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Skilled Hands - Bill Destefani

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Bill Destefani, Pilot

“It’s not easy to win,” Bill “Tiger” Destefani says, reclining by his P-51 D Mustang in an airplane hangar in Shafter. “I’ve only done it seven times.”

Seven times, he says modestly...but that’s more gold than any of us have taken home from the National Championship Air Races in Reno. And that’s not even including the other three wins he’s earned from races in Denver and Kansas City throughout the 30 years he’s been soaring in the skies. Soaring might be the wrong word. How about speeding.

Destefani races planes—and we’re not talking about jets. We’re talking World War II fighter planes.

“It’s about coordination. You’ve got to have 1,000 percent concentration. You’re traveling at 700 feet per second with a 3,800 horsepower engine. This plane was made to go to war...it doesn’t know it’s not there,” Destefani chuckles.

“It’s got no auto pilot. Flying this type of plane takes a special individual—you have to be a skilled pilot. I mean, this thing’s just waiting to kill you. At that speed [he once found himself flying at 530 miles per hour] the movement it takes to put you into a 90 degree turn is tiny. It takes someone who’s got the talent to do it and the want to win.”

And to win, one has to fly at close to 500 miles per hour, around an eight mile course, careful to stay within the 50 foot high pylons and careful not to hit one of the other planes competing.

For Destefani, competing is the best part of this hobby. He calls it a hobby because he is first and foremost a farmer.

“My great-grandfather came to Bakersfield in 1850. I was born in 1945 and I’ve always been a farmer. But I always liked Mustangs even though I had no flying experience. Well, in 1977, I damn near died of spinal meningitis. I’m recuperating and I’m thinking to myself, I’m 34! You hear about these people who work their whole lives, but they have a dream to buy a little house by a lake when they retire and they’re going to fish. So they retire, get the house, and six months later, they die. They never really got to do what they wanted.”

Destefani realized that since he had almost died once, he wasn’t going to let life pass him by again. He bought a plane in 1977 and the rest, he says, is history. He and his crew took the plane to Reno in 1980 and they did well. But the bug had bitten Destefani. As soon as they got back he began modifying the plane to go faster, turn tighter.

“We modified it only to race,” he said, grinning slyly, “not drop bombs on anyone.”

Modifications take time and energy, but Destefeni loves that element.

“I’m a hands-on guy. Not only do I fly it, but I know what makes that thing tick,” he said, pointing to his prized Mustang.

So just how do you get to be so good? What’s the practice schedule like for someone who races planes in his spare time?

“Practice?” he asked incredulously. “Nah, I don’t ever practice. I just do it. It’s kinda like ridin’ a bike. You just know how. I’ve got eight and a half minutes to prove I’m the baddest [racer] in the air.”

Then he grins. “You gotta remember, I’m a farmer...I just do this for fun.”

Sure...a farmer that just happens to be as comfortable behind the wheel of a tractor as he is wresting a World War II bomber throttle at breakneck speeds.

Article appeared in our 26-2 Issue - June 2009