Photos by Mike Maez
Ever since I was a kid I’ve always been obsessed with anything fast. Anytime a plane would fly overhead, I was—and still am—the boy that would stop everything to look up and watch it fly by. I spent a lot of my teenage years playing various flight simulator games.
As I grew older, my obsession with speed and adrenaline obviously led me to cars. I started racing cars as soon as I could drive and did everything from drag racing to professional-level drifting.
One of the things I was always fascinated with though, was aviation. I just never thought it was possible to get into it so early in life. Boy, was I wrong.
The fast track
A little over a year ago, I came across a picture on social media of my friend Alex Luke flying a C-172. Having no idea that he was a pilot, I messaged him immediately to tell him how envious I was of him flying planes. I begged him to take me for a ride.
As it turns out, Alex was building time for an instrument rating, and was constantly spending money to rent the C-172. He was excited to hear how into aviation I was, and agreed to take me up on one of his flights.
I knew this was going to be something special, but I could never foresee what would be coming next.
We went on one airplane ride and the aviation bug hit me hard. Less than a month later, Alex and I bought a plane together, and my life changed forever.
I picked up my PPL within two-and-a-half months: I scored 93 percent on my written and passed my checkride on the first try.
We. Went. Everywhere.
It seemed like Alex and I were in the air more than we were on the ground—and I was loving every minute of it. We managed to put 300 hours on the airframe in the first four months of ownership. By then, Alex had finished his IFR, and I bought out his share as we had planned from the beginning.
A shiny new panel
Once the plane belonged solely to me, I began researching ways to personalize it. I have always been a tech nerd of sorts, so the panel was definitely something I had my eye on upgrading.
I started the upgrade by installing a PMA450 audio panel from PS Engineering. I had all the audio panel wiring redone with four-place headset jacks and panel-powered Bose LEMO plugs. I then installed a Garmin GTX 330ES transponder and GNS 430W GPS, and linked them all together for ADS-B compliance.
I also did my own custom mount under the throttle quadrants for a Stratus 2S to receive ADS-B In, and had an AirGizmos’ iPad panel mount installed. Finally I bought a sheet of real carbon fiber that I had laser cut to complete the panel.
A custom interior
Next up, I really wanted to bring the interior of the Warrior back to life. All of the aviation interiors I was finding online seemed very standard and ordinary. I really wanted something different that wasn’t run-of-the-mill and would also be durable.
Through my research, I found that Ron from Aviation Creations was the go-to guy to talk to about this. Working with Ron, I carefully crafted my own overall design and picked all of the colors and fabrics to make it a truly custom interior.
I completely revamped the Warrior’s interior head-to-toe, replacing everything that was worn out or broken, mainly with new OEM Piper parts and all new hardware. This included the headliner, rear bulkhead, glareshield—all of it. I had most of the interior plastics, including the overhead panel, wrapped in aviation-grade Ultrasuede, a synthetic microfiber.
Doing all of the installation work myself with the help of my friend Alex Simpson, we also replaced all the windows with new solar control windows from Great Lakes Aero Products. I just took my time, and tried to research how to do the stuff online. I also got a lot of advice from my A&P/IA at Falcon Executive.
I do my own oil changes and my own tire/tube changes as well. Basically anything that I am allowed to do I prefer to do myself. I am a perfectionist, and have the mindset of “do it once, do it right,”—and the same mindset applies to the Warrior. When I am not allowed to do something I work with the staff at Falcon Executive at Falcon Field Airport (KFFZ) in Mesa, Ariz.
Speed mods and STCs
The Warrior already had various speed mods installed when Alex Luke and I bought it. These included upgraded wheel pants from Knots 2U; wing root seals; and Laminar Flow Systems’ flap gap seals, flap hinge fairings and aileron seals. I did replace the landing light with a Teledyne LED light since the OEM light doesn’t provide as much illumination for night ops.
In addition, N4402X had the 180 hp “Bold Warrior” STC applied to it back in 1998. According to the STC, #SA1842NM was issued to Auto-Air and includes installation of a Lycoming O-360-A4M engine and a Sensenich 76EM8-0-60 propeller and associated installation components.
The STC helps with flying all year long in the hot Arizona desert with high density altitude airports such as Sedona and Flagstaff. Given the flexibility of the extra horsepower—it essentially turns the aircraft into an Archer—and the robustness of the O-360 platform which is known to run well over its 2,000-hour TBO, we managed to put 450 hours on in the first year with no major issues or unwanted downtime.
A variety of experiences
Over the first year of flying I have experienced a vacuum pump failure in flight, an alternator failure during runup, and got stuck on the taxiway of a very small airport due to a punctured tube.
I’ve currently have amassed almost 200 hours of cross-country time in just over a year by doing trips all over the Southwestern United States with a lot of night cross-country stuff as well. I have also done numerous flights in and out of fairly busy airports like John Wayne-Orange County Airport (KSNA) in Santa Ana, Calif. and Tucson International (KTUS).
Most of my flying these days consists of cross-country trips with my girlfriend to some of our favorite stops including San Diego, Orange County and Las Vegas.
My future plans include adding an instrument rating—and likely upgrading to a larger single, so that I can haul more people to the beach.
After a little over one year of flying, I feel like I have seen a lot already. One of the things that I love about aviation is no matter how much you do, there is always so much more to learn.
Special thanks to Bruce and Brad at Falcon Executive Aviation; Ron Matta at Aviation Creations; and Alex Luke, Alex Simpson and Dax Rodriguez. Justin Derendal is a 34-year-old pilot residing in Peoria, Ariz., and an avid aviation enthusiast. He is a former race car driver and Honorary Commander of the USAF 607th Air Control Squadron at Luke AFB. Send questions or comments to .
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