There was a time when the North American Aviation P-51 Mustang ruled the skies. Factories in the US and Australia churned out these machines as fast as they could to supply Allied air forces during WWII. During the latter stages of the war, Mustangs could be found in every corner of the globe. Mustangs were later called up to perform ground attack duties in Korea. Even though the P-51 was retired from US squadrons in the 1950s, it also served in the air forces of nearly 30 foreign countries. Some Mustangs could still be found in military inventories in the 1980s.
Of more than 15,000 Mustangs produced, around 250 are believed to exist today. About half of the remaining airframes have made their final landing and are now on permanent static display in museums. The rest are in various stages of completion, with 60 or so Mustangs being airworthy at any given time. That may not seem like many survivors, but it's actually quite good when compared to other WWII and Korean War fighters.
The Mustang still enjoys a cult-like following among pilots and aviation enthusiasts. Owning and flying a P-51 is surely a top item on many bucket lists. Yet, keeping a warbird like the P-51 in flying condition is a big commitment. There is a triad of factors that reserves Mustang ownership for only the most devoted and well-heeled: cost, performance, and history.
I recently spoke with Ron Fernuik, who is the president of the Texas Air and Space Museum in Amarillo. Fenuik is also the chief pilot of Hudson Flight Limited. In the latter role, he spent several years flying a P-51 owned by Hudson. Although the polished warbird was recently sold, Fernuik gained broad insight into the many challenges and rewards of Mustang ownership.
These days, an airworthy Mustang is likely to have a seven-figure price tag.
When WWII came to a close, the US military found itself with way more warplanes than it needed. P-51s were among the numerous aircraft that were sold to the public as surplus for pennies on the dollar. Many of these machines were fresh from the factory and included a crated engine and other spare parts. The Mustang eventually flown by Fernuik served in the Royal Australian Air Force. It was purchased by its first civilian owner for just $300.
These days, an airworthy Mustang is likely to have a seven-figure price tag. Hudson's sold for more than $2M. While getting your name on the title is probably the most expensive single aspect of P-51 ownership, the bar is still pretty high for the myriad other checks that you're bound to write.
As with any airplane, there are recurring costs that will pop up regardless of how often you fly. Fernuik notes that the value of a Mustang makes its insurance premiums well above average, though not astronomical. You'll also want a cozy hangar to keep your warbird out of the elements. Hangar rental costs will obviously vary significantly by location. Yet, Fernuik points out that not just any hangar will do when it comes to a P-51. He suggests that most Mustang owners don't want to be squeezed into a busy hangar shared with crop dusters and Cessnas. A case of "hangar rash" on a warbird usually requires a very expensive remedy. So most owners are willing to foot the higher cost of a hangar with some elbow room. Think of it as preventive quarantine.
The Packard-built Rolls Royce Merlin V-12 engine that powers most P-51s is itself a classic example of engineering art. Fernuik notes that Merlins are still reliable and do not require any modernization upgrades such as fuel injection or electronic ignition. Even so, maintenance standards for aircraft engines are extremely high and the Merlin is complex. Fernuik commented that working on the Merlin requires mechanics with expertise on the engine, so even routine tasks come at a premium.
As with your car engine, oil changes are important to keep a Merlin humming. The big difference is that the 1365-horsepower Packard prefers fresh oil after every 30 hours of run time. If you estimate an average driving speed of 50mph, that would be like changing the oil in your car every 1500 miles. That doesn't seem too bad until you consider that the Merlin has two oil filters that must be replaced and three more that get cleaned. Oh and don't forget that it holds 12 gallons of oil. While you've got the access panels open, you might as well check the torque on the head bolts and maybe inspect the cams for wear. At the end of the day (or several days), an oil change can cost thousands of dollars.
After every 700 hours, the Merlin needs a complete overhaul. That will run you upwards of $125,000.
After every 700 hours, the Merlin needs a complete overhaul. That will run you upwards of $125,000. Fernuik said he logged about 35-40 hours of flight timer per year on the Mustang. At that rate, an overhaul is a really long-term investment.
The Merlin was known for its fuel economy in the Mustang, which gave the airplane tremendous range. But economy, of course, is relative. Fernuik shared that the P-51's big V-12 can burn up to 120 gallons of 115/145 octane Avgas per hour. However, 60 gallons per hour is more common. A cursory check of current fuel prices here in West Texas shows 86 octane unleaded at about $1.70 per gallon, while prices for Avgas range from $3.75 to $5.09 per gallon. Factoring in fuel, maintenance, hangar, and insurance, Fernuik estimates that Hudson's operating cost for the Mustang averaged out to about $1,100 per hour of flight time.
