North American P-51C, "Excalibur III"

Display Status:

This object is on display in the Boeing Aviation Hangar at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, VA.

Collection Item Summary:

On May 29, 1951, Capt. Charles F. Blair flew Excalibur III from Norway across the North Pole to Alaska in a record-setting 10½ hours. Using a system of carefully plotted "sun lines" he developed, Blair was able to navigate with precision where conventional magnetic compasses often failed. Four months earlier, he had flown Excalibur III from New York to London in less than 8 hours, breaking the existing mark by over an hour.

Excalibur III first belonged to famed aviator A. Paul Mantz, who added extra fuel tanks for long-distance racing to this standard P-51C fighter. With it Mantz won the 1946 and 1947 Bendix air race and set a transcontinental speed record in 1947 when the airplane was named Blaze of Noon. Blair purchased it from Mantz in 1949 and renamed it Excalibur III, after the Sikorsky VS-44 flying boat he flew for American Export Airlines.

Collection Item Long Description:

"Nearly every flight that was made by Excalibur III broke some kind of record," according to this Mustang’s last pilot/owner, Capt. Charles F. Blair, Jr. It was Blair who made it possible for this record-setting airplane to become part of the National Aeronautical Collection in 1953.

The World War II operational life of this Mustang was uneventful, and following the war it was sold as surplus property to A. Paul Mantz. A movie stunt and race pilot, Mantz planned to enter the postwar resumption of the cross-country Bendix Air Race from the West Coast to the site of the National Air Races in Cleveland, Ohio. To eliminate the need for an intermediate stop, he modified the plane, converting the wing into a large fuel tank by sealing the interior. The added fuel capacity of this wetwing" more than doubled the range of the airplane.

This modification had the desired results, for this P-51C came in first in the 1946 and 1947 Bendix Air Races with Mantz at the controls. In 1948 it came in second and in 1949 it finished third, flown by hired pilots Linton Carney and Herman Fish" Salmon respectively. In 1947 Mantz set a coast-to-coast speed record in each direction with this Mustang, then called Blaze of Noon.

Following its last Bendix Race, a challenge of a different nature was in store for this airplane. Charles F. Blair became interested in setting a solo, round-the-world speed record and purchased this Mustang from Mantz. Blair was a very experienced pilot, a captain with Pan American World Airways at the time, and had established his reputation by setting records in flying boats during his numerous crossings of the Atlantic during World War II.

With the eruption of the Korean War, however, Blair had to change his plans, since flying across international borders in a combat plane during wartime would not have been prudent. New plans were set for the plane that Blair had renamed Excalibur Ill, from the Excalibur Flying Boat that he flew for American Export Airlines during World War II. After careful preparations, Blair flew his Mustang from New York to London on January 31, 1951, in 7 hours, 48 minutes, breaking the existing speed record by 1 hour and 7 minutes. This record stands today for reciprocating-engine, propeller-driven airplanes.

In the flight that followed, Blair and Excalibur III established their most noted record. Blair had developed a new method of air navigation in polar regions, where the magnetic compass is unreliable, if not useless. By plotting sunlines at predetermined locations and times, a reliable form of navigation was possible, Blair believed. To prove his theory. he left Bardufoss. Norway, with Excalibur Ill on May 29, 1951. heading north over the ice and snow to Fairbanks, Alaska, via the North Pole. There were no intermediate emergency landing points and no communications or radio navigation aids available to him after departing Norway. Exactly as planned, 10 hours and 27 minutes after takeoff on the other side of the world, Excalibur Ill arrived at Fairbanks. Blair financed the project and was solely responsible for every detail of the flight. For this accomplishment, he was awarded the Harmon International Trophy in 1952 by President Harry Truman. Perhaps even more important. this flight of Exca(ibur Ill changed defense planning for the United States; flights across the northern reaches of the globe by attacking forces were now deemed possible, and steps were taken to prevent them.

This historic flight by Excalibur Ill also carried the first official intercontinental air mail across the North Pole. On the return flight from Fairbanks to New York. another record was set for the first nonstop transcontinental solo crossing of the Alaska-Canadian route from Fairbanks to New York. flown at a leisurely pace in 9½ hours.

For Charlie Blair. there was only one rightful place for this historic airplane and that was the Aeronautical Collection of the Smithsonian Institution. At his suggestion. Pan American purchased the airplane from Blair and donated it to the National Air Museum on November 6. 1953. It was completely restored in 1977.