Watching Andrew McKenna perform a fighter approach at Nantucket Memorial Airport in his P-51 Mustang makes your heart thud like a prop. Coming in hot, McKenna screams low over the tarmac, then pulls up and arches his Mustang high to the left, dumping speed and circling back for a landing. The fighter gleams magnificently in the midday sun, harking back to World War II when Mustangs patrolled the skies and shot down nearly five thousand enemy aircraft. The scene is made all the more surreal watching it alongside World War II veteran and lifelong islander Francis Pease, who actually built a runway during the war for fighter birds like McKenna’s. These days, Pease pulls his car up the airport’s chain-link fence to watch the planes come in. Today McKenna gave the old vet a treat. “Is that one hot aircraft or what!” the ninety-one-year-old yells out.
Indeed, Andrew McKenna’s P-51 Mustang is one of the hottest planes in the air, topping out at 505 miles per hour. There’s between 125 and 130 P-51s left in the world, but only a handful in this kind of condition. McKenna climbs out of his Mustang in a khaki fighter-pilot jumpsuit, looking as if he just shot out of a time warp from 1944. A tire blew on his landing, but he seems utterly unfazed by what could have been a pretty scary situation. Standing well over six feet tall, McKenna guides us around his plane with pride—not for own- ing one, but pride for its history. “The saying with these airplanes is that you are the keeper of the keys,” McKenna says. “Take the history, try and carry it for as long as you can. And when you can’t do it any longer, hand the keys over to someone who will respect it.”
McKenna’s P-51 was built in May of 1944 as a replacement for the Eighth Air Force. It was flown from Englewood, California to Italy, right when the war ended. Never seeing any combat, the plane was packed up in box and shipped back to the States where it served in various Air National Guard outfits before being sold at surplus in the late fifties. “You could have bought this in the sixties for eight hundred bucks,” McKenna says. “Now it will run you two to three million depending on what kind of shape it is in.” McKenna is the fourth civilian to own this mint-condition P-51.
Although he repeatedly insists that the story is about the plane and not him, it’s hard not to wonder about the kind of guy who can own one of these pieces of history—or more importantly, who can fly it. McKenna grew up watching air shows with his father in Pennsylvania. He remembers him once saying, “One day Andrew you’ll get a chance to ride in one of those.” But the boy vowed he wouldn’t just ride in a P-51 Mustang—he’d own one and fly it himself.
At the age of sixteen, McKenna did his first solo flight on October 10, 1992, but the budding hobby became too expensive for his family to support. He dreamt about flying everyday, until finally in 2007 when he earned his private pilot’s license. Seven years later, the thirty-seven-year-old performs at air shows with millions in the crowds. He’s come full circle, now performing for kids that dream to be him someday.
While performing at air shows is certainly thrilling, McKenna says his greatest pride comes in honoring those who have flown before him. He has done nine flyovers at Arlington National Cemetery, including one for a decorated P-51 ace named Urban Drew. Drew had six aerial kills in World War II, once famously shooting down two Nazis in a single dogfight. His heroism earned him the Air Force Cross. However, when Drew passed away in April 3, 2013, budget cuts in United States Air Force prevented him from receiving the traditional flyover. So McKenna did it, honoring the hero with the same plane he flew in the war.
McKenna has been coming to Nantucket since 2006. He regularly flies back and forth to his home in Virginia in the Mustang. “It’s kind of like driv- ing a monster truck to work,” he laughs, as the Nantucket Memorial attendant finishes filling the P-51 with 103 gallons of gas. “It gets about two miles to the gallon.” Back in Virginia, McKenna is the founder, president, and CEO of McKenna and Associates, a strategic consulting firm strategizing in management and fundraising for Fortune 500 companies, banking interests, national nonprofits, and high-net-worth individuals. Before start- ing his company, he received a presidential appointment to the US Department of Agriculture and served in the White House Liaison’s Office. All this McKenna says not a word about. For him, it’s all about the plane.
Everyday, 550 World War II veterans pass away and the link to our national history becomes thinner and thinner. Thanks to pilots like Andrew McKenna, the spirit of those brave men and women will continue to soar, ever reminding us why they truly were the greatest generation.