The V-12 engine of Bill (Tiger) Destefani's Ferrari-red fighter plane coughed rich blue smoke as it fired up and settled into a throaty idle. A heavy current of prop wash flowed over the still open cockpit as the P-51 Mustang taxied on to a runway at Hamilton Army Airfield. This little-used airport just north of San Francisco seemed just as much a relic of World War IT as the airplane. The canopy closed and the sound of the engine became urgent as the plane accelerated down the concrete strip. Surprisingly quickly, it lifted off the ground and banked over San Pablo Bay.
As the Mustang climbed through the cloud cover, the sun burst into the cockpit, and a network of tiny scratches in the clear canopy glistened above the pilot. At 1,000 feet, the countryside below was a patchwork of green-and-brown squares. From the air it was not difficult to imagine Hamilton Airfield as a landing strip in the British Midlands, circa 1944. The only thing spoiling the fantasy was Destefani's fire-resistant racing suit—and the massive surplus of horse-power of Strega, his "warbird," as restored World War II fighter planes are called.
Beneath the plane lay a 9.1-mile oval course, marked on land by two pylons and over the water by four big orange balloons tethered at an altitude of 40 feet. Destefani pushed the throttle and stick forward, and Strega dived. The engine gained revs and blasted the cockpit with heat. The plane's fuselage shuddered as it accelerated. Destefani leveled off 50 feet above the ground, and the plane hurtled toward the first pylon at nearly 700 feet per second. He banked it smoothly and steeply, and was squashed against his seat by the force of 4 G's as the pylon flicked past his shoulder. The plane was banked so steeply that Destefani had to strain to raise his head to see the balloon marking the next turn. Beneath him, on the water of San Pablo Bay, a shadow of a P-51 chased the real thing at 450 mph. The crowd at Hamilton was watching a race that was part of the Army Days '88 "Wings of Victory Airshow" followed the streaking red plane as it headed toward the next pylon.
Air races have been held since 1909, when American Glenn Curtiss won the first one in Rheims, France, at an average speed of 47.7 miles per hour in his Curtiss pusher biplane. For the next 40 years the excitement of low-altitude flying around pylons thrilled millions of spectators, particularly in the U.S. But World War II made the stakes of airborne competition too deadly, and the popularity of the sport was never regained after peace returned.
Now it is coming back, thanks to the warbirds. And thanks to pilots like Destefani, who for a decade has been at or near the top of the class called Unlimited and is the holder of the world closed-course record at 466.674 mph.
In the air, Destefani is unfazed by harrowing wing-to-wing racing. On the ground, he's just a good-natured farmer who walks with a spring in his step. Hardly what you expect from someone with the ominous nickname of Tiger. That is, until you learn how the name came about. Shortly after World War II, a door-to-door salesman was demonstrating his pots and pans by preparing a meal for the Destefani family on their farm near Bakersfield, Calif. Five-year-old Bill got in the salesman's way, and the salesman said, "Get out of the way, Tiger." The name has stuck for nearly 40 years.
If you ask the 43-year-old Destefani how a farmer of 2,400 acres of alfalfa and cotton became a warbird pilot, he'll say it's because he was born on a tractor, and a warbird is basically just a tractor with wings. If Destefani hasn't spent half the night baling alfalfa, which he does three or four times a week for nine or 10 months a year, he's up before dawn. He leaves his wife, Mary, 38, and two kids, Gena, 10, and Jeff, 8, asleep and has breakfast at a nearby 24-hour restaurant. Then he spends the morning in the fields, driving his pickup over the dirt roads that crisscross Flying Tiger Farms. The only hint of this farmer's love of flying is the old truck's adjustable steering wheel, which is kept in its bottom position, aimed straight at the driver's midsection, like the control yoke of an airplane.
By noon, Destefani is at his hangar at Minter Field, 20 miles north of his farm, where his warbird and others like it have been turned into racing aircraft. This year there were two races for war-birds in the U.S., though owners of the class would like to expand the schedule next year to some three or four events. Twenty owners have formed an organization called the Unlimited Air Racing Association and are trying to get a pro circuit off the ground. North American Aviation's Mustangs—like Destefani's Strega—are the most plentiful of the restored warbirds. There are 64 of them registered and flying in the U.S. Other Unlimited planes include Grumman Bearcats, Chance Vought Corsairs and British-built Sea Furys and even a few Soviet-made Yaks.
Many warbird pilots have flown crop dusters, which is as close as you can come to pylon racing and get paid for it, and most of them have had military training. But Destefani is strictly a fly-for-fun pylon specialist; 1,800 of his 2,300 hours of airtime have been logged in warbirds. He's not even instrument-rated, so he can't fly in bad weather. In the military he piloted a tractor, not an airplane; he was a Seabee and built roads, bridges and helicopter pads in Vietnam in 1967-68. Says Strega's crew chief Bill Kerchenfaut, a 20-year veteran of air racing. "Tiger may not have the hours of some of the other pilots, but he sure knows how to pull on that stick. He is as smooth as glass."
Strega is a highly modified P-51. "It's not really like a warbird anymore," says Destefani. "It's a racer. It's got its own identity." Like virtually all racing P-51s, Strega's wings have been clipped (from a span of 37'4" to 31'6"), and Destefani and Kerchenfaut have lightened the original plane by 1,200 pounds—to a total unladen weight of 6,200 pounds. It also has a special aerodynamic canopy, and the horsepower of the Rolls-Royce Merlin V-12 has been more than doubled, to 3,600 horses.