Wednesday, April 09, 2014

An icon takes flight: Durango man owns World War II-era plane

On a cool, gray morning at Durango-La Plata County Airport, a fleck of silver approaches from the north.

The silvery glint is accompanied by a loud thrum that becomes a gurgled roar as the P-51 Mustang nears. The powerful World War II-era fighter plane makes a low pass slicing along the runway, then pulls up hard and to port, climbing against the mountain backdrop.

Two young boys whoop in appreciation. A business-jet pilot, trying to appear unimpressed, slides his camera phone back into his pocket.

Only 123 P-51 Mustangs remain in the United States out of more than 15,000 that were manufactured, according to the Federal Aviation Administration registry. One of them resides at Durango’s airport.

Because of its iconic role in World War II and eye-pleasing shape, the P-51 Mustang inspires rapturous praise among aviation aficionados.

John Early, the Durango resident who owns the airplane, compared the Mustang to a Stradivarius violin.

“It’s probably one of the most beautiful things man has created and formed,” Early said.

Early, who is CEO and chairman of Saddle Butte Pipeline LLC in Durango, purchased the plane a year ago from an Indiana man named Nathan Davis.

Early has made some modifications, adding modern avionics and an improved radio communication system. “It’s kind of blasphemy for the purists,” he said.

He was quick to add he views owning the plane as a trust.

“It’s always been a childhood dream to shepherd a Mustang for a few years, at least, and pass it on to someone else,” he said.

Early has flown the plane in the mountains north of Durango, and around the Moab, Utah, area.

Early’s father was a pilot who had a World War II training airplane, and a friend owned a P-51. Early’s grandfather flew bombers in the war.

“I grew up around the hangars,” he said.

The P-51 was built beginning in 1940 to fight the Luftwaffe over Europe. As the U.S. entered the war, Mustangs guarded bomber fleets on their way to pound Nazi positions. The P-51 would often fly high above the bombers, waiting to swoop in if they were met by enemy fighter planes.

Today, the Mustang is mostly a prized possession of museums and wealthy hobbyists. A well-maintained Mustang can cost around $2 million, and actor Tom Cruise is reportedly among the aircraft’s celebrity owners.

Early’s Mustang, a later P-51D model, was manufactured by North American Aviation in 1944 in Inglewood, Calif. It went to the Canadian Air Force for training, and the aircraft never saw combat.

Many Mustangs passed into private hands after the war ended, often for a pittance compared to today’s value. Some were bought by inexperienced pilots who crashed the planes.

Early is learning to fly the Mustang with the help of Mike Schlarb, a longtime local flight instructor.

“I’ve been a flight instructor for 20 years, but this was kind of a special case,” said Schlarb.

The Mustang is a challenging airplane to fly, he said. “It commands a lot of respect. It’s no toy.”

Early is building up hours in a training aircraft before his insurance company will allow him to fly the Mustang solo.

The Mustang also requires intensive maintenance, as one might expect of a 70-year-old aircraft. In addition to being Early’s flight instructor, Schlarb keeps his planes running.

The P-51 is the opposite of stealth. It’s loud and fast, equipped with a powerful V-12 engine. Early has heard some grumbling from adjacent landowners who were annoyed by the Mustang, complaints he’s tried to address.

“It’s just nothing but engine,” said Schlarb. “It’s a screamer. It puts a grin on your face every time your fly it.”

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