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1984 Reno National Champion Stiletto, one of the most highly modified P-51 racers to turn pylons, was not as radical as most people think. There is no question that the list of modifications made to the racer were extensive; the cockpit had been moved aft twenty inches, and the wings were clipped to an amazing span of 28 feet 11 inches. A small racing canopy was installed, and a tweaked Zeuschal Racing Merlin occupied the nose. Prop blades from a T-28 were used for thrust and all of the flying surface angles were reset for racing. Oh yes... And the belly scoop was cut off... It really only resembled a Mustang.
But this wasnít the first time, or even the second time, the belly scoop had been removed from a P-51.
The idea of relocating the radiators and oil cooler on a racing P-51 first surfaced in late 1948 or early 1949; the exact dates have been lost to history. But two Mustangs arrived at the 1949 Cleveland Air Races without belly scoops. The first was the infamous razorback Race 7 P-51C named Beguine. The aircraft had been heavily modified with the removal of the belly scoop and relocation of the radiators in wing tip pods. Other modifications complimented the polished emerald green paint with the music to the song "Begin the Beguine" adorning the fuselage and tip pod sides.
The other aircraft was Race 45, a P-51D-20NA (Serial # 44-72400) owned and flown by a young man named Anson Johnson. He had served as an Army Air Corps ferry pilot, and had gained a wealth of experience flying almost everything the Army had in its inventory. Employed by National Airlines in Miami at the time, Johnson had bought the Mustang from DiPonti Aviation, who had bought the aircraft from W. W. "Woody" Edmondson, the aircraftís first post-war owner. First registered NC69406, the natural metal Mustang was given race number 42 and turned pylons in essentially stock condition. Edmondson had raced it and finished seventh in the 1946 Thompson Trophy race at 354.4 mph.
Edmondson had changed the registration of the Mustang on December 5, 1946, either choosing or being assigned N13Y. Johnson also had the intent of participating in pylon racing. The transaction was a little bit fishy because payment was demanded by DiPonti Aviation before Johnson actually flew the aircraft. Satisfying the buyerís requirement, Johnson registered the aircraft NX13Y, and prepared to fly it to Miami via his Tennessee home. Shortly before his first flight, a mechanic approached him and warned him that the aircraft had a penchant for engine failures. That explained the weird transaction.
Johnson did notice some trouble as he climbed out after takeoff when the engine missed several times. He decided to climb up to 10,000 feet over the airport and ensure the engine was running properly. Satisfied all was well, he lit off for Tennessee and arrived safely. However, on the Tennessee to Florida leg, trouble again surfaced, resulting in a forced landing at an abandoned Army airfield. New magnetos were found and installed, which cured the engine problems and turned the once untrusted racer into a more reliable aircraft.
Johnson arrived back at Miami and took stock of his new acquisition. He had been a rookie at the 1947 Miami Air Races, piloting a P-39 Airacobra named Galloping Gertie. He liked the excitement of pylon racing; the experience being the reason he purchased the Mustang. Now he had his fangs out for more speed. At first, he simply wanted to improve upon the speed Edmondson had finished at in the 1947 Thompson Trophy Race. In an effort to do this, he clipped the wings approximately two feet to the production break and made a general airframe clean up. With number 45 painted on the racer, Johnson competed in the 1947 Kendall Trophy race but was forced to pull out on lap five.
With no funds left, Johnson went back to Miami to come up with a program to improve his aircraftís speed. In his mind, he knew he had the proper aircraft, but the -3 Merlin wasnít the optimum engine for racing. After some research, Johnson sought out and bought a Merlin -225, a lighter version of the engine normally found on the de Havilland Mosquito. The -225 was a single stage, dual speed blower Merlin with a 1,620 hp rating at 3,000 rpm. It was also 240 pounds lighter that the 1,380 hp dual stage -3 Merlin. Other engine modifications were made to increase horsepower. Johnson was well on his way in the quest for speed.
