“I had a lot of P-51 parts I’d gathered over the years,” Baker says of Sweet’s inception. “I bought stuff. I made stuff.” When a portion of that accumulation added up to a fuselage and a wing, he had them built at restoration shops, then trucked them back to Oklahoma, where he set to work fashioning a complete airplane. Baker, by day a farm implement dealer, describes the three-and-a-half-year effort as “humbling.” Also all-consuming. “The first thing you learn about restoring a Mustang is there’s no such thing as spare time,” he says. “Every day after work I’d designate several hours a night on it, and then devote all of Saturday and most of Sunday too.”
Sweet’s strict observance of historic detail, however, was not a one-man effort. Baker spent a lot of time networking. “We all help each other,” he says of the community of Mustang restorers. “Somebody will find an original part still in a box someplace and every detail—how it was painted, what sort of markings were on it—is shared with all the others.”
Baker made his own contribution to the database for drop tanks. Concerned about dumping thousands of empty steel fuel tanks on unfriendly territory during the war—gifts from heaven to enemies suffering metal shortages—the Allies began fabricating P-51 drop tanks of rubber-coated cardboard. Today, only three 108-gallon “paper” tanks are known to survive, and two of those are locked away in museums. Through a contact in the United Kingdom, Baker acquired the last available example, and from that original he has produced a template for use in building exact replicas of the tanks.
Though Baker is now burning the midnight oil on another Mustang restoration, his workshop will be dark the last week of September, when he’s in Columbus. “I’m expecting a tremendous amount of history, and a tremendous amount of fun,” he says.
Las Vegas, Nevada
“Birds’ nests. Corrosion. A basket case.” Bill Allmon recites his impressions from the day he first kicked the tires on NACA 127 in 1993. He was in the market for a fixer-upper, so he bought it on sight. As the forlorn Mustang’s remarkable past came to light, however, Allmon committed to a rivet-by-rivet—and eventually award-winning—professional restoration. “I realized that it was an important part of history, and that we should put it back the way it was,” he says.
By 1945, research into breaking the sound barrier had hit a wall: Wind tunnels were unable to generate supersonic airflow over test models. After a number of alternatives for producing data at those velocities (including dropping concrete projectiles from 40,000 feet) were discarded, researchers at NASA’s precursor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), turned to a military aircraft capable of a controlled dive at near-transonic speeds: the P-51 Mustang.
Allmon’s NACA 127 is one of at least four P-51s that had been assigned to those early experiments. Only one other still flies today. At NACA’s Langley, Virginia laboratory, models of airfoils under study for supersonic flight were mounted on a blister atop 127’s wing. The airfoils were wired to optical balances and strain gauges installed inside wing cavities ordinarily occupied by .50-caliber machine guns. Behind the pilot, a fuel tank was replaced by a bank of telemetry recorders and transmitters. NACA Mustangs were typically flown to an altitude of 30,000 feet, then accelerated into a 30-degree dive. Though actual airspeed would max out at about 475 mph, “during the 4-G pullout at the end of the dive, airflow over the top of the wing would go supersonic,” says Allmon. Data from these experiments shaped the design of sonic boomers like the Bell X-1 and the North American F-86.
Despite its historic role in the ramp-up to supersonic flight, 127 spent its retirement in obscurity as a generic Mustang displayed on a pole outside a Pennsylvania Air National Guard base. Soon after it was taken down to make way for a fiberglass replica, Allmon saw photographs of it. “I’d wanted one since I was a kid,” he says.
Meticulously faithful to all NACA modifications and instrumentation, the four-year restoration of 127 was done by John Muszala at Pacific Fighters in Idaho Falls, Idaho. Muszala restored and preserved all the details, even pencil scribbles NACA technicians had made on the airframe more than 60 years ago.