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AOPA Pilot's "Captains of Industry"

Frank Sigona

Let’s be clear about this: Frank Sigona, the founder and namesake of Sigtronics, the company that introduced the voice-activated intercom to aviation, makes no apologies for his childlike enthusiasm for grownup toys. He’s named one of his very grownup toys -- a North American T-28B -- "The Addiction", for reasons obvious to everyone, especially his wife.

Frank Sigona and his T-28B

"Janie, she’s a princess," Sigona sighs. "She indulges my toys." If the T-28 is Sigona’s addiction, his second big-boy toy certainly can’t be called the cure. It’s a jet, a Czech Republic-built L-39 Albatross powered by a Russian-built fanjet engine. Much sexier-looking than the name suggests, the L-39 still is in active military service in several countries. The Russian air force flight demonstration team uses L-39s, according to Sigona.

Although many of Sigona’s warbird-pilot buddies have military flying backgrounds, he’s a civilian-trained pilot who, in his own words, "is living the fantasy now."

That fantasy extends beyond owning and flying two beefy warbirds. It also encompasses owning a pioneering aviation company. In the early 1970s Sigona was working in the aerospace industry in Southern California, commuting 55 miles to work in a Cessna 150. "I flew a lot of IFR, and never was much for using the speaker in the airplane," Sigona says. "I had a Radio Shack headset and a hand mike, and I went looking for an intercom. There weren’t any, so I decided to design one." Sigona’s homebuilt intercom had a feature that would, in time, change the nature of communicating inside the noisy cabins of piston-powered, propeller-driven aircraft. It also changed Frank Sigona’s life. That feature was voice activation – VOX.

Figuring that if he wanted a voice-activated intercom, other pilots might too, Sigona quit his job to start his own intercom manufacturing company, which he called Sigtronics. The company was established in October 1974. The decision to strike out on his own was helped by the fact that he wasn’t happy with what he considered to be an aerospace industry dominated by politics and incompetence.

It was slow going in the beginning. Headsets were a rarity in light aircraft – only one company was building them at the time, according to Sigona – and intercoms were even rarer. "At first no one wanted an intercom," says Signona. "They all thought their aircraft were quiet," even though pilots and passengers had to almost shout to be heard in the cabin, and hearing loss was common among long-time light aircraft pilots.

T-28

Recognizing that noise attenuation was a little-known but highly beneficial concept in light aircraft, Sigona began remanufacturing military headsets and selling them to general aviation pilots. He installed a pre-amplifier, and different receiver in the headset "I started with an expensive headset, and installed expensive components," Sigona says. "It wasn’t practical, so I designed my own headset, mainly to get better noise attenuation performance."

Sigtronics’ product line began to expand. Sigona designed his first battery-powered portable intercom without a transceiver interface. The Autocom was intended for use in light aircraft without electrical systems. Then came the Transcom, a portable unit with a radio interface. Now renter-pilots could enjoy the convenience and safety of an intercom system.

Sigtronics has continued to grow and expand. The company’s product catalog includes a variety of aviation headsets and intercom systems, along with cables, microphones, and accessories.

Originally located in Covina, California, east of Los Angeles, Sigtronics moved to a larger facility in nearby San Dimas when it purchased a plastic injection-moulding company. "Our approach is to build everything in-house except the metal pins, receivers, and microphone sensing elements," Sigona explains.

Sigona is president of the company. He and Janie still have office hours, but his son-in-law and nephew do most of the work, according to Sigona. He also maintains a personal office at his hangar at Brackett Field, in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains east of Los Angeles. The office is a door away from his prized warbirds.

How does a guy with a bent for the precision and natural law-logic of physics become attracted to the illogic of owning not just one, but two brutish airplanes that once fulfilled military missions, but now have no role other than to amuse?"

I always admired warbirds, but never thought of myself as flying one," Sigona explains. He has owned and flown a variety of general aviation airplanes including the 150, a Cessna 182, and a 210 that Janie now flies. In 1988 he flew the 210 to the EAA fly-in at Oshkosh with a friend who wanted to check out the homebuilts. "I wasn’t really interested in homebuilts," Sigona says. "They were small and cramped. I said to my friend, ‘You want to see a real airplane?’ " The two men walked toward the warbird area, and the first example they came upon was a T-28. "I said to my friend, ‘Now, that’s a real airplane.’ Then the wheels started turning in my head," Sigona remembers. "I thought, ‘Why am I not flying one?’ "

L-39

He had been considering buying a Beech T-34 Mentor or a Siai-Marchetti SF-260. "I told my wife it would be practical to get either one of those. She said, ‘Frank, when have you done anything practical?’ " With that back-handed blessing, Sigona began to enlarge his vision. "I thought, ‘Well, if I don’t have to be practical, I want a fire-breathing monster of an airplane!’ "

He enrolled in a five-day T-28 ground school, and had one back-seat ride before he bought a T-28 undergoing restoration at Torrance Municipal airport. He later sold it and bought the one that now resides in his hangar. Sigona has no regrets about choosing the warbird route. "It probably was one of my best decisions," he says. "I’ve always liked flying. Prior to buying the T-28 I didn’t do a lot of things that were fun, like golfing. I’m not a golfer."

Sigona and his T-28 flying buddies comprise an informal group known as the Cogs – Children of the Gods. ("Janie says it stands for Childish Old Geezers," Sigona laughs.) They visit each other’s home airports regularly, fly a lot of formation at area airshows, swap tall flying tales, and generally have a great time. Inevitably, the hangar flying eventually turned to the subject of jet warbirds."

Some of us started looking at jets, but we thought they looked like flying cigars with wings," Sigona says. "Then we saw an L-39 and fell instantly in love with it. That’s when I started looking for one." He didn’t have to go far. A friend, Bill Jones, owned two at nearby Burbank. Sigona bought one of them, a two-seat C model built in 1979 as a trainer.

Janie Sigona

Sigona’s Albatross has 2,200 hours on the airframe, and just 800 hours since the airframe was rebuilt. The engine has 132 hours, 52 of which Sigona has logged in the two years he’s owned the airplane. He was checked out for solo flight by Skip Holm, a talented former test pilot and Reno air racer. With about an hour’s endurance, Sigona sticks pretty close to home when flying the L-39.

The jet has some nice features, including trailing link gear for soft arrivals, an on-board auxiliary power unit for unassisted engine starts, and an air-conditioned and pressurized cockpit. "It’s a lot like the T-28 except it’s 100 knots faster, it’s smoother, and it’s pressurized and air-conditioned," Sigona says with a smile.

If, like Frank Sigona, you have the kind of addiction that T-28 pilots understand all too well, you might as well treat it like Sigona does – indulge it, encourage it, and enlarge it. Get a jet.

Posted on Monday, May 25, 1998 11:27:18 AM
©1996-1998 Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association

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