The work did not stop there. The cuffed Hamilton Standard propeller was exchanged for a paddle blade type, and an ADI system was installed. High lift cams and new nose case gears allowed Race 45 to achieve maximum power at 3,200 rpm. Johnson also plumbed the intercooler into the engine cooling system to increase engine cooling capacity. Much unnecessary weight was removed from the airframe, and a high gloss, dark blue paint scheme was applied. Anson Johnson was again ready to race.
When the 1948 Cleveland races commenced, the lineup of racing aircraft was simply awesome. The Cobra II P-39 was there, two F2Gís were there, and a handful of Kingcobras, Mustangs and a single P-51A. Johnson had gone to school on the competition throughout the week. He thought the attrition card was going to be played during the main race; and the reliability of his engine would come into play. Sure, it would make a lot of horsepower and he could go pretty fast, but for how long? Certainly the F2Gís had a handle on the horsepower and reliability issues, and Cobra II had a proven track record. Other aircraft had veteran race pilots.
Anson Johnson made his decision.
Ten aircraft took off at the start of the twenty lap race, settled into the groove, and began pounding over the course. Chuck Brown was setting the pace at a stunning 413 mph in Cobra II. The Super Corsairs were right behind him at 410 mph, but couldnít quite match the refined ĎCobra. Johnson hung in fourth position at a steady speed that didnít tax his engine much. On the third lap, the cards began to fall. One of the F2Gís pulled out, having had its engine backfire and blow the induction trunk loose. The other Corsair experienced the same problem on the next lap. Johnson and Race 45 "plodded" along, now in second place. He continued and maintained his "endurance" power setting.
The Cleveland crowd roared throughout the race; the big World War II fighters were having a slugfest around the pylons. Because he couldnít see the other racers, Johnson didnít know he was in second place at the time. Itís an amazing thing to consider these race pilots had to keep track of how many laps they had flown, the condition of their aircraft, and fly the course at low level and high speed. All without modern day telemetry or a pit crew!
Johnsonís gamble paid off on lap eighteen. He had kept a fast pace behind the front runners, but not so fast and punishing that he used up his engine. Although he didnít know it at the time, Cobra IIís engine had begun to miss around the fourteenth lap. Brown stayed in the race, hoping the Allison would hold together, but it was all for naught. He pulled out of the race while in first place; so Johnson was now the leader!
At the end of the race, Race 45 flashed across the finish line to capture the trophy and prize money. Being only one of three aircraft to finish the race, Johnson had gambled very wisely in not pushing his engine to the limit. Although he obviously enjoyed success, he was far from satisfied with the 383.8 mph average speed. If one looked at it, his average speed was a 30 mph increase over the previous year, although he probably was not using full power. It was possible that Race 45 was a 400 mph racer at full power, a speed that would almost match the front runners. But reliability would be an issue. In his mind, Johnson understood the fact that he would have to beat Cobra II and the F2G Corsairs on even terms. He needed more speed.
During the off season, Johnson was approached by J.D. Reed to pilot his highly modified P-51C Beguine in the 1949 Thompson race. Reed was a Beechcraft dealer and also a private pilot. And he obviously had the resources to invest in a highly modified racer such as Beguine. However, Johnson believed in his abilities, and that his Mustang could be modified further. Even after viewing Reedís aircraft, he declined the invitation. Johnson knew he could beat the touted Beguine.
At this point, it can be argued that Johnson got the idea to remove the belly scoop from his Mustang after seeing the application on Beguine. If that was the case, Johnson went a step further and took a different approach. Beguine had the radiators mounted in wing tip pods, units that either added wetted area to the aircraft or equaled that of the deleted radiator scoop. Did Beguine really have reduced drag figures over a stock airframe? The addition of the pods on the wing tips would also alter the flight loads imposed on the racer, and there might have been some altered airflow over the ailerons. There has also been speculation that the racerís wings were different lengths; having been cut differently specifically for the Cleveland course. Whatever the case was, the answers have been lost to history.
Johnson chose a different route. Without the financial resources that Beguine owner Reed had, Johnson dipped into his common sense and found technical answers in the form of J. D. Crane. Crane was Vice President of Engineering at National Airlines, and had an extensive background applicable to modifying a racing Mustang. With unofficial backing of National Airlines, Johnson and Crane set out to further modify Race 45.
