Mustang Mania

The staying power of the P-51 proves that a thing of beauty is a joy forever, if you can keep getting parts.

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One aircraft at the gathering that really is who it says it is--Scat VII--has worn a few disguises in its time. Its serial number identifies it as the last Mustang flown by World War II ace Robin Olds. Before Jim and Carol Shuttleworth bought it in 1992, it had been modified considerably by John Dilley of Fort Wayne Air Services. Dilley had put LearJet wings on the aircraft, cut down the canopy, and turned the airplane into a racer, Vendetta, which eventually crashed. Dilley managed to get the original wings back and sold the bundle to the Shuttleworths, who had the aircraft rebuilt into a TF-51.

But if the real airplanes couldn't make it to Kissimmee, some of the real pilots could. The Gathering of Mustangs and Legends was a field day for autograph hunters. Besides Yeager and Bob Hoover, the group of Legends included World War II aces Bud Anderson (who signed copies of his 1990 book To Fly and Fight), Ken Dahlberg, Robert Goebel, Richard "Pete" Peterson, and the illustrious Robin Olds; highest scoring Tuskegee airman Lee Archer; the Patillo twinsBill and Buck, who had outstanding war careers and flew aerobatics in one of the Air Force's first precision demonstration teams and the Thunderbirds; and Apollo astronauts Bill Anders and Frank Borman, both Mustang owners. That evening, at a black-tie dinner hosted by Kermit Weeks at his Fantasy of Flight "attraction" ("We don't like the word museum,' " he warned), each of these pilots received a leather jacket, painted with the nose art of his airplane, and a round of applause. At the end of the presentations, the group, at the instigation of Olds, sang a chorus of "Good Night, Irene," complete with two-part harmony--12 old airmen singing what they might have sung as 20-year-olds when their sweethearts wondered if they'd ever see them again. It was a touching moment. But fighter pilots will be fighter pilots. The next musical number Olds led can't be printed in a family magazine.

So how does a mere mortal go about getting a P-51? "Well, you have to have a lot of money," says Butch Schroeder. A fully restored TF-51 recently changed hands for $1.2 million. Then a good place to start is to get to know Paul Coggan, editor of Warbirds Worldwide, the bible among collectors, who not only knows everything about the airplane but also who owns what, who wants to buy, and who wants to sell. Coggan found the P-51 that eventually became Anders Saether's (also restored as Old Crow--"Mine was first," Saether says). It had been owned by someone who was caught "importing pharmaceuticals," says Coggan.

"There are a queue of people waiting to buy," says Coggan. 'three or four people at this event. We get letters every month looking for a P-51." The last bulk sale of the warbird was in 1984, when the Dominican Republic retired its fleet of nine. Brian O'Farrell of south Florida snapped those up, along with an enormous supply of parts. Coggan, who was there when O'Farrell took delivery, says that many of the parts were still packed in original North American Aviation crates.

Norm Lewis, also of Louisville and one of the first graduates of Stallion 51 training, was lucky enough to find one of the 200 P-51Ds built under license in Australia near the war's end, designated C17s and C18s. Production was more leisurely in Australia, says Lewis, and the workmanship is exceptional.

Every now and then a crashed P-51 turns up. Coggan thinks there are probably some in Russia and some in Indonesia. Mike VadeBonCoeur is working on one that was pulled from a lake in Uruguay. "It was pretty much Swiss cheese," he says. Practically the only thing that will be original in the restoration is the manufacturer's data plate. "that's enough," says Saether. "then you have the airplane's soul."

If you have the money and find the airplane, there are four or five businesses in the United States rebuilding or restoring airframes and a like number overhauling Merlin engines. The majority of Mustang restorations today copy a modification ordered by the Army Air Forces near the end of World War II. So many pilots were killed in the P-51 during training that the Army finally decided to order a dual-control, dual-cockpit trainer. North American built 10 and a further 15 single-seaters were modified by Temco, an aircraft conversion operation in Dallas, Texas.

By Sunday afternoon, the Mustangs were gone. Some headed to Lakeland for the Sun 'n Fun fly-in; the rest went home to Indiana, California, Kentucky, New York. Tim Shea had never seen the airport look quite so empty.

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