Dakota Territory Air Museum’s P-51C Thunderbird, Part 5

Update by Chuck Cravens
Warren and Mark
Warren Pietsch and Mark Tisler hold a painting of Thunderbird by Daryll Legg, used by permission.


Work on the cowling, fuselage, and wings all progressed over the last few weeks. The cockpit components and cockpit enclosure were areas that saw attention as well.

Here is a closer view of Darryl’s excellent painting.

Cockpit Enclosure

Fitting the windshield assembly and the rest of the cockpit enclosure is an exacting process. The aluminum frame structure needs to be fitted, and each window has to be trimmed to fit precisely.


Work on the components of the cockpit progressed nicely since the last update. Some firewall forward engine accessories were installed. The scoop area is in the process of preparations and installation of the radiator. Several skin sections in that area were trimmed and fit into place.


Mike spent a great deal of time fitting skin sections to the cowling. The cowling is one of the areas where Thunderbird had a few modifications from the standard P-51C configuration.


Thunderbird’s wings have a few differences from a military Mustang, most notably that there are no gun bays or ports.

Highlights of the Bendix Trophy Race’s History

Thunderbird’s fame comes in large part from its 1949 Bendix Trophy win and all-time propellor-driven race average speed record of 470.136 mph. It also was the last time the propellor-driven race was held, so Thunderbird was the final winner of the Bendix Trophy race propellor division.

The Vincent Bendix race originated with a 1931 meeting in the club car of the New York Central Railroad’s premier passenger train – the Commodore Vanderbilt. Vincent Bendix was a famous and very successful industrialist and inventor. His company made everything from automobile brakes and starters, to avionics and pressure carburetors for airplanes.  He was approached by the originator and promoter of the National Air Races, Clifford Henderson, who managed to sit down with Bendix and propose an annual free for all cross-country air race.  

Henderson’s sales pitch was that his proposed race would provide a goal for airplane designers, builders, and pilots to “really get down to business.”  By that, he meant they would be incentivized to build faster, more reliable, and more durable aircraft. Henderson felt that the Bendix name had a magic ring to it and meant speed, reliability, and progress. Sponsoring the race would go a long way toward promoting Bendix aviation products.

Henderson showed Bendix a preliminary drawing of a proposed trophy for the race. Vincent Bendix said he thought the trophy was just a standard loving cup and told Henderson to come back and see him when he’d designed a better trophy.1

For a much more comprehensive history of the Bendix Trophy Race see Don Dwiggins’ book titled, They Flew the Bendix Race footnoted below.

1 Don Dwiggins, They Flew the Bendix Race, J.B. Lippincott Company, New York, 1965, p.14-15

Vincent Bendix Trophy, Photo National Air and Space Museum, Donated by the Clifford W. Henderson Family Trust.

Henderson commissioned a new trophy that was sculpted and cast by artist Walter A. Sinz.

Vincent Bendix must have liked the new 100-pound bronze trophy because he agreed to sponsor the cross-country race with a contribution of $15,000 that was to be matched by the Cleveland Air Race Commission.

Laird Super Solution replica at Fantasy of Flight, photo Valder137, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a8/Laird_Super_Solution_RSideFront_FOF_12July2010_%2814403943148%29.jpg

The first Bendix winner was Jimmy Doolittle, flying the Laird Super Solution averaging 223.058 mph during the Bendix Trophy Race in 1931. Henderson’s vision to incentivize aircraft designers and builders to strive for more speed and reliability worked. The nature of the long cross country race required reliability to finish at all, and each year saw developments that usually increased the average race speed.

Mr. Mulligan in 1935, photo Wikipedia

Henderson commissioned a new trophy that was sculpted and cast by artist Walter A. Sinz.

Vincent Bendix must have liked the new 100-pound bronze trophy because he agreed to sponsor the cross-country race with a contribution of $15,000 that was to be matched by the Cleveland Air Race Commission.

Jacqueline Cochran, with Seversky AP-7 that she piloted to victory in the 1938 Bendix Race. Photo National WASP WWII Museum https://www.waspmuseum.org/avenger-news/part-ii-nancy-jackie-before-the-wasp-jacqueline-cochran-by-julia-lauria-blum/

The three Bendix races between 1937 and the shutdown of air racing during WWII were won by Seversky SEV-2S, better known as the P-35 in the military. Among the winners was Jackie Cochran in 1938 in a Seversky AP-7 which was an improved civilian version of the P-35. Jackie averaged 249.774 mph. She was to figure in Thunderbird’s history later on.

The post-war races took advantage of the accelerated improvements in aircraft design and technology that were the result of the all-out war effort. All the propellor division Bendix winners from 1946, when the race resumed, through the last propellor division race in 1949 were P-51 Mustangs. Paul Mantz won three consecutive races in 1946, 47, and 48. Thunderbird and Joe DeBona took the 1949 Bendix with a record speed of 470.136 mph which still stands, since it was the final Bendix race with a propellor division.

This photo of Thunderbird was taken at the 1948 Bendix race. Notice that the rudder does not carry the yellow checkerboard paint, and there is no yellow stripe on the forward fuselage or yellow paint on the spinner. Next to Thunderbird on the left is the wing tip of Jackie Cochran’s P-51 (race number 13. Photo by Pahl from the Dick Phllips collection, courtesy of Mark Phillips

On the right side of the photo is one of the Mustangs sponsored by oilman Glenn McCarthy. It is difficult to be certain, but this P-51 appears to be “Buttonpuss”, named using pilot Ed Lunken’s nickname for his wife.

Edmund Lunken finished in 4th place with an average speed of 441.594mph. It is also possible that this aircraft is another Mustang in the Glenn McCarthy stable, “Houstonian”.

McCarthy's Buttonpuss with Thunderbird visible in the background. Photo by Pahl from the Dick Phillips collection, courtesy of Mark Phillips

In the first  color photo, there is an odd-looking device atop Thunderbird’s vertical fin.

The odd-looking protuberance on the fin is believed to have housed an ADF. It was moved under the wing center section and covered with a fairing for the 1949 race. photo by Chalmers Johnson, courtesy of Tim Weinschenker collection.

From biplanes at 223 mph to Mustangs at 470 mph, the Bendix race showcased the aeronautical engineering progress that took place from 1931 through 1949.

Special thanks to Air Racing Historians Kevin Grantham and Tim Weinschenker, and also to author Mark Phillips for help with photos and proper credits.

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1 Response
  1. Tom Griffith

    It’s lookin’ good!

    Tell me, are they going to affix/apply/install a Dorsal Fin on it, like it had as a racer? I ask because y’all did that to “Lope’s Hope 3rd” and it looked great, then the owners removed it after a couple years or so.

    Just wondering!

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