As previously reported, on February 5th 2016 P-51D Mustang N351BD crashed in Arizona with the tragic loss of both souls on board. This particular aircraft was painted as “Big Beautiful Doll.” It the name used by Colonel John D. Landers on his aircraft during World War 2. I thought that it would be a fitting tribute to N351BD, its owner Jeffrey Pino, and passenger Nicholas Tramontano to look at the background of the name and the man behind it.
John D. Landers was born on 23rd June 1920 in Carter County, Oklahoma. By 1938 he had relocated to Johnson County, Texas and employed by the Lone Star Gas Company. With World War II in full swing, he enlisted in the USAAF in April of 1941 and completed his flying training at Stockton Field Aviation Cadet Flight School in California.
By January 1942, Second Lieutenant Landers was posted to the 9th Fighter Squadron, 49th Fighter Group in Australasia, flying the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk. This, he had painted as “Texas Longhorn” depicting a snorting Longhorn with bloodied horns in front of a yellow star. With only 10 hours under his belt he embarked on his first combat missions over the Pacific.
It was on his second sortie that he would get his firs kill as his flight of 12 aircraft were dispatched to intercept an enemy flight near Darwin, Australia. Soon into the flight, his P-40 began to experience engine problems and Lt. Landers began to fall behind his formation. He spotted a flight of seven Japanese bombers with fighter escort 2000 feet below him and decided to dive in on them. With one of the bombers in the cross hairs he pulled the trigger on the Warhawk’s .50-Caliber machine guns and claimed his first victory. With his aircraft damaged by the escorting Zero fighters he managed to catch up with his flight to claim his second bomber of the engagement.
With 6 kills to his credit and now an “Ace,” Landers was shot down over Papua New Guinea, but managed to escape from the jungle with help from some of the local population. He was returned to the US in January of 1943 and assigned a training role, but he missed combat. So he applied for an active duty posting and, after completing Lockheed P-38 Lightning conversion training, was assigned to the 38th Fighter Squadron, 55th Fighter Group at RAF Wormingford in the UK in April of 1944.
Landers continued to clock up victories against Focke-Wulf Fw190 and Messerschmitt Me410 fast bombers over France and Germany, first in the P-38 and then (after the 55th FG converted in July 1944) the P-51D Mustang. Promoted from Captain to Major he took command of the 38th FS and it is around this point that he began to adorn his aircraft with the “Big Beautiful Doll” nose art. During this time he was involved in what is regarded as the longest fighter escort mission. His flight accompanied heavy bombers on a 1,600-mile sortie over Poland and spent approximately 7 hours in flight.
Newly promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, Landers was temporarily assigned as commanding officer of the 357th Fighter Group between October and December of 1944 at RAF Leiston in the East of England. In February 1945, Colonel Landers took command of the 78th Fighter Group at RAF Duxford, England, where he remained until June of 1945. From July 1945 until the war’s end, he stood in command of the 361st Fighter Group and had accumulated many awards: the Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross, Purple Heart and French Croix de Guerre, to name a few. He passed away on 12 September 1989.
“No, I don’t carry any kind of luck charm,” Lieutenant Colonel Landers once said. “I don’t know where my luck in finding enemy planes comes from. Some of the other group commanders claim that if they dropped me into a barrel of lard, I’d bump into a Nazi plane.”
Although he flew many airframes in his career, one of the most widely depicted of his aircraft is North American P-51D Mustang 44-72218. With the black and white checkerboard markings of the 78th Fighter Group proudly emblazoned on its nose, the all black rudder of the 84th Fighter Squadron and red highlighting around the squadron codes WZ-I, “Big Beautiful Doll” was a fine and no doubt a comforting sight to the bomber crews risking their lives over the skies of Europe.
In a practice originating from within the 78th FG, the checker pattern was repeated on the wingtips and towards the end of the war it was common for 84th FS pilots to paint their canopy frames red. On the left hand side of the fuselage is the kill tally for Colonel Landers. In total there are 36.5, of which 6 are Japanese aircraft, 14.5 are aerial and the remainder are ground victories. The half kill is for a shared downing of a Messerschmitt Me 262 on 30 March 1945.
At least three restored P-51D Mustangs have been painted to represent “Big Beautiful Doll.” The first is serial number A68-192 which was initially delivered to the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1950 and flew until 1955, when it became an instructional airframe. Promoted to gate guard in 1960, the aircraft then made its way across the atlantic to become a static display piece for the Imperial War Museum in the UK as Colonel Landers aircraft.
The next aircraft to adopt the scheme is serial number 44-63634, which was originally built under licence by the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation in Australia in 1951. It was then delivered to the Australian Air Force where it remained in service until 1958, when it was sold to a private owner. In 1973 the aircraft crashed in the Philippines and was sold to legendary warbird pilot Ray Hanna in Hong Kong who restored it and flew it over to the UK. This particular aircraft becoame somewhat of a celebrity with appearances in the movies Empire of the Sun, Memphis Belle, Saving Private Ryan, and Red Tails. In 2001 it adopted the “Big Beautiful Doll” paint scheme and was an airshow favorite until, in 2011 and now registered as D-FBBD, it was lost in a mid-air collision with a Douglas A-1 Skyraider at the Duxford based Flying Legends airshow.
The third of these airframes is P-51D 44-63634, which was accepted by the USAAF on 29 November 1944. In 1963, it was sold and put on the US register as N6149U and seemed to go through several transformations. In 1968, it was heavily damaged in a wheels up landing at Springfield, Illinois and then re-appeared in 1992, completely restored and in the hands of renowned display pilot Ed Shipley as “Big Beautiful Doll.” In May 2014 ownership transferred to Jeffrey Pino under the registration N351BD. Then in October of that year the aircraft developed a fault with the landing gear, forcing Jeffrey to make a text book gear up landing for which he was applauded.
Sadly, on 5th February this year, both “Big Beautiful Doll” and its owner departed into the Arizona skies on their last flight. Time will tell what caused this tragic accident; but I for one, as an avid warbird enthusiast, am grateful that people like Jeffrey Pino and Nicholas Tramontano are willing to put their time, money and lives into keeping the memory of these wonderful aircraft and the people that served with them alive.
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