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 5 of 8)
“There was something I’d been thinking about for some time,” says Weeks. “Why hasn’t anybody restored a Mustang to honor the Tuskegee guys?” The airplane arrived at Cal Pacific Airmotive in installments, beginning in 1985 with the wing. The piece-by-piece rebuild spanned 15 years (“I wasn’t in any hurry,” says Weeks). No expense was spared to achieve authenticity, an exhaustive pursuit that occasionally turned up discrepancies. “We found out that a lot of the research out there about the Tuskegee planes was wrong,” says Weeks. The art on Macon Belle’s fuselage—a fedora-wearing hipster—is one example. Researchers initially based the drawing on photographs of a similar character on Tuskegee Captain Wendell Pruitt’s Mustang. “Everyone just assumed that the drawing on Macon Belle must have been the same,” Weeks says. An opinion from the man who actually flew her settled the matter: “Colonel Archer was consulted and set it straight,” says Weeks. “He told us, ‘No, it was not the same, and here’s exactly how it was different.’ He was absolutely involved throughout the process [of authenticating the paint scheme].” (Archer plans to attend this year’s gathering.)
Weeks can envision a future without the dramatic spectacle of Mustangs in flight. “Because of the economics, most P-51s will inevitably end up in the hands of collectors,” he says. “And they won’t fly them [like the enthusiast pilots have done].” So when Macon Belle touches down at the former Tuskegee air base in Columbus and takes her place among the other still-flying Mustangs, Weeks expects an experience even more compelling than the 1999 event in Kissimmee. “The first Gathering was phenomenal,” he says. “For [event organizer] Lee Lauderback to try to pull that off a second time really shows his love for the airplane and the Mustang community.”
Sweet And Lovely
In today’s white-hot market for big-ticket P-51s, million-dollar restorations are carried out at specialized shops while expectant owners bide their time on waiting lists.
Or not. “I really don’t know why I do it like this,” laughs Bob Baker. What he does is restore Mustangs—mostly by himself, mainly from a loose collection of parts, and almost entirely in his home workshop in Alva, Oklahoma. “There are definitely easier ways,” he says. Not necessarily better ones, however: Baker’s most recent do-it-yourself project, a P-51D named Sweet and Lovely, won the Best Fighter award at Oshkosh in 2003 and was Grand Champion in 2004; it remains one of the world’s most authentic D-model restorations.
“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.