Pilots: Michael Bertz

February 1, 2008

As a young boy growing up in Cadiz, Ohio, in the mid-1940s, Michael Bertz used to watch P-51 Mustangs fly over his home. He fondly remembers the rich, throaty chorus of the 12-cylinder Merlin engine carrying those sleek machines through the skies, and knew that he “needed”—not wanted—to fly one. By the time he was old enough to join the military, Mustangs were long out of the inventory, but he then learned that a few civilians had bought surplus airplanes. “I made it my main goal in life to own a P-51,” he says.

Bertz’s father was a coal miner, and his mother worked in a local pottery to put him and his brother through college. From his earliest days, his parents told him, “You must have an education,” followed quickly with, “If you want something, go earn your own money because it will mean more to you.”

He started delivering newspapers when he was seven years old, plowed gardens for neighbors, raised rabbits, worked in gas stations, and even delivered livestock feed in a ton-and-a-half truck at age 14 with a restricted driver’s license. He admits he could “almost” see over the steering wheel.

During his medical residency in pediatric anesthesiology in Denver, Bertz bought a North American T-28A, which he later sold for $13,750. He took the bounty from that sale and bought his Mustang in 1968 for $13,500—only slightly more than it takes to overhaul the Merlin’s huge carburetor today. After several T-6s offered for dual instruction failed to materialize, he gingerly soloed the Mustang with fewer than 500 total hours, including time in Aeronca Champs, Piper Cubs, and Taylorcrafts.

In nearly four decades and 1,500 hours of flying his Mustang, Bertz has climbed to 37,000 feet to avoid thunderstorms, dog-fought with Bob Hoover, raced at Reno, and experienced one engine failure because of water in the gas. Switching tanks brought the engine right back. The only thing he hasn’t done—and wishes he could have done—is shoot bullets and drop bombs with it as the 20-year- old boys did in combat. “I would have loved to fly this airplane in combat,” he says wistfully. “That would have been the ultimate.”

It’s unlikely that day will ever happen, but you never want to bet against people like Mike Bertz, who have an amazing way of making their dreams come true.

For more stories on the Mustang P-51 see “Gallery of Legends,” page 70.