A Ghost Story - How We Almost Made Reno

Everybody has had the chance, at one time or another, to sit around the campfire and tell a ghost story. As the firelight dances, each person tries to outdo the others with a tale of suspense and fear. For Jimmy Leeward, his ghost tale also has those ingredients. But his ‘ghost’ is a 1945 North American P-51D Mustang that has a distinguished air racing history.

 

Over the past four years, the aircraft was removed from storage and the restoration began. Work was accomplished at a few different shops, and was finished up in Rick Shanholtzer’s facility in McKinney, Texas. Even though the airplane had already been modified into a gold-class racer in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, the airframe had to be gone through and all the systems had to be brought back to life. Back then, winning speeds hovered around 450 mph. Today, the racer needs to go 500 mph to be a winner.

Shanholtzer and Leeward not only wanted to go that fast, they wanted to do it with some ingenuity and style. The airplane would obviously need a hot racing Merlin, and being an engine builder, Shanholtzer had that covered. But what else could be done? The airplane needed more of some things and less of others. More power, more reliability, more speed. It needed less weight, less drag, and less workload in flight.

Power and reliability would come from Shanholtzer’s hot-rodded V-12 Merlin. In a big move, the drag reduction part of the equation came from removing the Mustang’s iconic belly scoop. The function of the radiator and oil cooler would be combined in a heat exchanger, and that would be placed in a tank of water/methanol. As hot coolant and engine oil flowed through the exchanger, heat would transfer to the water/meth where it would boil and vent overboard. The whole idea was to have zero cooling drag on the airplane. In fact, the only air coming into the airplane is fed to the engine. Since the late 1940s, The Galloping Ghost is only the fourth racing P-51 to undergo this surgery. If done right, it has some big benefits to offer.

 

As 2009 got underway, so did work on the racer. There was much to do, and by his own admission, Leeward knew the team was cutting it very close. “It was somewhat of a longshot,” he said. “But the closer we got, the more it looked like it we had a chance.” Outsiders in the air racing community had already placed their bets: there was no way The Galloping Ghost could make it for Reno. There just wasn’t enough time.

So the stage was set; the naysayers fueled the passion of the people actually doing the work and provided motivation. The racer had to be on the ramp at Stead airport by noon Wednesday, September 16. The clock was ticking.

The plan called for the racer to be assembled and ground tested in Texas during early September. Once completed, it would be taken apart and trucked to Minden, Nevada, 40 miles south of Reno. Once there, the remote location would allow the crew to work without interruption. They would have a week and a half before the races to get it back together and put some flight time on it.

As the team’s hauler pulled up to Bernie Jackson’s hangar at Minden airport, room had already been made for what we called The Thrash. The truck disgorged a wing, the fuselage, tail feathers, cowlings, fairings, and a large number of other parts that would have to come together in order to be called an airplane. Rick Shanholtzer was the aircraft manager, while Erik Hokuf came on board as the new crew chief.

 

“This was Erik’s first experience with air racing, but he got up to speed fairly quickly. He manages everything very well,” Leeward said. And then there was Shanholtzer, one of the big names when it comes to rebuilding Merlins and tricking them out for racing. “Rick has been associated with this airplane for over 20 years, so it’s really a labor of love with him.”

As the components, tools, and hardware spilled out of the truck, Shanholtzer and Hokuf took stock of the work to be done and assigned tasks. It was a week and a half before the race deadline... Mark Legarra got to work installing the vertical and horizontal tail, as well as the elevator, rudder, and flaps. Bo Case was working  within the cockpit and get the throttle and other components installed. Glenn Snyder, Russ Raymond, and Doug Deery had their tasks, as did Jay Whisler and Leeward himself. They were busy making fittings for the new seatbelts and shoulder harnesses.

For many years, Leeward has been friends with Jack Roush, one of the big names in the NASCAR world. Turns out Roush is also a warbird owner and pilot, having owned a number of Mustangs. Today, he still flies a newly restored P-51B. He was on hand to lend his help: not only did he bead and install coolant lines, he treated the crew to hot meals and cheesecake from Chili’s.
    
