“Thirty years ago it was just guys like me,” Chuck Hall says of the experience of Mustang ownership. “All you really needed was a love of aviation.”
We’re sitting in his office at bustling Ramona Airport, the facility he developed from an abandoned U.S. Navy strip in the desert mountains of northern San Diego County. Out on the ramp, after a night of frost alarms in the orange and avocado groves, a Russian Yak 52 is having trouble firing up in the cold.
“Now, you need a million bucks,” says Hall.
He bought his first P-51 in 1965 for just $9,000: “Read the manual, jumped into the cockpit, flew it away.” After racing the modified Mustang for years, Hall sold it and bought Six Shooter, a fully restored fighter that had seen service as a counterinsurgency aircraft in Bolivia. It’s now one of the best known Mustangs in the west and a star of the U.S. Air Force Heritage Flight Team.
Hall’s long aviation career, chronicled by the array of mementos in his office, began in his late teens when he ferried Korea-bound troops in a Douglas DC-4 for Alaska Airlines. Years later, he was flying Boeing 747s for Japan Airlines and Six Shooter in airshows. “No, you would never confuse one with the other,” he laughs. “From a handling standpoint, the P-51 is really more demanding. It’s actually possible to relax and fly a 747.”
Hall’s P-51, the representative vintage World War II airplane on the west coast Heritage Flight Team for the past decade, averages 18 airshows per year. The 65-year-old Mustang flies in a dramatic then-and-now formation with operational F-16s and A-10s—a photo-op for thousands of fans. I ask about protocol in such situations. “If I’m in the lead, I’m pulling the maximum continuous power, and the jets adjust to me,” he explains. “If the jets are in the lead, well, we have to educate those guys about just how fast they can fly.” Heritage Flight teams undergo intensive training annually at Arizona’s Davis-Monthan Air Force Base (which often includes taking the jet pilots up in Six Shooter’s second seat).
The Yak finally roars to life, and Hall and I head outside. He slides back the door of the prefab metal hangar where Six Shooter is stabled, and hands me a stepladder. I climb aboard. The height and pitch of Six Shooter’s wings are striking, the depth and confines of the cockpit claustrophobic. Hall points out that Mustang pilots in World War II flew eight-hour missions in the constrictive seat; afterward, ground crews had to lift them out. Even in the quiet and cold of the hangar, with the stilled instrument faces staring back at me, the vibe of dormant power is palpable.
En route to Heritage Flight Team shows, Hall has the clearance to land at military bases; on the trip to Columbus, however, he’ll be putting Six Shooter down at small civilian airports. It probably won’t be necessary to announce his arrival. “The Mustang has a sound all its own,” he says. “We always draw a crowd.”
Tony Buechler is always ready to learn more about the history of Petie 2nd. “One day in the operating room I was informed I had a long-distance call,” says the anesthesiologist. “I was on an open-heart case so I said, ‘Well, I’m kind of busy at the moment.’ Then they told me, ‘It’s about your airplane.’ I said, ‘Put ’em on.’ ”
The caller identified himself as a long-ago owner who had bought Buechler’s $1.5 million P-51 as flyaway surplus in 1957. He had paid $755. “Ouch,” says Buechler. Another historic detail added.