Our tame fighter pilot saves an old FJ from its final flight

Josh Arakes

As we debated buying a 2022 Miata about a month ago, my wife and I had a conversation that went something like this:

“I need you to make me a deal,” my wife said to me.

“Okay,” came my reply.

“This is the last car we’re buying until we get to [says location we’re moving to after we retire from the military in 2+ years].”

“How about, I won’t actively look to buy another car, but what if one falls in our lap, like the Toyota FJ40 at Chad’s house?”

“That’s okay… but that’s the last one.”

“Easiest deal ever,” I said.

Roughly 8 months before that, a really good friend with the callsign “Suave” decided it was time to retire from the military after 20 years of flying service. There’s a time-honored tradition in the military of a ‘fini-flight’, wherein a person flies their last sortie with a unit before moving to another unit or base, or as was the case here, their final flight ever in the military. He honored me by asking me to participate in his final sortie. I wanted to get him a retirement gift and I had the perfect idea.

Josh Arakes

All good pilots know well the maintenance personnel who work on their aircraft. My duties in the squadron permitted me to have an especially close working relationship with not just the guys and gals turning wrenches on the line, but with their supervision as well. I knew a recall-style repair had been mandated for our fleet of aircraft that required removing and replacing (R2, in the jargon) a piece of the wing’s sheet metal. A couple weeks prior to the fini-flight, I reached out to my maintenance friends and asked if, by some small chance, there happened to be an extra one of the old parts involved in the “recall” that I could acquire – in exchange for some adult beverages, of course – so I could present it to my buddy after his fini-flight. They said there was one extra and I could have it. As a long shot move, I told them if they happened to stumble across a second one I wouldn’t mind having one as well. I was told it wasn’t likely but that they’d see what they could do, which I thought was entirely reasonable.

The part was delivered before the fini and I presented it to my buddy at the reception after the sortie. He was stunned at receiving a pretty decent size piece of military-aircraft-grade aluminum (it’s too big to be an end table but too small to be a desk and is really cool; I’d show you a picture of it but then you’d know what airplane I fly, and that’s strictly forbidden by my military lawyers). I later expressed my gratitude to my maintenance coworkers and told them how cool my buddy thought it was, whereupon they then gifted me another part from the recall they had managed to drum up; I think I had the same shocked expression on my face as did my buddy when I gifted him his part. I won’t lie, it’s a pretty cool part and I have it mounted in our living room. Upon arriving home with it, my wife and kids expressed their amazement, to which I said something along the lines of, “I didn’t expect to get one, too, it just kind of happened.”

Everybody needs a friend like my friend Chad, whom I referenced earlier with the FJ40. I’ve known him for nearly a decade and while he’s not a master fabricator, he’s really, really good – and he’s an even better person. The fact that he has a Torchmate CNC plasma table in his workshop only increases his cool factor. He and his wife live on about two acres and have a 3,000 square foot (ish) shop in the back that has two hydraulic lifts among the plasma table and lots of other goodies. Most of the land in the back is dirt and they let friends use it for free as a veritable storage lot for vehicles; we kept our 5’x8’ enclosed trailer there for years. Sadly, they’ve decided to move and sold their house right as we were buying the Miata. We moved our trailer elsewhere last year, but others have had to find a different spot to store their trailers or project cars.

Including the FJ40.

I don’t recall how long it’s been there, but years ago I noticed a late-60’s FJ40 had appeared on Chad’s property. After seeing it for the first time, I remarked how cool it was and asked when he had gotten it. Turns out, it belonged to a friend of his who had two other FJs and this was his donor vehicle. A parts car is an apt description as it was missing engine, transmission, doors, tailgate, windshield frame, seats, and more. I first asked him to reach out to his friend for me to inquire about its availability last summer. His friend is apparently notorious for not responding to texts and never replied back to Chad so I let it drop, mostly. About 10 days after returning home with the Miata, and knowing time was getting short for Chad and his wife to be out of their house, I asked about the FJ again. He reached out to his buddy and forwarded me the reply.

Josh Arakes

The owner lived about an hour away and was driving up early the next morning to pick up the FJ, so if I was going to buy it a deal had to be struck before he left his house. There were a couple issues though, the number one being it didn’t have a VIN. As in, it had been cut out of the frame. With the windshield and engine/transmission missing, there wasn’t a secondary VIN anywhere so registering it was going to be an issue. He didn’t care as he’d bought it for parts, but being an honest guy he was hesitant to sell it to me when he didn’t think I could register it (no VIN = no registration or title, obviously). He’s a retired deputy sheriff, so he knew that of which he spake. Mostly.

The state in which I physically reside is neither the state in which I register my cars, nor the state in which I am a resident (driver’s license and vote). Don’t worry, as an active duty member of the military that’s perfectly legal. Fortunately, although the state in which I physically reside doesn’t look favorably on registering cars from which the VIN has been removed, my other state doesn’t care as much. In fact, it’s stunningly easy to get a state-issued VIN, especially when a car is being rebuilt from parts from lots of other vehicles. After I conveyed this to him, he was on board with giving me an as-is bill of sale for a pile of car parts sans VIN and he sold it to me for peanuts.