If the Beguine had done away with the scoop, they lost any advantage of that modification because of the added wetted area and its associated drag when the radiator pods were installed. This was simply substituting one structure (the scoop) for two more (the pods). Johnson and Crane probably figured that they needed to place the radiators inside the airframe; this way the scoop could be removed without adding another structure to house the radiators. Similar applications had been proven on the Grumman F7F Tigercat and the de Havilland Mosquito. This gave Race 45 an advantage over Beguine.
For those with knowledge of the innards of the P-51, you know there is scant room for anything. But the Mustang had been built to carry guns. The removal of the guns and their ammunition chutes left a large quantity of unused space within the racers wings. Perfect! The required space within the airframe had been found. Race 45 began a extensive modification program in hopes of becoming the predominant racer around the pylons. Crane and Johnson consulted on many ideas and incorporated the best into the aircraft.
The lower cowl was reworked as a continuous contour from the spinner to the wing. A small carburetor intake with a boundary layer splitter plate was fashioned and installed near the leading edge of the wing, just below the carburetor. The propís wide-chord paddle blades were shortened by six inches with the reasoning that the total blade area was not required in the thick air at low altitude. A better reason would be to enable higher rpm without the chance of the blade tips going supersonic.
The most visible modification made was the removal of the radiator scoop. The single P-51 coolant radiator was replaced by two P-39 coolers mounted in the inboard portion of each gun bay. Another unit, on the outboard right side, handled oil cooling. Since air would have to pass through the spar, the solid web structure was partially modified to a truss structure. Air would enter through slots built into the leading edge of the wing, pass through the truss portion of the spar, then the radiators, and exit through variable, non-hinging ramps atop each wing. Supposedly, this setup had little effect on the airfoil properties of the wing.
Final modifications included the removal of the stock exhaust stacks and the fitting of horizontally rectangular, low back-pressure units. Since the races were begun with a race-horse start, Johnson figured he could quicken the time it took the landing gear to retract by the addition of a second hydraulic accumulator.
When Race 45 was rolled out, it was the pinnacle of current air racing technology. Even Reedís Beguine seemed a step behind, although both were highly modified and capable machines. To those that saw her, she was the aircraft to beat around the pylons.
Johnson must have been a bit surprised when he arrived at the 1949 Cleveland Air Races; the competition looked intense! Beguine, now owned by Jackie Cochran, had arrived and was looking sharp, along with several other Mustangs. But Johnson figured the real competition came from Cook Cleland and his modified F2G Super Corsair. He had clipped the wings on the monster, and placed tip plates on the ends to reduce vortice drag. Close attention to detail had been paid by Cleland.
Although Johnson and Cleland were both entered in the Tinnerman race, both decided to save their engines for the more lucrative Thompson. This turned out to be an unfortunate decision for Johnson. As he took off for the Thompson, the landing gear failed to retract properly. The culprit was the second hydraulic accumulator; it hadnít been bled properly when it was hooked up. Air in the lines was inhibiting the systemís ability to sequence and snap-retract the landing gear up. The exact item installed to speed up retraction and prevent a problem turned out to be the reason Race 45 faltered. By the time the landing gear finally retracted, Cleland was already lapping the Mustang. If Johnson had flown in the earlier Tinnerman race, he would have likely found the problem and fixed it in time for the Thompson.
Unfortunately, the 1949 Thompson Trophy Race was only two laps old when an infamous crash occurred. Beguine pilot Bill Odom had gone down into Bradley Lairdís house near the course, killing his 23 year old wife, Jeanne, and their baby boy, Craig. Over the period of time that has passed since this tragic event, many have opined on the cause of the crash. Some say Odom was not qualified to race such an aircraft, others think he horsed the aircraft and caused an accelerated stall. Johnson remembers pointing out some sheet metal separation on the wingtip pods to one of the Beguine mechanics the night before. It has never been ascertained whether or not this was fixed, or if it was a contributing factor to the accident.
