Most big-dollar warbirds make cramped, noisy, expensive, baggage-limited, sometimes dangerous cross-country machines. Not so this just-restored, ex-Army T-41B Mescalero, which is based on the world’s most popular GA airplane, the Cessna Skyhawk. That’s one reason Steve Dunn and his wife, Donna, of Panama City, Florida, chose to pour $100,000 and 19 months of their retirement into an airplane that the Dunns rescued from a Navy flying club in Jacksonville.
The first Mescaleros—T-41As—were lightly militarized Cessna 172Fs built for the Air Force to use as pilot-selection primary trainers (meaning if you couldn’t very quickly learn to fly a spamcan competently, your Air Force future just got a lot smaller). When the Army saw the utility of this inexpensive fixed-gear single, they ordered a further 225 units as T-41Bs, which had far less in common with the 172 than is popularly assumed.
“The only major structure that is similar to the 172’s is the tailcone,” says Steve Dunn. The -B’s engine is a 210-hp, fuel-injected Continental six with a constant-speed prop in place of the Skyhawk’s fixed-pitch, 145-hp carbureted Lycoming four. The main landing gear and center box are from a Cessna 182, the beefed-up firewall and nosegear is a 206’s. The cowling and nose bowl are unique to the T-41B and follow-on -C and -D versions, and both the wing and fuselage are beefier than the 172’s. Quick-release bailout doors, seatback-parachute seats, long-range fuel tanks, a 200-pound gross weight increase and military FM and UHF avionics complete the Army package. And because 130 extra pounds of radios weighed down the rear fuselage, the Dunns’ airplane has no rear seat.
The restoration was overseen by Sunset Eagle Aviation, on Calhoun County Airport in Panama City. “They supervised the project, handled all the paperwork, did the work that exceeded my capability to do, and painted the airplane,” Dunn says. The paint scheme represents one of the three T-41Bs (plus seven T-41Ds) that were delivered to the Royal Laotian Air Force during the CIA-run “Secret War” that attempted to shut down the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
“The L-birds never get their due, never get recognized for the role they played in military aviation,” says Dunn. “Especially the ones that flew in Laos, that’s never been publicized.” Certainly Dunn has done his part, having previously restored two L-19s and a Piper Cub L-4.