April 1949 (Allan Grant/LIFE Magazine)
Jackie Cochran bought this P-51 Mustang racer—the 1949 Bendix Trophy Race (was on Rosamond dry lake, famous for hot rod land speed races) winner, Thunderbird—from Jimmy Stewart.
The start of the 1949 Bendix Trophy Race was relocated from Metropolitan Airport at Van Nuys to Rosamond Dry Lake, 40 miles (64.4 kilometers) north of Muroc Air Force Base (renamed Edwards AFB just two months later).
The earliest document in Thunderbird‘s Civil Aviation Administration file states, “THIS AIRCRAFT WAS ASSEMBLED FROM COMPONENTS OF OTHER AIRCRAFT OF THE SAME TYPE.” The aircraft is designated on the form as a North American P-51C, Serial No. 2925.
Thunderbird, made up of salvaged parts, has no known Army Air Corps serial number.
Thunderbird‘s fuselage was purchased as “salvage and scrap” from the 803rd A.A.F. Specialized Depot, Park Ridge, Illinois, by Allied Aircraft Co., Chicago, Illinois.
April 1948, Leland Cameron sold N5528N to Joe De Bona Racing Co., Beverly Hills, California. The purchase price listed on the Department of Commerce Bill of Sale was $10.00.
The company was a partnership between De Bona and James M. (Jimmy) Stewart. Over the next several months, Thunderbird was prepared for the upcoming 1948 Bendix Trophy Race. Unnecessary equipment such as the self-sealing fuel cells, the fuselage fuel tank, etc., were removed to save weight. The airframe seams were filled with putty and sanded smooth.
December 1949, Jimmy Stewart (Sole Owner, for Joe De Bona Racing Co.) sold Thunderbird to Jacqueline Cochran of Indio, California, for “$1.00 and other consideration.”, she went on to set 3 world speed records with it.
Jackie Cochran had owned Thunderbird for just over three years when, on 20 January 1953, she sold it back to Jimmy Stewart for “$1.00 and other consideration.”
A major event of 1953 was the Coronation of Elizabeth II on 2 June. American television networks CBS and NBC had arranged to have films of the ceremonies flown across the Atlantic to Newfoundland.
From there the film would be flown on to the United States by Jimmy Stewart’s P-51 and another owned by Paul Mantz,
Jimmy Stewart asked the C.A.A. to temporarily remove the limitations on NX5528N’s airworthiness certificate so that it could be flown out of the United States to pick up the films at Newfoundland and return with them to Boston, Massachusetts. It was granted.