The Philadelphia Inquirer
August 18, 2009
By Edward Colimore
Inquirer Staff Writer
The 1,500-horsepower Rolls-Royce engine roared to life and the prop wash blew through the cockpit of the World War II fighter plane as Jim Beasley Jr. taxied to the end of the runway.
He closed the canopy, ran up the RPMs, then blasted down the runway as if shot out of a cannon. His gleaming P-51 Mustang knifed through clouds and banked left with another warbird a few feet away.
“It’s a rush,” the 42-year-old Beasley said after flying out of Chester County G.O. Carlson Airport. “Your adrenaline is pumping.”
The Philadelphia lawyer is the lead pilot in an aerobatic team of three Mustangs – called the Horsemen – that will be flying wingtip to wingtip tomorrow during the Atlantic City Air Show, “Thunder Over the Boardwalk.”
At least a half-million people are expected to pack the beaches to watch rakish F-16 Vipers, an A-10 Thunderbolt, and other aircraft – both vintage and modern – go through their paces.
The event, sponsored by the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, has become one of the resort’s biggest draws and an important boost to the economy during a downturn.
In the cockpit of his Mustang, dubbed “Bald Eagle,” Beasley will be in an almost meditative state, “in the zone.” While slicing through the air at 300 m.p.h., he concentrates on every move and keeps fellow pilots in his peripheral vision. Any mistake can be fatal.
“I try to be careful but aggressive enough to be at the right place at the right time and right speed,” said Beasley, of West Chester. The other members of the Horsemen, he said, “have to trust I won’t hit the ground, and I have to trust they won’t hit me. It’s balancing aggression vs. smoothness.”
Beasley had dreamed of flying the “Bald Eagle” since he was boy.
He recalled building models of Mustangs and watching the TV series Baa Baa Black Sheep, about the experiences of Marine Corps aviator Pappy Boyington and his World War II “Black Sheep Squadron.”
By about age 10, after finding out about a Mustang for sale in Cape May for $75,000, he said, he begged his father, the renowned malpractice and libel lawyer and pilot Jim Beasley Sr., to buy it. He wouldn’t.
Another opportunity arose in 1978. The elder Beasley flew the family in his twin-engine plane to a conference in San Diego and was persuaded by his then-11-year-old son to take a 500-mile detour to Harlingen, Texas, to see a group of pilots known as the Confederate Air Force, later renamed the Commemorative Air Force.
There, in a crop duster’s barn, was a beat-up World War II fighter. The battle colors had been painted over, the fuselage was corroded, and the engine didn’t run. But it was the real thing – a Mustang like those that protected Allied bombers over Germany and Japan.
The elder Beasley – who died in 2004 – paid $140,000 for the 7,000-pound plane and a spare engine, and spent an additional $100,000 on an overhaul that took two years.
His son said it was worth every penny. By age 20, he was flying the Mustang.
“It’s become an alter ego in life,” said the younger Beasley, who also is a doctor. The P-51 Mustang “is a beautiful, absolutely magnificent airplane. It sounds good, it smells good. It’s just cool.”
Beasley, a married father of five who enjoys racing dirt bikes, spends long hours at his Center City law firm on “a smorgasbord of stuff.”
“I’m working on a breach-of-contract case right now,” he said. With a medical background, he said, “I get a ton of malpractice cases.”
But whenever Beasley can break away, he gets into his flight suit. “I come late after work or on the weekends,” he said. “I turn off my brain and become a gearhead.”
Even after 5,500 hours of piloting time, he still gets a rush from flying the Mustang, he said, whether it’s over the rolling Chester County farmland or at air shows in the United States and other countries.
“It’s a super-heavy-concentration thing, like meditating,” Beasley said of the meticulous coordination with his fellow Horsemen pilots, Ed Shipley of Malvern and Dan Friedkin of Houston.
But flying can also “be most gentle and benign. I would put my grandmother” in the P-51. “The harmonic of the engine will put you to sleep. It’s a pleasure to fly.”
Last week, Beasley practiced aerobatics over Chester County with Shipley, who was flying a Mustang called “Double Trouble Two.” They communicated by radio and gestures as they performed loops and barrel rolls.
“We took some age-old advice: take your passion and make it your business,” said Shipley, 52, a TV director and film producer who specializes in aviation projects.
The Horsemen constitute the world’s only P-51 Mustang aerobatic team and are cofounders of Air Show Buzz (www.ASB.tv), a Web site carrying the latest on air shows along with reality-TV-like episodes of the Mustang pilots.
They fly in about 12 to 15 shows a year.
“We’ve taken the passion of flight and captured it in film, and created a community Web site where like-minded people can escape life’s gravity,” said Shipley. “Air shows are the third-largest spectator sport, drawing 28 million people a year across the world.”
In the Mustangs, Shipley and Beasley felt the gravity push them down in their seats as they banked through the air over Chester County. And they felt the sun’s heat – up to 105 degrees – in their cockpits.
Back on the ground later, Beasley was still high: “It was very nice up there.”
“We practice all the time,” Shipley said. “You never stop learning. . . . It’s like flying a monument. You cannot not have reverence for it.”
Flying a Mustang is “quite a departure from the usual,” added Rich Palmer, 49, Beasley’s director of maintenance, who lives in Chalfont.
“There are no stewardesses, no in-flight movie, just rough and raw, the same way the 20-year-olds flew way back when fighting a just cause.”
Beasley owns two Mustangs, a British Spitfire, and a military trainer called a T-6. But the aviation love of his life will always be the “Bald Eagle.”
And tomorrow he’ll be flying it again. “I always try to be in front of the crowd,” he said.