Now We Have an Airplane

On Monday of race week, other competitors were at Stead flying their racers and qualifying. We were heads-down on our Mustang and going full-tilt. Hokuf was busy beading and fitting more coolant lines under the cockpit - an important task to finish before the fuselage is mated to the wing. Late that afternoon, the crew hoisted the fuselage up and placed it over the wing. After about an hour and a half of fitting, cajoling, and tighting some rather large nuts and bolts, the two big pieces became a racing Mustang.

That lifted spirits, but the minor milestone was one of many to come. There were still a lot of parts on the floor, and the deadline for getting to the race site was only a day and a half away.

To the untrained eye, Tuesday’s work didn’t show much progress. The author was busy putting the graphics on the airplane, and making runs to get parts, supplies, and food. As the crew got more of the airplane hooked up, the first engine run would become our milestone of the day. The racer needed fuel and ADI, so Kent Leeward took over that task. Jim Martinelli was volunteering his services balancing and installing the elevators. Little things, although quite necessary, began to get bolted on. The seat was put in, the prop was hung, then the valves controlling the cooling system were installed. It was a symphony of work designed to culminate with the sound of a Merlin engine starting up. Gallons of engine oil were poured in as well as coolant - both the lifeblood of any V-12.

Air, Fuel, Fire

At 9:15 pm, the Ghost was pushed outside and prepared for the first engine run. By 9:22, Shanholtzer with in the cockpit yelling, “Clear!” He hit the starter. One blade. Two blades. Three, four, and the Merlin lit off like it meant it. After one short hesitation, the engine settled into its normal idle and a cheer went up. The smile on Leeward’s face said it all. Several more engine runs followed after checking for leaks.

The engine runs were good, and the boil-off system provided a source of momentary  entertainment for Leeward. He walked up to the exhaust of fluid and vapor and stuck his hand in it. The boiler, Shanholtzer’s own design, was doing its job of cycling and cooling. He had to have been smiling to himself with satisfaction as he looked down from the cockpit to watch the steam vent.

Nobody said it, but there just wasn’t enough time. At the morning and evening crew meetings, The Thrash board - a dry-erase board listing what needed to be accomplished - was updated. The list was long, but nobody ever said anything or complained. “What is my next task?” Once assigned, the worker bees got to working. Head down - move forward - get the work right the first time. But it was Tuesday night, and the airplane technically had to be on the ramp by noon Wednesday.

The atmosphere in the hangar through the week was almost always upbeat. But when you mix strong aviation personalities, there can be problems. Fortunately, the crew was so focused and single-minded there wasn’t one outburst or any raised voices. Everybody knew what the score was and worked as a cohesive unit to get it done.

Tick... Tock... Tick... Tock...


The good news was the Reno Air Racing Association was fully cooperative with the team. They really wanted The Ghost to compete, but short of that, they would still love to have the airplane at Stead for display. That was the team’s Plan B. We didn’t want to do that, but we would accept it if need be.

Meanwhile, the worker bees prepped for another all-night shift. By Wednesday morning, the final landing gear swing was performed, weight and balance had been verified, and various panels and fairings were being fitted. Jimmy’s parachute was put into the airplane, and he climbed in to get some cockpit time and ensure everything was where it needed to be. A communications check was done.

Dirk Leeward, who has raced Cloud Dancer at Reno, was busy fixing some wiring issues on the airplane. Once those were under control, he finished wiring the engine compartment. All over the airplane, parts were going on. The next panel was screwed on... Tiny portions of The Thrash list were checked off.

Time wasn’t slipping away, it was running off. Morning turned to noon, and before anybody knew it, it was dark outside. Where did the day go? The racer was so close to flying, but there was still more to do. Several small problems had cropped up that needed to be addressed before we flew. The crew was busy installing the cowling and fairings - a job that took a lot longer than anticipated. Those parts hadn’t been on the airplane in years. Hardware needed to be replaced, awls coaxed screw holes to line up, and just a little swearing helped some.

Over the past week, the crew worked nearly 20 hours a day. Leeward had been milling about the hangar, offering information, making required phone calls, and answering questions from Shanholtzer and Hokuf. “The entire crew is working together really well,” Leeward said. “I couldn’t be more pleased. Everybody was making a supreme effort and putting in really long hours.”

