N98CF - Fragile But Agile
P-51K-10-NT 44-12016 N98CF Fragile But Agile
Serial number
Construction n°
Paint Scheme

Based at
Fragile But Agile
Lieutenant Bert Lee
348th Fighter Group
342nd Fighter Squadron
Comanche Fighters
United States

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Airframe history

First of all: this Mustang was restored originally by Stephen Grey's “The Fighter Collection” as Lt. Hubert's personal P-51 “Twilight Tear”, as it was believed to be built around the remains of the original 44-63864 Twilight Tear as it was recovered from Israel.

There was an ongoing debate as to which aircraft is the real 44-63864. In 1960, William Lear Jr. purchased a surplus IDF/AF Mustang supposedly bearing this registration. This aircraft was modernized and modified to a two-seater configuration with wingtip tanks. It crashed in Iceland in 1963 during a ferry flight, killing its pilot. The wreck was stored until 1989 when it was flown back to the US and restored to flying status as N42805.
William Lear claims the original data plate was chiselled off the airframe at some point, and that his aircraft is the original Twilight Tear. On the other hand, Stephen Grey explained that when the aircraft was returned to Sweden, its previous identity as Fv26158 was confirmed, and that there is no doubt that Fv26158 was the original 44-63864.

After many years, finally the identity of both P-51s was discovered (one would rightfully ask why this wasn't discovered before, during maintenance or restoration) and the current owner of Bill Lear's restored P-51, Ron Fagen, became the winner of the dispute via court. So Ron Fagen's N251L now wears the serial number 44-63864 and this particular aircraft which was previously owned by the Fighter Collection changed its serial in 2009 to 44-12016.

A couple of years ago, Stephen Grey explained the following on a forum:

“Posted by Stephen Grey on 7:37:24 2/14/2002 from

My attention has been brought to the postings on the interesting controversy surrounding P51D ex SwedishAF serial 26158. I may be able to shed some light on the a/c.

Many years ago, I helped some Swedish friends - who were looking for an ex Swedish AF P51. I traced a potential candidate to Col. Israel Itzahki &, after close inspection in Israel, concluded from a Swedish AF data plate located in the tail cone, that it was J26158. Checks with the Swedish AF confirmed that identity to be registered as US serial 44-63864 in their contemporary records . Col. Itzahki was a fine upstanding Officer in the Israeli AF & was certainly unaware of the significance of that Swedish stainless plate & totally unconcerned as to its US serial data - being very bemused by my meticulous researches. I established that the a/c had much earlier been registered with the Israeli Civil Aviation Authority & inspected by them on the basis of its Military records & physical evidence. Having taken it around the patch & struck a deal on behalf of my friends, I asked for an Export Certificate of Airworthiness & an Export Licence. All of these Documents with the relevant identity marks were produced after due examination by the relevant Government Bodies.

The Israeli AF had delisted that Aircraft and sold it to a scrap dealer. It is important to note that the Swedish Aircraft were not clandestinely purchased by the Israeli Government & were not stripped of Identifying Marks (as were many of their combat aircraft, often acquired in a covert manner via Agents & dealers. Itzahki purchased this a/c (largely complete & undamaged) and set to work on its restoration to flight with very meagre resources. Certainly, there were potentially airworthy parts donated to the a/c from various delericts, possibly including #41 (later recovered by the esteemed Robs Lamplough & subsequently stripped of the best parts for his chosen restoration, prior to being
sold on).

After I received permission to fly the a/c out of the country, it was ferried to Sweden (an eventful story all of its own) and submitted to a strip & IRAN. During the process its original Swedish AF paint scheme was found, under the Israeli AF markings, those being beneath very rudamentary civilian markings.

Whilst I have no doubt as to the authenticity of this a/c's identity, I cannot speak for the Bill Lear a/c (which was on an FAA ferry permit, had never been inspected by the FAA & never was civilian registered in Israel, having been purchased from a disposals organisation . Unfortunately the aircraft was totally wrecked in a fatal accident in Iceland on its ferry flight and the mystery of how it came to be US registered with the same number has died with Bill Lear & the unfortunate pilot - I understand the few smashed parts recovered cannot support claim to be an a/c, let alone help furnish an identity. My guess is the number was transposed or selected "out of a hat", being one of those 25 which were a matter of record as being officially imported, as opposed to those without US traceable identity.

I hope these ramblings provide some inight.

I recently checked that there had been no potential transposition of nos. with the Swedish AF Museum, whose outstanding Director was adamant as to the liason between 26158 & 44-63864.

