Dan has had some amazing experiences flying warbirds and it was great to get together with him and get to hear some of them. Here’s our interview – I hope you like it as much as I did chatting with Dan!
Dan, were you into flying as a kid?
“I grew up on the coast of Northern California and we were farmers so we didn’t have anything to do with airplanes. I didn't have the opportunity to fly as a kid. I'd see the coastal patrol back in the 40s fly over when I was just a little guy and I always liked things with propellers on them and I'd watch the B-36’s, you could hear them coming for an hour, with those big 4360s on them.
“There was a fellow that had a BT-13 and an AT-6 at the airport and he’d go out over Humboldt Bay and do aerobatics. Our ranch was out there and I could see a lot of that happening. I was fascinated with airplanes as a little kid but I never had the opportunity until I was about 12 to go for a ride in an airplane.
Which plane was that?
“My brother was a pilot and we took off for a ride in a Cessna 140. That was probably my very first airplane ride. My first airliner ride was in the Martin 404, and then a DC-3, and a DC-6. This was in the mid 1950s. But aviation always fascinated me. Anything that flew, birds, airplanes, whatever, I like flying
When did you get your pilots license?
“I started flying airplanes in about 1963. I joined the Army in August of 1962. I'd gone through basic training and I went through communication school because I couldn't get into helicopter school. I wanted to fly helicopters and you would've thought that since Vietnam was starting to get hot and heavy, they would just love that, however the schools were tied up for about six or eight months so my second MOS choice was communications. So I went to communication school.
“After going through school, I got chosen for a special assignment in Washington DC in communications. I had nothing to do while they were doing my security clearances, and it took about two or three months to do security clearance, so I'd hitchhike out to the airport at Fort Gordon in Georgia and I'd wash airplanes. I joined the military flying club there and I started taking lessons in a J3 Cub, went on to a little Super Cub after that, and I soloed there. Then I flew around little bit and I probably got in about 15 hours or so before I got my assignment in Washington DC. I didn't have a chance to continue to fly until I got out of the Army.
I got out of the Army in August of 1965 and I probably waited a year before I started flying again and I got my license in 1967. And then, since the GI Bill was available, I decided to use that and I got my commercial, instrument, multi-engine, my seaplane rating, and I was working on an instructor's rating when I decided teaching people how to fly wasn't for me because I didn't have the patience for it. I tried to get hired by the airlines and of course I was always half a cog out, I didn't have enough time, or the airlines were on strike - there was always a reason why I didn't.
“Then I joined the California Warbirds in 1968 and they had an AT-6 and the P-51 Mustang – now called ‘Straw Boss’. I was sitting at an airport in San Carlos and I heard this drone coming and pretty soon a P-51D made it a high-speed pass down the runway at San Carlos and I said, ‘What the heck was that?’ And one of the guys said, ‘That's a P-51 that’s stationed over at Oakland.’ and I said, ‘I got to go see that!’ So I hopped in my car and drove to Oakland and John Crocker had gotten out of the airplane. Big black hair, big bushy mustache and what have you, and I thought he was great. We got to talking and he told me it was a flying club and I asked him how much it cost to join and he told me, I think it was $1250 back then, and it was like $25 an hour dry to fly in the Mustang and $15 an hour dry to fly the T-6. That was a lot of money back then. I joined the flying club and I checked out in the T-6 and I flew it. Back then they didn't have too many rules or regulations about how long you had been flying something before you could fly something else, so I flew the T6 for about 10 hours or so and then I decided I wanted to fly the Mustang. I was really low time but as long as you can fly it, it was okay. So I checked out in the Mustang in 1969.
