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Rebuilding the Prototype XP-82 Twin Mustang

XP-82
The North American P-82 (Twin Mustang)

XP-82
One of two fuselage sections under restoration. The left fuselage is complete with the team deep into work on the right fuselage.

XP-82
The P-82 features two Merlin V-12 engines. In the search for the powerplants, one was found in Mexico City.

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January 13, 2011 — Two years, six months, and a few days ago, Tom Reilly’s B-25 Group, a company that restores World War II aircraft in Douglas, Georgia, got started on a restoration that, when finished, will resurrect one of the rarest airplanes in the world: the Merlin-powered North American P-82 (Twin Mustang) prototype, the only one of an estimated 60 built planned to fly.

Reilly, EAA 802376/Warbirds 552913, had been involved with restoring WWII bombers for his entire 40-year career, but his focus changed ever so slightly in the early 1990s when he met Walter and Margaret Soplata of Newbury, Ohio. Reilly, owner of the B-25 Group in Douglas, Georgia, met the Soplatas when they asked him to do some IRS appraisal work for them. Walter, well-known for his extensive collection of warbirds, gave Reilly a guided tour throughout their large facility, where among the scores of salvaged aircraft he saw an F-82 Allison-powered D model and immediately fell in love with the Twin Mustang series.

Reilly casually mentioned to Walter, “When you get ready to sell this F-82, I would like to purchase it,” although he knew it would take years to save up that kind of money. However, in 1997, Reilly sold a flyable B-25 and could afford the F-82. He waited two days too long: The Soplatas had sold it to Doug Arnold in England, who in turn sold it to Wally Fisk in Anoka, Minnesota. Reilly was sure his dream of owning a Twin Mustang was over.

Read about Walter Soplata and his collection

Fast forward to 2007
Over the following years, Reilly prepared a number of other IRS appraisals for the Soplatas, until December 2007 when he was called on to check out a F-84 Thunderstreak. While trudging through the snow-covered property, Reilly peered behind several sheet metal roofing panels covering what appeared to be a Mustang fuselage. When he said to Walter, “I didn’t know that you had another Mustang,” Walter informed him that he was in fact looking at the prototype for the Twin Mustang, XP-82, serial number 44-86887. (The first planes were designated “P” for Pursuit until June 1948 when the designation changed to “F” for Fighter, such as Fisk’s F-82.)

Alas, the rare relic was not for sale, but Soplata assured Reilly that he would get the first option to buy if and when it became available. Knowing that this would be his last chance to ever have a P-82, Reilly started canvassing the world for P-82 parts, salvages, and wrecks. He knew Dick Odgers in Alaska bought a lot of F-82 scrap out of a salvage yard in Fairbanks and had the rights to a hard-crashed Twin Mustang. In south Florida, a friend of Reilly’s had purchased three partial ’82 fuselages, center sections, and tail parts out of the same scrap yard.

Not knowing what the price would be for the prototype XP fuselage and parts, and also not wanting those parts in Alaska and Colorado to get away, Reilly put an agreement together to hold them; if he could purchase the fuselage and all of the other P-82 parts from the Soplatas, he would have an almost-complete P-82.

Realizing it would be an extremely costly restoration venture, Reilly put together a group of investors and went about making plans to go back in business again to start on the XP-82 rebuild. (Reilly had closed his Vintage Aircraft Restoration facility and museum in Kissimmee, Florida, in 2004, after Hurricane Charlie completed destroyed his hangar and museum.)

In April 2008, Margaret Soplata called Reilly to say that they wanted to talk about selling the prototype. He went to Ohio, everyone agreed on a price, and the P-82 investors were off and running on a new project that many people said could never be done.

The project begins
Work on the restoration of the XP-82 project began in earnest in July 2008. Eight first-class sheet metal employees where hired, all of Odgers’ parts were purchased and recovered from Alaska, and the parts were purchased and shipped from Colorado.

Two big problems emerged: finding a left turning Merlin engine and a left turning prop. Mike Nixon of Vintage V-12s in Tehachapi, California, learned of a brand new left engine in a garage in Mexico City and bought it. (How and why was it there? One will never know, Reilly said.) Nixon was contracted to build both the left and right turning Merlins for the project, and MT Propeller in Germany agreed to build two composite props for the project, both left and right.

