APPEAL. Raw performance, excess horsepower, mechanical art— there are countless reasons everyone loves warbirds.
Does any one actually not like warbirds? Aviation is full of factions that don't necessarily blend well with one another, e.g., we can find plenty of Cirrus pilots who have no use for Cubs. But, I'm not actually sure that we can find anybody who doesn't like warbirds to one degree or another. Me? Even though I'm a hardcore grassroots/taildragger kind of guy, I still have a driving passion for warbirds. In fact, at one time I owned a Mustang and had an L-5 Stinson living with me for years.
I'm tempted to say that when it comes to sports-type aviation, I earned my pilot spurs in a golden age. Everything from homebuilts to antiques to aerobatics to warbirds was expanding exponentially. However, that having been said, every age I've experienced so far has been golden: There has never been a better time than today to be in sport aviation, although just about every preceding age was cheaper. And easier. This is especially true of warbirds.
When I was in my 20s, warbirds were just becoming available from Third-World countries as they dumped their Mustangs. And they popped up in the strangest places. I bought a Mustang missing only its engine, just after it came out of the Ohio ANG, for $750. After bidding $1,777.77, I brought a clattering old L-5 Stinson home from the Rhode Island CAP. In those days, if you looked around long enough, the warbird you wanted was out there and affordable. However, to put things in perspective, the average price for gas was around 25 cents!
Shortly thereafter, I went through an insane school in Texas where I actually soloed a Mustang (this was before dual- control P-51s were commonly available) and Bearcat (best airplane on the planet), then type-rated in the B-25 and P-38 (scary solo experience for such a low-flying-time pilot) and a lot of other exotic, high-powered hardware. Shortly after that, I even flew a Spitfire.
Looking back at that period of my life, it's as if it happened to someone else. Today, when I walk past something like a P-38 at a fly-in, I clearly remember every second of that first flight (I had a grand total of eight hours of multi time, when I flew it…folks, don't try this at home), but I still find it hard to believe that it was me sitting in that cockpit. At the time, I was nothing more than a rag- leg Citabria instructor. No high-performance flying time of any kind. I was definitely a grassroots pilot in high clover!
In the decades since that time, the whole warbird thing has exploded. And while we were flying surplus airplanes that hadn't been restored, just washed and painted, today they can restore an airplane from its shadow: I know of a P-40 that was found under a parking lot. It had been burned, then squashed flat with a bulldozer, before being paved over. If it's not flying now, it will be soon. Restorers are doing amazing things, and history and the aviation public are benefitting.
It's difficult to explain what it is about warbirds that attract so many of us. If we're talking about the gun-toting combat birds like the Mustang, Corsair, Spitfire, etc., the attraction probably begins with their raw performance. And I'll have to admit, that horsepower does have attractive qualities. One of those is the way horsepower sounds when it's racing out of the exhaust stacks. Songs, soul-stirring songs, come from V-12s in the Mustang and Spitfire. Not so much the P-38. Its cockpit is much quieter than the Mustang's, which is downright painful without a good headset. The P-38 Allisons blow their excess horsepower out through turbochargers that are mounted well behind the pilot, so there's no bark or growl.
There is, however, a not very loud, but high-pitched, dog whistle-type sound that's far more painful to hear than the sniper-rifle bark of the Mustang or the soft-but-loud shotgun sound of a B-25. It's like an icepick in each ear. Headsets are an absolute must. Ask me how I know that.
I also love the variety of form to be found in warbirds. This is the result of different mechanical artists, all constrained by the same laws of physics and seeking the same goals, but interpreting both through their own creative eyes. You only have to compare the diminutive and svelte Spitfire or Bf 109 to the hulking Lightning or Thunderbolt to realize that the laws of physics may be absolutely inviolate, but the ways of interpreting and applying those laws are endless.
Personally, when I see a combat warbird, I can't help but think of their place in history. And I visualize them in context with dozens of them S-turning down the taxiway, like so many serpents, ready for takeoff. Kids, some of them not old enough to buy a beer, glance back at their wingman and give a thumbs-up: ready to go. To do what? To purposely put themselves in a live-or-die, kill-or-be-killed situation. To fight for freedom, one flight, one victory and one pilot at a time.
I'm especially attracted to the liaison birds, the warbugs, as I call them (and have been criticized for doing so). Some are pretty funky, and to me, the funkier the better. I loved my old L-5 and would dearly love to own a Convair L-13, surely the biggest, most unusual L-bird made. And I should have owned an L-19 somewhere along the line simply because they actually make sense for me. Besides being a wondrous short-field airplane (there are way too many canyons and mesas around here that need exploring), it's also a surprisingly good air-to-air camera platform. Unfortunately, the escalating prices have always been just one step ahead of me.
I'll bet that the majority of readers' bucket lists include flying or owning a warbird. Luckily, I've done both. But that doesn't mean there aren't still more warbirds nestled in my own wish list. Who knows? Maybe someday.