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 thanNelson’s passion for detail and innovative approach to problem solving has earned him and his family a reputation as master rebuilders—indeed, it seems they get more work than they can handle. Dude, Nelson’s wife, runs the office and keeps the boys organized. Chad, the artist of the group, researches paint schemes and historical data for each restoration project.

Son Ashley is an aspiring engineer and works on manufacturing the hard parts, and Nelson, along with running the shop, does most of the sheet-metal work. In addition to the boys, Nelson has two daughters, Anna and Alanna, who are both in college.

“Safety is our first priority,” says Nelson about the Ezell business philosophy. “Next, it’s satisfying the particular mission a customer has for the restoration. Some people want it completely stock, that is, how the aircraft came out of the factory,” he explains, “but some want it modified for ease of maintenance and/or operation.”

better thanRed Bull wanted a unique, easy-to-fly airplane built as close to perfection as possible with the best systems available—and they wanted it fast. With the amount of detail and prefabrication needed, the project should easily have taken more than six years. The Ezells completed it in a little over three.

better thanThe rebuilt aircraft is immaculate. Though Ladd did a great job of landing White Lightnin’ with minimal damage, all of the belly surfaces were destroyed and there was severe fire damage on the left boom. Many parts also had to be fabricated from scratch, and all of the plumbing was replaced with stainless steel. Two new Allison engines were installed, and all of the surfaces were refurbished with highly polished aluminum (with the exception of the bottom of the wings), so while work was being done in and around the aircraft, the surfaces needed to be protected from scratching and dents. The cockpit is updated with Garmin avionics and even has an S-TEC autopilot!

This past April, the Ezells had a bit of a scare. With 98% of their masterpiece completed, a tornado ripped through their airport, destroying multiple aircraft and causing the hangar’s back wall to collapse. Everyone held their breath, but with only slight damage to the elevator, amazingly, 25Y survived in great shape. The first test flight came on June 2, 2008, and she flew perfectly with only minimal adjustments needed.

better than better than
The P-38, restored by the Ezell family (above), has a wartime compact cockpit with modern-day navigation. The row of lights on the top of the panel is set up for immediate warning of any problem.


At this writing, 25Y is in the process of being shipped to her new home in Salzburg where she’ll be displayed in Hangar-7, itself an amazing piece of architecture. Maintaining the aircraft’s mirror-like exterior in its gleaming glory will be a phenomenal task, but what better caretaker is there than Red Bull? Thanks to Red Bull, the Gardners and Ezell Aviation, 25Y will perform for new audiences all over Europe.



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