Stunningly restored XP-51 Mustang 43-6006 emerged from Pacific Fighters’ workshop in late-summer 2017, in time to partake in the National Championship Air Races at Reno in the hands of restorer and pilot John Muszala II. The Vintage Aviation Echo sat down with John following his Reno début to discuss the Mustang’s two-year restoration and much-anticipated return to flight.
With its Allison V12 engine, three-bladed propeller, elongated nose, chin-mounted machine guns and birdcage canopy, the P-51A is distinctly different to the far more numerous and successful Merlin-powered P-51Ds that succeeded it, and is perhaps the purest form of Mustang. This particular aircraft was the sixth A-model Mustang to roll off the production line at the Inglewood Plant, California in 1943 with tail number 43-6006, making it the oldest of all surviving P-51A variants. The aircraft was delivered to Ladd Field, Alaska in April 1943 for cold weather testing, albeit its tenure in the northern United States lasted only until February 1944. Ten months after arriving in Alaska, the Mustang crashed near Summit, roughly 150 miles from its base, during a snow storm and there its wreckage lay until recovery by Waldon ‘Moon’ Spillers in 1977. Restoration followed using a combination of P-51A and P-51D components, including D-model radiator housing, and the aircraft flew again post-restoration in 1985. It would remain in Spillers’ ownership for a decade, before being acquired by Jerry Gabe.
Under Gabe’s ownership, the aircraft received the name Polar Bear and became a regular competitor at the National Championship Air Races staged annually at Reno, Nevada. Its racing début came in September 2005, with Dave Morss achieving notable success, placing second in the Unlimited Bronze race with an average speed of 334.400 mph and falling in behind race-winning P-51D Cloud Dancer. Morss returned with Polar Bear the following year, winning the Unlimited Bronze race with an improved average speed of 344.211 mph. A three-year hiatus followed and on return to Reno the aircraft placed seventh in the Unlimited Silver race on two consecutive years, its final appearance in 2011 ending with the aircraft failing to progress beyond the Heats.
It was 2012 when current owner Dusty Dowd acquired Polar Bear, and with him being longstanding close friends with John Muszala II, it was no surprise that he would involve Pacific Fighters early on, initially with the intention of engaging the workshop to carry out the first annual maintenance under his ownership. Touching on their relationship, John says, “Dusty is like family to me, he has helped and guided me in a lot of ways from flying and engineering, to sharing his mechanic techniques. He is one of the best people around in my opinion”
It was on a gear swing during that first annual inspection since Dusty’s acquisition of the P-51A that John noticed a spade door was attached not with the original bolt, but with safety wire. That discovery prompted the removal of the landing gear for overhaul, which revealed yet more concerns with the airframe. It would sit until late 2014, when John Muszala Sr inspected the aircraft; “My father took a good look at it and kinda’ sealed its fate. We found a lot of corrosion and just stuff that left you scratching your head”. From there, Dusty gave the go-ahead for Pacific Fighters to undertake the restoration project, and in August 2015 the Mustang was moved to their workshop. John recalls, “We brought the Mustang home with the intention of restoring it, and hoped that we would find the aircraft in a condition where we wouldn’t need to touch everything. That wasn’t the case – we had to carry out a ground-up restoration. Whatever Polar Bear was, it is no more”.
Pacific Fighters was founded by John Muszala, Sr. in 1987, and the workshop has since been responsible for a number of high-profile, award-winning restorations of Second World War and post-war vintage aircraft, with perhaps the best known and most celebrated of those being the Macolm Hooded P-51B Berlin Express. To date, Pacific Fighters has seen five razorback Mustangs emerge from their workshop at Idaho Falls, with a sixth now in the fixtures. This sixth aircraft is a project that is currently for sale; the only known RAF Mustang Mk.III to survive, the machine has extensive combat history with No. 306 “City of Torun” squadron.
The restoration of the P-51A progressed apace from August 2015, with considerable effort going into the area forward of the firewall – it being replaced entirely by the front section from a North American A-36 ‘Apache’. Accordingly, the lower cowlings are different to a standard A-variant, with the addition of two synchronised Browning .50cal ‘chin’ guns mounted in the fuselage below the engine, barrels protruding just below the propeller. Inside, the systems nestled around the 12-cylinder Allison V-1710 engine remain as per A-model Mustangs, albeit the way in which they are mounted differs substantially. Pacific Fighters also manufactured a new centre section for the aircraft, removing the D-model radiator scoop fitted during the initial restoration and replacing it with the smaller, more aerodynamic A-model housing.
