The staying power of the P-51 proves that a thing of beauty is a joy forever, if you can keep getting parts.
- By Linda Shiner
- Air & Space magazine, July 1999
(Page 3 of 4)
Each aircraft was exquisitely restored. There was Glamorous Glennis, the P-51D that Chuck Yeager flew, and Old Crow, flown by his squadron mate Bud Anderson, both aircraft wearing the markings of the 357th fighter group. There was an array of "blue-nosers," P-51s of the 352nd fighter group, which in 1944 traded in its P-47s for the faster, longer-range Mustangs and began escorting B-17s all the way to Berlin. The most famous blue-noser is Cripes A'Mighty 3rd, flown by the 352nd's leading ace, George Preddy, and now owned by the wealthy Kermit Weeks, who has one of the most extensive private historic aircraft collections in the world.
Of course, all these aircraft are role-playing. Very few of the aircraft at the gathering saw action in the war. The common practice among warbird owners is to acquire an example of an aircraft type and restore it as if it were one of the famous fighters of World War II or another conflict. Butch Schroeder, who also owns a P-47, found his aircraft in a garage in St. Louis and brought it home to Danville, Illinois, in six pick-up trucks and three trailers. After a 12-year rebuilding project, led by warbird restorer Mike VadeBonCoeur, the aircraft was reincarnated as L'il Margaret, a photo reconnaissance variant of the Mustang known as an F-6, and won grand champion at Oshkosh in 1994.
Yet like most of the beauty queens at Kissimmee Airport, the airplane's assumed identity has only a distant link to its real one. The airplane pretending to be L'il Margaret spent the war Stateside as a trainer, albeit in the same squadron as the real L'il Margaret.
Before L'il Margaret found its way into that St. Louis garage, it performed a low-level mission in Michael Coutches' back yard as a jungle gym for his children. (Frances Coutches insisted that the airplane not be taken from the back yard until her children were in school so that they wouldn't be upset. Brothers Robert and Steven had not seen the aircraft since that morning until they were reunited in Kissimmee and met Schroeder, the aircraft's new owner.)
One aircraft at the gathering that really is who it says it is--Scat VII--has worn a few disguises in its time. Its serial number identifies it as the last Mustang flown by World War II ace Robin Olds. Before Jim and Carol Shuttleworth bought it in 1992, it had been modified considerably by John Dilley of Fort Wayne Air Services. Dilley had put LearJet wings on the aircraft, cut down the canopy, and turned the airplane into a racer, Vendetta, which eventually crashed. Dilley managed to get the original wings back and sold the bundle to the Shuttleworths, who had the aircraft rebuilt into a TF-51.
But if the real airplanes couldn't make it to Kissimmee, some of the real pilots could. The Gathering of Mustangs and Legends was a field day for autograph hunters. Besides Yeager and Bob Hoover, the group of Legends included World War II aces Bud Anderson (who signed copies of his 1990 book To Fly and Fight), Ken Dahlberg, Robert Goebel, Richard "Pete" Peterson, and the illustrious Robin Olds; highest scoring Tuskegee airman Lee Archer; the Patillo twinsBill and Buck, who had outstanding war careers and flew aerobatics in one of the Air Force's first precision demonstration teams and the Thunderbirds; and Apollo astronauts Bill Anders and Frank Borman, both Mustang owners. That evening, at a black-tie dinner hosted by Kermit Weeks at his Fantasy of Flight "attraction" ("We don't like the word museum,' " he warned), each of these pilots received a leather jacket, painted with the nose art of his airplane, and a round of applause. At the end of the presentations, the group, at the instigation of Olds, sang a chorus of "Good Night, Irene," complete with two-part harmony--12 old airmen singing what they might have sung as 20-year-olds when their sweethearts wondered if they'd ever see them again. It was a touching moment. But fighter pilots will be fighter pilots. The next musical number Olds led can't be printed in a family magazine.
So how does a mere mortal go about getting a P-51? "Well, you have to have a lot of money," says Butch Schroeder. A fully restored TF-51 recently changed hands for $1.2 million. Then a good place to start is to get to know Paul Coggan, editor of Warbirds Worldwide, the bible among collectors, who not only knows everything about the airplane but also who owns what, who wants to buy, and who wants to sell. Coggan found the P-51 that eventually became Anders Saether's (also restored as Old Crow--"Mine was first," Saether says). It had been owned by someone who was caught "importing pharmaceuticals," says Coggan.
"There are a queue of people waiting to buy," says Coggan. 'three or four people at this event. We get letters every month looking for a P-51." The last bulk sale of the warbird was in 1984, when the Dominican Republic retired its fleet of nine. Brian O'Farrell of south Florida snapped those up, along with an enormous supply of parts. Coggan, who was there when O'Farrell took delivery, says that many of the parts were still packed in original North American Aviation crates.