“I was in that flying club and then I got the opportunity to fly a couple other P-51s that some friends had, and also got the opportunity to go to El Salvador. Jack Flaherty, a fellow that was into warbirds back in the 60s and 70s, had made a deal with the El Salvadorian Air Force to buy airplanes. They had six flying airplanes, barely flying, and they also had four of them that were junk piles. One was a TF-51 and three were P-51D models that had been in the little 1969 Soccer War that that El Salvador had with Honduras. The El Salvadorians used Mustangs and the Hondurans used Corsairs, and they fought like hell for a little while and then it was over and nothing but scrap was left over. I think El Salvador had at one time up to 15 Mustangs and we ended up with six flying ones. Some of them crashed and wrecked and some of them crashed into the lake at the end of the runway and then, like I say some of them were used for spare parts, and then there were four or so that were basket cases. They were pretty nasty airplanes; they were pretty well junked up.
“So Jack hired six of us to go to El Salvador to fly the flyers back and then they boxed up the junk piles and sent them back to California, to Monterey, where he was. John Crocker headed up the flight with Jim Orton and myself, was the in the first flight of three. Then Frank Strickler, Steve Shulkey, and Burns Byram headed up the second flight of three.
“We flew from San Salvador and then to Guatemala City and landed, got fuel, and then we trekked over the mountains to Veracruz Mexico, landed again, and had something to eat. The weather reports in Mexico were like three days old, so we took off headed up the coast of the Gulf of Mexico and headed for Brownsville Texas where we got into some nasty weather and ended up circling around VOR, all six airplanes. Then next thing you know there's only five. Burns Byram said, ‘I had enough of this.’ and he went and headed over to another airport and landed because he was familiar with the area and we went into Brownsville. At that point were just damn lucky to be on the ground.
“All of the airplanes were junk piles. They didn't have any good instrument or radios. The one I flew home had a crazed canopy and I could barely see out of the windscreen, it was such a pile of junk. The one that Jim Orton flew home is now the one that Vlado Lenoch owns, ‘Moonbeam McSwine’ and then the one John Crocker flew home is now the one Bill Rheinschild has, called ‘Risky Business’ and the one I flew home was Garry Levitz’s airplane from years and years ago, and a fella in Pennsylvania bought it and killed himself on his way to Sun ‘N Fun, he hit the side of a hill. And then the other three, two were Cavaliers, one was a regular D model, and I don't know who owns those now, but I know they're all still flying still. And the TF that was a basket case was 660, it's for sale on Courtesy Aviation now, it's down in Arizona.
“But anyhow we took off the next day and headed for California; three of the airplanes and then the three of them went to Big Spring Texas and Connie Edwards’ ranch and stayed there. Connie had bought three of the six flyers.
“When I was in El Salvador, to go back a little bit, I saw this pile of junk laying in the weeds and I talked to Jack Flaherty and said, ‘Did you get all the parts and all the crap for the with your deal?’ “And he says ‘Yes.’ and I said, ‘I want to buy that airplane.’ He sold it to me and it's Ridge Runner. It came back in a crate. I bought it from him and that was in November 1974. I took delivery of it in about mid-1975. I didn't know anything about airplanes at the time other than flying them so I took it all apart, cleaned up parts and what have you, and I decided this is a little bit past my talent level, so I took a down to Chino to a fella by the name of Bruce Gossling and he put it together for me. Then I got it flying in about I think it was March of 1978, and Clay Klaybo, who used to be a racer at Reno, called me up and said, ‘Hey they’re having the races at Mojave and we're short of airplanes.’ I’d just got my airplane out of restoration and didn’t know anything about racing. I didn’t want to go up there and beat up on my airplane. And he says, ‘All you’ve got to do is fly it around.’ And so I said ‘no thanks.’ He called me back about three times and finally I said, ‘You know, if all I have to do is go up there and fly around in a circle just to fill the field and what have you, I’ll go.’ After doing that it became so much fun and this was more fun than I expected so I decided that I would continue to do a little bit. That was the first time Ridge Runner raced was in Mojave in 1978. I think we also had another race in the fall of 78 at Mojave. Then in February of 1979, I took it to Miami and I raced it there. Then we decided that we could probably make it go faster and so I had a fellow right here in Hollister, Jack Cochran, build a race engine for it in 1979. Well, that was the first time at Reno for me in 1979. I took it up there and promptly blew the engine up on qualifying so I didn't race in 1979. Then I raced in ‘80 and ’81. In 1982 I had a mishap up there where I landed short of the runway and did substantial damage to Ridge Runner. So it took me about a year and a half to fix it and I promised my wife I was done with air racing. I had it flying again by mid-1983 and I just flew around to airshows and what have you.