The race, however, continued. Johnson beat Race 45 into a froth in an attempt to make up lost ground. He was turning in incredible lap speeds of 450 mph and actually gaining on the Corsairs! This continued until the ninth lap, when smoke began to seep into the cockpit, and an occasional Ďthumpí was heard within the racer. Johnson wisely pulled up and out of the race, figuring that with the poor start, the smoke, and the thumping, heíd land and race another day. If he was upset at all with the aircraftís performance, some good must have come from the stunning lap speeds he flew while chasing the Corsairs.
Upon inspection of the aircraft after landing, Johnson found the cause of his in-flight worries. The intense heat generated by the engine had allowed the exhaust stacks to begin burning off or failing under the pressure load. The pieces were scattering back along the fuselage, causing the noise. The disrupted airflow from the exhaust caused the smoke in the cockpit.
There would be no air racing in 1950; the crash of Beguine and the death of the Lairdís were the catalyst that suspended the races until resurrected at Reno in 1964. Fortunately, this wasnít the end of the story for Race 45 or Anson Johnson. Without a venue to race against other aircraft, Johnson had ideas of setting the piston engine speed record with his Mustang. Back then, Germany held the record of 469.22 mph with a Me-109 derivative flown by Fritz Wendell. The record had stood since 1939.
As with any air racing venture, Johnson needed financial backing to make it happen. He began looking for sponsors to offset the considerable costs of the attempt. The Federation Aeronautique Internationale was also involved in ensuring the attempt was flown under prescribed guidelines. Thompson Products, American Airmotive and AP Parts financially backed Johnson for the speed run.
If measured from the last Cleveland race, it took the better part of three years to make all of the preparations. Key Biscayne, Florida was chosen as the site for the speed run. Johnson and his crew had meticulously prepared Race 45; tuning the engine, polishing the aircraft and fueling it with methyl-triptane. The date was Saturday, June 6, 1952. The previous day, Johnson had reportedly pushed the aircraft past 500 mph in a course trial flight. To say that anticipation was high is an understatement.
As the sun rose on the 6th, Johnson had planned on a 0530 takeoff to allow the multiple passes to be made in optimum morning conditions. The air would be calm, allowing precise flying and higher speeds. It must have boiled his blood to have the National Aeronautics Association timers show up and begin their preparations at 0600. Charged with the responsibility of timing the speed runs, the NAAís photographic equipment would be proof that the record had or had not been set, so it absolutely had to be in place for the attempt. Over three hours later, the problems with the equipment had been overcome. Johnson had taken off at 0900 hoping that everything would be in place, but the delays had taken a toll. He had burned precious fuel and some of the wick had been burned off of his engine. Things were not looking good.
When Johnson finally got clearance onto the course, he pushed the power up and flashed by the speed traps. The four best passes during a 30 minute window would be used to figure the average speed set during the attempt. The first pass was made at 200 feet at 96 inches of manifold pressure and an indicated airspeed of 510 mph. The second pass was clocked at 503 mph, but trouble arose during the third pass; the engine began to overheat. Johnson pulled Race 45 off the course, and low on fuel by this time, landed. Even though he had taken a 503 mph pass, there would be no record on this day because the required number of passes had not been completed.
On Sunday, events occurred as scheduled and eight passes were completed. Johnson gave his racer everything she had, and was confident that he had set a new world record. He landed back at the airport, fully expecting to celebrate his success. Unfortunately, the camera on the southern trap malfunctioned and only caught three of the eight passes. Technically, the FAI could not determine if the record had been broken or not. The best guess was, as NAA timer Richard Leavell said, "Something over 450 mph." Timer's handwritten notes showed even more dismal news; speeds were around the 435 mph mark. Johnson, however, was the man in the cockpit and knew what the real numbers were.
Itís a crime that a world sanctioning organization such as the National Aeronautic Association could not professionally handle their duties of recording the event. Bad luck had dogged Johnson and his racer for years, and now forces totally outside of his control had stolen a possible world record from him. It was no consolation that he broke Jackie Cochranís National Speed Record of 412.002 mph. Johnson and his sponsors had wanted the World title.