Initially, John had hoped to finish the aircraft as a photo-recon F-6A in olive drab with a white nose, however Dusty turned down this idea and instead pointed to an image of the rare X-model for inspiration. Two XP-51s – the fourth and tenth off the initial Mustang Mk.I production line – were retained by the United States for evaluation and assigned the serial numbers 41-038 and 41-039. The former is preserved by the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), whilst the latter – the more photographed of the pair – was chosen as the identity for the recreated Mustang’s new markings, specifically as marked when based at Wright Field in 1941. Looking back, John notes, “The more we got into the restoration, the more we realised there were so many similarities to the X-model with this aeroplane – like the X-model, for example, it is basically an A-36 firewall forward”. Moreover, he adds, “The aeroplane has a D-model landing gear system and a second seat, and I think the whole idea of the X-model and the paint job fits this Mustang perfectly”. He muses that the decision to restore the aircraft as an XP-51 is a reflection on its new owner. “For Dusty to restore an aeroplane that pays homage to the flight test pilots, the engineers and all the people who gave America the fighting edge in World War Two is very special – it’s the perfect match.”
Dusty is a keen race pilot whose family history is entwined with the sport. His uncle both designed and raced the popular Rivets in the Cleveland air races after the Second World War and more recently, Dusty placed first in the Unlimited Silver class in 2016 in his modified Yak-11 Lylia. Naturally, as the restoration progressed, he had told John that he would like to race the aircraft at Reno, and so the rebuild incorporated a number of ‘extras’ with racing in mind, one being a water spray bar in the radiator housing, fed from a tank in the gun bay. Originally, the aim was to race at Reno in 2016, but with considerable work still to do before the first flight would even be in sight the aircraft’s début was pushed back to the following year. Making Reno 2017 still required a herculean effort from the Pacific Fighters team. “It was seven days a week for a year,” says John, “and my vacation was going to Duxford!” [John was part of the team that accompanied P-51B Berlin Express to Flying Legends in July]. A final push saw the aircraft coming together in time for John to carry out the XP-51’s first flight in August – two years from when it was pulled apart for the trip to Idaho, and just weeks before Reno. “Talk about cutting it close! Still, we got it done.”
This was the first post-restoration test flight John had undertaken, although he is no stranger to more general test flying. “I did the entire flight test programme on Berlin Express, including engine, propeller and load testing. I had flown a full test profile before, but never the very first flight; my father, John Sr., has always done the first flight.” Prior to getting airborne in the reborn XP-51, John undertook extensive ground work including memorising emergency checklists and carrying out in-cockpit familiarisation of the instrumentation and systems.
Strapping into the XP-51, it becomes immediately apparent that the aircraft is different to the later marks of Mustang, from the throttle quadrant to the trim box. Flight and engine instrumentation takes an alternative layout to the common B/C/D-model structure (requiring re-familiarisation, even for a Mustang pilot of John’s calibre), whilst the throttle quadrant is an older design with throttle, propeller and mixture levers shaped and positioned differently to those in the later models. The most jarring change comes from the view forward. Having now flown A, B, C and D-model Mustangs with all three-canopy variants (bird cage, Malcolm Hood and teardrop), John is uniquely placed to comment on the differences between them. “The ‘Malcolm Hood’ Berlin Express has is the best canopy you could ever get for visibility. You can look all around, never hit your head on anything and taxying is a breeze. This thing is a completely different story!” The poor visibility is a byproduct of the Allison’s downdraft carburettor, the intake for which sits atop the nose, blocking the view forward. “It’s a very ‘blind’ aeroplane, especially on the ground”, adds John. “You can basically just paint the forward bullet-proof glass panel black and that’s what you see – there is no visibility!”
Simultaneously to ground training, John racked up considerable Mustang time by intensively flying the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) Mustang based with Pacific Fighters. Taking off, he would pick a point, note the speed and altitude and formulate emergency procedures to call upon should something go awry during testing. “My father’s done a million of those flights”, he reflects, “and Steve Hinton, Johnny Maloney and all those guys are very experienced, so for me that pre-test preparation was something to help ease me in.
“There were a lot of emotions”, he continues. “You’re very, very on point, you’re very focused and you have to understand that literally anything and everything could go wrong on a first flight.” The initial impression of the aircraft was its speed. Not quite the, “Oh yeah, this thing’s got some power” feeling you get in a D-model, to quote John, however it will be airborne and through 180mph quicker than a D-model. “The very first flight, I was off the ground with the gear up and I looked down and thought, wow, this thing is fast!”. With take-off power specified as 52″ manifold pressure/3000rpm in the book, John has found around 47″/3000rpm is more than adequate due to the reduced weight. Indeed, the aircraft weighs in at 6100 lb empty, more than 1000 lbs less than a B or D-model. “We have no armament, no combat weight, none of that stuff. Berlin Express did, and you need every bit of 55″ you can get [on take-off] – this is not like that at all.” Owing somewhat to the reduced frontal area of the A-model as compared to the D-model, and the lighter overall weight, at cruise settings of 30″ and 2000rpm the sleek XP-51 whips along at 260 mph, roughly 10 mph faster than a D, which would be using comparatively higher power of 35″/2300rpm.
The lighter weight and aerodynamics pay dividends in the aerobatic environment, as John explains. “Berlin Express is a very nice flying aeroplane, but this thing is even better, and I think a lot of it has to do with its weight. It’s so light, the ailerons are unbelievable. They have the feel of being boosted without being boosted. It’s very pitch sensitive, a lot more so than Berlin Express, which is itself a pitch-sensitive aircraft.”