“In 1993 they were doing a movie called ‘For the Boys’ and that was with Bette Midler and James Caan, it takes place in the Korean War, and they needed a couple of P-51s to make a flyby, in formation, down through the mountains. If you blink your eyes you'll see the flight only lasted all of about 7 or 8 seconds. So Hugh Bickle, who had the airplane ‘Iron Ass’, and myself, flew down to Van Nuys, we went through the little dissertation of what we were going to do and how we were going to do all of this and made two passes and flew home. And that was the end of that movie. That was a one-day deal.
“A few years go by and come 1995, they're going to do a movie about the black P-51 pilots during World War II called “Tuskegee Airmen.” They decided they needed three main P-51s and then we used another one when we did the scenes in Mojave.
“Flying for a movie is very stressful. Sometimes they make you try to do things that the airplane is incapable of doing, or have you flying in adverse weather conditions and you have to tell them what the limitations are. We left here in February to do this movie and Art Vance and I took off out of here and flew to Muskogee Oklahoma. Jimmy Leeward came up from Florida and Art Vance was flying Steve Seghetti’s airplane ‘Sparky’. We had to change the paint. I did most of the painting right here in my hanger. I was restoring an airplane and I decided I'm not going to ruin all the cowling on my airplane so I took all the cowling off the new airplane I was restoring and used it and put water paints, movie paint on it. You mix liquid floor polish with house paint, latex house paint, and you spray it on and then you just wash it off with sudsy ammonia and that's how they do movie paint. I took some wallpaper and I covered the WD and the A. I painted it silver, the same color silver, and then I took magic marker and put the break lines and what have you, and I put the number 9 on the side of the fuselage. When we did the red nose, I put the number 10 on the side of the fuselage.
“We got to Muskogee, Oklahoma, and that's where the first scenes were and we flew there for about a week or so and then they took us to Fort Smith Arkansas on the nasty snowy day. Dan Vance and I ferried two airplanes down to Fort Smith. We followed the highway down at about 1500 feet in snow flurries. So at that point we had to change the paint scheme again on the airplane and then we went to a little dump out in the middle of Fort Smith which was a little dirt runway and that's where we did the scenes when they first got Mustangs there and they’re supposed to be in North Africa. Well they’re actually supposed to be P-40s but the movie people didn't have any P-40s so we had these Mustangs.
“There was another little dumpy place out in the middle of Fort Smith that they'd used to do exercises with C-130s, with a real short strip. They told us we have to go land over there and I said, ‘Well, what’s the strip like?’ ‘Well, I don't know.’ So Jimmy Leeward and I jumped in my rental car we drove out there. It was half under water and it was full of mud and rocks and what have you, and I remember thinking, ‘What are we going to do with this?’ So we hired some guy with a grader, it was actually was a broom sweeper, a big old heavy duty one, and we worked on that thing for about six hours. He didn't have any lights on his rig so I was using my rental car to light things up and drive up and down and the muddy runway until he got it sort of clean. Now we've got about 2300 to 2500 foot of usable runway to use so that we could land there. That's what we did.
“The next day we went in there and it was one of those things where they filmed ground only all day long and when they released me when it was dark. They released Jimmy and Dan earlier in the day and when they released me to go back to Fort Smith, it was already dark. So that was another harrowing experience, believe me. I didn't have my glasses, they'd fallen off, I couldn't see the instrument panel, it was a blur, and it was one of those nightmare things so I found another pair of glasses by the time I got into the Fort Smith control area, and I landed and I said I’d had enough of this.
