Wardbird Stories: P-51 Mustang Wee Willy II to soar over Super Bowl LVI
Feb 02, 2022
On February 13th, as sports fans both near and far tune into Super Bowl LVI, the P-51 Mustang “Wee Willy II,” will take flight in a rare five-aircraft formation over Los Angeles’ SoFi Stadium. Piloted by Steve Hinton, “Wee Willy II” will lead the performance as part of the Air Force Heritage Flight program. While all warbirds have history embedded in every dent, scrape, and paint scheme, none have a story like “Wee Willy II.”
Originally manufactured in 1940 by North American Aviation, the P-51 Mustang is one of the most widely produced and successful fighters used during World War II and the Korean War. It’s known for its significant impact on World War II, helping to turn the tide in the Allies’ favor.
“It’s a remarkable machine. It went from a piece of paper to a flying machine in just 100 days. As part of the war effort, North American Aviation really pulled the plug out on all their ideas and put it all together,” said Hinton, who serves as president of Planes of Fame Air Museum as well as a Heritage Flight pilot.
Now, it’s a favorite among pilots and aviation enthusiasts alike, dazzling crowds at air shows and serving as a living memorial to an amazing combat history.
Much like its namesake, each Mustang is known for having its own unique personality, shaped and molded by its engine, rigging and, of course, time. Hinton noted that over his career he has flown more than 50 different P-51 Mustangs, each with their distinguishable quirks and charms.
“To quote a friend of mine, Skip Holmes: ‘If they ever named an airplane correctly, it’s the Mustang.’ It’s like a horse: they all look the same, but they all have a different spirit. And if you fly enough Mustangs, you’ll find that everyone agrees with that,” Hinton said. “You can get the prettiest, nicest one and it's a tank, and then the next one flies just like a race plane.”
“Wee Willy II” has a distinctive history, from its inspiration and inception, to its rebuild and restoration. While several significant pilots have been behind its yoke, not all have had as big an influence on the plane’s modern history as Hinton, who has spent decades flying and restoring high-performance aircraft.
Well before it became known as “Wee Willy II”, the aircraft entered service during World War II and served with several Air National Guard units. After going into private ownership, the plane was converted into an air racer and was victorious in several formations, including an August 1979 configuration where it set the World Speed Record for piston engines as the “Red Baron.” Later in 1979, the Mustang experienced a devastating crash. However, thanks to the interchangeability of Mustang parts and vision of pilot and restorer Hinton and team, portions of the plane were salvaged, restored and combined with pieces from other P-51s.
“It actually wears that data plate because it was registered when we rebuilt it from all the parts. It’s got a lot of personality, and it’s one of the better flying Mustangs, believe it or not. It’s just through luck and maybe that it’s the ghost of an airplane, part of that too,” added Hinton.
Its paint scheme and name are in honor of the original “Wee Willie,” a P-51 Mustang flown by 1st Lt. Calvert L. Williams, of the 357th Fighter Group, aka the Yoxford Boys, of World War II. Hinton had the honor of meeting him in the 1970s in San Diego.
“His [Yoxford Boys] paint scheme was an easy choice because we liked him and were drawn to the colors. The name ‘Wee Willie’ is what he put on the fighter that he flew in Europe, so it was a natural tribute,” recalled Hinton.
The 357th flew 313 WWII combat missions, including many that were instrumental in gaining air supremacy ahead of the Allied invasion of Normandy. The unit flew eight missions on D-Day itself. The group’s victory totals in air-to-air combat are the most of any P-51 group in the Eighth Air Force and third among all groups fighting in Europe at the time, having destroyed more than 700 German airplanes in the air and on the ground. Williams was responsible for the group’s first aerial victory by a 357th pilot in February 1944.
Hinton and “Wee Willy II,” which is based at the Planes of Fame Air Museum in Chino, CA, have graced the skies on multiple occasions, honoring the sacrifices of those who have served or are now serving in the U.S. Air Force. The Air Force Heritage Flight team will make its second-ever Super Bowl appearance on Sunday, February 13. Led by “Wee Willy II”, the rare five-aircraft formation can be viewed on the national Super Bowl LVI broadcast on NBC or streamed directly via the United States Air Force Facebook Page.