Trying to slow down in the landing pattern also offers a challenge, with John occasionally having to S-turn on final in order to bleed speed off, before flaring and touching down as per a normal Mustang, although that in itself is not without its own quirks. “One of the other tricks to this aeroplane is once you touch down, get rid of the flaps – this aeroplane will fly at a slower speed than a B or a D, because it’s so much lighter. If I pull the tail down with the flaps down, all of a sudden it’s wanting to fly again!” Elaborating further on the roll-out procedire, John explains, “Get it stable in a tail-low position, where you’re not right up on the mains and not in a three-point attitude, retract the flaps and let them come up. Let the aeroplane tell you when it’s ready, and when the tail starts to drop, bring it down, pin it and apply brake as needed.” This problem isn’t unique to the XP-51 – at Reno, the Super Mustangs will do just this on roll-out.
In trying to draw a conclusion on test flying the XP-51, John finds himself paraphrasing one of the primary exponents of the UK’s warbird scene. “I think John Romain put it the best when he flew the Mk.I Spitfire. He said, ‘This is the purest form of Spitfire, this is what Mitchell had in mind’. When I flew the A-model, that is what I thought of – this is the purest form of North American’s design, this is the beginning and this is what they had in mind. It was pretty special.”
The plan to bring the aircraft to Reno came to fruition in summer 2017, and whilst the test flying regime was complete, in the push to have the aircraft ready to race final touches to the aircraft’s markings were necessarily postponed. When based at Wright Field in 1941, the Mustang wore the Wright Field arrowhead emblem emblazoned on the aft fuselage and ‘1039’ stencilled on both the cowling and tail. The timescale for making Reno was such that it precluded adding the finishing touches to the markings, so the aircraft would arrive sans Wright Field arrowhead and ‘1039’ stencils. “I got really excited a few nights before Reno and thought, ‘I’m going to paint it on!'”, John laughs. “At about 2 in the morning I decided… Maybe not! It’s actually not unauthentic while it’s at Reno – when it showed up at Wright Field, it looked exactly like that. It’s kinda funny it follows the way it did before.”
With the Mustang’s chin guns removed and the gun ports covered to improve the aircraft’s aerodynamics in the race environment, John soon set about qualifying in the Unlimited class. He and Dusty selected a power setting of 40″/2600rpm, and by Wednesday’s final qualifying session he’d posted a speed of 301mph, placing him at the top of the Unlimited Bronze class. Dusty then posed a challenge to John, to see how much speed he could find using those power settings before increasing them. The challenge, essentially an exercise in precision flying, was gladly met by John. “As I learned the course and understood where, when and how to turn, I gained more than 20mph at the same power setting. That was something I never really thought about, and that shows the importance of flying a really nice, clean course, and something that anybody who wants to come and race at Reno should keep in mind and try for themselves.”
As the week went on, John would push to win the second Bronze heat, eventually placing 3rd in the Unlimited Silver class (posting a time of 10:18.321 and an average speed of 319.644mph over seven laps) and reaching speeds of around 340mph without taxing the aircraft. John is understandably proud of his début year: “I mean, I could go out and run more than take-off power and 3000rpm and end up doing pretty well, and yeah, that aeroplane would really scoot along. However, because it’s my first year and because of the aeroplane only having recently flown, we decided, let’s come to Reno, let’s have fun, but let’s not push it.” John has a clear and deep appreciation for the aircraft and, somewhat underlining the decision to challenge himself rather than the aircraft. “Under no circumstances do I ever want to hurt this aeroplane”, he says in the wake of a successful week of races.
Unwinding in the pits on the Sunday night, reflecting on the week’s races with a beer in hand and looking over the XP-51 glimmering in the sunset hues, John contemplates the personal significance of the 2017 races. “Reno’s completely different – every airshow has its own niche. I go to Chino and see a bunch of American stuff, I go to Duxford and see more Spitfires than I’ve ever seen in my entire life, and I come here and see Super ‘Stangs that make stock Mustangs look like T-6s flying around. You know, Reno is just one of those special places that really means a lot to me, and has my whole life.” This affiliation began in 1987 when, at just six weeks old, John and both Steven and Amanda Hinton were snuck into the pits. John has gone on to enjoy a lifelong friendship with renowned racer Steve Hinton, Jr; “Steve and I grew up building model planes together, even having our dads cut the wings down so we had race planes to play with. Our dads both raced and we both had uncles that raced. Reno has just always been a big part of our lives, and being able to come out and do it myself, it’s…” He searches for the words.
“To race at Reno is one of the biggest lifelong dreams I’ve ever had, and in some ways, it’s very emotional. To do it in this particular Mustang… It’s pretty special”
To do it in this particular Mustang... It’s pretty special.” - John Muszala II
With thanks to John Muszala II, Jim Raeder and all at Pacific Fighters.