As for Leeward himself, something should be said. There are owner/pilots who would stand over their guys and slow the work down. There are owner/pilots that shout and demand. There are even owner/pilots that wouldn’t even be there until it was time to fly. Then there is Jimmy Leeward... Through the entire ordeal, his demeanor never changed; he was positive, even-keeled, and he allowed each worker to get their job done as they saw fit. Need a tool? Have a question? Hungry? Jimmy would be there to help out.

Deadline

RARA told Leeward he would be allowed to race if the airplane was on the Stead ramp by 8:00 am Thursday morning. There was still a slim chance - if the crew could pull it off. If that occurred, it also meant the team would have to race every day and win each race in order to move into the gold race on Sunday. That was a tall order for an airplane that hadn’t flown in so many years. There was also a safety aspect to The Thrash. We had a tired crew putting an airplane together that would push the limits, and Leeward would be entrusting his life in it. He never even blinked about that. Not once.

Gathering in the pre-dawn dark of Thursday morning, the crew set about their work after a rest period. The airplane was together, buttoned up, fueled and watered, and ready to go. As the sun neared the horizon, the starry black gave way to blue, then white, then some orange. Leeward was already in his flight suit and ready to go.

After a crew meeting to discuss the test flight, Leeward mounted up and strapped in. Minden’s air was cold and still - perfect conditions for the flight. After getting towed to the taxiway, Leeward lit off the Merlin and allowed the coolant and oil temperatures and pressures to come up. Signaling for the chocks to be pulled, he nudged the throttle forward and for the first time in years, The Galloping Ghost moved under her own power.

After a brake and steering check, the crew chased Leeward and The Ghost down the taxiway to the runup area. After ten minutes of taxiing, Leeward parked in the runup area. Instead of powering up to check the engine and systems, he found there was a problem. He shut the engine down. It was a no-go.

This was the final time gate, and now the crew knew there would be no racing at Reno for this year. Plan B was now in effect: get the airplane flown and tested, and put her on display at Stead.

“I really thought that we could make it,” Leeward said, obviously disappointed. The look on his face said it all. But there was no one to blame, it’s just the way things worked out. The balancing act in Leeward’s mind played out - wanting so bad to race and be competitve versus the disappointment of not being there. In the end, his outlook was visibly upbeat.

“You know, after watching the crew work that hard for that long, it’s hard to feel bad. They really put everything into it. It was a supreme effort. I mean, nobody looked at this like a job. They were passionate about it and took ownership of it,” Leeward said.

With a flight out of the question for Thursday, the crew was given the afternoon off. It was time to decompress a little and take a breath. Most went to Stead to say hello to their fellow racers and friends for the first time. The plan was to come back on Friday and get back to work. The airplane would be test flown, and if all went well, put on display at Stead for the fans.

After getting some sleep and food, the crew gathered once again on Friday morning. There was some satisfaction seeing the racer come together. Two months of normal work had been done in the past three weeks, and the damn thing looked like 500 mph just sitting there. The retro-style markings looked good, and the racer had an aire of serious speed. However, the problems preventing the test flight had to be fixed. The crew got right back into the swing of things.

One of the problems required parts to be fabricated and installed, so this delayed any flying until Saturday at the earliest. As time sped along, Friday melted into Saturday. Anticipating the ferry flight over to Reno, Leeward went to 8:00 am pilot meeting hoping to be granted permission to show up Saturday evening with The Ghost. As it turns out, Doug Matthews had  entered both a Sea Fury and a Corsair, and they were both going to be in the same race. Luckily for Leeward, Matthews asked him to fly the Corsair on Saturday and Sunday. So Leeward got to race, but it was a bittersweet experience.

Back in Minden, the crew had been deep in the thrash. It was evening before The Ghost was ready again.

“It’s one thing to get this done,” Leeward said, “But we were also being safe about it. At this point, we might have been able to make Sunday. I thought it would be good for the fans to see the airplane and appreciate the crew’s effort. I also thought the crew would get some satisfaction out of seeing the airplane on the ramp.”