“So then we stayed there another day or so and then we ferried back to Mojave to get some more desert scenes and then the movie was over. I was gone for 30 days. It was a very interesting experience. I met some good people. Most of the movie stars, like Cuba Gooding Junior and Laurence Fishburne are very nice guys. I did all the flying for Laurence Fishburne, for all the Mustang stuff. Some of the guys from Santa Rosa brought their AT-6s there. The Stearmans came from back East. The Travelaire was from back East. In fact the Travelaire was flown by Bobby Younkin who got killed in that midair with Jimmy Franklin.
“So anyhow, the following year, 1997, I decided that I was going to take Ridge Runner back up to Reno. We decided that we would do something I've never done before, we would shorten the wings and we'd use the stock engine. I’d use the engine that's still in the airplane now, and it’s the stock engine. We would shorten the wings and made a couple of other little mods to it and we went up there. I hadn't raced in 15 years. I didn’t have to go to PRS but I had to go through the re-qualifying thing and do a couple laps around the course with Dennis Sanders, and he said “yeah you're good to go”, so that was that, I was back at it again.
“I had a hell of a lot of fun in ‘97 so we built another engine for ’98, a race engine this time, and it wouldn’t run. Dwight Thorne had given Mike Barrow some heads and it had the wrong valve guides in it. We just fought it all week long with valves that kept sticking so ‘98 was a poor year for me. 1999 was a good year, I came in third in the gold with Ridge Runner and we qualified at almost 440 miles an hour with the race motor. Then the following year, I wasn't going to go racing in 2000, so I loaned my racing stuff to Stu Eberhardt and he put my short wings on, my short ailerons, and all my racing stuff, and then at the last minute I said, ya know, maybe I'll go up there. So I went up there with long wings and just as stock as a jaybird and went faster, 441 miles an hour, and I would probably have come in third in the gold except I burnt a piston. It was running really well that year so after that I said I'm done with that air racing, with Ridge Runner, so we didn't use it.
“2001 of course was 9/11, that's my birthday, 9/11, so that morning I thought my wife was calling me up to say happy birthday and instead she's calling me up to tell me to turn the TV on because there was an airplane flying into the World Trade Center. That was an interesting week, there were no airplanes in the sky, and you couldn't fly. The only way that you could get to fly was to file a flight plan on a ferry permit to do maintenance. Bill Rheinschild needed his Mustang flown down. I didn't have anything to fly; I’d driven up to Reno that year. We were doing some work on Bills airplane so I flew it from Reno back down here on the ferry permit. It was weird flying through the sky and not seeing any airplanes in the sky, no airliners, no contrails, nobody chattering on the radio nothing. Just like it was a ghost town.
“In 2002 Bryan Adams, who owned the ‘Flying Dutchman’, was stationed here in Hollister, and he wanted to fly his airplane at the races. So he went up to PRS and he didn't pass. So he says, ‘I really wanted to take my airplane up there, would you fly it?’ So I said sure, so in 2002 and in 2003 I flew ‘Flying Dutchman’ up at Reno and I was always in the bronze race. It was actually a lot of fun. Bronze race flying is a lot of fun. Not near as much stress. You just kind of drone around and have fun.
“Come 2004, Mike Barrow says, ‘You know, I want to build one of those Allison rod race engines and let's put it in your airplane and take it to Reno.’ And I said, ‘Well, if you want to supply the engine, I’ll supply the airplane.’ So we went up there and in 2004 and we had a problem with a supercharger and it didn't do real well that year. Then in 2005, of course was the year I was chasing “Rare Bear” around and the airplane went in the mid 460s with the Allison Rod engine. Unfortunately I burnt another piston down.