I have been priviledged to have known & flown this a/c over the years - it is ratty but pure North American and nobody involved in its recovery, restoration & subsequent civilian history can have had the slightest interest in 'counterfeiting' during the formative periods of its civilian registration”

On the other side, William Lear wrote the following:

“Indeed, N-251L was my P-51. I bought it from the Israeli Air Force through Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI)who modified it to a two-place, installed all new Lear avionic and autopilot systems, painted it and obtained FAA Limited Category Airworthiness (1960). I flew it from Tel Aviv to Athens across the Med (IFR) and from there to my home in Geneva, Switzerland where I kept it until I sold it to an American buyer (name forgotten)in 1963.
I modified the aircraft by installing the Trans-Florida Aviation (Cavalier) tip-tanks and larger canopy.

The American buyer hired a French pilot to ferry the aircraft back to the U.S.. This pilot had never flown a P-51 before. His first landing was at Kevlavik, Iceland after a non-stop flight from Paris Toussus-le-Noble airport. The pilot flared too high and while at low airspeed apparently applied full 61" of noise. The aircraft rotated leftward, the wing struck the runway and the aircraft began to cartwheel down the runway. The engine broke off as did both wings and the aft fuselage leaving the cockpit section intact and on its side. There was no fire. The pilot was alive but during these violent maneuvers his head got pretty busted up. He later died of these injuries. He had worn no crash helmet and the shoulder-harness was found tied in a knot and dropped behind his seat. This was a survivable accident, but some folks know better than others.

The data plate from my P-51D, N-251L, which crashed in Iceland, was apparently removed by someone as it is no longer there and, I am told, there is evidence of it having been chiseled off.

What confuses me is that another P-51D has been registered in Europe bearing the same serial number as mine (44-63864). There is evidently some mix-up here but I have a solution to discovering if the recently registered P-51 with the same S/N is indeed my former aircraft.

An examination of the wings should reveal the installation of two-to-three additional spars which were installed to accommodate the extra weight/load the TransFlorida 110 gal (ea) tiptank installation kit required. The wing skins were removed and replaced for this "no-small-job" installation. There should also be evidence of tank brackets, fuel line plumbing and electrical wiring - or the removal of same.

The additional wing spars are the key, however. If they ain't there, then that rebuilt airplane isn't my N-251L S/N 44-63864 – period”

With this dispute finally settled, we can talk about the history behind 44-12016. P-51K-10-NT 44-12016 rolled off the North American Aviation assembly line in Dallas, Texas, on December 18th , 1944 and was loaded on a ship on January 15th , 1945, for an assignment in the Far East.

It was to take part in the American Campaign to retake the Philippine Islands from the Japanese. On arrival in the PTO, the aircraft was assigned to the 342nd FS, 348th FG, which was then stationed at the San Marcelino airbase, just north of Manila Bay.

She became the personal aircraft of Lt. Bert Lee. Lee and his P-51 both survived the war and the aircraft ended up with the Swedish Air Force somehow (how a PTO Mustang made it all the way to Sweden is a valid question, but it ended up there nonetheless).

A statement made by a member of The Fighter Collection sums it all up:

“Dear All,

The assumptions made here in this thread seem to forget how these planes have made it almost seventy years around the world. After WW2 these planes went all over the place and in various states of repair. I've seen wings of different marks mixed with tails of different marks. Remember during a war an air force will build a plane from whatever parts it can grab. This is no exception. I know this airframe quite well. When we first obtained this Mustang at TFC all of the paperwork from Israel and Sweden reported it as 44-63864 (Twilight Tear). The Swedish dataplate it had was "26158" and through Swedish Air Force paperwork "26158" is identified as 44-63864.
The Israeli, Swedish and UK Governments all registered it and import and and exported this as 44-63864.

As I understand it, it was only after it was completely disassembled that early Mustang parts were seen in places not visible when the plane was together.
In hindsight, comparing that with the history of Bill Lear's wreck, combined with the marks I saw when I stripped this fuselage, the story comes together. I was one of the first to see the two Japanese flags on the fuselage and the "Bert Lee" name but it didn't mean that much given the Israeli paperwork and the Swedish dataplate. Now, in hindsight, I get it. What must have happened is that in Israel the tails of 44-63864 and this plane were swapped before they left Israel. There was no "masquerading" of this plane. We're all doing the best we can with fragmented, incomplete, and sometimes contradictory records.
Many governments took the US dataplate off or they were stolen, and for that reason many of the planes flying today have recreated dataplates. That is perfectly legal when the feds are aware and approve. I believe that the Bill Lear wreck doesn't have an original dataplate either. I have found a photo of the Bert Lee plane and these are the exact marks that were seen on the fuselage when it was stripped. I also know that 44-12016 was in the 5th Air Force, but not 44-12018; all I can surmise is that the yardbirds didn't have the proper stencil or just messed up. We've all seen countless mistakes made in the field.
I think it's fantastic that this plane is wearing its true colors. It took a complete disassembly to figure it out, and I actually think this might be one of the most prized planes out there, given that it's the only Pacific vet that I know and actually has a kill (a Betty on March 11th, 1945). It's neat that the owner is painting both colors on it to honor the airframe rather than a particular man. Good for them. That's all I'll say.”

