Thunderbird, Final Piston Bendix Trophy Race Winner

By Scott Spangler on August 10th, 2023

Wandering among the flying machines that carpet the Oshkosh acreage during EAA AirVenture 2023, nothing of interest caught my eye until it spied an immaculate blue P-51C Mustang. On its flawless flanks, in sunshine-yellow letters was its name, Thunderbird. One of the storyboards standing in its shadow said it was “The Last Piston Driven Bendix Trophy Winner.”

This sparked a smoldering curiosity quest. I knew the Bendix Trophy was awarded to the winner of a transcontinental race because I remember reading in his book, Hollywood Pilot, how motion picture pilot Paul Mantz won the race after World War II, also in a surplus P-51C that he’d stripped of nonessential weight and modified with wet wing fuel to make his race nonstop.

But there was no way Thunderbird was Mantz’s Mustang wearing new paint. I found that race winner in 2017 at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center (see Same Plane, New Name & Accomplishments). As I crossed paths with the blue bird during AirVenture, more storyboards told its story. What they didn’t reveal is how it came to the collection of the Dakota Territory Air Museum in Minot and to Aircorps Aviation for its pristine restoration.

With enough sleuthing, one can find almost anything on the internet. It turns out that Warren Pietsch, second generation owner of Pietsch Aircraft Restoration & Repair, a P-51 aficionado since age 10, bought what he thought was a razorback P-51A in 1999 and trucked it home to Minot, North Dakota, from Scottsbluff, Nebraska. He layer discovered that it was the Thunderbird, which led to its restoration, documented in a series of Aircorps Aviation blog posts.

The airplane’s list of civilian caretakers starts April 15, 1948 with the Joe DeBona Racing Company, a partnership between the company’s eponym and the actor and pilot James M. Stewart, who usually went by Jimmy. On September 3, 1949, DeBona won the final Bendix Race to Cleveland, covering 2,008 miles in an elapsed time of 4:16:17.5, averaging 470.136 mph. Listed as the sole owner, Stewart sold Thunderbird to Jacqueline Cochran for “$1.00 and other considerations” on December 19, 1949. What those considerations might be isn’t articulated.

Ten days later, Cochran sets two FAI World Records and a US National Aeronautic Association record at an average speed of 703.275 kilometers per hour (436.995 mph). She sold the Mustang back to Stewart on January 20, 1953 for “$1.00 and other consideration” (again without hinting what the consideration might be). In June 1953, Thunderbird joined with Mantz’s Bendix-winning P-51C to form the P-51 Pony Express to fly film of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation across the pond. With DeBona at the controls, Thunderbird arrived 24 minutes ahead of Mantz’s Mustang.

Stewart sold Thunderbird to DeBona for “$1.00 plus a $7,500 Chatel Mortgage” on September 1, 1954. The internet has not yet revealed how it ended up in Scottsbluff, Nebraska. Learning about the Bendix Trophy Race was easier. The founder of the Bendix Corporation established the race in 1931 to inspire the creation of faster and more reliable aircraft. Associated with the National Air Races, Jimmy Doolittle won the inaugural race, flying the Laird Super Solution from Burbank, California, to Cleveland, Ohio, in 9:10:21.0, averaging 223.06 mph.

Two Bendix races flew from New York to Los Angeles, with Roscoe Turner, in a Wedell-Williams Model 44, winning the 1933 race and Louise Thaden and Blanche Noyes winning the 1936 race in a Beech CR-17 Staggerwing. The Seversky P-35, flown by different pilots, including Cochran in 1938, won the last races before World War II. The Bendix Race resumed in 1946, with Paul Mantz scoring a checkered-flag threepeat.

After Thunderbird won the final piston-powered race in 1949, only the jet class, introduced in 1946, continued. Flying different transcontinental routes, a P-80 won the first race in 1946, and a B-58 Hustler won the last race in 1962, covering the distance between LA and New York in 2:00:56.8. Ah, those were the days. And with the cessation of air racing at Reno, one wonders what’s next. – Scott Spangler, Editor


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