As Leeward climbed into the cockpit Saturday evening, he had been keeping an eye on the wind coming down the Sierras just to the west. It was 10 gusting to 20 knots and pretty much straight across the runway. If you considered the wind, and then looked at the racer, you knew there was a problem... The Galloping Ghost has the shortest wings of any racing Mustang ever. There was precious little aileron to help counteract the crosswind. Nonetheless, Leeward was giving it a go.

The Final Straw


The Merlin fired to life once again, and as the evening sun sank lower, Leeward taxied The Ghost out, finished the run-up, and got into position and hold. Martinelli was already airborne in an L-39 to fly chase, and even he commented about his sporty crosswind takeoff. Leeward brought the power up on the Merlin and began to accelerate down the runway. One little swerve was countered by rudder, but Leeward already had the stick all the way over into the wind. The airplane just could not be held straight in the crosswind. He chopped the power and aborted the takeoff.

Another setback and another disappointment. But aborting the takeoff was the prudent and safe thing to do. There was brief talk about a Sunday morning test flight, but Leeward reluctantly pulled the plug. The crew was told to go and enjoy Sunday at the races. We’d come back Monday morning for the test flight. The hangar was cleaned up, the airplane was put to bed, and the lights were turned off.

At least everybody kept a sense of humor about the whole thing. On Saturday, fellow racer Dan Martin loaned two P-51 tires and Whisler set them in our pit with some chocks. Kay Keenum, fellow racer Mike Keenum’s wife, came up with and wrote a poem on a sign. This was placed in front of the tires. It read:

It may be here without its host
But look real hard...
It’s Leeward’s Galloping Ghost!


Leeward thought he’d make Reno with The Ghost for the past few years, and had said as much. After that experience, he didn’t want to make any grand statements about being there this year. In any case, Leeward and his team made a very gallant effort to get the airplane on the ramp and race ready. It turns out the naysayers were right, but they have no idea how close they were to being wrong.

Looking back, it’s easy to see where a day here and there got eaten up. There had been weather in Texas that prevented some outside work from being done. Days were lost. Certain problems were found when the airplane came together in Minden - ones that weren’t foreseeable. For the most part, the crew overcame most of these obstacles. If one, or maybe two of the problems hadn’t come up, fans would have seen a fast silver ghost making left turns around Stead.

Silver Lining In The End


“Things tend to pile up at the end,” Leeward said. “If everything had gone fine, we would have been there. I really wanted to be at Reno and going around the course. But I thought we did damn good for what we accomplished. I can’t say enough about the crew and what they put into this.”

In the end, the team new there was a silver lining somewhere in this adventure.

They returned to Minden Monday morning, and Leeward once again suited up and strapped into the driver’s seat. As he taxied out to the active runway, Mike Keenum arrived overhead in his Sea Fury Riff Raff. Leeward and Keenum have been close friends for years, and Keenum offered to come down and fly chase during the test flights.
 
“I was really grateful Mike offered to fly chase for me. It’s comforting to have another set of experienced eyes on you and the airspace,” Leeward said.

The weather was perfect for the first flight; almost no wind and clear skies. Leeward taxied onto the runway. Would it really happen, or would some small problem come up?

After the runup and a final check of all systems, Leeward taxied on to the runway and lined up. From half a mile away, the prop spun faster, then the sound washed by. The Merlin was singing. Brakes released, and the Ghost was finally on the move. Several moments later, the tail came up while Leeward neatly tracked the centerline. The reduction nose gears between the engine and propeller were built for speed, not short takeoffs... The racer kept rolling down the runway and gathered speed.

Finally, it seemed, those tiny little wings developed enough lift and The Galloping Ghost flew once again. Leeward reached over and brought the landing gear up. If there was any sort of payoff for the crew, it just got cashed. Watching an airplane take flight that was a pile of parts just days before was a deeply moving and fulfilling experience for every one of us. With nary a wing bobble, Leeward climbed skyward and circled the airport as Keenum joined up. The Galloping Ghost was back home.

Testing

Over the next couple of days, Leeward put in five flights and completed initial testing. There were a few surprises for him - all good. “I was pleasantly surprised about how well balanced the airplane is. It flies really, really well.” In terms of control harmony, Leeward thinks back to flights he made in a number of Steve Wittman’s Formula 1 racers. “It’s a lot like those; very light and easy to fly. I’d say The Ghost handles half Mustang and half Formula 1.”

