Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Warbirds And Me


On being the right age, in the right place, at the right time



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.



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