A 1944 WWII-era North American Aviation P-51D Mustang, tail number N1451D, crashed shortly after taking off from Durango–La Plata County Airport (DRO), in southwest Colorado on July 4, 2014 at 9:29 a.m. killing two people, as reported on that date by the Aviation Safety Network, The Durango Herald, KMGH-TV, and other media sources.
The victims were John C. Earley, Jr., age 51, the plane’s owner, and flight instructor, Michael William Schlarb, age 53. Mr. Earley was President and CEO of Saddle Butte Pipeline LLC, which built and operates a natural gas and crude oil pipeline delivery network in North Dakota.
Witnesses reported that the single engine high performance aircraft took off from runway 3, a 9,201 feet long asphalt surface and later crashed near County Road 309A, north of the city and county owned public airport.
In earlier published interviews with Mr. Earley, he commented that it had been his childhood dream to own a P-51D Mustang. Earley had compared the rare aircraft, of which there are only 123 remaining in the U.S., to a antique Stradivarius violin.
The fighter was originally designed for the Royal Air Force (RAF) and a prototype flew on October 26, 1940, just 102 days after the British Purchasing Commission had first signed a contract for the plane.
The P-51D Mustang has a maximum airspeed of 437 mph, a cruising speed of 362 mph, a stall speed of 100 mph, a rate of climb of 3,200 feet/minute, and a service ceiling of 41,900 feet. It was a highly advanced fighter plane powered by a Packard V-1650-7 V-12 piston engine, a license-built version of the Rolls-Royce Merlin 60 series two-stage two-speed supercharged engine, and armed with six .50 caliber (12.7 mm) M2 Browning machine guns.
More than 15,000 of the warplanes were originally built at a cost of $50,985 in 1945. Primary users were the U.S. Army Air Force, the RAF, and the Chinese Nationalist Air Force.
From 1950 to the present, ownership of N1451D, the plane involved in the July 4, 2014 fatal crash, has changed hands at least 25 times. The same plane was involved in a crash landing on Aug. 3, 1987, was rebuilt, and crashed again during a maiden flight on April 4, 1994, according to the Mustang Survivors website.
This is also the same type of plane involved in the fatal Sept. 16, 2011 Reno Air Races crash. In that incident the Galloping Ghost, a modified P-51 piloted by Jimmy Leeward of Ocala, Flarida slammed into the ground while racing. Leeward and at least nine people on the ground were killed when the racer suddenly crashed near the edge of the grandstand.
The NTSB has sent a Go Team to the crash site and is the lead agency investigating this fatal aviation accident.