From the Star Trek Set to Flying Jets

Fabrizio Poli asks Star Trek legend Michael Dorn what gave him the impetus to fly and own aircraft, detailing his journey from the cockpit of a Cessna 172 into an F-86 (and several airplanes in between).

Fabrizio Poli  |  13th April 2023
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    Fabrizio Poli
    Fabrizio Poli

    Fabrizio Poli is Senior Consultant at Orville Aviation. He is also an Airline Transport Pilot. Mr. Poli...

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    Michael Dorn as Warf in Star Trek

    Michael Dorn, who plays Worf on the set of Star Trek has flown a variety of aircraft – though he’s certainly not the only person associated with the long-running TV and Big Screen sci-fi epic to have learnt to fly.

    In his high school days, Gene Roddenberry borrowed a copy of Astounding Stories from one of his classmates. This was to become the start of Roddenberry's fascination with science fiction.

    Not many people know that Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, started his career as a military pilot flying 89 combat missions on the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress. During his military career, he was involved in two aircraft crashes and was awarded the Air Medal and the

    Distinguished Flying Cross

    It was in the South Pacific where he first started writing, selling stories to flying magazines, and later poetry to publications such as The New York Times. Upon leaving the military Roddenberry joined Pan-Am, flying long-haul on the Clipper Eclipse for four years. One day he was deadheading on a Lockheed L-049 Constellation when his plane experienced an engine failure and subsequent fire.

    Crashing in the Syrian Desert with 36 people on board, seven crew members and eight passengers were killed in the crash, and Roddenberry, aged 25 years old at the time, was the ranking surviving flight officer.

    Taking command of the situation, he was credited with saving the lives of the remaining passengers and facilitating their rescue. After this event he resigned and began writing for television, and Star Trek was born.

    Acting in Star Trek Leads to Aviation

    Fast forward a few years to the second Star Trek series, ‘The Next Generation’ and we get to the star of our story, Michael Dorn who plays Worf, the first Klingon to serve in Starfleet.

    Dorn’s Worf would become a fixture on the show, appearing in 175 episodes of ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ between 1987 and 1994, and in 102 episodes of ‘Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’ between 1993 and 1999.

    He appeared on the big screen in ‘Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country’ (1991), ‘Star Trek: Generations’ (1994), ‘Star Trek: First Contact’ (1996), ‘Star Trek: Insurrection’ (1998) and ‘Star Trek: Nemesis’ (2002). As Worf, Dorn appeared onscreen in more Star Trek episodes and movies as the same character than anyone else. He recently reprised the role of Worf in Season 3 of Star Trek Picard.

    Dorn had always had a fascination with aviation, leading him to many air shows and a collection of years’ worth of Air Classics Magazines. In 1988, Greg Benson, a friend who worked on the show with him, suggested he take up flying. This coincided with a writers’ strike, giving him a five month break from the show, so Dorn contacted Gunnell Aviation at Santa Monica Airport to work towards his license.

    His journey into flying began the same way many do, in a Cessna C172. He still recalls the nerves he felt ahead of his first solo flight. “You pull over to the side, [the instructor] gets out, and he says, ‘OK, take it around’.

    “I got to the end of the runway and was getting ready to take off, and I thought to myself, ‘OK, Mr Big Talk, you wanted to learn how to fly. Let’s see what you can do’.

    “I was nervous the whole time until I came around and landed. After that first landing, it was just like one of those things where you say, ‘OK, I can do this’. I just kept going around and around. In fact, they had to tell me to stop.”

    Moving into Aircraft Ownership

    Shortly after that, Dorn purchased an Aerospatiale-Socata Trinidad TB-20. “It had a retractable gear, so I went from a 172 to a ‘complex’ airplane,” he recalls. “After that, I progressed rather quickly.”

    From the Trinidad, Dorn upgraded to a Cessna 310 and then to a Cessna 340A. Then, one day, he got a phone call inviting him to fly with the Blue Angels. They had contacted Woody Harrelson from ‘Cheers’ to go down and do one of their media flights, and he had bailed at the last minute. Somebody had told them Dorn flew and they called him.

    Dorn really enjoyed his flight with the Blue Angels, and, realizing it was possible to own an ex-military jet, he started down an adventurous and rewarding new path.

    The first military jet Dorn bought was a CASA, a tiny, twin-engine aircraft which served as an introduction to jet operations. With his new knowledge about military jets, Dorn opted to go through the flight training Air Force cadets had undergone, buying a T-33 Shooting Star.

    “It was a good experience,” he recalls, “because the T-33 is built like a tank. You can bounce it off the runway and make hard landings. It’s also an old airplane, so the response on the jet engine is very slow.

    “You come in for a landing, and if you’re slow you have to give it full power to go around, it’s probably going to take five or six seconds. That’s time you don’t want to waste,” he says.

    Dorn had his T-33 for three years. He also tried his hand at a Mitsubishi MU-2, before acquiring an F-86 Sabre. “The best part was that in the F-86 it’s a single seat airplane.

    Basically, your first flight in the airplane is your solo flight. “I was walking out to an airplane I’d never flown before, got my helmet, jumped into the cockpit, and thought, ‘Michael, are you insane?’”

    Then, once you take off, your thoughts turn to ‘Wow!’, he relays. “You do your stuff and you’re thinking you’ve got to land this thing, having never landed it before. But it gives you a sense that [ultimately] an airplane is an airplane. The speeds are different, there are different handling qualities, but an airplane is an airplane.”

    Brief Dalliance with Private Jets

    Dorn went on to buy a Sabreliner private jet but found it to be a bad choice for him, “because with those [types of] corporate jets, you need a co-pilot,” he says. “You’re at the mercy of your co-pilots.”

    While Dorn found the Sabreliner to be “a fantastic plane”, he found it lacked the excitement he was looking for. “You take off and you have your arms folded for two hours.”

    “The corporate jets are current, flying airplanes,” he adds. “A screw is ten times the price of a regular screw. With military jets, it’s very different. I remember we found two engines in Florida for the F-86. My mechanic went out there, and he was drooling over them they were in such good shape. They cost $25,000 for the pair, whereas a Sabreliner engine costs upwards of $300,000.”

    Dorn eventually sold the Sabreliner and again began searching for a military jet. As time went on, and he didn’t find exactly what he was looking for, he opted to “keep his head in the air” by acquiring a Beech Baron E55 from a friend, though it doesn’t satisfy his desire for speed.

    While there are several airplanes out there, Dorn is being patient as he waits for the right one. Having amassed 1,600 hours of total time Dorn has owned the Socata Trinidad TB-20, Cessna 172, 310, and 340A, a Citation 501SP jet, CASA HA200, Lockheed T-33, North American F-86C, North American Sabreliner 40A, and Beechcraft Baron E55.

    Flying for the Joy of It

    When working on shows or movies, Dorn flies in between being on set because it offers him ‘a total release’.

    “You’re not thinking about anything else but keeping the airplane in the sky,” he says. “And with a bubble canopy, you have a different perspective looking down on the beautiful view.”

    Essentially, flying gets Michael Dorn thinking about life differently, and he appreciates how relaxing and stress-relieving it is sitting in the cockpit left to your own thoughts and different perspectives of the world below.

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