The P-51 was considered one of the top fighters of its day. Even now, more than 70 years later, it is still very much a flying hot rod. It's no wonder that Mustangs and other WWII warbirds continue to be the fastest propeller-driven racing planes. It takes tremendous skill and training to maintain control of that much power.
When Fernuik was introduced to the P-51, he already had more than 12,000 hours of flight time in a variety of aircraft. Despite his vast piloting experience, he was not rubber-stamped to jump right into the cockpit of Hudson's Mustang. Fernuik was required to undergo 50 hours of preparatory training in a vintage North American T-6 – the same advanced trainer that groomed pilots for the P-51 during WWII.
During the war, young pilots could find themselves in a Mustang with as little as 200 hours of flying experience. Such were the manpower demands of the war. Pilots learned quickly or they died—and many did. Fernuik states that more P-51 pilots died in training accidents than combat.
Initially, Fernuik resented the additional (and costly) training requirement. When Hudson purchased the P-51, Fernuik thought "I will need some transition, but I should be able to fly this [Mustang] home with the instructor [this particular P-51 was modified with the addition of a rear seat and a second set of controls]…" He began to think differently when his Mustang instructor had him review a stack of accident reports for civilian-owned P-51s, with the not-very-subtle preamble, "The P-51 was designed to kill people and it is still doing a great job."
Fernuik logged the necessary time in a T-6 without further debate. Any lingering doubt he may have had about the value of his training was erased during his first takeoff in the Mustang. "My first time in the front seat…I felt help on the controls, justified, at 40 inches manifold pressure. He [my instructor] asked me 'Do you still think I am an a-hole?' 'No sir', I replied. And I meant it."
"It was designed and built to be maintained and flown by 19-year-olds."
Owning and flying a 70-year-old machine is bound to bring about special considerations. Yet purely from an age standpoint, Fernuik said that the P-51 presents very few challenges. Referring to the airframe's simplicity and robustness, he says "It was designed and built to be maintained and flown by 19-year-olds." The only common trouble spot he mentioned pertains to the fuselage longerons. During original manufacture, these aluminum parts were treated with liquid sodium. Over time, the corrosive nature of the sodium treatment compromised the integrity of the aluminum. Fernuik notes that all currently airworthy Mustangs have probably undergone an airframe overhaul (a $2M expense) that includes replacement of the longerons.
Fernuik also mentioned that he was very meticulous in how he started the Merlin. He used a pre-oiler system and, when necessary, an engine heater. These steps helped ensure that the engine always had proper lubrication. While there were obvious cost benefits reaped from coddling the vintage engine, he points to more visceral rationale. He says that owning and flying a Mustang carries with it a burden far larger than any ego-driven, silk-scarfed fantasies. "There is a responsibility to preserve and share history. It's a stewardship that should be approached with humility and respect."
Whenever Fernuik and the Mustang would encounter starstruck gawkers at airports, he always made a point to talk with them and "share" the airplane as much as he could. When the admiring crowds were finally gone and it was once again just Fernuik and his steed, he would quietly talk to the Mustang. Perhaps in the same way that a trusted friend reassures a movie star, he reminded his machine that glad handing is a small price to pay for greatness and fame. After all, the bits of aluminum, steel and rubber that make up the Mustang could have just as easily been shaped into a different airplane—a plane that people would not give a second glance.
When I asked if his burden to history included being selective about the Mustang's next owners, Fernuik replied "Definitely." He explained that just had been done with him, there is an obligation to ensure the pilot is qualified to handle the Mustang. "Obviously, I don't want the guy to get hurt, but I don't want him to break the airplane either."
With a similar tone, Fernuik explained how he also considered the buyer's intentions with the airplane. "There are already enough hacked-up, clipped-wing Mustangs racing at Reno." His statement should not be interpreted as disdain for air racing. In fact, Fernuik is involved with efforts to bring air racing to Amarillo. Rather, he feels that competitive racing planes can be built from the ground up, without needing to compromise the historical integrity of a P-51.
Go See, Hear, and Feel
Most of us can only experience the thrill of a P-51 from behind the ropes at an airshow or museum…and there's nothing wrong with that. The Mustang's graceful lines and the confident note of its Merlin never get old. As long as there are still airworthy Mustangs, there will be people who long to be around them. The next time you see a P-51 at an airshow, you'll understand a little more about the demands placed on the people who allow that to happen.