In June of 1949 she was sold to the Swedish Air Force, along with a number of other surplus Mustangs.

From Sweden, the airframe somehow found its way to Israel. At some point she was punt into open storage once more at Herzalia, Israel, and was later put up for sale to be sold as scrap. The P-51 was acquired by a former IDFAF pilot, Col. Israel Itzahki, who decided to restore her to flying condition.

Although he was limited in resourced, Col. Itzahki succeeded in restoring the Mustang back to an airworthy condition. It took him a little over 6 years.

Nevertheless, the P-51 made its first post-restoration flight on February 5th , 1984. She now wore the civil registration 4X-AIM.

In December of 1986, Col. Itzahki decided to sell the Mustang. She was flight tested and inspected by The Fighter Collection's Stephen Grey on behalf of the Swedish company FlygExpo.

After testing she was ferried from Israel to Malmö where she arrived on December 23rd , 1986. There she was repainted in full Swedish Air Force markings and reregistered SE-BKG.

44-63864 remained with FlygExpo until she was acquired by Stephen Grey's The Fighter Collection in April of 2002.

Whilst the aircraft underwent a thorough overhaul and maintenance work at Duxford, it was believed that her true identity was reveiled underneath the Swedish Air Force repaint. “Twilight Tear”, who had flown from Duxford airfield 54 years earlier as part of the 83rd FS, 78th FG, was believed to have come home.

Under the assumption that the airframe they acquired was 44-63864, the obvious decision was made to repaint her in the exact same paint scheme she wore during the time she was stationed at Duxford in WWII. She was also re-registered G-CBNM.

In 2007 “Twilight Tear” made the trip overseas to the US in a container and participated in the “Gathering of Mustangs & Legends”, held at Rickenbacker in Columbus, Ohio. After the show, she was sent out to Fighter Rebuilers in Chino for a complete rebuild.

During this full restoration process, the markings of Lt. Bert Lee, which were scratched in the skin, suddenly showed up and her original history as a PTO combat veteran became clear.

The serial number was changed in 2009 to 44-12016 and in the summer of 2010, the newly restored Mustang made its first flight. In September of 2010, she was repainted in the colors of "Fragile But Agile", Lt. Bert Lee, 342nd FS, 348th FG.

She now wears the markings she wore during her service in the PTO during WWII.

The paintscheme is in fact more of a tribute to the aircraft than to the pilot Bert Lee, because it is painted in the colors that Bert Lee used to fly it, but he did not name his P-51 during the War. The name was given to the P-51 by the next pilot who flew her and who named her "Fragile But Agile". So in fact her current markings are combined from the 2 pilots who flew her at different times. Bert Lee was 1st and " Fragile but Agile" was the 2nd set of markings.
Date Registry Owner











Built at NAA's Dallas, Texas
Delivered to the USAAF in December and shipped to the Pacific
Arrival in the Pacific and was stationed with the 342nd FS of the 348th FG at San Marcelino airbase
Sold to the Swedish Air Force
Sold to Israel and later stored at Israeli Air Force Museum
Col. Itzhaki, Israel. Restoration to airworthyness
First flight at Herzlia on February 5th
To Novida AB/Flygexpo, Malmo, Sweden on December 23rd Flew as RSAF/Fv26158
Cham S. Gill, Central Point, Oregon in May
Kenneth A. Hake, Tipton, Kansas
The Fighter Collection, Duxford, UK as of March
Repainted as 44-63864/HL-W/”Twilight Tear”
Crated and shipped to US to participate in the Gathering of Mustangs & Legends
Transferred to Chino for in-depth restoration
Restoration begins
Upon disassembling the airframe for restoration, its true identity as 44-12016 is discovered and as a result the serial number is changed
Registered to Comanche Fighters. First post restoration flight during the summer
Repainted as Fragile But Agile, Lt. Bert Lee, 342nd FS, 348th FG in September

Paintscheme information

44-12016 is one of those rare surviving P-51s which are exactly the same airframe and are also painted in the exact same paint scheme as they were during WWII. What's more is that she's an extremely rare Pacific Theatre of Operations veteran.

She was delivered to the 342nd Fighter Squadron , 348th Fighter Group in January of 1945, and was assigned to Lt. Bert Lee.