“Then in 2006 came ‘Dago Red’. Mike and I were sitting here in the fall of 2005, and it's raining like crazy outside, and I said, ‘You know what would be really cool?’ ‘Dago Red’ has been sitting in the hangar collecting dirt for a couple years. ‘I wonder if Terry Bland would let us lease the airplane.’ So we were just joking. I’m driving down here later and my cell phone rings and it's Mike Barrow and he says, ‘You sitting down?’ and I said ‘Yes.’ ‘Well, I just talked to Terry Bland and he wants to go for it.’ So that was the first year of ‘Dago Red.’ Of course we had engine problems again and that didn't work out so well. And then in 2007 I just went up to Reno and crewed for Jimmy Leeward and then again Terry had the airplane for sale. He didn't want to race it anymore until it's sold. So he came down here for a barbecue and we put the hard sell on him and he decided that yes, we could go ahead and race it again in 2008. So in 2008 we got it all prepped and I had a contract with him to race the airplane, and in midsummer he sold it to the Costa's, the fellows from Sacramento. And then they agreed, hey this might be fun, let's go ahead and race it. So they just kind of assumed everything and we had a great time. You know we didn't win should've but didn't.
“I don't like to make excuses but ‘Dago Red’ is so much faster than ‘Strega’. It's unbelievable - head and shoulders faster. We had some engine issues that we never told anybody about, with the ADI system, some cracks in the wheel case, and we were limited to the amount of power we could run. It took him everything he had to pass and beat me. He beat me fair and square and that's the way it is at Reno. The one that has the most reliable and fastest airplane wins. It could be a stock airplane or it could be the fastest racer up there.
“After the races we talked with the new owners and we told them these are the things that need to happen to the airplane. And so we worked all winter, you know, doing this stuff. They were nervous that the airplane wasn’t going to get done in time for us to get to some of their obligations, some of their airshows and what have you, and what they wanted to do.
“It was just like pulling a string out of a sweater. The airplane hadn’t been apart for so long that it just needed a lot of attention. We kept finding more and more. We kept working and working and working on it and then here, you know the story about what happened about a month or so ago, about how Frank Taylor bought it back from them. It was a business deal you know. We were all upset about it but of course when you don't own something, the owner can do whatever he wants with it, it’s his airplane. It's strictly a business deal. We were disappointed of course.
“I wasn't going to take ‘Ridge Runner’ this year and I decided maybe, I’ve got this engine that's all overhauled and it's a powerhouse motor, and we’ll throw it in mine and go again this year, so that's what were going to do.
That's cool Dan. What does it take to turn a stock Mustang into a racer besides the monster motor and a lot of cash?
“There's a couple of ways to do it. If you go to modify the airplane like ‘Dago Red’ is, there's a lot of work. If you going to take an airplane like mine that is stock and you want to make it go faster and then revert it back to stock, then it's a lot easier. You take the outer wing panels off and make the wing tips shorter, that shortens the wings. You elongate the cooling door which gives you a little more air flow out the cooling door, a little cleaner air, which gives you a little more thrust. You can modify this scoop and shim the engine. I'm not going to tell you everything that I do because I don't think some of these guys need to know what I do. You make some aerodynamic changes that are subtle and then you put a race engine in it and you're good to go.
“As far as flying out on the race course, the thing that has always worried me the most is not blowing up an engine, not anything to do with anything mechanical on the airplane, it's running into somebody. And that's always worried me more than anything. Last year I had some close calls with, I won't mention names, but I had close calls with some of the guys a couple of different times, and it's nerve-racking. But if you’re going to do this, you either go do it or you don’t do it. You have to be half crazy!
“’Dago Red’ is probably the most magnificent airplane I’ve ever flown in my life. It is just absolutely a pure racer, and it's just absolutely the best airplane out there, bar none. I don't care if you put nitrous on ‘Rare Bear’ or whatever you do to any of these other airplanes. ‘Dago Red,’ healthy, is the fastest airplane that's ever been on that racecourse in my estimation, in my opinion.
What kinds of mods did they do to ‘Dago Red’ to make it so fast?
“With ‘Dago Red’ the wings have been profiled, a little bit different change in the profile. The fuselage has been profiled, a small canopy, different offset on the engine, different offset on the tail, the scoop design is different, a lot of internal stuff like telemetry and what have you. Most of this stuff is set to run automatically. At the speeds we go, that's nice. I'm not going to have that luxury anymore in my airplane. I have to do everything manually, watch it, and do everything manually. In ‘Dago Red’, when you get ready to go you just flip the switches up into automatic. You don't have to worry about anything anymore, it does everything by itself.
