The P-51 Lives On
Though the jet age has left the P-51 far behind, it has not been long since the Mustang was actually part of a country’s flying inventory. As recently as the 1980s, the tiny island nation of Dominica, wedged between the French protectorates of Martinique and Guadeloupe, flew Mustangs to protect its volcanic forests from invasion.
The Mustang has an even more prominent showcase in the Reno Air Races. The P-51 has become the airplane of choice for this fastest of motor sports events.
Every September, the fastest propeller-driven airplanes in the world gather at Reno/ Stead Airport in Reno, Nevada, to push their planes to speeds well over 500 miles per hour. Modified versions of P-51s and other World War II vintage airplanes with names like Rare Bear, Strega, and Huntress are flown by some of the best and most courageous pilots in the world. And it takes a heaping helping of fearlessness to fly around tight pylon turns at speeds over 400 miles per hour—with your wingtip just a few feet from the plane beside you, no less!
One of the mc»t spectacular crashes ever occurred at the Reno Air Races in 1979 and involved a highly souped-up P-51 Mustang called Red Baron. The Mustang, which featured two propellers that rotated in opposite directions, was being flown by pilot Steve Hinton. Hinton lost control. Red Baron struck the ground so violently that those who saw it knew they had witnessed the death of a great pilot. But when rescuers got to the wreckage, which seemed to be scattered over acres of the "Valley of Speed,’ they found Hinton still alive. It took years for Hinton to fully recover, but he eventually returned to the cockpit, having survived one of the worst crashes ever.
But when the excitement is over, regardless of who wins the race trophy, what pilots and nonpilots alike take away from the Reno Air Races is respect for the great airplanes of World War II, and reverence for the bravery of the daring pilots who flew them in defense of America.