Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Jimmy Stewart, his plane, and Joe De Bona, winner of the 1949 Bendix Trophy Air Race. The pile of parts were removed to reduce weight.

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.”


1953, at about this time, the airplane was repainted in a yellow and black scheme, and renamed Mr. Alex in honor of Jimmy Stewart’s father.

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.



  1. That's "Thunderbird" a modified P-51C racer owned by Jimmy Stewart and flown by Joe De Bona, winner of the 1949 Bendix Trophy Air Race. The pile of parts in the first picture were removed to reduce weight. More here.

    1. it's got all the info! Thanks!


  2. "A Packard Motor Car Company V-1650-7 Merlin liquid-cooled, supercharged SOHC 60° V-12 aircraft engine at the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum. This engine weighs 905 pounds (411 kilograms) and produces 1,490 horsepower at 3,000 r.p.m. (NASM)"

    I've just got to leave the room for a minute......

    1. oh... you missed the sweet stuff, the 2600hp with alcohol fuel and water injection. (I may not be perfectly accurate, but my memory is shit) is what I read in that article. I was focusing the post on the ownership by Jimmy Stewart, and that it was never a factory aircraft, but was pieced together.... which is highly suspicious to me. Seems like the ONLY plane with ZERO provenance getting into a racers hands is extremely strange. Or a perfect con of getting the goods from the right people at the right time, and bypassing a lot of trouble

  3. Yes,I think there may have been a little slide of hand there. I immediately thought it strange that at that time, you would need to 'piece' together a plane when untold numbers were being scrapped.

    I can see it now, Jimmy's down at the 803rd depot......
    Looking for a plane Jimmy?
    No, you don't want an old one do you?
    We got a complete new one out back. Just needs a motor.
    Don't worry, we got a few new ones lying around we gotta get rid of too.
    Their even those HiPo ones.

    Hey, no problem Mr Jimmy. We just put on here, assembled from parts of planes of the same type.
    It was a scrapper, wasn't it? Wink Wink.
    Oh Mr Jimmy, your so generous.

    1. And Jimmy was a General... he might have just mentioned that it "would be nice " if and the guys made it happen... hell, he was his generations Tom Hanks, but had actual combat military career in aviation. Then went back to making movies. I posted his story last year

  4. Sorry, didn't see that post. I didn't realise he was a general.
    That sure helps get things done doesn't it.
    But seriously, there's too much going on in this story.
    I mean, Jackie Cochran! WOW she's a story in herself.
    There's even something a little sexy about chicks in hotrod aircraft too, am I right?
    OK,... maybe not Jackie.

    1. http://justacarguy.blogspot.com/2015/01/jimmy-stewart-great-actor-had-ww2.html posted Jan 5 2015