P-51D Mustang Returns to the Skies after 12 Year Absence

This is the Palm Springs Air Museum's P-51D Mustang "Bunny" shortly before she moved to Chino for her restoration. Check out the video link to see how gorgeous she is now! (photo via Palm Springs Air Museum)
This is the Palm Springs Air Museum's P-51D Mustang "Bunny" shortly before she moved to Chino for her restoration. Check out the video link to see how gorgeous she is now! (photo via Palm Springs Air Museum)
This is the Palm Springs Air Museum’s P-51D Mustang “Bunny” shortly before she moved to Chino for her restoration. Check out the video link to see how gorgeous she is now! (photo via Palm Springs Air Museum)

The Palm Springs Air Museum in Palm Springs, California has just celebrated the return of their P-51D Mustang, 44-74908, following fourteen months of restoration work in Chino. The Mustang rolled off the production line on July 8th, 1945; too late to see combat in WWII. She became one of a hundred Mustangs to see service with the Royal Canadian Air Force in the post-war days before jets took her place. She joined 402 “City of Winnipeg” Squadron, one of the RCAF’s auxiliary units, serving until a forced landing in a farmer’s field put her “out to pasture” for the remainder of her Canadian service. It was probably that accident which saved her from the scrapper’s torch, as she went into storage, rather than being sold on to a South American air arm like a number of the other RCAF Mustangs. The fighter eventually passed through a number of civilian, US-based ownerships before Bob Pond acquired her in 1990 for his museum which is now known as the Palm Springs Air Museum. She flew until 2002, when the museum decided to ground her due to maintenance issues.

A few years ago, the museum decided to paint her to represent an example flown by Lieutenant Colonel Bob Friend, one of the famed Tuskegee Airmen. Lt.Col.Friend has become a great supporter of the museum over the years, so it was only natural that this Mustang become “his” Mustang. More recently, the museum decided they really wanted to get the P-51 flying again, so they contracted California Aerofab in Chino, California to go through the aircraft. The restoration saw the vintage fighter torn down to its smallest components before a total overhaul. She looks immaculate now, with a polished aluminum skin, and bearing the nose art for “Bunny”, Colonel Friend’s aircraft. She flew again for the first time in more than 12 years on February 9th, and after working off her hours, Matt Nightingdale, who played a large role in her restoration, flew the Mustang the short distance from Chino to Palm Springs on February 17th.  The Palm Springs Air Museum will add a few bells and whistles to the aircraft over the next week or so before she is unveiled to the public on February, 27th. The Museum plans to hold her flying debut on February 28th. It should be quite a grand affair, with a couple of other Mustangs flying that day as well. Colonel Friend will be in attendance, along with a fellow Tuskegee airman, Rusty Burns.

Here is the video of the Mustang’s return to the Palm Springs Air Museum.

The Mustang has been very expensive to return to flying condition, and the Palm Springs Air Museum could really use some extra donations to pay for what they’ve already accomplished. For those of you ready to help out, please do click HERE.

For a fascinating look at this Mustang’s restoration, please see the Facebook page HERE.

18 Comments

  1. I really enjoyed this info on the P-51D. It brought back many memories. I had been in aviation for 60 years. Retired in 2011. Back in the early 50’s, I worked for a FBO in central New York.
    At that time, they had bought 10 or 12 D models from somewhere in Canada, where they had been sitting for 2 years. They hired a young lawyer and another young person to fly them down to our base of operations which had a 2500 foot strip. All these guys did was a walk-around and took off. They all got to our base of operations undamaged except one that had to belly in. He did a good job. Only damaged the 2 bottom prop blades and the scoop. We parked them off the end of the runway and it was my job to run them up. I did that, taxied to the runway and held the brakes, but really wanting to let it go, but I did not. I don’t remember what type of inspection we did on them but I do know we replaced a number of hoses. They were sold to some South American company. They were flown to Teterboro, but the U.S. would not let them out of the states as they still were in fighting condition except for no guns.
    It was an interesting time for me.