Johnson planned on another attempt in the Fall of 1952, but delays pushed the window of opportunity back to early 1953. In an attempt to right their wrong, the NAA wanted to hold the attempt at no cost to Johnson and his sponsors. With preparations under way, Race 45's -225 Merlin was sent in for overhaul, but was somehow "lost." This inexplicable blunder is a surprise even today, knowing how strict the FAA is about paperwork records. The company performing the overhaul gave Johnson a -9 Merlin in replacement, but it was a heavier, less powerful engine. Race 45 would never again be the same, and jets were receiving the public limelight and speed records.
Race 45 began a downhill slide into disrepair.
From 1953 to 1959, Anson Johnson would only fly N13Y another forty or so hours. With a transfer to New York in the works, Johnson sold the racer to Robert Bean. Registered N502, the aircraft was never flown by the new owner, as the modifications required a firm understanding for proper operation. The last flight this aircraft ever made had been with Johnson at the controls.
A string of owners line the history of Race 45, including (chronologically) John Juneau and George Nesmith. Juneau bought out Nesmith shortly thereafter, then sold the aircraft to Robert DíOrsay. He sold it to Frank Lloyd, who then sold it to air racer Walt Ohlrich in February, 1965. If one owner held any hope for getting Race 45 back into the air, it would have been Ohlrich, but this, too, was not to be. He sold the aircraft to Richard Vartanian, who wanted the aircraft reregistered N13Y, but the FAA would not allow it. Their DC-3 was registered N13YD, and they would not allow a variation on N13Y. Vartanian had to settle for N913Y. Leonard Tanner was the next owner, who took Race 45's -9 Merlin for another project, and pushed the aging racer into the weeds. Other parts, such as landing gear doors, the seat, wing fillets and other items were sacrificed to keep other warbirds flying.
Tanner then sold the racer to the Bradley Air Museum in 1972. Located at the Windsor Locks Airport, Connecticut, the museum only paid $12,000 for the aircraft. Now called the New England Air Museum, their belief is that this aircraft represented a glorious time in aviation history. At last, somebody understood the importance of a historic Cleveland era racer, and somewhat ensured its survival. As of August 16, 1972, the museum has had the aircraft, and some restoration work has been performed in hopes of returning Race 45 to static display.
Museum workers David Isner, Don Chouinard and Tom Palshaw are the guardians of N13Y, but they have been forced to put N13Y into storage when the museum decided to concentrate on their TB-29 restoration. Currently, N13Y is stored in a shed with the wings de-mated and partially disassembled. She is not a pretty sight.
Warbird Aero Press traveled to the Museum to see the aircraft and talk with Isner. "A lot of the items removed from the airframe have been put into these boxes here," Isner says. He points to various boxes full of hydraulic lines, sheet metal, coolant tubing and assorted airframe parts. The fuselage sits on a cradle next to a F-86, while the wings are stacked on a trailer. Some of the race modifications are visible.
The modified lower wing skins show how the gun linkage and shell ejection chutes were faired over, and the wheel wells still have the modified oil and coolant lines installed. Johnson and his crew packed a lot of hardware in a very small space, and unfortunately, the leaking coolant system has led to corrosion within the wing. This was always a source of problems for Johnson and Race 45. Photos exist that show puddles of coolant below the aircraft The P-39 oil coolers sit nearby and appear to be in very good shape.
Isner points out the small details that will be replicated when the program again is allocated space in the restoration hangar. "See the remaining paint there?," Isner points. "Johnson painted the wheel wells gray, and the sealant is still on most of the pipes going to the radiators." There is an obvious spark inside Isner for this aircraft. His custom made hat has "RP-51D N13Y" embroidered on it, a term he coined for the aircraft. "None of the current racers use a different model designation to signify they have been modified for racing, so I thought this would distinguish the aircraft," he says.
Sitting nearby is a Packard built Merlin -224, a close relative of the -225 the aircraft had lost years ago. "Mike Nixon of Vintage V-12's explained the minor differences between the two to me, and said he could easily rebuild this as a -225. Iíd like to display it next to the aircraft and use another Merlin to hold the prop in place," Isner says.