The name

Lt. Bert Lee actually did not name 44-12016, so the name “Fragile But Agile” is the name given to the airframe but its next pilot. Lt. Lee planned to name her after his wife Louella (“Louella's Black Magic”) but was rotated home before it could be done.


The pilot

Second Lieutenant Bert Lee Jr. was assigned to fly the aircraft and was credited with two confirmed victories during the war, which accounts for the Japanese flags painted below his name on the plane. One was a Japanese A6M Zero fighter near Manilla and the other a twin-engine Betty Bomber. A lot of Lt. Lee's missions in the P-51 were ground support in what was then Indochina.

Bert Lee was on one of the first B-17's to arrive during the attack on Pearl Harbor, and was wounded during the attack.

The 341st Squadron flew its first mission in the Philippines on the day of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The operational activities of the Group during December were almost exclusively routine patrols. Of the total of 281 missions flown by the Group in December roughly 2.5 percent were flown against enemy shipping, 8 percent in support of our ground troops on Leyte, (includes escort of dropping missions), 14 percent to cover shipping convoys, 10 percent in strikes against Visayan and Southeastern Luzon airdrome, and 3.5 percent as escort to heavy bombers striking Clark Field. The remainder of the Group's missions were predominantly local patrols over various parts of Leyte Island. About 8 percent of the month's missions involved aerial combat.

On December 11th , the final effort by the enemy to reinforce his Leyte forces by ship convoy was frustrated by fighter-bomber Corsairs and P-40's. The dive bombing by these planes was covered by Thunderbolts of the 460th and 342nd Squadrons which between them shot down three enemy fighters. One of those A6M Zero fighters was shot down by Lt. Lee in his P-47 Thunderbolt.

During March of 1945, there were a total of fourteen missions to the China Coast area. On the first of March the 341st flew cover for B-25s on shipping strike along the China Coast from Hung Hai Bay to Swatow. On the same day the 340th flew cover for B-25s to Indo China but the mission was incomplete due to weather. The 341st and 340th escorted B-25s on the 2nd of March on a strike on Toyohara and Taichu A/Ds on Formosa. Again on the third the same two squadrons returned to Formosa, this time to Kago town.

The 342nd made the change from P-47s to P-51s on the third of the month and on the eleventh they flew their first long-range mission covering Playmate 27 at Foule-Canton Island. On this mission 2nd Lt. Bert Lee Jr. shot down a Betty bomber which was flying by itself, probably on anti-submarine patrol.

Lt. Bert Lee actually had three kills, the third being an American bomber B-24 or B-25. The landing gear of the bomber remained lock in the upward position and it was still carrying a full bomb load. The crew bailed out and Lt. Lee was ordered to shoot it down. So there should be an American Flag under the two Japanese flags.

Lee, Bert Jr. 2nd Lieutenant 342nd FS 12-22-1944 1
Lee, Bert Jr. 2nd Lieutenant 342nd FS 03-11-1945 1
      Total credits 2

The paint scheme

During World War II, the 348th Fighter Group operated primarily in the Southwest Pacific Theater. It was the most successful P-47 Thunderbolt unit in the Pacific War. The Group's commander, Colonel Neel Kearby ran up more than 20 kills including a 6 kills-in-1-mission for which he was awarded the Medal of Honor.

The Group scored 396 kills, over half of all the kills credited to Fifth Air Force P-47s, and won two Distinguished Unit Citations. The Group had 20 P-47 aces including Bob Rowland, Lawrence O'Neill, Bill Banks, Bill Dunham, Walt Benz, Sam Blair and George Davis, who would later be awarded the Medal of Honor flying F-86s during the Korean War.

The 348th FG was assigned to the 5th Air Force from June 23rd , 1943 until May 10th , 1946, when it was disbanded. It consisted out of 4 Squadrons: the 340th FS, the 341st FS, the 342nd FS and the 460th FS.

They all flew the P-47 Thunderbolt until March 3rd of 1945, when the switch to the P-51 Mustang was made.

Obviously, this late during the war, the D-model was used. Groups in the PTO carried the PTO markings, which resemble the D-Day stripes of ETO Mustangs, but are a little different. The PTO bands are wider and consist of a black, white and black band running around the rear fuselage and both wings. The white band was as wide as the blue roundel containing the white start of the National Insignia. Both outer black bands started at the edge of the blue roundel of the National Insignia and ended past the bars part of the National Insignia. With the 3rd FS, the first black bar stopped at the edge of the canopy, whereas with the 4th FS, this black bar was continued around the edge of the canopy.

The Squadrons were identified by the colour of the vertical tail band on the tail fin.

The rudder was adorned with red stripes of pre-war style. Apparently no white was used, just red over unpainted metal skin with the blue leading edge.

The anti-glare panel was painted Olive Drab.

Profile © Nick King


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