    • Thank you so much for writing in Harlen… it is precisely the type of story you just wrote in with that keeps us doing what we do! Thank you, thank you, thank you! If you have any more details or photographs from that time, we’d love to know! Regardless, thanks so much for telling us these details. Fascinating stuff!

  2. Dear Folks, The P-51 was one great aircraft. If you have ever seen or heard one You will never forget the sound or the Beauty of the P 51 Mustang!

  3. We really owe the Brits a huge thanks, their boffins were the people who thought of putting a Rolls Royce Merlin engine into the A-36, turn a slower, limited ground attack bird into the amazing fighter it then became!

  4. Are you sure that this Mustang force landed while in the service of City of Winnipeg 402 Squadron or bellied in while tail chasing and crash landed in a farmer’s field?

    • That is a good question Len… Having read some other messages from readers, it does indeed seem like she bellied in by accident rather than by design. Thanks for the note!

  5. What a great sight it is to see the beautiful Mustang fly again. Charles’ comments say it all! My first posting in 1954 after technical training as an RCAF Munitions & Weapons Technician, was to 402 (FB) Squadron in Winnipeg. I spent 18 months there before going on to an F-86 Sabre squadron in France. I have some personal photos of our squadron Mustangs in my album. If you have the RCAF number of “Bunny”, I can check my collection for any pics of her when in our service.

    • Wow!!! Another great addition to the story! Thanks so much for posting. We’d love to hear more, and to see some of your images too if you can find them. According to photographs, the Mustang’s serial was 9273 while in RCAF service. I’ve seen photos of her with the squadron codes AC 273 on the side. I hope this helps…

  6. Hi:
    I was in 402 RCAF aux Sqdn in Winnipeg in 1954 as a High school student in a summer program called RTTP, (Reserve Trades Training Program). My trade was a Communications Performance Checker. My duties were to go out to the flight line, get in the cockpit of the mustangs and check the VHF. My rapidly failing memory tells me there were four channels, Tower, Ground, 121.5 and some operations channel or other. the squadron was set up exactly like it was in England and would practice intercepts directed by a fighter control room located on the Winnipeg airport in an old brick building … still there the last time I was there a couple of years ago. I can’t remember if the mustangs had an ADF or not. I have a couple of photos somewhere of the flight line I’ll try and dig them out. later I was sponsored by 402 sqdn for pilot training so you can imagine how excited I was to get to fly a Mustang … alas when I’d finished Harvards and got my wings on T-33s I returned home to the sqdn to find that in my absence the sqdn’s role had changed from fighter intercepter to transport and the mustang filled ramp I was so eagerly expecting when I got back was filled with … you guessed it lowly C-45’s.

    Anyway here is a story and I think I remember how your mustang ended up in the farmer’s field. A four plane formation was out practicing tail chases just above an overcast layer of Strato cu. The #1 pulled up a 100 or so feet above the tops, the second guy pulled out inside the cloud, the third guy pulled out a about 500 ft below the overcast, the tail end Charlie cracking like the end of a whip didn’t have enough room left to pull out and pancaked into the field … or so it was said. The pilots name was Peterson and I believe he ended up in California doing something or other. I flew with him as co-pilot on C-454s a few times and I’m pretty sure I overheard him tell the story in the mess a few times after a couple of adult beverages. So there you go a voice from the past. I almost certainly sat in your airplane all those years ago. Jim G.

    • This is a wonderful addition to the the article Jim! Thanks so much for writing in. We’d love to hear more if you have any other details to add!

  7. Hi Again:

    I’ve been trying without luck to remember F/O Peterson’s first name but what I do remember is he was studying to be a physician while at 402 Sqdn. I think he finished, practiced for a while in Winnipeg and moved on to California … smart guy. If you’ve ever spent a winter in Winnipeg you’d know why I think he’s smart.

    As to the merlin engine when I started with TCA/Air Canada my first job was as a First Officer on North Stars … basically a DC-4 with 4 merlins, a pressurized cabin, DC6 wings, undercarriage and tail. Because the merlins were so noisy we called it the Noisy Star or North Stone due to its lack of perform ace. Years later I ran into to Steve Hinton at Chino and when I mentioned I’d flown North Stars he wanted to know if I knew where any of the cylinder heads or 4 bladed props were off of our North stars … I didn’t.

