In 1989 Thom Richard, a 17 year old from Sweden, arrived in the USA with $2,500 and a dream, an aviation dream. Chris Wood recently caught up with him to see how his dream was coming along.
In January 1998, having gained a pilot’s, a mechanic’s and an inspector’s licence, along with a friend, South African Graham Meise, Thom bought a North American T-6 Harvard in California. They brought it back to Zephyrhills, Florida, and after four months of extensive modifications it was ready to fly. They had intended to fly around the country earning a living from barnstorming, however, they didn’t get any further than Kissimmee, near Orlando, and they soon had a fleet of three aircraft (actually examples of the former US Navy SNJ-6 variant).
The company they founded was called Warbird Adventures Inc, is still in Kissimmee and is still going strong. They offer flights to tourists visiting the Orlando area, as well as instructional flying to qualified pilots. The customers range from people who just want to experience the aircraft, to pilots who are planning to buy either a T-6 or something more challenging, for which a T-6 is an appropriate training aircraft. Thom is probably the most experienced T-6 pilot in the country, with over 4,000 hours of instructional time on the type.
When Warbird Adventures first arrived at Kissimmee it operated out of Tom Reilly’s Flying Tigers Warbird Restoration Museum but this closed down in 2004, following damage sustained during a hurricane. Thom and his team subsequently formed the Kissimmee Air Museum to fill the void, and this saw the construction of a new hangar and office building. The new museum opened its doors in 2007 and has a few unusual aircraft under its roof.
2008 saw Thom’s debut at the Reno Air Races flying a Jensen Slipknot, “Miss USA” Race Number 40, in the Formula One Class. He came seventh in the Gold event, a respectable result for a first timer.
He was back at Reno in 2009 flying both “Miss USA” and a Cassutt 111M, “Invictus” Race Number 1. He came first in the Silver event in “Miss USA” and first in the Gold event in “Invictus”; impressive results for someone who was still a relative newcomer to the world’s fastest sport!
Although 2010 saw Thom qualify in “Miss USA”, he did not compete in her as he moved up to the Jet Class with a TS-11 Iskra, “Pole Dancer” Race Number 3. He came first in the Silver event and seventh in the Gold event, keeping up his impressive results.
It was all change again in 2011 when Thom appeared at Reno in his recently acquired P-51XR Mustang “Precious Metal” Race Number 38, to take part in the ultimate Reno race, the Unlimited Class. That year’s races were cancelled after the tragic accident that befell another highly modified Mustang, “The Galloping Ghost”. However, Thom and “Precious Metal” were back at Reno the following year but withdrew from the final race after one of the main undercarriage doors detached in flight.
The aircraft has an interesting history, and there is a lot of incorrect information around about its origins. Thom’s aircraft is not the first aircraft to carry the name; the original “Precious Metal” was a P-51D registered N5483V (previously 44-73518), which was converted to a race configuration in the mid 1970s by Gary Levitz of Scottsdale, Arizona. This saw it fitted with clipped wings, a racing canopy and a tail from a P-51H. He raced it at Reno in 1975 as “Precious Metal”, Race Number 81. However in 1976 he sold it to Don Whittington from Ft Lauderdale, Florida. Don and his brothers Bill and Dale were involved in motor sport in the 1970s and ‘80s, racing in CART and Winston Cup events as well as at Le Mans, which they won in 1979.
Don raced the aircraft at Reno from 1976 as “Precious Metal” Race Number 9. According to the Reno Air Racing Association records it came first in the Unlimited Qualifying that year and set a new qualifying record of 438 mph, but the engine exploded at the end of the run! That year also saw Don enter an Me-109 “Miss Florida II” (actually a Spanish-built Buchon, registered N700E, which is now at the Planes of Fame Museum at Valle, Arizona), which unfortunately didn’t make it as far as Reno! Don and “Precious Metal” were back in 1977 coming second in the Unlimiteds, whilst that year Don also raced a Bearcat, “Precious Bear”. They came second again in 1978 and also put in appearances in 1980, ‘81 and ’83.
In 1988 “Precious Metal” arrived at Reno looking more than a little different. It was now fitted with a Rolls-Royce Griffon engine and contra-rotating propellers! This was effectively a new aircraft and had been put together in just a few months. The fuselage was from a P-51D and had apparently been obtained from Tallmantz Aviation after having been used as a movie prop in Hollywood. It was fitted with a set of standard wings and a Griffon engine from an Avro Shackleton, obtained from the UK. However, the P-51H tail section from the original “Precious Metal” was used, so it wore the registration N5483V.
Construction had started in January 1988 and it first flew on 10 August that year. By the time it arrived in Reno it had less than ten hours on the clock. Qualifying saw it achieve a speed of 453 mph, the fastest qualifying speed recorded up to that time.
Unfortunately the aircraft suffered engine issues during the subsequent heats, and during the Unlimited Gold race the propeller governor failed, resulting in the aeroplane belly landing on a dry lake bed. The aircraft was taken back to Ft Lauderdale to be repaired, with the tail section being removed and put back on the original aircraft, whilst the Griffon-powered aircraft was fitted with a standard tail section.
In April 1989 an application was made to register a P-51XR, fitted with a Griffon 57A, built by World Jet Inc (Don Whittington’s company) as N6WJ. The aircraft was assigned a serial number of 44-88 and it was described as being “built from parts”, whilst the engine had a serial number of 44-138.
