Miramar College intern Derrick Caceres (left) and Tom Czekanski of the National World War II Museum work on the cover plate of a P-51 Mustang being restored at Gillespie Field. The plane will be sent to the museum later this month.
SAN DIEGO — After almost two years of riveting, bending sheet metal and poring over old blueprints, a crew working at Gillespie Field has almost finished restoring a World War II-era P-51 Mustang for the National World War II Museum.
“It’s like Christmas every day here,” said Rolando Gutierrez on Friday as he opened a package that had just been delivered to his business, Flyboys Aeroworks in El Cajon
Inside the box was an oil gauge that would go in the cockpit of the fighter plane. Another box that arrived earlier that day contained navigational lights that would be put on a wingtip.
“We traded parts to get this part,” Gutierrez said about dealing with other P-51 owners and restorers around the world. “They don’t want cash.”
Aviation enthusiasts can be somewhat obsessive about the P-51 Mustang, one of the most celebrated fighters in military history. With a top speed of 437 miles an hour, the plane was used as a fighter and bomber escort, and its pilots are credited with shooting down 4,950 enemy aircraft.
The National World War II Museum in New Orleans has not had an actual P-51 in its 16-year history, but instead has displayed a full-scale fiberglass model.
“It’s important for us to have the original artifacts,” said the museum’s senior curator and restoration manager, Tom Czekanski, in town this week to watch as the final parts are assembled.
“It maintains the historical integrity of the museum,” he said about having authentic artifacts. “If you have models and replicas, then you have models and replicas.”
A team of mechanics, metal fabricators and college interns from Flyboys Aeroworks in El Cajon are using blueprints, manuals and photographs to restore a P-51 Mustang to museum display standards.
The museum contracted with Flyboys Aeroworks about two years ago to reconstruct the plane for $700,000. The deadline originally was open-ended, but the crew has been working 70-hour weeks and 90 days without a break since the museum asked for the plane to be ready in time for an April 21 ceremony honoring Roscoe Brown, 94, a former captain and commander of the 100th Fighter Squadron of the Tuskegee Airmen, who flew Mustangs. The Tuskegee Airmen were the nation’s first black aviators, and the April 21 event is called “Fighting for the Right to Fight.”
Gutierrez’ crew includes an engineer, two aircraft mechanics, a fabricator/welder and two Miramar College interns from the school’s Aviation Maintenance Technology Program. Two interns from High Tech High in Chula Vista, Jose Loera and Arky Hernandez, also have helped on the project.
“It’s humbling because you realize just what they had to go through to get a plane like this in the air,” said Derrick Caceres, a Miramar College intern who has worked on the project for the past six months.
About 15,000 P-51 were built for $51,000 each by much bigger crews and a much faster pace during the war.
Caceres said his experience building the plane will help when he takes a test to earn an Airframe and Powerplant license.
“The F-18 still is built on sheet metal and rivets, so everything I’m doing here is going to be directly relatable to quite a few of the newer aircraft,” he said.
Caceres said he would like to attend the April 21 dedication, but has finals that week.
The plane won’t have a functioning engine and will be classed as a reconstruction, meaning it has at least 10 percent original parts. Czekanski estimates original parts make up about 35 percent of the plane and include an engine made by Maytag, the cockpit, landing gear, propeller, canopy and windscreen. Many are new old-stock parts that were never used and have sat in boxes more than 60 years.
Gutierrez negotiated with collectors from around the world to trade parts, which sometimes come from planes that were shot down. One part,so battered that “Not trash” is written on it, was instrumental in helping understand how rivets lined up on a wing section, Gutierrez said.
An original P-51 had 36,000 parts and 25,000 rivets, and Gutierrez said Czekanski has been a stickler for including them all.
The fuselage is painted to resemble the plane Brown flew in the 100th Fighter Squadron of the 332nd Fighter Group, which all had red tails. Two swastikas below the cockpit represent the two German planes Brown shot down, and like his original P-51, “Bunnie” is painted on the left side and “Miss Kentucky State” on the right.
Gutierrez said the plane will be only the third “Red Tail” P-51 he knows of, with the others at the San Diego Air and Space Museum and the Commemorative Air Force.
As the project enters its 100th week on Monday, an artist will paint logos on the wings, which will be installed Tuesday. A private roll-out ceremony is scheduled for Saturday at Gillespie Field.
The wings then will be detached and the plane will be loaded into a truck and driven to New Orleans in time for the ceremony, which is part of the museum’s exhibit recognizing the contribution of African Americans in World War II.
“The P-51 was one of the most outstanding aircraft produced in the war,” Czekanski said. “It allowed us to gain air superiority in Europe and successfully execute our strategic bombing campaign. When we looked at what unit we should represent, we decided that the Tuskegee Airmen and the Red Tails would be an outstanding example.”
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