Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Sound Of Thunder

For those seeking a more economical alternative to the max performance of a P-51, the Thunder Mustang should satisfy your inner need for speed

Pure speed isn't the Thunder's only outstanding qualification, however. It's also a remarkably quick machine coming off the ground and headed uphill. Unlike many other aircraft performance parameters, takeoff is almost directly related to power loading, and the Thunder Mustang has one of the lowest power-to-weight ratios in the business. Specifically, there's 640 hp to lift only 3,200 pounds of airplane, so power loading is an amazing 5.0 pounds/hp. That isn't the lowest ratio in the industry, but its close. Once established in a climb at 150 knots, Wayne Richards' Thunder will rocket uphill at better than 5,500 fpm, nearly double the rate of a P-51D.

Richards decided to buy a Thunder exactly because of the extreme cost of an original Mustang. Like many young men who grew up around high-performance autos (Richards currently owns 10 cars ranging from antiques, classics, daily drivers and performance machines), he was drawn to aviation as the next logical step. "I grew up with high performance machines, mostly cars and motorcycles, and I was involved in racing both types through my 20s and 30s," Richards explains.

Richards owns an auto performance shop in the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles, smack in the middle of the world's busiest aviation hub, so it was perhaps only normal that he'd eventually step up to flying.

He soloed in eight hours, went on to earn his license and buy a Pitts S2A, then purchased a new S2B in 1987 that he still owns. "The Pitts is loads of fun, and I still get a kick out of flying it, but what I really wanted was something faster—a lot faster," says Richards. "I flew several aircraft, including a T6 and a P-51, and of course, the Mustang was the ultimate, but even if you could afford the price of admission, operating costs and maintenance would be prohibitive."

Richards considered constructing his own Thunder Mustang early on, but the 8,000- to 10,000-hour build time was prohibitive. "I make a living working with machinery, so I wasn't intimidated by the build process, but the time required suggested it would be eight to 10 years before the airplane would be finished. I wasn't willing to wait that long." Dean Holt of Mt. Vernon, Wash., currently owns all rights to the Thunder Mustang and is in process of producing a quick(er) build kit. See "To Learn More" on page 36.

As a result, Richards went shopping in the used Thunder market, a very small group of about 17 airplanes. He found his current airplane in Florida, a recent product of unlimited air racer Gunther Balz. "I think Gunther has built at least five airplanes, using every type of construction material, and he'd already put 100 hours on his Thunder when I bought it. Skip Holm and I went to Florida and flew it back to California in one day. Like any new owner of a homebuilt, I made numerous changes and improvements to bring it up to my standards, but as far as I know, it's fairly representative of a well-built Thunder Mustang," Richards comments.

From the outside looking in, Richards' Thunder Mustang looks to be an extremely accurate copy, a very precise, scaled-down clone of a P-51. In fact, however, it turns out to be better than the beloved Mustang in many respects. I flew Lee Lauderbach's near-perfect Mustang, Crazy Horse, several years ago in Florida and noted a few interesting differences.

Labels: Piston Singles


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