It’s never happened before, but then there’s never been an airplane quite like this one.
For the last 16 years, the National Championship Air Races in Reno has hosted an event that has more to do with history than with speed: the National Aviation Heritage Invitational. A panel of judges evaluates the restorations of several dozen airworthy vintage aircraft in a number of categories, including military aircraft at least 45 years old. The winner for the most authentic restoration in this year’s military category is a 1944 P-51B Mustang, owned by Max Chapman and restored by Pacific Fighters in Idaho Falls—in other words, by John Muszala, his two sons John and Jared, and their team of craftspeople. But Muszala and sons left Reno with not one trophy but three—the first time in the history of the event that a single airplane has won a category trophy as well as the Grand Champion title and the People’s Choice award, which this magazine sponsors. Let’s start there.
The race fans who stroll among the airplanes at the Heritage event usually don’t cast their ballots for an airplane based on the authenticity of its restoration; they go for the story. The story of this Mustang’s restoration started in the spring of 1944, when U.S. Army Air Forces pilot Bill Overstreet, flying with the legendary 357th Fighter Squadron, locked on to a Messerschmitt Bf 109 over Paris and was so tenacious in his pursuit that when the German fighter tried to shake him by diving under the arch of the Eiffel Tower, Overstreet dove right behind him—and shot him down on the other side as the two aircraft climbed away. Overstreet became a hero of the French; his Mustang, Berlin Express, a favorite of model airplane makers everywhere.
It was the nose-art decal—a dragon—that first caught the eye of 16-year-old model builder Jared Muszala. Three years later, in 2009, his dad’s restoration business began work on a P-51B Mustang, and, knowing Overstreet’s story, Jared convinced owner Max Chapman that the newly assembled pieces and parts combined with the remains of a P-51B that had crashed in a training accident in England should become a reincarnation of the Berlin Express. So Jared called Bill Overstreet, who had recently received the French Legion of Honor, to ask permission.
“I was a little nervous, but he was really cool,” Jared says. “When I told him about the project, he said ‘It’s not going to take five years, is it?’ ” Overstreet was 87. Jared was a little worried about that too; he wanted to get Overstreet’s signature on the airframe. So he shipped a freshly painted gun bay door from Idaho Falls to Overstreet’s home in Roanoke, Virginia; Overstreet signed it and sent it back. He died in January 2014, at 92, 11 months before the restored Mustang’s first flight, which took place a little more than five years after Jared made the phone call.
Did the legend that inspired the kid help the restoration win the grand prize?
“No,” says chief judge Colin Powers. “That’s a great story, but we don’t judge the story.” Powers says that the airplane’s restoration was so outstanding that the judges knew immediately it would be the overall winner, and that this year, the other military aircraft in the competition couldn’t come close. Even the stenciled numbers that had come on the new sheet aluminum used in building the aircraft had been removed and re-stenciled in the same font and colors used for such markings during World War II. “[Giving two trophies to the same airplane] is not something we do often, but it wasn’t a hard decision,” Powers says.
Max Chapman’s other warbirds frequently show up on the airshow circuit. Next summer, watch for Berlin Express.