft Designs, Inc.
"You have to figure out what you like to do — what your calling is — and I've been designing airplanes since I was 7 years old. Then you have to find somebody to pay you for it," Hollmann says. "I don't advertise. People call me up, out of the blue, and tell me what they want. Most people find out about me through word of mouth, or through the books I've written."
Hollmann has written almost two dozen books, all self-published, mostly instruction manuals that share his vast well of knowledge with do-it-yourselfers.
His first book — still the only one of his kind — teaches how to build a gyroplane. At $220 per copy, it's still his best seller. He also has written books and written computer software with titles such as "Modern Aircraft Drafting," "How To Build Composite Aircraft," "Modern Helicopter Design," "Advanced Aircraft Design" and "Modern Aerodynamic Flutter Analysis." His son, Eric, a San Diego-based physicist, is listed as a co-author on some of them.
"I write books about things nobody else writes about, like how to build a seaplane," he says. "Then, as I get older and I forget how to do something, I actually refer to my own books."
Hollmann was the son of a German scientist, Dr. Hans Erich Hollmann, who developed radar and authored several books. He brought his family to the United States in 1946 as part of Operation Paperclip and went to work at Point Mugu Naval Air Missile Test Center. Martin Hollmann believes genetics played a big role in his own aptitude, as well as his passion for his work.
"I was 10 years old when I built my first radio-controlled airplane. The wings folded up on the very first flight, it crashed into a field, and I needed a spoon to dig the engine and the RC unit out of the ground," he remembers. "When that happened, I immediately made a promise to myself that I'd figure out what went wrong — turns out, the wings were made from low-grade balsa wood — and I'd never have another wing fail on me."
For an aircraft designer, that kind of resolve is crucial. Hollmann says a lot of his friends have died in poorly designed flying machines. Adventurer Steve Fossett — still missing after a solo fight in Utah — was a buddy. A lot of designers have quit the business.
Ironically, Hollmann says he is afraid of heights — he won't walk across the Golden Gate Bridge — and isn't much of a flier. He hires professional test pilots to take the first flights on his newest planes, but that wasn't always the case. And he says he's been airborne, at the stick, when things haven't gone well.
One memorable mishap in a gyroplane led to an emergency landing in a farmer's field near Marina.
"There were cows in that field, and afterward I went home and told my wife, 'The gyrocopter is covered in (crap),'" he recalls with a laugh.
"And Rita said, 'Well, I bet I know where that (crap) came from!'"
Hollmann's own preferences, he says, are water activities such as surfing — he shot the curls at Waimea Bay — and sailing, but Hollmann has never even considered designing a sailboat for himself.
"If it doesn't fly, it's not worth designing," he says with a laugh.