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October 21, 2011

In the Cockpit with Legendary Hollywood Stunt Pilot Corkey Fornof

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Written by: Josh Rasmussen
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Fornoff flying the BD-5 for a Toshiba commercial in 1980.

J.W. “Corkey” Fornof is perhaps Hollywood’s foremost aviator, his work having appeared in 46 feature films—including James Bond classics such as Octopussy—as well as over 1,000 commercials and TV shows. The legendary pilot shares his story, from learning to fly in Louisiana to landing a jet on an Interstate.

In 1945, an FG-1D Corsair returned from the Pacific to an eager pilot in New Orleans awaiting his first plane. Painted on the nose was a Japanese symbol with the word Corkey, written in big red letters. The aviator received his plane on the same day his son was born. This pilot muttered the word Corkey, and it stuck, cementing aviation legend J.W. “Corkey” Fornof’s nickname for good.

Thirty years later, Fornof, by way of the chairman of the board at Toshiba, learned what his nickname actually meant. After negotiating a deal to have Fornof fly stunts in six commercials, the Japanese chairman told him he would pay as much for the right to use Fornof’s name as he would to have him do the commercials. The chairman explained in the Samurai culture there is a level called Corkey, that when reached, one is said to become a favorite son of the gods and not to be compromised.

Fornof said it was then that he realized why the plane was painted as it was.

“Fighter pilots in Japan were samurais and if he got into a dogfight and he saw (the writing) … it might have been enough for him to say, ‘I don’t know if I want to go there.’”

Fornof, who was born in Houma, LA, and raised around airplanes, said he’s been associated with aviation since day one.

His father, Bill, did in the Navy what a close friend of his family and aviation icon, Bob Hoover, did in the Air Force. Fornof said he always wanted to fly. He recalled the day he said he knew he was going to be a pilot.

“I was 4 or 5 years old and we lived in Metairie, Louisiana, a suburb of New Orleans, and I remember standing in this vacant lot next to our house,” he said. “I saw these two airplanes up there playing around. The first thing that caught my attention was the sound, and I remember this like it happened this morning.”

He said he watched them chase each other for a while before one came down and flew over his head at no more than 10 or 15 feet above the ground.

“I remember the vibration in my chest. I remember thinking, ‘I’m going to do that. I’m going to do that.’ I was flat turned on. I found out later that day that it was my dad.”

Fornof made good on his promise, eventually soloing after receiving the go-ahead from family friend and instructor, Charlie Hammonds.

“I taught him to fly, way back, I think in ’69, or something,” Hammonds said. “I soloed him in a Navy SNJ. It was an airplane that his daddy bought for him to learn to fly in. His daddy wasn’t an instructor, so he asked me if I would do that for him, teach Corkey to fly, which I did.”

Hammonds said Fornof was an excellent student, having spent time helping his dad rebuild the SNJ.

“He excelled in everything.” Hammonds said. “He knew how to taxi it. He knew how to start it. So, when I actually gave him instruction to learn how to fly the thing, well, he excelled. It didn’t take me very long to let him go by himself, because he knew the airplane so well.”

What began in the SNJ, soon blossomed to much more. So far, during the course of his career, including time as an aerial coordinator, test pilot and stunt pilot, Fornof has worked on 46 feature films and more than 1,000 commercials and TV shows. To date, he’s flown more than 300 different airplanes, including the P-51 Mustang and the F-8F Bearcat his father flew in air shows. Most notably, however, Fornof was the poster child for the masterpiece of Jim Bede, the BD-5J. With Bede and his famous little jets, Fornof formed and lead the world’s first civil, jet demonstration team.


About the Author

Josh Rasmussen



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  • Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren

    Great article!

  • Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren

    Great article!