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Twice as Nice

Twin Mustang stars at Warbirds in Review

By John W. Conrad

July 27, 2019 - The bleachers in Fightertown were packed, and the overflow was standing five deep for the Warbirds in Review presentation and interview of XP-82 owner and restorer Tom Reilly and pilot Ray Fowler. The crowd was gathered to hear the story of how the one and only flying Twin Mustang made it into the air and what it is like to fly.

After a brief thank-you and introduction by Connie Bowlin, president of Warbirds of America, Tom was first up to describe the 11-year saga of how the airplane came to be.

It all started on December 23, 2007, when Tom bought what was left of the airplane he was to rebuild. Then began the methodical accumulation of parts from around the world. Tom is in the sheet metal business and has restored several warbirds, though he classifies himself as a "bomber" guy and not a "fighter" guy. Tom restored a B-24 and flew it here to win Grand Champion in 1990 so he knows his business and he has known it for a long time. The warbird enthusiasts are a tight community, and once word got out that he was building a Twin Mustang, leads and tips started coming in. A fuselage here (remember it has two), a wing or center section there, and things started coming into place. From the boneyards of the southwest to the wilds of Alaska he found and bought parts. He even went so far as to buy parts that had been driven over by a bulldozer to use them as patterns for the fabrication of new parts. He was persistent, but admits he was also lucky. "Everything has been magical about this airplane — nothing has gone wrong."

As an example he told of the time that he flew a helicopter into Alaska to recover a Twin Mustang that had gone down. Flying over the wreck, he dropped fabric ribbons into the trees so he could find his way back after landing. The place they chose to land was about a mile away, and he observed, "We could have landed anywhere in a circle around the wreck." When he walked in about halfway he stumbled upon a canopy that had been jettisoned.

In another example he told of finding a brand new left-turning engine in a garage in Mexico City. The engine was still in the original crate, and nobody seems to know how it got there. A lot of time and a lot of craftsmanship had the airplane ready for its first flight on December 31, 2018. What was proposed to be a high-speed taxi test put air under the wings, and pilot Ray Fowler took it around the patch. When the aircraft rolled to a stop, Tom heaved a sigh of relief. "That's another project finished," he simply said.

One of the difficulties Tom encountered early on in the project was that everybody wanted to fly it. But he would have none of them. Tom had chosen Ray early on to be the first and so-far-only pilot to fly the plane. "Ray is the most experienced warbird pilot in the country, in my opinion," Tom said. "When you start listing the airplanes (he's flown), it's just easier to say that the only thing he hasn't flown is the space shuttle."

During Ray's portion of the program he described what it was like to fly the airplane for the first time. The airplane has two cockpits with full flight controls in each, but there is no one qualified to act as a check pilot or flight instructor. There was a steep learning curve. He said he wasn't particularly anxious before the first flight because he knew and trusted Tom's craftsmanship and attention to detail. Ray had spoken to other pilots who had flown the type in years past, and armed with that information he became the test pilot and his own flight instructor. "The airplane had flown before. I figured it would fly again," Ray said.

Unlike the P-51, the airplane tracks straight down the runway on takeoff, like a jet. No right rudder required because of the counter-rotating propellers. The weirdest part is taxiing because the natural tendency is to put the yellow line under the nose. But if you do that in a Twin Mustang, the right fuselage is off in the dirt and the wing is in the trees. So you have to constantly be aware. The airplane is a little heavier on the controls than a P-51 and "it is fast … real fast," Ray said.

All too soon the interviews were over, and the folks crowded around the celebrities. It was a celebration of a lot of work, a lot of money, a lot of talent, and more than a little bit of luck.

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