Calling All Mustangs
This September a super-size squadron of P-51s will relive the legend.
- By Stephen Joiner
- Air & Space magazine, August 2007
© Philip Makanna/ghosts
(Page 3 of 8)
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.
As World War II ended, thousands of Mustangs were still Stateside, queued for deployment. These make up the majority of the world’s 154 airworthy P-51s today. Buechler found out his Mustang was an exception.
Few of the Mustangs that served in overseas combat theaters ever came back. “After the government saw the captured German jets, it was obvious that the future did not belong to prop-driven fighters,” says Buechler. Some were sold to friendly countries, the rest scrapped at their battle stations.
A voracious researcher, Buechler has left no document unexamined. “I’ve gotten copies of combat records on microfiche from the Air Force,” he says. “I’ve combed through hundreds of daily operational records. I’ve spent uncounted hours at the Air Force archives in Dayton” and at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
Buechler eventually traced his P-51’s deployment to the Mediterranean theater of operations, where it flew with one of four fighter groups of the 15th Air Force. “The curator in Dayton evaluated my research and told me, 'You’ve got one of only a half-dozen or so existing Mustangs that was actually shipped directly back from Europe after combat,’ ” says Buechler. After that, the P-51’s trail disappeared into the undergrowth of history. Which for Buechler only makes it more tantalizing. One of the 15th Air Force fighter groups was a Tuskegee unit. “So there’s a one-in-four chance that my plane could be the only surviving Tuskegee P-51 in existence,” he says. Though he’s still chasing records, posting messages, and taking calls, Buechler admits, “I’ve kind of given up ever finding out for sure.”
While booms and bubbles define the investment sector of the vintage-aircraft world, Buechler is oblivious to it all. “I’ve never given any of that a thought,” he says. “To me, this is an historical artifact, and I’m its custodian. If somebody wanted to chop it up and make it a racer and offered me three million bucks for it, I’d say, ‘Not for sale.’ ”
Rapid City, South Dakota
After the war, the mystique of P-51s spread far and wide, particularly in the European skies they once ruled. “Ever since I was a kid in Britain,” says Marius Maxwell, “I saw Mustangs at airshows and I was mesmerized.”