Danville Express

Cover Story - September 7, 2007

Merlin's Magic

Air racing friends get Danville plane ready to compete at Reno championships

by Geoff Gillette

Pilot Stu Eberhardt clearly remembers his first taste of air racing, when he and his family attended the Reno National Air Championships in 1988.

The planes flew out individually from the airport and joined up in formation near Peavine Mountain, about 5,000 feet above the airport to begin the races. The planes followed a pace plane that got them lined up - and then they dove at full power and started the course.

"I watched them race and I thought, 'I'd like to do that,'" recalled Eberhardt, 72, who has spent much of his life in the air. "And eventually we were able to buy a P-51D, the premier fighter plane of World War II."

Since then he's become one of the Warbirds, the community of airplane enthusiasts who fly modified World War II fighter planes in competition, and who are there when one of them needs help. Each year many of them bring their airplanes, families and pit crews to the high desert of Reno to compete in the National Championship Air Races.

Air racing is intense. Seven to nine vintage fighter planes fly at speeds of 450-500 mph on a course around pylons set into the ground. The planes stay around 50 feet in the air, and have to fly with extreme precision in order to avoid being downchecked for violating the course.

Air racing drew Eberhardt like a fly to honey. He grew up in Illinois and spent his youth near an airfield with a grass landing strip. In exchange for mowing grass and doing other odd jobs, he was given flight lessons; it was there he received his pilot certifications. He went from flying small planes in the Midwest to the cold war theater in Northern France.

After three years of service he returned to the United States, attended UC Berkeley and then went into commercial aviation. He spent 31 years as a pilot, first for Pan Am and then for Delta Air Lines. It was on a layover in Midway Airport in Chicago that he met Marilyn, a young flight attendant, who would become his wife.

A year after buying his P-51, Stu, Marilyn and their sons Jim and Bill made the pilgrimage to participate in what Stu calls the only "real" annual air competition going, in Reno. And the entire family has continued to go back each year. Even though the sons are grown and have started their careers, Reno is as much a part of their lives now as it has been for 20 years.

Having a plane is not the only requirement to participating in the air races.

"You have to go through training," Stu Eberhardt explained. "There's formation flying, race starts, racing on the course and emergency procedures."

"Safety is very important," he added. "At the speeds we fly, you have to know what to do if something happens."

Eberhardt said that over the years the training has become more rigorous, in order to keep the pilots as safe as possible.

"Years ago, there might be one death a year in racing, but in the last few years there haven't been any," he said.

As their sons have grown up, they have become more involved in the races. Stu and son Bill fly in Merlin's Magic, a P-51 Mustang, while Jim flies in the family's T-6G Texan called Archimedes. Bill took on the job of being crew chief as well.

And because this is a true family affair, Marilyn serves as crew to the family and keeps everyone organized and on task.

It was that strong family bond, as well as the bond they share with all of their competitors in the Warbirds circuit, that saw them through the terrible setbacks of 2006. On Sept. 15, during the qualifying round, Stu had Merlin's Magic running through the course when things started to go wrong.

"The engine blew," Eberhardt recalled. "What that means is it threw a rod, which destroys the entire engine. I heard a banging sound and the engine died."

Eberhardt said the most important thing when this happens is to get the plane's nose into the air.

"At 450 mph and 50 feet off the ground, you've got to turn the nose up and turn that speed into altitude. You don't have a lot of time to react. You have about one minute to get it on the ground," he said emphatically.

Grinning, he added, "Well, you're going to end up on the ground either way, but if you do what you're trained to, you get down safely."

The engine of Merlin's Magic was completely shot and the race was the next day. The Eberhardts rolled up their sleeves and dug in, their intention being to swap out the dead engine for a stock P-51 engine. It certainly wouldn't let Merlin's Magic compete with the highly modified planes taking the field, but the Eberhardts would still be flying. Friends jumped in to help, a crane was brought in to enable the switch, and after a very long night of effort, the plane was ready to fly again.

Then tragedy struck for the second time. While the plane was being readied to race, one of the crew began filling an oxygen bottle on the plane; the bottle became overpressurized and exploded.

Eberhardt said in planes designed to go into combat, the oxygen is kept at low pressure, around 450 pounds per square inch (psi), or less.

"We think that two crew members may have gotten confused and pressurized it twice," he said. "We think it may have gotten to 2000 psi before it blew. It was a screw-up."

Through sheer luck, the only injury reported was one crew member who was taken to the hospital for possible hearing loss due to the noise of the blast. Reports say the explosion sent rivets and metal sheeting flying around the pit.

The effect of the blast was devastating.

"The plane was nearly broken in two," said Eberhardt.

The fuselage was torn out on the rear of the plane, control cables were sheared, and the tail was damaged as it was forced into the air by the explosion and then crashed back down.

The family was crushed.

"We thought it was going to be two to three years before we would be able to get Merlin's Magic back in the air," Eberhardt said.

Then they again felt the closeness of the Warbirds community as a man named Gerry Beck stepped forward.

"Gerry came up and looked at it and said, 'It doesn't look so bad,'" recalled Eberhardt. "This was the first encouraging thing we'd heard as we were still in tears over this."

Beck owned a company that repaired and restored aircraft. He said if the Eberhardts could get the fuselage to his plant in South Dakota, he would squeeze them in and work on it right away.

"There are only about three companies in the country that have the capability to repair this aircraft," Eberhardt explained. "And we were told that they were booked up through 2008. Gerry really helped us out by getting to it right away."

The offer by Beck spurred a massive effort among the Warbirds community to get the Eberhardts back in the air as soon as possible.

"Many of my friends came up with a plan to expeditiously reconstruct that airplane. We had trucks, a crane, a flatbed ... and most of this was provided for free," Eberhardt said.

The wreckage of Merlin's Magic was hauled to South Dakota where Beck's crew set to with diligence and fervor. After several weeks of work, the plane was hauled to a workshop in Minden, Nev., where the nose and tail were mated with the fuselage and the final work was done to get the plane sky-ready.

"It was a miracle," proclaimed Eberhardt. "The explosion happened on Sept. 16, 2006, and it flew again on Jan. 2, 2007."

He smiled to recall that first test flight.

"The first test flight went pretty good," he said. He paused to consider his words before adding, "There were a few things that needed work but it went pretty smooth. It was very successful."

Since then the kinks have been worked out, and Merlin's Magic is ready to point its nose to the sky for the 2007 Reno National Air Racing Championships being held Sept. 12-14.

Stu and Marilyn Eberhardt, considered the first family of air racing, are looking forward to being there to compete. They reported sadly that Gerry Beck was killed last month in a plane crash while doing a formation flying exercise in Wisconsin. But they are grateful to him for helping them out, which they said reflects the unselfish nature and great spirit of their fellow Warbirds.

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