In January 1990 P-51D N5483V ditched in to the sea off Galveston, Texas, having run out of fuel in bad weather on a flight from Ft. Lauderdale. According to the NTSB accident report the aircraft, fitted with a Packard Merlin engine, was destroyed.
In 1993 “Precious Metal” Race Number 9 was entered for the Reno Races, to be flown by Bill Whittington, but it didn’t appear at Reno.
However, in 1995 P-51XR Race Number 38 and registered N6WJ raced at Phoenix in March and Reno in September, on both occasions flown by Don Whittington. At Phoenix it had a standard tail, by the time it got to Reno it had been fitted with the taller P-51H tail again. The aircraft was unnamed but adorned with World Jet titles, so was entered under this name. At Reno it came first in the Unlimited Silver Class but Don forfeited the win and the prize money to enter the Gold Class, where he came sixth. This was the only year that Don raced this aircraft at Reno.
At the 1999 Reno Races Gary Levitz, from whom Don had bought the original aircraft, was tragically killed when his Griffon-powered modified Mustang “Miss Ashley II” broke up in flight. This was another aircraft built specially for racing – it featured a specially-built P-51D fuselage mated to a set of wings and tail plane from a Lear Jet! Air racing is a very small world where everybody knows everybody, and Don and Gary had both been racing for many years. Following Gary’s accident Don apparently lost the desire to race so “Precious Metal” was put away in the World Jet hangar.
Ron Buccarelli, President of Lake Air Inc also of Ft Lauderdale, noticed the aircraft gathering dust in the hangar and persuaded Don to sell it to him, with Ron buying it in 2000. Ron has had a varied aviation career, gaining his commercial licence before going to College and then serving in the US Navy as a Naval Officer. He subsequently flew commercially, with airlines such as Provincetown-Boston Airlines (PBA) and as Chief Pilot of an Emergency Medical Services (EMS) operation, as well as running Lake Air. Despite his experience, operating “Precious Metal” was a steep learning curve, and also an expensive business.
Ron had planned to race at Reno in 2001 but the races were cancelled after the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington. However, he raced at Reno every year from 2002 to 2007, except for 2005, winning the Unlimited Bronze race in 2003 with the highest speed then recorded in a Bronze race. He also put in occasional appearances with the aircraft at the Aviation Nation airshow at Nellis AFB, Nevada, and Sun ‘n Fun in Lakeland, Florida. He says his aim was to have fun and not get hurt, describing “Precious Metal” as a real handful to fly, unlike the Grumman Bearcat “Rare Bear”, which he had the chance to race at Reno in 2006. There is no book on the aircraft; to fly it you need to study the standard P-51 manual and the Shackleton manual to get an understanding of how to operate the engine and contra-rotating propellers. You also need to understand the significance of the tall tail and the clipped wings.
When Ron decided to sell the aircraft there was a lot of interest, but he was keen that it should go to the right person. Enter Thom Richard, who Ron described as having a “racer’s heart”. He also has bags of energy and enthusiasm as well as the requisite piloting and engineering skills. One of the first modifications Thom made to the aircraft was to fit a feathering pump. Feathering the propellers of any propeller-driven aircraft after an engine failure is crucial to reducing drag: on an aircraft with six propeller blades it is even more important, so this decision showed Ron that he’d made the right choice.
Back to the present day. The big question for 2013 was: can Thom and “Precious Metal” win the Unlimited Gold race? Much work has been going on behind the scenes to get the aircraft ready for this year’s races and it would be a great year to win as 2013 sees the Reno Air Races celebrate its 50th anniversary. The aircraft was stripped down over the winter months and has had a number of modifications, which include a new streamlined cockpit canopy, improved air scoop, new wingtips and wing-to-fuselage fairing, all built from carbon fibre which helps to reduce weight. The aircraft was also fitted with a reconditioned race engine with numerous new and improved parts.
The other change for this year is a new colour scheme, with the theme “I’m going so fast the paint’s coming off”! This was highly appropriate as during testing Thom has achieved some impressive speeds with the stock engine, so had to be a serious contender for this year’s Unlimited Gold prize with the race engine.
One area were Thom has definitely been winning is in advertising. With the Reno Races now being sponsored by Breitling, both “Precious Metal” and Thom have been used in their advertising campaign, so have been seen around the world. Advertisements for this year’s Reno Races have appeared recently in Britain’s Daily Telegraph and the New York Times.
Unfortunately during ground runs in early September the race engine failed, so Thom and his team started a new race to get the stock engine back in the aircraft in time to get it to Reno. This they achieved, and Thom set off for Reno on Saturday, 7 September, arriving the following day.
We wish Thom a safe, speedy and successful Reno and will be keeping a close eye on how he and “Precious Metal” perform. Whilst the lack of the race engine will make it more of a challenge, if he does manage to win at Reno it will be safe to say his dreams have come true. If not, there’s always next year!
You can follow the “Precious Metal” team’s progress here
Fly low, fly fast, turn left!
The National Championship Air Races take place at Reno between 11 and 15 September 2013.
The author would like to thank Thom Richard and Ron Buccarelli for their help with this article, and Mike Killian, Air Britain and Urs Baettig for the use of their photographs. Additional photography by Rob Edgcumbe.