Pilot Journal
Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Better-Than-New P-38

Nelson Ezell’s rebuild of White Lightnin’ is one of the most beautiful warbird restorations ever

“A few minutes from the airport, I was just sitting there thinking, ‘It just doesn’t get any better than this,’ when the left engine started backfiring and popping violently. I pulled the power back, and the cockpit went completely black with smoke. I started coughing and suffocating, feeling helpless right away. I was probably between 1,000 and 1,500 feet, just trying to make sure I kept the green stuff on the bottom side. I didn’t want this thing upside down [and hitting] the dirt at 300 miles an hour.
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better thanThus came the close of a long, successful chapter in the life of 25Y White Lightnin’, a world-famous Lockheed P-38 Lightning flown and raced by Ladd Gardner’s father, Lefty Gardner. Ever since she was purchased surplus in 1947, she has been something special, performing and racing for more than 55 years. Unable to raise the funds for restoration, however, the Gardners sold the damaged airframe in January 2005 to the Flying Bulls, Red Bull’s aviation division; it will be based at Hangar-7 (www.hangar-7.com), an aircraft museum and restoration facility in Salzburg, Austria. From the get-go, Red Bull set out to restore this aircraft to something special and unique, and they wanted it done as quickly as possible.

better thanTo take on this task, they turned to warbird restoration specialist, Nelson Ezell of Ezell Aviation (www.ezellaviation.com) in Breckenridge, Texas. If you didn’t know Nelson and then met him at the Reno Air Races (where he’s practically a legend), you’d get the impression of a nice, quiet guy who knows a lot about planes. After speaking further and learning about all of the aircraft on the racing line that he rebuilt and/or modified, you’d really be impressed. Then, as he politely excused himself to go strap into a Sea Fury for the next race, you’d wonder, “Who is this guy?!”

“Nelson has forgotten more about bending sheet metal than most people will ever know” says race pilot Stewart Dawson, a longtime customer for whom Nelson completed the Sea Fury Spirit of Texas, which sports a beautiful paint scheme designed by Nelson’s son, Chad, about four years ago. “It’s simply amazing what he does turning perfection from nothing,” Stewart praises.

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Nelson Ezell’s passion for detail and innovative approach to problem solving is evident in his P-38 restoration project for Red Bull. Many parts had to be fabricated from scratch, and all of the plumbing was replaced with stainless steel. Still, Ezell completed the restoration in just over three years. The finished warbird is immaculate and truly a polished work of art. Red Bull is shipping 25Y to its new home at Hangar-7 in Salzburg, Austria.

Growing up in Florida, Nelson recalls looking up to see a flight of B-36 bombers overhead when he was five. “What a huge noise and vibrations those six engines made,” Nelson remembers. Well, the impression was made and, along with building and racing hot rods, he went to trade school and got his A&P license. After serving in Vietnam, he moved back to Florida to work as a mechanic.

One day, he got a call from the local airport that a Corsair had landed and was in dire need of repairs. After fixing the Corsair, the owner, who was continuing on to Texas, asked Nelson to inspect a T-28. A friend of the Corsair owner then asked Nelson to come to Texas to repair his Sea Fury. Whether he knew it or not, Nelson was getting into warbirds! Soon he was spending more time in Texas than in Florida, so in 1982, he packed up the family and moved to Breckenridge, Texas.


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