First flights and initial testing normally find squawks, but Leeward only had praise. Everybody’s big question was if the boiler worked. “The boil-off system worked as advertised.” he said. “Rick’s design is fantastic.”

Not that a normal Mustang is bad, but Leeward found The Ghost was a real pleasure compared to a stocker. “I was also surprised how easy it was to do everything on a lot less power,” he said. “I mean, I used about 50 inches on takeoff and for the first part of the climb. Everything was totally effortless. It didn’t even breath hard, and had very light control forces compared to other Mustangs I’ve flown recently.”

Some years back, Leeward was able to fly the restored XP-51, the second Mustang built. With 35 hours of XP-51 time in his logbook, he said, “I liken The Galloping Ghost to the XP-51. The XP- was a Mustang before they made it a fighter. It didn’t have all the drag of the later -B and -D models. Much like the XP-51, this racer does much more on much less power,” he said. “The canopy of the XP- was also pretty low and clean. Our canopy aerodynamics are very close to that, too.”

During the flights, Leeward liked the visibility out of the canopy. “The ground handling aspect of the canopy isn’t the best, but once the tail is up, visibility is pretty good. Maybe not as good as Strega’s or Voodoo’s, but it’s good. I think Jim Larsen, who designed this canopy for Miss Foxy Lady in the ‘70s, deserves a lot of credit. The aerodynamics of it were really ahead of its time. Just by looking at the curves and how it flows, you can see that,” he said.

The Plan

As Leeward and his team look to the future, plans have already been made for Reno 2010. “We’ll return to Minden to work on the airplane every six or eight weeks,” he said. “It’s pretty good right now, but we’re going to refine the airplane and test it over the winter and spring. Our plan is to be at PRS with a race-ready aircraft, and run it just like it was Reno. As we find things, we’ll keep improving it and making it better.”

Leeward is quick to recognize the many people along the way who have supported his efforts. Bernie Jackson gave the team hangar space in Minden, while Dave Bono did the same in Texas. Larry Hunsberger brought some parts down from Stead during flight testing, and also allows Leeward to use his hangar while at Stead. The list goes on, right down to the people that watched the crew work and offered their encouragement. Leeward is thankful to them all.

Sitting on the wing kind of looking off into the distance, Leeward took it all in. His ghost story had its ups and downs; it certainly had suspense, and the fear of not making Reno gave way to appreciation for the hard work his crew put in. He may not have made Reno this year, but if his eyes were any indication, he was already planning his attack for 2010.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Back in 1946, Steve Beville and Bruce Raymond owned and raced the airplane as The Galloping Ghost. They had accrued some success in their years of racing in Cleveland from 1946 to 1949. After years away from the limelight, the aircraft emerged again in the 1970s and was further modified for racing. Owner Cliff Cummings campaigned the airplane as Miss Candace until Wiley Sanders bought it. Under the direction of engine builder and crew chief Dave Zueschel, the Mustang was renamed Jeannie and raced by Roy “Mac” McClain, who flew it to victory in 1980. Skip Holm repeated the victory in ‘81 as a rookie race pilot. At the time, the airplane was the fastest of the pack back then.

Sanders sold the airplane to Leeward before the 1983 Reno air races. Campaigned as racer ‘X,’ Specter, race 44, and finally The Leeward Air Ranch Special, Leeward suffered hard luck and blown engines at Reno. After ‘89, he stored the airplane for almost 20 twenty years and raced his stock Mustang Cloud Dancer. But the competitive spirit dies hard. Four years ago, he made the decision to restore the racer and bring it up to modern standards. After a few false starts, the goal of racing at Reno was set in May of ‘09.

The suspense of this ghost story revolved on the battle to ready the aircraft in time. Time, the only thing you can’t buy, was really short. The fear? If you’ve ever met Jimmy Leeward, you know he’s a fierce competitor - and has a deep-seated desire to win at Reno. The fear was not getting his chance to compete.

It’s Go Time


 

Featured Member(s): 
Jimmy Leeward
Kent Leeward
Dirk Leeward
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