The Mustang effect appears to work both ways. Maxwell notes its impact on Olds: “You can see it in his eyes when he’s around the plane,” he says. “It seems to take him back to his life as a young man.” Later, Olds confirmed that impression. “It’s like meeting an old girlfriend you once loved with all your heart and soul,” he told me on the phone. “I just loved P-51s.”
The association with Olds gives his aircraft “a persona,” says Maxwell. When I inquire about a contemporary photograph of Scat VI, Maxwell immediately suggests a World War II-era shot of Olds with the original Scat VI instead. “You don’t want any pictures of me,” says Maxwell. “I’m just the owner. Robin is the ace.”
INA The Macon Belle
Polk City, Florida
“The coolest day of my life was the first time I taxied up to a ramp in a P-51 Mustang,” says Kermit Weeks. “I threw my bags out and started giving rides.”
The year was 1979, and Weeks was flying his first Mustang, a P-51D named Cripes A’ Mighty 3rd. Six years later, Weeks purchased a C-model that he restored and named INA the Macon Belle, representing the legendary Red Tail Mustangs of the Tuskegee airmen. The man who flew the original Macon Belle had some cool himself: Colonel Lee Archer had been one of the top pilots of the 332nd Fighter Group, which flew in the European theater.
A prominent figure in the warbird community, Weeks has spent the last 30 years assembling the largest private collection of vintage aircraft in the world, which he stores at the Fantasy of Flight museum. The Mustang that would become Macon Belle was rescued from a scrap yard by renowned Hollywood stunt pilot Paul Mantz, who fixed it up and put it to use winning the Bendix racing trophy in 1948. By the time Weeks got the P-51, it was badly corroded from years of outdoor storage.
“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.