Another problem: Only the first 22 P-82s (two XPs and 20 “B” models) had full dual controls. The parts recovered from Alaska or Colorado were all right fuselages from later models and only held a weapons systems officer with no flight controls. Reilly contacted everyone in the warbird parts business who could possibly have any P-82 parts - and he was able to buy a number of good items, but no second cockpit controls.

Reilly called Air Classics editor Michael O’Leary, who put him in touch with a man in the San Francisco area who had an entire left side of a left fuselage.

Back in April 2008, while at the Soplata facility digging for parts, Walter produced a windshield that he said fit the right fuselage of the XP-82. But it had square side windows whereas the XP-82 had curved windows, similar to a P-51.

At that very moment, Reilly said one of his men called in his cell phone saying he had just located the second windshield, along with belly scoops, radiators, and “dog houses” (radiator enclosures). Reilly put the square-side-windowed windshield down, made a mental note of it, and proceeded to recover the rest - trailer loads - of the XP-82 parts!

In July that year, Reilly called the man with the left side of the fuselage in San Francisco. It had full controls, gear, flap, trim, throttle quadrant, etc. (Nothing is the same as a D-model Mustang), so Reilly asked if he would sell it.

The man said that he would only trade it for P-51J parts. Never having heard of a P-51J, Reilly was told that only two were ever built, and the man on the phone had the only remains of a J model and was in dire need of a windshield.

“What does it look like?” Reilly asked. “Send me a picture out of the parts book.” Coincidentally, the windshield that Reilly had seen at Soplata’s the previous April was for a J model! Reilly immediately went back to Ohio and purchased the windshield from Walter and traded it for the left fuselage.

The project also needed a second canopy, one that is completely different from any P-51 type, and a call came in from a woman in Tampa who had a canopy that didn’t fit a Mustang, but looked like one. It was, in fact, an 82 canopy, which Reilly snapped up immediately. Finally, other than missing a few minor hydraulic components and outboard gear doors, all of which can be manufactured, they had what they needed to build a complete airplane.

Status report
So here they are, two years, six months, and a few days since the project started.

 Reilly and his crew have made magnificent progress in bringing the XP-82 back to flying status. They still have a long way to go, but up to this date, they have completed the left fuselage, both engine mounts, top cowlings, horizontal, elevator, both aft fuselage extensions and verticals, center flap, and landing gear. They’re now heavy into the rebuild of the right fuselage, ailerons (four), rudders, and center section.

Nixon’s Vintage V-12s has both right and left engines almost completed, and MT Propeller is building the right and left propellers.

Reilly is projecting to have the XP-82 up on its gear with engines, props, wings, and all tail surfaces completed with no internal systems (i.e., fuel, oil, glycol, electrical, etc.) within 18-24 months.

Some interesting “side notes”
The crew found some interesting notes on the prototype parts prior to restoration, apparently between co-workers on the next shift, such as “426 AD 4-6 rivet goes here” (complete with an arrow) and “John, I will have the tickets for you tomorrow for the theatre.”

Reilly’s crew documented and saved the graffiti to reapply it to the newly painted interior surfaces, and they have even gone as far as spectrographing the different colors of paints throughout the interior of the aircraft, duplicating the colors exactly. They also found and purchased the original WWII 442 head-style rivets to use in the restoration.

A common misconception is that the P-82 series aircraft were just two lengthened P-51H model fuselages put together on a common center section. In the two-and-a-half years of working on the aircraft, Reilly’s found only two part numbers from the P-51 Mustang line: hinge points for the rudders and elevator and a trim knob from a B-25. So the idea that one can use Mustang parts to help with the restoration of the XP-82 is definitely not the case.

Reilly would like to thank everyone involved with all of the many aspects of this XP-82 prototype restoration and have helped make this dream come true. Sadly, the man whose dedication to preserving history made the project possible won’t be around to see the completed project: Walter Soplata passed away last November 5 at age 87. (See story)

“Without the help from countless people, this project would have never become a reality,” Reilly said.

Thanks to Tom and Louisa Barendse for compiling this history of the XP-82 project.

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