02/28/00 AAFO.COM "Inside Air Racing" -UPDATE-
By: Wayne Sagar

Last year, there was thunder in the skies over Reno, but not exactly what race fans had hoped for.

On Friday afternoon, Mother Nature let loose her fury, giving race fans and area residents alike, a spectacular example of her power. A massive electrical storm fascinated all who witnessed it, but what had happened to the other "Thunder" we had all hoped to see?

What had happened to Race 3, the Thunder Mustang of Tommy Rose?

During practice and qualifying, the distinctly unique sound of the Ryan Falconer Engines' V-12 powerplant, turned heads every time the "Mini-Mustang" flew by. Rose posted a blistering, 310.488 qualifying speed in his slick Red & White airplane, aptly named, "Thunder Rose." This speed placed him third in the pack for the beginning of the heat races at Reno, things looked bright for Rose and Papa 51.

...Then it happened...

...Silence, instead of the thunder. The engine had failed in "Thunder Rose."...

Just hours before the races were scheduled to begin, Rose and the Thunder Mustang were suddenly out of the competition.

And there was worse news to come for Papa 51. A financial thundercloud hung over the future of the Nampa, Idaho kit manufacturer. For Papa 51, a challenge greater than racing was about to begin.

The company was overextended, worker layoff's and no parts being shipped, could have spelled disaster. But as we reported a few months ago, the storm passed and in fact, might well have revealed a silver lined cloud in the process. Texas businessman and Kit-Plane Guru, Tom Giertz, was brought in to grab hold of the financially troubled company and steer it down the rocky road to financial stability.


When we last talked to Tom, he had just slipped into the corporate driver's seat at Nampa and was settling in for the long haul back. With several months under his belt, we wondered how well the newly restructured company was doing. Our first question was aimed at how well things had developed over the past few months.....

Giertz: "Real good, we're under budget on the cost to complete all the parts for our participating customers. The engine testing has been completed. We are in real good shape on delivery times from our vendors. Everyone's working with us, we don't have any problems with any of our vendors at all. Things are going well... pretty smooth. Smoother and better than, actually, than I thought it would."

aafo: How many kits are out there right now?

Giertz: "Thirty four."

aafo: Are you making any new kits, or just concentrating on getting the parts to the existing kits?

Giertz: "Our main concentration is on completing current kits. That doesn't mean that we won't take an order for a new kit. We have one deposit now, we're working on a schedule for his kit. We have a lot of interest. It's amazing how many people, when the price of the kit popped up a hundred grand, didn't care. They still want an airplane. They are just waiting to see us survive, and you are seeing that now!"

aafo: Tom, the Thunder Mustang Website shows several kits well along in their build process... How soon will we see more Thunders in the sky.

Giertz: "Sun-n-Fun will still probably only have one in the air, but by Oshkosh, four or five and Reno six or seven... End of the year, eight or nine."

aafo: Six or seven Thunder Mustangs at Reno, this is exciting ! You sent us news of the new engine going through its testing at Falconer Engines.... New engine?

Giertz: "That's the Generation 2 engine, the production engine that we're supplying to all the customers. We wanted to have an endurance test done on that engine before we started delivering."

aafo: Is the Generation 2 engine still normally aspirated?

Giertz: "That's correct. That engine has now gone through the same testing that the prototype engine went through. Ryan completed the testing last week with no problems. We've already shipped one engine to a customer. With this test over, we'll be able to start moving forward pretty quick with engine deliveries."

aafo: Was the "Thunder Rose" engine a prototype?

Giertz: "It was the prototype version, it wasn't the same as the production engine."

aafo: At Reno last year, we heard all sorts of speculation about what had happened... Broken crank was one theory that circulated.

Giertz: "Ryan [Falconer] has had that engine taken apart and done a forensic on it. His belief is, that early in the life of the engine, Papa 51 ran too low of an oil pressure due to a miss-communication with Ryan. There was evidence in the engine of that, other than just the rod that failed."

aafo: So a failed rod was the cause of Rose's engine problem?

Giertz: "Ultimately, it was a rod that failed. Originally, it was lack of oil, burning a bearing.... When the bearing burned, we lost .080 spacing and there is not that much to give up. As things started banging around in there, a rod bolt broke, which started the nasty chain reaction of failures."

aafo: So the crank did not fail?

Giertz: "No.. no... totally false....."

At this point, Tom mentioned something that caught our "ear".... The Ryan Falconer V-12 has always sounded a bit "off" to this Merlin/Griffon tuned race fan... The engine had a different firing order than that of its big brothers in in the Rolls Royce family.

Giertz: "This is a new crank..... it has a different firing order, we now have timing gears, instead of a timing chain. We've also changed to a thirty pound flywheel from a six pound flywheel..."

aafo: Different firing order? ... is that going to make it sound more like a Merlin?

Giertz: "It sounds a little more in that direction... It still doesn't sound like a Merlin... nothing sounds like a Merlin! [laughs].... You can hear a difference, there is a difference."

The current output of the Falconer V-12 is in the neighborhood of 650hp, certainly enough to pull the "little Mustang" along at a good clip. To be sure, this places it well up in the field for Sport Class racing... If the airplane is ever to be a competitor in the Unlimited Class, it will take more horesepower... A lot more. This brings us to the development of the Supercharged version of the engine. Output for this engine is expected to be in the 1200hp range. If it can ever be successfully developed and installed in a "Thunder," a new category of serious Unlimited contenders could be in place.... We asked Tom if we might soon see one of the pumped up "Thunders"?

