Elliot Seguin flew low, banking a final turn like a jockey driving toward the homestretch. The sun glinted off the aluminum body of the Stewart Mustang as its right wing dipped toward the ground. Seguin’s Method Seven lenses shielded his eyes from the glare, and his gaze held steady even as the 750 horsepower engine sent tremors rippling through the airfield. Coming out of the turn, Seguin pulled back on the stick and the airplane climbed, galloping toward an imaginary finish line at 5000 feet.
From where he stood on the side of the runway, Rod Bower could feel the vibrations of the motor resonating through his heart. The 77-year-old owner and builder of the Stewart Mustang, which is nicknamed Bower’s Pony, got goosebumps. A Vietnam veteran, Bower is a staunch and solid kind of a man. The kind of man, one would imagine, that is not given to fussy and dramatic expressions of emotion. And yet, during that first flight, as he watched the green and silver speck of Bower’s Pony climbing higher and higher, his eyes brimmed with tears. “I couldn’t talk,” remembers Bower. “I was too overcome with emotion.”
After 22 years of toil and sweat, Bower finally got to see his pony race through the skies. “Instead of buying a million dollar warbird, he carved one with his bare hands,” says Seguin, his voice tinged with respect.
Born in Canada, Bower immigrated to California at the age of 18. A naturalized US Citizen, he has “always felt a strong loyalty and sense of pride in this country.” While some Americans were going to Canada to escape the draft, Bower (a Canadian) was enlisting in the US Naval Reserve. During his station as a radioman in Da Nang, Vietnam (1968-69), he often thumbed through Mechanics Illustrated—and as a result, began to take an interest in aviation.
After returning home, Bower obtained his private pilot license. The GI Bill funded his commercial, instrument, and multi-engine ratings. A fellow student at in flight school at El Cajon sparked his interest in homebuilt aircraft, and Bower began his first build: a Super Cub. Since then, Bower has completed almost a dozen projects, a mix of restorations and experimental builds.
Fast forward to Oshkosh, circa 1995. As Bower sat in the cockpit of a Stewart Mustang, a 70% scale replica of the legendary P-51 warbird, he thought, “I can build this thing.” However, 22 years later, he admits it wasn’t as easy as he initially imagined.
In fact, Bower’s Pony turned out to be the most challenging build Bower ever encountered. The Stewart Mustang kit, despite 72 sales on record, is not well-supported. And Bower is, according to Seguin, “a particular builder”—or in other words, a perfectionist.
The paint, wheels, landing gear, and propeller on Bower’s Pony are an exact copy of the P-51 Mustangs used during World War II. The only real diversion on this stunning replica is the engine. The 450 horsepower V8 automotive derivative standard on Stewart 51 has a reputation for forced landings in beanfields. However, Bower’s Pony is packing almost twice the horsepower, plus a custom Billet supercharger. The engine, designed by Jim Czachorowski, took more than 10 years to develop. After endless modifications—and a devastating bout of bladder cancer—Bower nearly gave up on the project. In the end, his values surpassed his energy. “I like to finish what I start,” Bower says. “At this point, the only thing that can stop me is the grave.”
Though Bower is “dying to fly” the Stewart Mustang, he enlisted Seguin to take the plane through the requisite 40 hours of Phase 1 flight testing. An engineer and World Record Holder, Seguin works for an Unlimited Reno Air Racing team in Sacramento CA. In his spare time, he operates Wasabi Air Racing, a contract flight-testing company based at Mojave Air and Space Port. He is also sponsored by Method Seven, an optics manufacturer that produces high-quality aviation lenses for pilots.
Seguin’s “sweet spot,” however, is transitioning experimental aircraft from build phase to flight phase—especially those with heavily modified, high performance engines. Despite an epic crash in TWERP (a featherweight taildragger modified with two TJ40-G1 turbojet engines) that nearly killed him, Seguin never lost his affinity for super-powered planes. “The engine [on Bower’s Pony] is what really got me interested,” admits Seguin.
As of June 2018, Seguin has successfully completed 9 flights in Bower’s Pony. Flying with six GoPros, Seguin creates process documentation to ensure safe flights for the duration of the aircraft’s lifespan. “My primary responsibility is to the aircraft owner,” Seguin explains. “But I also hold myself accountable to future owners, and really anyone who could potentially operate the aircraft in the future.”
Bower hopes to bring his pony to Oshkosh in 2019, following completion of Phase 1 flight testing. Though he eventually plans to sell Bower’s Pony, for now, seeing it fly is “just a thrill.” The warbird replica embodies not only two decades of personal perseverance, but also “a living history we can pass on to our kids, so that they can appreciate what people their age did during WWII.” Bower states pride in his country as his greatest value, taking care to remind younger generations of the freedoms they get to enjoy as a result of others’ sacrifice. “That’s what warbirds mean,” Bower says, “We’ve got to keep them flying.”