"Everyday I got up and pinched myself": Warbird Pilot Jim Harley and a Lifetime Passion for Vintage Aircraft

It’s a beautiful morning in Orange County, New York. The Rolls Royce Merlin of a P-51 Mustang jolts to life belching blue smoke, that wisps past the name ‘Betty Jane’ painted in red script on the polished metal nose. The aircraft stabilizes in a steady hum with the whirl of four large black propeller blades.  The Mustang taxis to the end of the runway glistening in the morning sun and brakes smoothly to a stop. The sun reflects off the morning dew on the grass. In the cockpit a boyhood dream is becoming a reality as Jim Harley prepares for takeoff on his first solo in the fighter. “This is it, don’t screw up”, he says to himself. He releases the brakes and smoothly advances the throttle to takeoff power, the engine is screaming loudly in front of him. He gets off the ground and pulls the gear handle up and says out loud “Holy **** I’m flying a Mustang!”. 

Jim Harley first soloed the P-51 Mustang in 2010.  “I will never say it was mundane”, Harley says, “because it was the most awesome thing I ever did. Just that one flight, if it had just been that one flight and that’d been it I would have been happy. I have fulfilled a dream since I was a five year old kid”.  “1000% credit to the guys I was flying with at the time, they took me under their wing and taught me how to fly the airplanes”, Harley says. However it wasn’t an accident.

The boy from Ohio was born with aviation genes. His father and grandfather began attending the Cleveland Air Races in the 1930’s. They both had a huge passion for aviation. It didn’t stop there, it trickled down. Jim Harley has always had a passion for Warbird and World War II aircraft in particular. “It got in my blood early, I have just lived and breathed it my entire life”, Harley says. He first flew when he was only two years old and when he came of age he began flying with his grandfather in a Cessna 150 and Culver Dart. 

In 2002 a chance opportunity arose to become a ride coordinator for the Wings of Freedom Tour which operated a B-17 Flying Fortress and a B-24 Liberator World War II bombers visiting dozens of stops around the country. Jim saw the online advertisement and contemplated the prospect for a month and a half. Finally he said, “to heck with it”. He answered the ad, had an interview the following day, and two days later had a plane ticket to join the tour on the road.

Jim joined the tour as a private pilot and quickly began building time flying in the right seat in the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress on relocation flights on tour stops. In 2004 he completed training and earned his commercial, multi-engine and instrument ratings. When he wasn’t flying riders in the B-17 he was flying in the right seat in the recently acquired B-25 as much as possible. He earned his B-25 type rating in 2005 followed by his B-17 type rating in 2007 and B-24 type rating in 2008. In total flying World War II bomber aircraft Jim accumulated 1500 hours of flight time in the B-24 Liberator, nearly 1000 hours of time in the B-17 Flying Fortress, and nearly 900 hours in the B-25 Mitchell. 

In 2008, there were active discussions about adding a new aircraft to the tour. When mention of a P-51 Mustang arose, Harley’s jaw dropped. The tour acquired a TP-51C Mustang ‘Betty Jane’ shortly after. He started flying in the back seat right away. He says, “I made it a priority to get in that airplane anytime I wasn’t flying something else”. In order to fly it he needed to accumulate 200 hours of time in the T-6 Texan to fulfill requirements. Harley was checked out by Warbird Adventures, a Warbird flight school instructing in T-6s. Shortly after he became an instructor at Warbird Adventures and when all was said and done had accumulated an impressive 800 hours of flight time in the T-6 and would return as the chief pilot of the Wings of Freedom Tour. 

In reflecting on his time flying on tour, Jim fondly recalls the pride of his mentors upon him flying the P-51 solo for the first time. In terms of the airplane he says, “I don’t even know how to describe it, it is just a magic carpet, it does whatever you want. For what it was in 1944, nothing could touch it in my mind. You get in that airplane and you feel aggressive. It’s a neat airplane”.   He flew the Mustang from 2010 to 2016 and in that time accumulated an impressive nearly 1500 hours of flight time in the aircraft. 

“Everyday I got up and pinched myself. I have a Mustang to fly and free gas, it was epic. I still think about it all the time. When I walked away from it, I thought I will never top this”, Jim says. 

Today, Jim crafts custom leather patches for his company Spirit of ‘44 and is an accomplished artist painting period leather jackets for the classic aviation outfitter US Wings. He flies his Piper J-3 Cub and will be getting reacquainted with the P-51 later this year. 

Hadley Rille is proud to recognize Jim Harley for his contributions to aviation and for his embodiment of our brand pillars: Exploration and Adventure, Spirit, and Aviation. 

Photo Credit: Jim Harley Collection

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