Norm Meyers consented to work on a North American P-51H Mustang on display at Chanute Air Museum believing that what he had to do was a standard ‘polish project’ — work on the WWII fighter jet to make it look more presentable to visitors.
However, that ‘polish’ work took a life on its own.
Now, ten years later and gaining a project partner, Curt Arseneau, along with a number of other volunteers, the polish-job-turned-restoration-effort is at last complete.
The P-51H Mustang and World War II
The North American P-51 was a single-seater fighter-bomber used extensively during World War II, Korean War as well as in other conflicts. It was created and built by North American Aviation, an American aerospace maker that is now involved with Boeing.
The H model (P-51H) was regarded as the fastest among all the other Mustangs which went into service due to its lightness, and is believed to be the fastest, or one of the fastest, piston-engined fighters ever to be produced at the time of WWII. However, it saw little combat as its production came a little too late — Japan had already surrendered.
US military wanted to use P-51H for their planned Japan invasion. But the plan was never realized as after the dropping of the two atomic bombs in the Japanese cities Nagasaki and Hiroshima, the country had surrendered to the Allied Forces.
“It was considered the hot rod of the piston-drive planes,” Meyers said.
It was the cream of the Mustangs. It was faster compared to the D model with a top speed of 487 mph and it was also 600 pounds lighter. Some of the H models were stationed in Alaska during the Berlin Airlift between 1948 to 1949 in case trouble with the Soviets would arise. Some were also used by the national Guard units. However, airmen preferred to use the D model during the Korean War as it was heavier, thus, deemed more durable. Besides, they were more used to it.
“They were more durable and had heavier landing gear … and were more suitable for the conditions in Korea,” Arseneau said of the D models. “There were a ton of pilots and ground crews that had been flying the D model in Europe. They were available, so it made more sense to use the D in Korea than it did to deploy the lightweight H.”
Restoration Work at Chanute
Air museum curator Mark Hanson dubbed Arseneau and Meyers as “among the foremost experts on the H Mustangs” due to their work with the one displayed in Chanute.
H model is considered rare — there are only six known to exist including the one that belonged to the museum. It is also the only one in exhibit and the sole H that is, to some extent, complete.
Restoring the the Chanute model was not an easy feat. And with Meyers and Arseneau having full-time jobs, the work had to b done only on the weekends. Finding parts for the model was also like finding a needle in the haystack.
“The availability of parts is very poor,” Arseneau said. “You don’t go to the open market and find H model Mustang parts because they’re completely different from the D.”
But despite the challenges facing them, the two with their team had managed to see through the project, completing it after ten long years of hard work.
“Some guys ride their motorcycles or their sports cars or play fantasy football,” Meyers said. “We come up here one day a week and work on the airplane. We don’t consider this work. It was the challenge of taking an airplane badly in need (of restoration) and spending the time to make it look like it should have looked like when it was operational.”
Displayed in Its Full Glory
The fully restored North American P-51H went on display at Chanute Air Museum last week. It was joined by a P-51C Mustang for a few days as the museum remembered the Red Tail Squadron — the band of the Tuskegee Airmen, the black American crew who flew the fighter planes known for their distinctive red tails and went on to make it to history in WWII.
As for the two restorers, their duties are far from completed.
Meyers has a plan to work on the two-seater trainer sitting next to the displayed H — an AT-6 Texan. Arseneau, on the other hand, has his eyes on the B-25 bomber.