The faster that airplane goes, the better it likes it.
“It’s nice flying in the Gold race because most of the guys that fly in that race are professionals and they know what the hell's going on. If there's a problem, we talk about it. It's like anything else, the adrenaline flows like crazy. Sunday's especially. They'll forgive you for some subtle mistakes but if you get real crazy they’ll come down real hard on you.
Can you share some cool stories with us, you know flying stores?
Fun, or exciting stories?
“Well fun stories … you know, any time that you can go with a bunch of other airplanes and go somewhere and fly together is more fun than just kind of flying around by yourself.
(Dan and Tony Banta)
(Dan and Ellsworth Getchell)
One of the best things I did in the last couple years was going back to the Gathering of Mustangs and Legends and we ended up with seven of us going back. The weather was a factor so the bunch of us got stuck in Wichita Kansas for a couple of days.
“And then coming back the weather was nasty again but we made it back. We had a lot of fun in Wichita. Bob Button’s always a lot of fun to be around and he went with us. Brant Seghetti was a lot of fun along with Duane Doyle. Duane has a King Air, a fast King Air 350, and we used it as out ‘mother hen’. He was the lead ship and all of the Mustangs were flying on his wing, flying back there through the nasty weather and everything, and he just kind of took us right to the airport and we landed at Columbus. Coming home, we didn't have that luxury; Brant Seghetti, myself, Button, and Bill Montague, flying “Red Dog”, which is Duane’s airplane. We flew back and made it to Colorado Springs the first day and then home the next day, but it's always a lot of fun you know, flying with other airplanes. If you go to airshows sometimes, it's kind of fun to do some formation flying around the airshows. Tail chasing.
“Hollister is still number one. This whole area around here to me is like God's country, it's more fun to fly around here than anywhere else.
“Some of the nasty things … of course there was 1982 when I crashed my airplane. The airplane actually caught on fire. I was a rookie race pilot and I made some mistakes, of course like you do, and landed short of the runway. I probably should've made the runway, you know, but with the airplane on fire and smoke in the cockpit and no control on the propeller, all these things are happening that one time, it was more than my little pea brain could handle I guess and I ended up crashing the airplane.
“I've had a couple of problems. I was coming back from Santa Fe New Mexico in an airplane and blew a prop seal. I was out in the middle of nowhere and I lost all the oil and it and covered the whole front of the airplane. The canopy and the windscreen was solid black with oil. It was running out of the instrument panel, down the longerons, and dripping off the rudder pedals on my feet. I made it back to Gallup New Mexico, and landed with about 3 gallons of oil left in it. It holds 20 gallons.
“Of course it was exciting the year that we did Dago. I had never flown that airplane before and it was a little intimidating because you can't see very well. I took off out of St. George Utah, which sits up on a mountaintop, and it has a 500 foot drop offs, and a bluff at the end of the runway, and goes straight down. I took off and knocked a rod out of the side of the case and just barely made it back to the runway and landed going the opposite direction. So that was interesting.
“And then of course what happened at Reno in 2006, qualifying, when it blew up and covered that airplane full of oil. Luckily it had a windshield washer on it and I could get a spot about that big to see, kind like a little periscope for me to see to land.
“I could probably take up half your day with stories of things that happened over the years and what have you but right now I can't think of everything. You got enough stuff there don't you?
Yep! That's great! Thanks, Dan!
Dan is such a cool guy and a great story teller. I could sit and listen to him all day long!
Be sure to come to Reno this year and cheer for Dan in his beautiful and very fast P-51 Mustang Ridge Runner III. You know I will!
Special thanks to Dan Martin for taking the time from his busy race preparations to let me interview him.
7/3/09 All photos by me and my dad. The air-to-air I took over Half Moon Bay from the tail of the B-25 "Heavenly Body"