A fully restored P-51D Mustang, flown by the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II, was unveiled during a celebration at San Diego’s Gillespie Field in El Cajon.
The Tuskegee Airmen were the first African American military pilots who fought in any war for the U.S. Before 1940, African Americans were barred from flying for the U.S. military. Civil rights organizations and the black press exerted pressure that resulted in the formation of an all African-American pursuit squadron based in Tuskegee, Alabama, in 1941. All those involved in what was called the “Tuskegee Experience,” the Army Air Corps program to train African Americans to fly and maintain combat aircraft, became known as the Tuskegee Airmen. The Tuskegee Airmen included pilots, navigators, bombardiers, maintenance and support staff, instructors, and all the personnel who kept the planes in the air.
The P-51 single-seat Mustang is recognized as the plane flown by the 332nd Fighter Group, known as the “Red Tails” of the Tuskegee Airmen. “The P-51 provided U.S. Army Air Forces with a high-performance, high-altitude, long-range fighter that could escort heavy bomber formations to Berlin and back,” said Tom Czekanski, the National World War II Museum’s senior curator and restoration manager. “With American pilots, including Tuskegee Airmen, at the helm, American forces were able to dramatically reduce the loss of bomber crews, which they had been suffering since the daylight bombing campaign began in 1942.”
The celebrated fighter plane underwent nearly two years of reconstruction work by Flyboys Aeroworks, a collective focused on restoring and conserving World War II period aircraft and aircraft components. The Mustang, named “Bunny, Miss Kentucky State,” will now be moved to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, where it will be the museum’s first authentic P-51. The plane’s exterior was painted to resemble the plane flown by famed Tuskegee Airman Roscoe Brown. Brown was the first pilot to shoot down a German Me-262 jet fighter with a P-51 Mustang during the war.
World War II veterans General Robert Cardenas and Tuskegee Airmen Claude Rowe and Nelson Robinson joined the museum’s Executive Vice-President and Chief Operating Officer Stephen Watson to unveil the plane.
Robinson said he had heard about the 99th fighter squadron, but never realized he would be a part of it. ”I was fresh out of school, I was soon promoted to PFC, I got one stripe, and I thought I was a tough dude with one stripe, you know, that’s moving up,” Robinson said. He said his time as crew chief was a lot of fun, but also a great responsibility. ”That was one of the best things that ever happened to me,” he said.
“The P-51D was among the most important military aircraft ever built, and everyone at Flyboys Aeroworks who has contributed to this project was honored to be a part of this historic effort,” said Rolando Gutierrez, owner of Flyboys Aeroworks. “We are truly humbled to have had the opportunity to keep history alive.”