Giertz: "Not from Papa-51 Ltd. Co. right now..... Let's save the company and get some airplanes in the air, we'll worry about supercharging later. We definitely have customers that want it and one of our builder centers is in negotiations with a customer right now to fund the final development of the 1200HP version for his Thunder Mustang. At this time, we don't have the money to do it."

aafo: How much R&D are we talking about?

Giertz: "A lot of it's done! We're not starting from scratch, we have done a bunch of it. Papa-51 Ltd. Co. can not afford to put the money into it today..."

aafo: Is the supercharged motor basically the same motor only pumped up?

Giertz: "Different pistons... there are some changes... It's not just the same engine with a bolt-on anything."

aafo: Overall, structurally it's the same?...

Giertz: "Yea... What you'll probably see before the 1200HP, [supercharged engine] is a "bolt-on," normalized supercharged engine. Which really is made to keep your horsepower at altitude. That would help at Reno, we're losing a couple hundred horsepower [Reno altitude is 5000+'] we would maintain our horsepower at Reno. That is almost as easy as bolt it on and make it fit under the cowling. That already exists he's [Falconer] done that before, the engineering is done. Now it would just be making it fit under the cowling, without having to make any changes."

aafo: How big of a problem will it be getting it under the cowling?

Giertz: "We actually think it's not going to be too bad... that's down the road a little bit."

The first time I saw the Thunder Mustang, my thoughts ran wild! What if someone did a clipped wing, clipped canopy version? Rumblings of just this concept have been heard around here and we wondered if there was any truth to this... We asked Tom if he knew of any airplanes slated for this treatment.....

Giertz: "That's correct. We do have people who have ordered complete assemblies to be able to just pop one canopy off and put the other on."

aafo: Will you be supplying those parts?

Giertz: "We're supplying all the hardware and fiberglass pieces, but they're working on the canopies themselves."

aafo: Any thoughts of doing a race ready kit in the future?

Giertz: "Yea.. there's all sorts of neat ideas. You know, you can sit here and say 'we're going to do this and we're going to do that'. In all reality, we just want to continue to exist through the year 2000, so we can see lots of airplanes flying in 2001, so we can sell lots of kits -so we can get profitable again- so that we can do some things like that. Ultimately, it would be nice to have a "race option" available for the kit for anybody who wants it. Again, I can't see us having that available for..... [a while] Let's just sell some airplanes for now, all that other stuff will come later...."

If any of this conversation has gotten you to thinking about building your own "Thunder"... Hang on. It's going get a lot easier to "build your dream".

Giertz: "We're going to make it easier for people to buy airplanes. Originally, the way it was set up, you buy the whole airplane. Most of these guys, [kit builders] it's going to take them a year to build their wing kit, or more.. some guys are a lot faster. But there are guys out there that it's going to take a year, because their building on weekends. It's going to take them another year to do the fuselage. They have two years into the airplane and we have forced them to buy their engine. Now they have this $110,000. firewall-forward package sitting in the corner of the garage for two years. It's stupid to force someone to do that. We're not going to do that anymore. We're going to sell the wing kit separate. You want to buy a wing kit.. fine... You want to buy a fuselage kit, fine. Buy your firewall forward kit when you want to. If you buy the whole thing at once, of course, it will be more attractive financially than if you piecemeal each kit. But our customers have told us, they don't want to have to buy the engine right now. The old Papa-51 was sort of stuck on 'well that's just the way it is.' My retail and business background before this taught me that the customers drive your business. You can't dictate to the customers how you sell your product. Papa-51 LTD company will start selling their kits in 3 separate packages. It is still available at $285,000.00 with a timely delivery contract for each sub kit or you can order them at your own schedule at the following prices:"
  • Wing Kit............................$ 85,000.00
  • Fuselage Kit......................$110,000.00
  • Firewall Forward Kit.........$110,000.00

"These separate kits still contain the same parts as always, and you only need to buy your personal options. Such as panel, paint, nav lighting and interior."

We had the opportunity to see "The Legend" aircraft at the 1998 Pylon Racing School at Reno, Nevada... The airplane was designed to run an automotive conversion package, V-8 engine. It arrived at the Pylon Seminar with a 650hp Walther Turbine hanging off the nose. I'm a very big piston fan, but there was something entirely special about this airplane as powered! You just have to admit... it is especially sexy to back into your parking slot! Tom and I had talked about the Walther firewall forward package right after I'd seen it in 1998. It's an engine that certainly has potential in light airplanes! When Tom mentioned the Thunder Mustang and the Walther in the same sentence he definitely got our attention.

Giertz: "There is also a Walter 801E package being engineered by one of our current customers. It will be done here in the states and will fly here for a short time and then be sent to Europe. We are excited about seeing this package done and having it available for future customers."


A lot of people have been watching this company from the beginning. Bringing an entirely new airplane to life is a tremendous challenge and the process has not been without hurdles for Nampa's Papa-1 Ltd. Co. New management, new designs for the airplane... forward thinking, new marketing ideas, everything seems to be in place for this company... With thirty four kits out in builders hands and more coming up in the future. New engine possibilities -clipped canopies and wings- The potential for expansion of this design into a first class Gold Unlimited contender is tremendous. Even if no Thunder Mustang ever won at Reno... If all of them currently in production ever showed up at once! WHAT A SHOW!

Things are looking good for "Thunder Over Reno"!

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story by Wayne Sagar
images courtesy Papa-51 Co. LTD. & Mark S. Daniels (Images Of Light)

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