Boxes of parts sit nearby. "Iíve marked all of the parts so they donít get thrown away or sold," he says, looking at the aircraft. Obviously, this project is going to take considerable time and great effort to complete. It is also going to take many, many years... Unfortunately, the racer is low on the Museumís priority list for restoration.
But there is hope. Isner, Chouinard and Palshaw take parts home and work on them there, bringing them back to the museum when finished. Isner has set the objective of the restoration as "preserve rather than restore, restore rather than replace." The use of new paint and hardware is to be highly restricted (their emphasis). By viewing the photos, it becomes obvious that a large amount of cosmetic repainting will have to be accomplished. When finally completed, the aircraft will appear as it did on race day in 1949 in its yellow and red paint scheme.
At the back of the storage shed sits the fuselage of N13Y. Twisting, ducking and slithering along the myriad of airplane parts and jigs was sort of an adventure that made getting to the fuselage fun... You had to work at it. But once standing there, the feeling of being next to such an important part of air racing history was humbling.
Isnerís great enthusiasm for the project is not only contagious, it is off the scale. He rapidly points out details and tells the story of the work performed so far on the racer. "We sent the fuselage to a guy to have the cockpit cosmetically redone, and we spelled out exactly how we wanted it accomplished," he says. "When we got it back, we were sickened... He simply bead blasted everything in the cockpit... I mean everything; metal, instruments, their glass faces; everything. Then he painted it zinc chromate green. Itís terrible." Isner shakes his head. The stock color for a P-51D was a Interior Green, a shade that North American mixed at the factory.
Although the faulty work will have to be reversed, N13Y is still a fascinating aircraft. For such a highly modified racer, the fuselage is still close to stock military condition. The flare port holder is still installed, as are the backs to military radio boxes and hardware. The aft fuselage tank is still there, as it was necessary for the racer to carry enough fuel for the 300 mile race. Few modifications were done to the instrument panel. Even the red paint Johnson applied to the inside of the canopy railing is still there.
Through the visit, it was obvious that Isnerís passion for the project will result in a accurate restoration, with work being accomplished in the correct manner. Even if it takes another 20 years. He is also quick to point out the work Chouinard performs. Photos show the level of detail he attained in the restoration of some instrument panel components. They look like they just came out of a brand new Mustang. "He's really an artist," Isner says. "The work he has done with sheet metal, scratch building certain parts of the leading edge intakes, and preserving certain castings in incredible. He has breathed life and legitimacy into this project at a time when the museum has chosen to pursue other work."
Isner also shared facts about Johnson and his connection to this particular racer. "Anson loved this airplane," he says. "During the 70's and 80's, he wanted to get the airplane back and fly it for us. At the time, the Museum didn't want to risk the potential loss, but we did develop a good relationship with him. He would have restored and flown the aircraft while we retained ownership. He really wanted to fly again and set the speed record." Unfortunately, Johnson would not live to see his racer's restoration completed. He died several years ago.
It is also interesting to note that this airframe was evaluated to be rebuilt for the early Reno races. Upon inspection, though, the glycol-induced corrosion had taken a tremendous toll on the interior structure and the idea faded
Race 45's history, like many modern unlimited air racers, has seen many a pitfall, and a few triumphs. These highly modified racers have years of development to endure before they enjoy their true potential and hit competitive race speeds. Race 45 hit that mark in just a few short years. Along with Stiletto, Race 45 holds the title of "Champion", and the distinction of being one of three scoopless racing Mustangs. One day, air racing fans will be able to travel to see this remarkable aircraft and share in David Isnerís enthusiasm for her history and heritage.
Click Here to go to the Race 45 Photo Gallery
Warbird Aero Press would like to thank The New England Air Museum, David Isner and Don Chouinard for their time and assistance in the preparation of this article. Article by Scott Germain - Copyright 2000. All Rights Reserved. Photos by Scott Germain, Emil Strasser and via the New England Air Museum. Used with Permission.
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If you are so inclined, please contact the New England Air Museum and share your ideas on the status of the N13Y restoration. In addition, this museum is worthy of a visit by any aviation minded person. Membership can be obtained by contacting: