Old War Birds Rule The Skies Over Stead

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As a child, Dr. Brent Hisey loved building plastic models of his favorite airplane, the P-51 Mustang.

"We grew up watching war movies and building models," said Hisey, 48, a neurosurgeon from Oklahoma City, Okla.

"I built countless models of this airplane. I always dreamed of flying one," he told the Reno Gazette-Journal.

Now, he's getting his wish.

At the Reno National Championship Air Races this weekend, Hisey is flying a P-51, among the most famous fighter planes of World War II.

Hisey flies his P-51 in the event's unlimited class, which features other WWII-era fighters, such as the Hawker Sea Fury from Great Britain, the Grumman Bearcat and the Russian-made Yakovelv Yak-9U.

They are big, fast, loud and historic. They are called "warbirds." Their races draw large crowds.

"That's what we come to watch," Rob Betts of Sacramento said over the roar of P-51 and Sea Fury engines as he viewed Unlimited qualifying runs at Reno Stead Airport. "The P-51, or any of the Unlimited class, is great."

The 30 Unlimited aircraft include 10 Mustangs, 11 Sea Furies and four Yaks. Most are modified versions of the WWII planes made of parts found or bought in a variety of places.

"It's the charisma of the airplanes," said Walter Ohlrich Jr., a former Navy pilot who founded Warbirds of America in 1965, explaining the popularity of the Unlimiteds. "They were the last piston engines. They were at the top of their development."

Hisey's Mustang, the "Miss America," is special. He bought it in one piece in 1993 as a WWII original from the Museum of Flight in Santa Monica, Calif., for $585,000.

Today, Hisey estimates his P-51, souped up with a racing engine capable of generating 3,000 horsepower and speeds of more than 400 mph, is worth $1.5 million.

"They're great to fly," said Hisey, whose Mustang was built by North American Aviation in 1944. "I don't think there's anyone who ever regretted owning a Mustang."

Hisey's P-51 didn't see overseas war service. But plenty did. North American built 15,018 Mustangs from 1940 to 1945, most for duty in Europe with the Army Air Corps. Mustang enthusiasts estimate 280 exist today and are airworthy.

"Everybody that owns a Mustang knows the history," Hisey said.

During WWII, they were used in support of troops on the ground and to escort bombers.

"This is what got us to Berlin," said Bob Button of Winters, Calif., who owns a Mustang, the "Voodoo," in the races. "They were the best production aircraft to come out of WW II. They're sexy little devils."

But Sean Carroll of Waldorf, Md., who flies a Yak-9, argues his plane has an even more impressive war record.

The Yak is credited with destroying 62,000 of the 94,000 German airplanes lost in WWII.

"The numbers don't lie," Carroll said.

There are 20 Yaks in the air today, Carroll said, all replicas, not originals, or even parts of originals. The price for a Yak is just under $500,000, Carroll said.

Like the rest of the Unlimited planes, their owner-pilots extensively modify the Yaks after purchase.

"Capitalism has hit," Carroll said of the planes made-to-order in Russia. "It's a beautiful airplane."

So is the Hawker Sea Fury, once it's put together.

The Sea Fury "Riff Raff" flown at the races by former space shuttle astronaut R. "Hoot" Gibson, was bought in pieces for "six figures" by Mike Kennum of Chicago.

"It probably cost more to put the pieces together," Kennum said.

Only 860 Sea Furies, a fighter designed for use on land and aircraft carriers, were built at the end of WWII. But they've become a popular race plane.

"They're faster than a Mustang," Gibson said. "The stock Sea Fury will run circles around a Mustang."

A Mustang won last year's race. Spectators at Reno Stead Airport are waiting to find out what happens this year.