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Twilight Tear – the Migrating Mustang

P-51D "Twilight Tear", as she looked 65 years ago and today. Profile by Gaëtan Marie.


When we talk of famous aircraft, we generally mean famous types rather than individual airframes. However, some aircraft have a history of their own. Twilight Tear is one of these. Having served three different air forces over a period of several decades, it finally retired to the civilian market where, by a twist of fate, it resumed all its previous military identities and returned to its former airfields.

In the second half of 1944, a brand-new Mustang was rolled out of the production lines of North American Aviation at Inglewood, California. With its NAA construction number of 122-31590, it was part of a batch of 1,000 P-51D-20-NA ordered by the US military. After the customary flight testing by NAA, it was transferred to the US Army Air Force with the military serial number 44-63864. It arrived in the United-Kingdom on December 14, 1944 and was promptly delivered to the Duxford-based 78th Fighter Group, which was in the process of replacing its P-47 Thunderbolts with Mustangs.

In Duxford, the Mustang was assigned to an 83rd Fighter Squadron pilot, Lt. Hubert “Bill” Davis. It was painted in the colourful markings of the 78th FG and coded HL-W. Davis, who had received private education in England before the war, named it “Twilight Tear” after an American racehorse born in 1941 whose exceptional performance earned it the 1944 Horse of the Year honours, the first filly to do so in forty years.

Hubert "Bill" Davis with fellow pilots of the 78th FG. (Photo: USAF).

Twilight Tear quickly went to war. With it, Hubert Davis claimed an Me 109 and another one damaged on March 2, 1945:

I was flying Cargo Yellow Two on Captain's Higginbottom's wing , heading south-east at 21,000 feet , when enemy aircraft , approximately 24 Me 109's, were reported at six o'clock low at 15,000 feet. Cargo Squadron did a 180 left and then started a descent to 15,000 ft. Capt. Higginbottom turned into a flight of four Me 109's, but held his fire when number four proved to be a P-51. Capt. Higginbottom went after one 109 and I turned into two 109's coming at me from my right. I went after the number two man and after completing a 360 to the left, I was able to hit him with about a 30 degree deflection shot. He was in a climbing turn at the time. I saw hits on the wings, around the cockpit, and on the engine. The plane turned over, pouring out dense black smoke, and went spiralling straight down. The landing gear came down. I followed on his tail, shooting until I “hit” about 6,000 feet, then pulled off to one side as I was going about 400 mph. I followed him down through clouds and saw the plane hit. I did not see the pilot bail out nor did I see any chute open. I climbed back up to about 14,000 ft to where the flight was still in progress. I saw two 109's down on the top of the clouds and dived on them. I fired at the wing man and saw hits on the wings and fuselage, but I was closing too fast so pulled up to keep from over-shooting. I did not see what became of the plane.

On March 11, Davis was on a mission to Hamburg when he was ordered to escort back to base another 83rd FS pilot who had a leak in the coolant system, Lt Jack Hodge. The two set course for England but Hodge decided he wouldn't make it that far and turned north towards Sweden. Losing height rapidly over a low cloud layer, the two pilots couldn't see whether they were over land or water. As Hodge went into the clouds, Davis told him to bail out but received no answer. He dived through the clouds and emerged at 800 ft but was never able to locate Hodge or his aircraft's wreck.

Sadly, Hodge had bailed out but had opened his parachute too early and got tangled up in the aircraft's empennage. Badly injured, he was taken care of by local people but succumbed to his wounds shortly after. The locals negotiated with the Wehrmacht and were given permission to give Hodge a decent Christian funeral. He was buried in Øster Starup cemetery.

Hubert "Bill" Davis, probably in front of Twilight Tear. (Photo: USAF).

On March 19, Davis scored again during a mission near Osnabruck, downing two Me 109s:

I was flying Cargo Yellow Three position in Cargo Squadron. We had just dropped tanks, and had climbed from 8,000 feet to about 11,000 feet going up to engage 109's above us. I looked over my left shoulder to see where my wing-man was, and saw a Me 109 at 8 o'clock on me, approximately 1000 feet below me, going in the opposite direction. I immediately dove on him and he started a turn to the left. We had made about two 360 degree turns , when I was able to get in a burst at 90 degrees. I could not see if I hit him as he was blanketed by the nose of my plane. When I saw him again, he rolled over and and started spiralling straight down. First his canopy came off, and then I saw him bail out. Something, it might have been part of his canopy, hit the right side of my windshield, cracking the glass. His plane went straight on in and exploded. I was still in an almost vertical dive so I went down and took a picture of the fire. On the way back up I saw a chute and took a picture of that.

