Saving the past: Restoring one of the rarest aircraft in the world

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Jarrod Grammel
  • 23rd Wing Public Affairs
Tom Reilly has made his living turning scraps of metal into fully-restored, flying warbirds. He has been in the business for 41 years with 34 major rebuilds under his belt. But even for someone who makes a living restoring vintage and rare aircraft, his latest project may be his most unique.

In 2008, Reilly acquired the scraps of what was once an XP-82 Twin Mustang, and he and his small crew in Douglas, Ga., are working to get the aircraft in the air once again.

"We are building the rarest aircraft in the world," said Reilly, owner of the B-25 Group which restores vintage aircraft. "There are only five Twin Mustangs in the world today, and only two in civilian hands. This one has the tail number 44-83887, the prototype and first one to fly."

Two of the remaining Twin Mustangs are on display at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, one is on display at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, and the last Twin Mustang is also undergoing restoration efforts. However, there is one aspect that makes Reilly's project even more unique.

"There is not a single Twin Mustang that flies today, and this is the prototype so it's especially rare," said Don Brooks, fellow aircraft restoration expert.

The P-82 was designed during World War II to escort B-29 Superfortress bombers to the Japanese mainland from islands in the Pacific, but the war ended before production was complete. During the Korean War, they were re-designated F-82s and were among the first aircraft to fly over Korea. After a short time in operational use, they were retired in 1953.

Brooks and Reilly both agree that there are challenges to restoring aircraft that are nearly 60 years old. The XP-82 has many unique parts such as a counter-rotating engine and propeller. Also, only the early models of the P-82 had full control panels in both fuselages.

"Finding aircraft parts is the most challenging part of aircraft restoration," said Reilly. "I went around the world collecting parts and what we couldn't find we had to rebuild completely."

Reilly hired a small crew and works full-time on the project. In addition to working on the XP-82, he also supervises the restoration of a B-17 Flying Fortress headed by Brooks in a nearby hanger.

"He is very passionate like all of us because you have to be," said Louisa Barendse, B-25 Group riveter. "He will tell you he only works half days-12 hours a day. He is also very patient and likes to teach his craft. He is one of the best teachers there are, and I don't know anyone who knows as much about restoring aircraft as he does."

In addition to restoring aircraft, Reilly also owns a B-25 Mitchell and a P-51 Mustang.

"I have always loved bombers," he said. "I own a P-51 Mustang but I never cared much for it. I saw the Twin Mustang and it just blew my skirt up. It was the neatest airplane I have ever seen."

Throughout his 41 years of restoring aircraft, Reilly has restored three B-17s, a B-24 Liberator, a dozen or more B-25s and many fighter aircraft, said Brooks.

"He has probably restored more large aircraft than anyone else, and has done a lot to save aviation history," said Brooks who restored the well-known B-17 Liberty Belle. "We are lucky to have people like Reilly because most people would consider these aircraft parts as scrap metal for pots and pans.

"Those who restore planes do it because they want to keep the memory of our veterans alive," he added. "Many young people see the planes and want to learn more about history, and they gain respect for the veterans who flew in them."

Reilly estimates it will take another four years before the Twin Mustang will takeoff and plans to sell it when the project is complete.

What most people see as scrap metal, he sees as his next project. For Reilly, one man's trash really is another man's treasure.