Pilots: Tony Buechler

April 1, 2009

Tony Buechler took his first airplane ride in a P–51 Mustang. No joke. In the summer of 1976 he was a junior in medical school living with Dr. Burns Byram in Marengo, Iowa, to see firsthand the life of a small-town doctor. One day Byram invited him to the local airport, where he pulled his Mustang out of the hangar. Buechler crawled in the rear jumpseat, and they took off. “We flew over Marengo and I thought, This is cool.”

During his senior year the future Dr. Buechler scraped together enough money for flying lessons. The first day his instructor walked him out to a Piper Cherokee 140—which was no Mustang, to say the least. He was disappointed, but on the first lesson he learned that he had a long way to go before he could pilot a P–51. Eight years later, after around 700 hours of taildragger time, Buechler added a Mustang to his T–6 and Pitts S2B. The Mustang that caught his eye, Petie 2nd, had been rebuilt, new engine and everything. He paid $355,000.

One day Buechler got a call from a guy named Dale Newton, who asked him if he still had the Mustang. Yes; in fact, he and his wife, Kris, used it for their personal aircraft. Well, Newton explained, back in 1957 he was a young crop duster flying his Stearman over McClellan Air Force Base, and he saw 75 pickled Mustangs sitting there. The Air Force had them up for sale to the highest bidder. Newton collected a small fortune and put in a bid, and the Department of Defense told him to come pick out his Mustang. A sergeant drove him to where they were parked, and one of the 35 that were left caught his eye.

“How are you getting it out of here?” the sergeant asked. “I guess I’ll fly it,” Newton said. “You can’t. This is a civilian aircraft and this is a military base.” But the farmer who owned the adjoining land had a strip, so he could take off from there. For a fee. The farmer also had spark plugs and batteries and everything else a pickled-Mustang owner needed—also for a fee. It nearly doubled the price, but Newton had no choice. He flew it away, and a couple of years later he sold it for around the price of a brand-new Chevy four-door. A great deal. Mustang maintenance was eating him alive.

When Newton saw it again all those years later, he just had to call. He also sent Buechler a copy of the original bill of sale: $755. The remaining Mustangs went to a scrapper for $750 each. Buechler paid $355,000 for the same airplane. Today a vintage Mustang goes for around $2 million. A great return on that $355,000? Yeah, but Buechler couldn’t care less about the appreciation. “Even after all these years, when I sit in the cockpit, hit the starter switch, and the Merlin coughs to life it’s still thrilling. It’s one of the neatest airplanes ever.”