    Jim G.

    Jim G.

    • Many thanks Jim, the person you are talking about sounds like Fred Peterson… I believe he may have been in contact with the restorers. I’ve contacted them to see if he has any further details.

      That’s fascinating stuff about flying North Stars. I hadn’t realized they had so many DC-6 bits in them. I know there is only one complete survivor (in Ottawa), which I’ve visited many times. It’s good to see her indoors, and under proper care now. The reason Steve Hinton was interested in the North Star engines is that the particular variant they used, -600 series, had much more durable cylinder banks than a standard Merlin, and these make for more durable race engines. There is a real premium on these parts in the warbird/air racing industry.

  8. WOW !
    What a marvellous restoration job you’ve done on this magnificent aircraft !

    I had the distinct honour of flying Mustangs as a young ‘sprog’ with RCAF 424 ( ‘Tiger’ Squadron’ ) back in the ’50’s in Hamilton Ontario.
    My memories of the hours flying the Mustang ( which for what it’s worth was designated as an ‘F51- D’ in Canada ) will forever remain in my aging mind like the first kiss I got as a teenager from the prettiest girl in my high school class !

    Looking back now, it seems uncanny too, that the first gasoline-powered model aircraft I ever built as a kid was a ‘U-control’ Mustang when I was about 11 or 12 years old.
    Little did I know that 10 years later I would be flying the real Mcoy !!

    I had been awarded my pilot’s wings on T-33’s, but checking out on the Mustang was the ultimate thrill !

    We took part in both air-to air and air -to-ground exercises firing 50 cal. rounds which for air target exercises were coated in coloured wax to identify the pilot’s hits.
    The navigation systems were very minimal (ADF) so we would try to stay VFR and/or utilize ground control radar to keep us from straying too far from planned routes.

    After over 35 years in the airline business, and having flown many different types of aeroplanes, I can truly say that the Mustang was one of the very finest and most unforgettable machines I ever had the pleasure to fly.

  9. Well, believe it or not, I have a partial B & W pic of 9273 on the line in Winnipeg in July 1954. She is in wartime configuration with bomb racks, 5 inch rocket pods and all guns installed. What resolution would you like the pic scanned, and where do I send it? Cheers, Don

    • Hi Donald… this is fabulous! I will send you an e-mail with details about sending it along… That is incredibly generous of you! Cheers, Richard

  10. Fred Peterson visited this aircraft while she was under restoration. I had the chance to speak with him about his belly landing briefly. He missed a fuel tank switch and lost power and then ended up in the field. Very nice man – I don’t think he ran out of room just lost power – luck he saved the aircraft – if this had not happened the plane would have ended up in South America as surplus. So all in all this worked out well…

  11. What a small world, I don’t remember Jim Griffith, but our careers are similar. I joined 402 Sqdn in 1953 training as an aero-engine mechanic. I don’t know how many times I dropped the spark plugs down between the V 12 – thank goodness for the long magnet to retrieve them. At least 2 if not 3 of our Mustangs had problems with the O2 system and the pilots passed out at altitude, ended up in power dive, in one the pilot came to and started pull out rippled all the skin on upper wings and popped most of the rivets and then bellied into local field. It sat in hangar for a number of months with the scoop full of dirt and prop wrapped around engine. I think there was only one death in a Mustang crash.

    I too wanted to fly the Mustang and like Jim I took what was called a short-short and was to come back to the squadron as a pilot, that was 1955 on course 5513. On completion I found out the Mustangs were grounded and I stayed regular force until 1964.

    I was later transferred to Winnipeg and summer of 59 or 60 the Mustangs were all bought by US company with onward sale to South America. The purchasers contacted the RCAF base looking for pilots with Harvard/T6 time to fly them to the US. Our squadron commander said he would make life difficult for any of us who volunteered. That was the end of the Mustangs with 402.

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