by James Kightly – Vintage Aero Writer
Appropriately on Australia Day, January 26th, 2023, an Australian-built and restored Mustang Mk.21 took to the skies again after a long term rebuild. The former Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) fighter, serial number A68-104, made its first post-restoration flight from Essendon Fields Airport in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.
The Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation originally built this CA-18, equivalent to its cousin the North American P-51D/K, at their factory at Fishermans Bend, in greater Melbourne during 1947. Following a decade with the RAAF, it passed into civilian ownership in 1958. It has been on the Australian civil register as VH-BOB since the 1970s, an apt choice given the name of the its long-term owner, Robert ‘Bob’ Eastgate, who sadly died in 2020.
Hundreds of people enjoyed back seat rides in the Mustang over 38 years of private flying, but on April 5th, 2008 a mechanical failure in one of the clamshell door hinges prevented the gear from lowering. Consequently, VH-BOB had to make a belly landing at RAAF Point Cook, its home base at the time some 14 miles (22 km) from Melbourne. John Dorward, VH-BOB’s pilot, performed the forced landing so skillfully on the drought-hardened grass runway that his passenger confounded news reporters on the day by saying he’d sign up for the first post-restoration flight! Mustang owners were advised about the mechanical issue soon after the incident and, following inspection, several aircraft had their clamshell door linkages replaced.
An official film of the 2008 landing incident which the Country Fire Authority (CFA) of Victoria’s government published is seen below. The qualified comment and commentary on the event proved accurate once the aircraft had received a full examination.
As the video above reveals, Dorward put the aircraft down so gently that the Mustang incurred only minimal damage to its underside – the mainplane itself never actually touched the ground. While the aircraft could have returned to flight relatively quickly, the Eastgate family decided to take this opportunity to strip the aircraft right down to component parts and perform a complete rebuild, as a ‘birthday’ present (their words) for the aircraft. Up until then, the Mustang had never been dismantled since its construction.
Robbie Eastgate, Bob’s son, already a driving force behind the machine’s exceptionally high quality restoration, continued its rebuild following the loss of his father. He received significant support from a notable team, the Eastgate family itself, and from the global Mustang community too of course.
Long-term warbird pilot Peter ‘BD’ Clements performed the aircraft’s successful first post-restoration flight on January 26th. Mustang and Merlin engine expert, David Jones, was on hand to document the event with the accompanying images. Commenting on VH-BOB’s return to the skies, Clements noted: “The whole Eastgate family have supported and been involved in this 52 year ownership and operation. This aircraft is unbelievable in the depth and detail of this restoration and it performed flawlessly.” Clements also noted, somewhat humorously, that the restoration’s superb quality gave him only one real concern – he had worried about scratching the aircraft’s paintwork while climbing into the cockpit! With the milestone first flight completed, the restoration team celebrated their achievement with some well-earned drinks and toasted the memory of the late Bob Eastgate. Once the test flying process is completed, VH-BOB will return to the pleasure flying warbird rides business, and we will report further on this historic Mustang’s interesting journey.
In other Aussie Mustang news, this week saw another of the nation’s remaining handful of domestically-built Mustangs return to the skies, this being CAC Mustang Mk.21 A68-105 (VH-JUC), which flew again following undercarriage and engine maintenance. Safely in the hands of Bernie Heuser, chief engineer for the Old Aeroplane Company, this flight took place in Tyabb, Victoria.