Warbirds often perform feats of speed and handling that were never expected of them in combat. The engines are old and highly stressed, an explosive combination. When they blow, which is often, hearts as well as pistons stop pumping. The pilot of a stricken warbird must immediately pull up, climbing with the silent engine, gaining as much altitude as he can for the delicate glide back to earth and the dead-stick landing. "Every time you climb in, you're ready for a Mayday," says Destefani. "I've done it umpteen thousand times in my mind, so when it happens you are ready. You don't have time to think. You can't panic. If you panic you're going to die. After you've experienced a Mayday a few times, it's no big deal. It's more scary to me to drive on a one-lane road with a drunk driver coming toward you. Then you have no control. In the plane, you know what you have to do."
Destefani remembers "four or five" actual Maydays. His last two occurred in September at the Reno National Championship Air Races. He brought Strega safely back to the runway both times but failed to qualify for the national finals for the first time in 10 years.
Blown engines are just one of the risks. The close racing creates handling problems, a result of prop wash from other planes. "Sometimes tailing another plane is scary," Destefani says. "When you're already banked halfway over, all it takes is another quarter and you're upside down. Like that!"
Then there are the tight turns around the pylons. "If you do it right, you can slide through at 4.25 G's, but if you start to drift out and have to pull it back, you can get up to 6 G's," he says. "Then, it's possible to gray out [remain conscious, but be unable to see]. I've grayed out for a couple of seconds. But when you do, you lighten up your hold on the stick, and as soon as you do, the forces lessen and you come around."
Airplanes have excited Destefani all his life. As a boy, he hid in the fields of the family farm just for the thrill of being buzzed by crop dusters. He wasn't able to do anything about flying until he grew up. "Before I got started fooling with airplanes, I never did a damn thing but work," he says. "My dad never had time for anything but work. He had the attitude that if it wasn't work, it wasn't worth doing. He thought airplanes were bull. He never knew how much I liked them. He never let me near one."
After Destefani returned from Vietnam, he went back to work on the farm. He had taken flying lessons from a local crop duster when he was 21, and at 30 he finally had enough money to buy a plane. It was a 1947 Navion, a 260-horsepower relic that was "barely flying." He restored it himself despite having no experience at such things. "Anything it needed, I just did it, just like it was another piece of machinery on the farm," he says.
Out in the fields one morning in 1978, Destefani was stricken with a splitting headache; by the time he got home his entire body was numb. It was spinal meningitis. After 15 days in a hospital he recovered, but he had been changed. "It's not a big deal, but things like that do play a role in a person's attitude toward how they live," he says. "When I got that spinal meningitis and damn near died, it sank in that I hadn't done everything I wanted to do. People go through their lives saying, 'One of these days'...and then they die. Owning a Mustang was my ultimate goal, and that really forced the issue."
He bought his first Mustang in 1979 and called it Mangia Pane. which is Italian for "eats bread," because, he says, "That's what the plane did." He restored it and flew it for nearly 900 hours. "I'd go flying every day in the thing. Basically, I taught myself the aerobatics. Never did tell my dad. He'd never approve. One day he said, 'I heard you bought a Mustang,' but that was it. By the time he died in 1982, he was a different man. He'd finally stopped working so hard, and had even been to a few air shows."
After Mangia Pane, Destefani found and restored two other Mustangs, Dago Red and Strega. He had begun racing in Mangia Pane, but it was not until he got behind the controls of Strega—which means "witch"—that he began winning. He had located Strega in Australia in 1983, where, he says, "It was a total derelict, though it had logged only 57 hours of flying time. It had been sitting outside since the war, and there were bullet holes all over the fuselage from people using it for target practice."
Strega is too high-strung to play around in, so Destefani also owns a more docile Curtiss P-40, which he named Miss Geno D after his daughter's nickname. It's older and slower than the Mustang but has exceptional handling. "When you get in that thing, it's really like getting in a time machine," Destefani says.