The Collings Foundation has returned a rare North American A-36 dive bomber to flying status.
Thanks to a surfeit of renovated, rebuilt, restored, repackaged, replicated and reinvented P-51D Mustangs and the resultant Nose Syndrome (“every- body’s got one…”), there has been a welcome trend in recent years toward the restoration of accurate early P-51s—the Allison-powered A and early Packard Merlin B and C models. Now we have a first-class restoration of one of the rarest early Mustangs of all, an A-36 owned by the Collings Foundation and restored under the direction of American Aero Services, of New Smyrna Beach, Florida. The dive bomber recently took the 2012 WWII Warbird Grand Champion award at EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
The Collings Foundation A-36 never saw combat, which is a good thing since apparently none of the A-36s that were sent to North Africa and Italy ever returned. “Our airplane was a Stateside trainer,” Rob Collings explained, “which I believe is true of all three of the A-36s that are extant. The ones that went overseas, they flew them until they were shot down or worn out. This one was flying as a sport plane until the mid-1970s.
“This airplane is so different from a Mustang [fighter] that we needed a perfectionist to restore it,” Collings said. “There are a lot of good, all-around shops out there that do great metalwork, probably 10 in the country, but when it comes to getting the details just right, there are maybe two.”
The details that matter can be seemingly little things such as hand-painting, with a brush, the red stars-and-bars surrounds and the 210 bombing-mission symbols on the nose, the way it was done in the field by ground crews. “They didn’t have spray guns in North Africa, and we restored this airplane to represent exactly what it looked like in combat,” said Collings, who also cited the authentic flat paint finish as opposed to the wet-look polyurethane of so many warbirds.
Nor did original A-36s have wing skins zinc-chromated on the inside, he said, “so we used a clear anodize and then applied original 1942-era Alcoa trademark stamps to the skin before the wing was assembled. When you look up into the wheel wells or down into the gunbays, you see what looks like bare metal, but it’s protected against corrosion.”
It took countless hours to return the guns and bays themselves to original condition. The A-36 had been a personal plane during the 1950s and ’60s, back when there was no such thing as a historically valuable warbird, “and one of the first things that got ripped out were the gun cradles, ammo boxes and spent-shell catch cans, because they were just extra weight,” Collings lamented. “The .50- calibers we have today are not live but are real, assembled from original parts. All the bullets are dated 1942 and ’43; ’44 wouldn’t do, because the airplane wasn’t around at that time. We had to look high and low for shells that were properly date-stamped. And they all have unstruck primers.”
The single most expensive, time-consuming and painful sacrifice on the altar of originality came when Collings decided to revert to an original A-36 brass-and-silver-solder coolant radiator rather than simply hiding a more modern, easy-to-fabricate aluminum radiator in the belly. The original airframe had been modified in the late 1960s with a P-51D belly scoop, radiator and doghouse, all of which had to be replaced. The barrel-shaped brass radiator is made up of a number of tanks and hundreds of tubes, “and it all had to go into a kiln at around 1,000 degrees,” said Collings. “If it was 1,100 degrees, it would melt the brass, and if it was less it wouldn’t melt the solder. We had to go through several iterations before we got it right, but we’re very pleased. It’s true to the airplane.” AirCorps Aviation, a group of young but inordinately skilled warbird experts in Bemidji, Minn., constructed the one-of-a-kind brass radiator.
Even the 21st-century components necessary to license and fly the airplane are dealt with gently. Modern circuit breakers are hidden inside authentic early-1940s electric boxes but remain accessible to a pilot in flight; contemporary avionics racks can be unplugged and removed within minutes before the plane goes on display at a show.
“We tried to keep as much of the original airplane as possible—which, to be honest, is not a whole lot,” Collings admitted. “The fuselage is original, the dive brakes are original, but most of the wing had to be built new, out in California by Cal-Pacific Airmotive.” An A-36 Mustang wing is not just a P-51 Mustang wing with dive brakes, so modding an existing wing was not an option. “North American had some heat-treating issues when they manufactured the A-36s, so a lot of the heat-treated parts weren’t any good— the longerons, particularly. For safety and longevity reasons, we had to make many new parts, and it probably wouldn’t have been much different if we’d started with an intact, untouched A-36. The majority of the airplane has been carried over from the original, but certain parts had migrated to other airplanes over the years.”
Collings said the restoration took “seven years, very full-time for three or four people—maybe upward of 40,000 hours.” He revealed that the A-36 was “a warmup” for American Aero’s next restoration project, a Focke-Wulf Fw-190, noting, “That’s going to be a real challenge.”
Though Collings’ airplane never saw combat, it has been painted in the colors of an 86th Fighter Group dive bomber, Baby Carmen, that served in North Africa, Sicily and mainland Italy. While the nose shows 210 missions, there’s evidence that it may have done 220 or more. “Those guys were flying a couple of times a day, sometimes as many as five missions a day,” he said. “They weren’t painting on a bomb every time it flew; they added them in blocks when they had time.”
Collings won’t put a number on what percentage of the restored airplane is “original” because, he said, everybody’s guess would be different. Idle Internet commentators on warbird forums have already been grumbling that the Collings A-36 is a “dataplate restoration”—that virtually the only original part is the crucial dataplate—which obviously isn’t true. Certainly a substantial amount of fabrication and new-manufacture parts are in the airframe, but remember, this is not a rich collector’s clunky vintage car that can be restored to original condition. It’s a 250-mph, 1,325-hp airplane that will regularly be flown to and demonstrated at airshows.
“So why do you keep calling it a Mustang?” many readers are doubtless asking. “It’s an A-36 Apache.” No. It’s a Mustang. There never was any such thing as an A-36 Apache, at least not officially.
The two most enduring myths about the A-36 are that “they all had their dive flaps wired closed, because the Army Air Forces didn’t trust them,” and that it was named the Apache. Nobody ever wired the dive brakes closed, and nobody ever officially named it the Apache. According to respected aviation historian Joseph Baugher, “There is a persistent myth that the A-36 was initially called Apache, which was the name that the Army had initially assigned to the two very early XP-51 prototypes. This story has no basis in fact and was a myth that originated in the 1980s.” Many Mustang authorities agree.
Almost two years before the A-36 existed, North American’s sales department was trying to sell its new NA-73 fighter—no bomb rack, no dive brakes—and calling it the “Apache.” But the firm dropped the name four months before the first A-36 left the factory. The name was a marketing tool, nothing else. There’s another side to the controversy, however, and the Collings Foundation is, at least currently, calling their airplane an Apache.“What do you call an F-16?” Collings asked me. A Viper, of course. What kind of dork would call it a “Fighting Falcon,” as if it were part of a Pop Warner football team?
So perhaps it was the pilots and ground crews who unofficially named the A-36 the Apache, though it’s indisputable that the Army Air Forces never did. “I’m going to defer on the issue until I talk to some more of the guys who flew it,” Collings said, “but I don’t think they ever called it a Mustang.”
Call it what you will, but without the A-36 there might never have been a P-51. North American manufactured only 500 of the dive bombers before the Army decided there were better ground-attack airplanes, particularly the P-47. But that production run tided the firm over while the AAF had no interest in the “little fighter” the RAF had commissioned; the two Allison-engine XP-51s sat unflown for almost a year. Then came war, and the Merlin, and you know the rest.
Originally published in the January 2013 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.