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Aircraft: Mustang's Alley

D.C. Agle

For the past three years, Bob Hannah has been selling million-dollar vintage planes, including a P-51 Mustang, a P-38 Lightning, and a Supermarine Spitfire. “Anybody who is calling me about an airplane is calling because he knows what it’s all about,” Hannah says from his office in Caldwell, Idaho. “He loves racing fast things and wants the absolute best in fast things. Essentially, he’s one crazy son of a bitch with a lot of money.”

Hannah should know. A former motorcycle racer, he used to race planes 50 feet above the ground at 490 mph. “Take a washing machine to the top of Yosemite Park’s El Capitan,” says Hannah. “When you’re at the very top, turn the thing on, jump inside, and have someone push you over the side. When you hit 460 miles per hour, that’s what it feels like to fly an unlimited air racer flat out.”

Air racing is considered the fastest motorsport in the world. Each season (from May through September), pilots with more machismo than common sense barrel their half-century-old warbirds wingtip-to-wingtip along miles of straightaway, carving the planes around pylons as tall as office buildings at a gut-wrenching five g’s. The sea-son’s highlight is the National Championship Air Races (www.airrace.org) in Reno, Nev., held this year from September 12 through 15.

Unlimited racing, which is open to any piston-driven aircraft, usually involves World War II fighter planes. There are approximately 30 unlimited air racers in the United States; most pilot P-51 Mustangs, the best all-around fighters of World War II. The plane had range, speed, and maneuverability. Air racers prefer the P-51 Mustang because its airframe lends itself to the modifications required for pylon racing.

However, the P-51 Mustang is as dangerous as it is popular. Only 150 are believed to exist, and they seem to drop out of the sky at the rate of one per year. Take a 50-year-old airframe, modify it for 500-mph racing, and the potential for disaster is as high as the testosterone level in a typical air racer. “One time I was going about 500 miles per hour right on the deck when one of the elevator trim tabs came off,” Hannah recalls. “The nose of the plane pitched up, and I got hit with an instantaneous 10 g’s. That threw me onto the floorboards—which is not a good place to be—until I could get the power off, which in that plane seemed like a long time.”

Still, the exhilaration of racing a P-51 Mustang continues to lure racers into the cockpits of the World War II fighters. “You do it because you know there are only a half-dozen pilots in the world whose motto is ‘Blow up or win,’ ” says Hannah. “That’s the kind of guy who owned it in the past. That’s the kind of guy who owns it now. And that’s the guy who should own it next.”

Bob Hannah Aviation, 208.454.7858, www.bobhannah.com

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