P-51 Mustang romps to become Challenge Champion

A 'magic carpet with machine guns' takes top honors

April 3, 2012

P-51 Mustang

After 62 pairings of some of aviation's most respected aircraft, it came down to two mighty and beloved airplanes. Pilots voted and talked smack, with one winner prevailing in AOPA's Favorite Aircraft Challenge. Even though the powerful and storied Douglas DC-3 put up a courageous fight in the finals April 1 and 2, it could not attract enough votes to overcome a wave of support by P-51 fans, who helped crown the Mustang as 2012 Challenge Champion.

The P-51 was the No. 1 seed in the East Region, and was a favorite to win the challenge when voting began on March 12. After first eliminating the Glasair III, the Mustang had no problem dispatching the Aeronca Champ in the second round. The King Air could not dent the reputation of the Mustang in Round Three, and even the mighty F4U Corsair wasn't able to slow the P-51's march to the finals. The Mustang had a tough time against the formidable de Havilland Beaver in the semi-finals, but when the Beaver was sent back up North, the P-51's battle against the DC-3 in the championships was on. 

The popularity of the P-51 Mustang is uniform among aviators and aviation enthusiasts. This universal admiration is most evident when you ask anyone who has been lucky enough to take the controls of such a legendary airplane.

“I have had the privilege of flying the P-51,” said Jim Harley, a pilot of Betty Jane, a P-51B/C operated by the Collings Foundation. “The Mustang flies like every aircraft should. With lots of power and beautifully harmonized controls, it is a joy to fly. The first time you push the throttle up can only be compared to the exhilaration of your first solo, because there is your life before the Mustang, and there is your life after the Mustang, because it will never be the same. It's a magic carpet armed with machine guns. My time thus far with the P-51 have been my most cherished log book entries. I feel honored to dance with a legend on a daily basis.”

Many of the voters in the challenge certainly have been to airshows around the country and watched P-51 Mustangs like Crazy Horse roar by show center low and fast, emitting that signature sound that is so unforgettable. The only thing better than being close to that flight line is being in the cockpit, says KT Budde-Jones of Stallion 51, a Florida operation that flies Crazy Horse. “Being at the controls of a P-51 Mustang is an ethereal experience. The plane is intuitive and anticipates your every wish, command, and desire. It is a work of art to look at, ageless even today, with sleek lines that defy her age and the era in which she was developed.”

This first aircraft challenge tournament certainly was a fun ride according to the thousands of pilots and AOPA members who watched the results of every round and participated in the voting. At the recent Sun 'n Fun International Fly-in and Expo in Florida, many voters tweeted their votes, and said the challenge was a hot topic in many hangar flying sessions. Talking airplanes and AOPA in the same sentence was, after all, one of the many goals of this project.

"We thought the Favorite Aircraft Challenge would be fun and exciting within AOPA and with our members and other pilots,” said Chris Ward, AOPA vice president of interactive marketing and new product development. “The challenge generated a lot of enthusiasm and represents the type of excitement we want to add to AOPA Online."

Dan Pimentel, an instrument-rated private pilot based in Eugene, Ore., who has flown more than 425 hours in 16 years of flying, is also an aviation author and writes the Airplanista Aviation Blog.