By this time I had lost my wing-man. I climbed to 13,000 feet in order to join up with some other 51's or to find another German plane. I was heading East to where it looked like there were some 51's in the distance when I saw a 109 about 1000 feet above me and going the other way. He must have seen me turn after him, because he immediately started a climbing turn to the right, pulling a trail of smoke. I was closing on him and fired at about 900 yards (sic). I didn't see any hits. We did about another complete turn. I was right behind him at this time and just going to fire when the canopy came off and the pilot bailed out the left side. I followed the plane down and took a picture of the fire.

Davis flew most of his 35 wartime missions in Twilight Tear and scored three of his four aerial victories with it. The rest of the aircraft's wartime career is uncertain. Some sources indicate that Twilight Tear was responsible for one or even two victories over Messerschmitt Me 262 jets. The author has not been able to find any confirmation of this. According to USAF records, pilots of the 78th FG accounted for 13 Me 262 kills, including three by 83rd FS pilots.

P-51 Mustang of the 78th Fighter Group parked in Duxford after the war. (Photo: AFHRA).

After the war's end, Twilight Tear remained at Duxford and was flown to Speke, near Liverpool, in July 1945 where she was handed over to the American Assembly Unit Number One for storage. In 1945, Sweden bought surplus P-51 Mustangs from the US, and Twilight Tear was part of the last batch, which was transferred to the Flygvapnet in June 1948.

Assigned to Wing F16 in Uppsala, it was designated J26 Fv26158 (in Sweden the P-51 was referred to as the J26, J standing for Jakt - Fighter). With its new Swedish colours, and coded red D and later green K, Fv26158 flew with F16 until the early 1950s, when the Flygvapnet retired the J26. Some sources state that Fv26158 also served with Wing F4 at Ostersund.

This is how P-51 44-63864 looked in Swedish service. Profile by Gaëtan Marie.

Sweden sold all of its retired Mustangs to other countries. Fv26158 was purchased by Henry Wallenberg and Co in February 1953, and overhauled by Svenska Flygverkstaderna in Malmo. It was then flown to Israel via Rome and Athens. After its arrival in the Middle East, it became IDF/AF 3506(38).

Twilight Tear in Israeli colours. Profile by Gaëtan Marie.

Details about its career in the IDF/AF are unknown, aside from the fact that it served until 1961, when Israel retired its Mustang fleet. It seems that 3506/38 was then transferred to the IDF/AF Museum and stored in the open at Herzlia until it was purchased by former IDF/AF colonel Israel Itzahki in 1978.

With very little resources, Itzahki began restoring the Mustang. With help from several American enthusiasts, the aircraft took back to the air in February 1984 under the civilian registration 4X-AIM.

Twilight Tear as she was restored in the early 1980s by Col. Itzahki. Profile by Gaëtan Marie.

In 1986, Itzahki decided to sell the fighter to the Swedish company FlygExpo. It was inspected and test-flown by Stephen Grey and then transferred to Malmo on December 23. Upon its arrival, the original Swedish markings were found when the aircraft was stripped of its paint and it was decided to give it back its original Flygvapnet colours (but with the civilian registration SE-BKG). For a short time in 1994 and 1995, it was loaned and flown in the Netherlands, bearing the colours of Royal Netherlands East Indies Air Force N3-615 before returning to Sweden and reverting to its Swedish colours.

The aircraft thrilled crowds at airshows for many years until April 2002 when it was sold to Stephen Grey's Fighter collection at Duxford. The following year, it was painted in its original wartime colours of the 78th FG, with a new civilian registration (G-CBNM). The aircraft had come full circle.

It was fully restored at Chino in 2007 before returning to Duxford where it continues to please the crowds at airshows today.


The Twilight Tear mystery

There is an ongoing debate as to which aircraft is the real 44-63864. In 1960, William Lear Jr. purchased a surplus IDF/AF Mustang supposedly bearing this registration. This aircraft was modernized and modified to a two-seater configuration with wingtip tanks. It crashed in Iceland in 1963 during a ferry flight, killing its pilot. The wreck was stored until 1989 when it was flown back to the US and restored to flying status as N42805.

William Lear claims the original data plate was chiselled off the airframe at some point, and that his aircraft is the original Twilight Tear. On the other hand, Stephen Grey explained that when the aircraft was returned to Sweden, its previous identity as Fv26158 was confirmed, and that there is no doubt that Fv26158 was the original 44-63864. Time passing by and records being scattered, it is doubtful this question will ever find a definitive answer.