P-51 Mustang returns home to Kentucky Air Guard after 63 years

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Phil Speck
  • 123rd Airlift Wing Public Affairs
A P-51 Mustang arrived back on the flight line of the Kentucky Air National Guard Base here April 12, more than six decades after departing.

The Mustang, serial number of 44-74202, was once assigned to the unit as a military fighter aircraft from 1953 to 1956. Now, it was returning home as a fully restored civilian warbird to fly in the 2019 Thunder Over Louisville air show.

The P-51’s new owners, R.T. Dickson Jr. and his father, R.T. Dickson Sr., purchased the Mustang in 2012 after more than 50 years of storage and restoration.

The younger Dickson has been flying aircraft since the age of 3, when his father let him take the stick of a Globe Swift. He’s piloted a multitude of aircraft ever since, but the South Carolina resident said he was especially pleased to be flying the Mustang in Thunder.

“I’m very excited about it,” Dickson said on the tarmac of the Kentucky Air Guard Base, recalling how his appearance in the show came to be.

He met the Kentucky Air Guard’s Maj. Josh Ketterer, a C-130 Hercules pilot, in December 2018 during an air show planning conference that Ketterer was attending as a Thunder coordinator. Dickson noticed the Kentucky patch on Ketterer’s flight suit, and the two struck up a conversation. Dickson told Ketterer how his restored Mustang, now known as “Swamp Fox,” had once belonged to the Kentucky Air Guard.

“We started talking about the airframe, and Josh said, ‘You should come up for Thunder,’” Dickson recalled.

They both loved the idea of giving the aircraft a “homecoming,” and Ketterer talked to wing leadership about bringing this piece of aviation history back to Kentucky.

Tail no. 44-74202 was manufactured by North American Aviation and delivered to the U.S. Army Air Force on May 7, 1945. It was first assigned to 445th Fighter Squadron at Bakersfield Army Air Field, California, before being transferred to more than a half-dozen units in California, Colorado, Nebraska, New Mexico and Texas. It arrived at the Kentucky Air Guard in July 1953 and remained here until October 1956, when it was moved to McClellan Air Force Base, California. The following year, it was declared surplus property.

The aircraft was purchased at auction by a private individual in 1957 but was damaged a few years later in a landing accident, according to an article in Warbird Digest. For the next 50 years, the plane changed hands several times, although it remained unflyable until a major restoration project returned it to the air in 2012 as the Dicksons’ Swamp Fox, painted in honor of World War II pilot Will Foard, who was a member of the 357th Fighter Group.

The 357th scored more combat air-to-air victories than any other P-51 Group in the Eighth Air Force during World War II.

Dickson has now traveled around the nation with Swamp Fox, which has given him an opportunity to learn more about the history of the P-51. While in Louisville, he stopped by the Kentucky Air Guard’s “Heritage Hall” and saw photos of his aircraft when it was assigned here.

“The most awe-inspiring thing that has come out of (owning this aircraft) is meeting the men and women that flew them,” he said.

“It’s a very visceral experience to fly. It’s loud, it vibrates, and it has smells — the fuel, the oil and the hydraulics. It’s a neat experience to convey to people that haven’t been inside something like this.”

He said the South Carolina Air National Guard’s 169th Fighter Wing has adopted him, partly because they share the name Swamp Fox. Recently, the unit hosted a family day that gave hundreds of people the chance to see the aircraft up close.

“We had kids crawling all over this thing, and I had the opportunity to take some kids up into the cockpit,” he said. “It’s really interesting to inspire the next generation.”

Ketterer finds inspiration in the Swamp Fox, too.

“As a Guard unit, we have a lot of family legacies around,” he said. “Having a legacy aircraft here that our families worked on is pretty special. We’re delighted about R.T.’s generosity of sharing his plane with us and bringing it back to its roots.”