Just like that, and still very much in accordance with the deal between me and my spouse, we now owned six cars. Well, our kids said we owned 5.5 cars as it’s a bit of a stretch to call the FJ an entire car. (And, spoiler alert, it’s actually our seventh – 6.5th? – vehicle as we quite-unexpectedly-yet-still-in-line-with-our-deal purchased another car between buying the Miata and FJ40, but that’s a story for another day.)

Josh Arakes

With the closing on Chad’s house looming we had to remove it from the property pretty quickly but there were five obstacles. Two of the drum brakes were dragging and three of the tires were flat-spotted to the point of being square. Let’s not dismiss the fact that it wasn’t actually an automotive automobile (see: engine, lacking an). The tires could be easily addressed, but I didn’t have time to do the tires and troubleshoot the brakes before it had to be moved, especially since the dragging brakes meant I couldn’t just hook it up behind my LX470 and tow it the 25+ miles home.

One week ago today, and three days after buying it, I drove to Chad’s house after work with four jack stands, some tools, and a can of PB Blaster. All 24 lug nuts came off ridiculously easy, no Blaster required. Leaving the FJ on jack stands only partially sunken in the dirt, I drove off in search of tires. When I called earlier that day, the tire shop I normally go to told me they likely had used tires that would fit but wouldn’t actually look until I got there. Naturally, when I arrived they didn’t have any, nor did the shady used tire place around the corner; somehow, the person behind the counter of said shady establishment knew off the top of their nugget they didn’t have any that would work amongst the giant stacks of tires all over the place. A quick google search and phone call later and I was driving across town to buy four 31×10.5×15 used “Americus” brand tires that really were in good shape.

After I arrived and chatted with the dudes, they realized the person (me) who had called 20 mins before was not the same as the person who called about them yesterday, meaning they were on the verge of selling the tires out from under the person who first called about them. A quick side conversation later they decided to sell them to the person standing there with cash in hand. Well, technically I had to walk across the street to hit up an ATM in the sketchiest liquor store I’ve ever been in, but whatevs.

When I opened the back of my beloved Odyssey to get the FJ’s existing wheels and tires out, the dudes totally cracked up at their squareness. I told them I didn’t need the new-to-me tires balanced or anything as it was for a rolling chassis and not driving on the road; I just wanted the old ones off and the new ones on. Turns out, tire changing machines don’t work as well when the tires are square. They were forced to cut the worst tire off the rim. 15 minutes and $280 later, I was on my way back to Chad’s. Not going to lie, the FJ looked much better on regular tires and it’s clear that 33s, if not larger, will fit for sure.

Josh Arakes

Two days later I returned with a UHaul auto trailer and, with the help of Chad’s lifted and highly capable Jeep, winched the FJ onto the trailer and drove it home. After work the next day, much like with the Miata, I headed off 500+ miles to my in-law’s to deposit the FJ on their back lot (another spousal agreement was the FJ wouldn’t travel with us when we move 1,000+ miles this summer as the on-base house at our new location won’t support 5+ cars). I planned to make a joke about the high gas prices, but #PresentDay me is now jelly of the then-“insane” prices of just four days ago.

I had hoped to sneak in and out before a forecasted snowstorm hit, but I was too slow. Hoping not to pull an empty auto trailer home through the snow, I called UHaul to turn my 1,000+ mile “in-town” auto trailer rental into a one-way rental. The price they quoted me was over $1,100, not including tax, which was more than I’d paid for the FJ and $900 over the in-town price, so I deadheaded her home.

Josh Arakes

Since I won’t really be able to work on the FJ over the next 2+ years, I’ll spend the time getting ideas from iH8MUD and acquiring parts. When I restored my grandfather’s Jeepster I made it too nice and I won’t make the same mistake here. My plans at this point are to keep the patina intact, not worry about keeping it stock, drop a giant motor (LS?) in it, and throw on massive tires. Even considering how long it sat and the pieces it’s missing, it’s actually in really good shape, the metal that’s there is straight, and there’s not much rust (not enough to worry about at all).

It happens on (thankfully rare) occasions that pieces of airplane fall off in flight and end up in someone’s yard. Other retired airplane bits can be salvaged and turned into beautiful furniture or just purchased that way (google “HU-16 Albatross wing desk” for an example); others, like the parts gifted to me and Suave, are obtained through happenstance and good fortune. I’ve seen automobile-themed yard “art” that looks cool and some that just looks sad and neglected. Having proverbially fallen from the sky into our laps, the FJ40 will hopefully be a fancy piece of yard art for a couple years before being turned into an ear-popping patina projectile. All in accordance with our deal, naturally!

Karen J. Simmons

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