The gull-winged Vaught F4U-4 Corsair of Black Sheep Squadron fame, arguably one of the most beautiful war planes of all time, is painted a deep glossy blue—nearly black. She sits near the hangar door, wings mimicking praying hands, folded upward towards the heavens.
The man who taught me my commercial, instrument, and mountain skills—Gil Harris—flew one of these as a Marine pilot in the Pacific during World War II. Every time I see one of the iconic fighter planes I think of him.
But now, with the spinner high above my head, I’m struck once again by just how damn big the thing is, especially for a one-man fighter. It’s over 33 feet long from nose to tail. Unfolded, the wings stretch to 41 feet. But most impressively, the top of the engine stands nearly 15 feet off the ground. This one, with her wings reaching upward literally towers over me.
And it bears my Race Number: 53.
Funny the way the aviation world is so full of connections. But it’s chilly inside the massive 64,000 square-foot-hangar, so I cut short my communion with the past and its links to the present, and move on to the next exhibit, a rare two-seat P-51 D Mustang named Friendly Ghost. Next on the flight line is a shark-mouthed P-40 Warhawk, the same type the Flying Tigers flew, but this one is in Army Air Force colors.
On the tail of the plane, a cowboy is urinating on the Rising Sun.
I admire the moxie, but I sure wouldn’t want that on my tail if the Japanese shot me down.
I turn, and in the shadow of a gleaming black twin-engine, twin-tailed P-38 Lightning is another old friend. Painted bright, cheerful yellow, a tiny Piper Cub manages to hold it’s own among the massive warbirds. A sign in the windshield says that it’s a 1937 model, and that it’s the oldest flyable Piper airplane in the world.
And that’s what makes this museum special. The War Eagles Air Museum prides its self on keeping its collection aloft. Under nearly every one of the thirty-seven planes in their main hangar sits an oil pan. That’s not something you see in most air museums, where former denizens of the air are often shown as “static” displays, permanently grounded, shot and stuffed birds in a natural history diorama.
Airplanes are born to fly. I like museums that keep them flying, which is no easy thing to do. It’s much cheaper to park a plane and dust it off once a month than to keep it airworthy. It takes extra dedication to keep a collection aloft.
Next to the Cub, on a stand, is a cub engine. A 40-horse Continental A40-4. Ridiculously improbable as an aircraft engine, it’s small and simple. It looks like it belongs in a lawn mower rather than in an airplane. I have a vision of being able to tuck it under my arm and carry it to my mechanic for maintenance (although according to the internet, it weighs 150 pounds, and I’m not that strong).
Looking down the isle, it’s airplanes as far as I can see.
This world-class museum is in the unlikely location of Santa Teresa, New Mexico, population: 4,258. The village sits 30 miles west of El Paso, Texas, and six miles north of the Mexican border. Santa Teresa is Spanish for Saint Teresa, one of the patron saints of pilots.
Like I said, the universe is full of connections.
The collection of planes, like that of many airplane museums, is heavy on both military aircraft and World War II aircraft; but there is a handful of biplanes, two helicopters, a number of early fighter jets from the 50s, and a lovely DC-3. The museum is comfortably crowded, unlike the Mid-American Air Museum in Liberal, Kansas, which is uncomfortably crowded. War Eagles also has an interesting array of aviation artifacts—mementos, photos, uniforms, models, and more.
For car lovers, the museum includes a collection automobiles. In fact, they have more autos than airplanes, with more than fifty cars ranging from a 1908 Overland to a 1984 Jaguar, along with a great collection of antique gas pumps.
Rounding a corner under the wing of a twin-engine Douglas A-26 light bomber, an unusual airplane catches my eye. Suspended from the ceiling in one corner is a Cessna 140.
And it’s Mary Kay pink.
I stop and rub my eyes, then look again. Yep. A lovely shade of pastel pink. Not normally a color you see an airplane painted. Her nose and wheel pants are painted a darker pink, as are her wing tips. She’s also sporting a Race Number: 22.
Tickled pink, and I couldn’t wait to learn more about this unusual airplane.
Briefly, this is the story of Race 22, a.k.a. the “Cotton Clipper Cutie:” The small Cesena was the First Place winner of the 1954 all-women’s air race. Variously called the Women’s Air Derby, the All-Women’s Transcontinental Air Race, and today known as the Air Race Classic; the press at one time dubbed the long-running women’s cross country air race as the “Powder Puff Derby,” a moniker that different generations of women pilots have alternately either embraced or shunned.
The pink plane was piloted by Ruth Deerman and Ruby Hays of El Paso, now both sadly deceased. They were no strangers to the arduous race. They competed in the 1950, 1951, 1953 races without scoring a major victory, but their luck changed in 1954.
Flying from Long Beach, CA to Knoxville, TN, with nine intermediate stops, the women covered the nearly 2,000 mile route in five days, clocking an official speed of 123.9 miles an hour for the course, taking the first place slot in the 8th running of the race, and beating out fifty competitors.
The Women’s Race is a “handicapped” race, a system that places all the planes in the race on an equal footing. The winner isn’t the plane with the biggest engine; the winner is the plane with the best crew. Winning speed comes from precision flying, smart planning, finding and taking advantage of winds, and apparently, being fast on the ground, too.
According to the display, Hays, the copilot/navigator, related that—wearing a dress, nylons, a hat and gloves—she dashed from the plane at one of the checkpoints to get their log stamped and “took a spill” on some loose gravel, sliding right under the table!
She called it ignominious. But they won.
The ladies donated the historic race plane and their trophy to the museum in 1994, along with a collection of memorabilia that includes a great photo of the two women lying on the ground waxing the belly of the plane with Wonder Earth glass wax.
So did Race 22 win the derby wearing pink? Sadly, no. She was painted pink in later years. A faded period B&W photo shows the polished silver plane as she looked crossing the finish line.
But now in the pink, she’s quite the eye catcher.