September 05, 1977 12:00 PM

It was a long shot from the start—a newspaperman with limited military experience trying to convince the Pentagon that he could build a cheaper, better warplane than the Air Force A-10. For a while, however, it looked as if David Lindsay had beaten the odds.

In 1971 a classic World War II P-51 Mustang, which Lindsay had totally rebuilt, outperformed the competition in a government-sponsored flyoff to find a new combat aircraft for close support of ground troops. Lindsay spent the next six years “pounding around the halls of Congress,” as he puts it. In June his persistence prevailed. A Senate subcommittee voted $3.9 million to test further his turboprop “Enforcer”—and cut $330 million from the budget of the A-10, its closest rival. Then last month, in a shocking reversal, the full Senate decided not to fund the Enforcer program after all. “They’re some of my closest friends,” Lindsay says of the generals and politicians who lined up against him. “But, damn it, they’re wrong.”

Lindsay, who publishes six independent newspapers in Florida and California, blames his defeat on cronyism—and on the Air Force’s institutional aversion to a weapons system built without its cooperation (what Florida Sen. Lawton Chiles, a supporter of the Enforcer, calls “a not-invented-here attitude”). While admitting that Lindsay’s plane performs as claimed, the Air Force refused to test it further, questioning its “lethality” and “survivability.” Lindsay, however, believes that it was less the force of such arguments than the Pentagon’s political clout that brought down the Enforcer in Congress. “I don’t know what threats were made about contracts or things like that,” he says, “but who’s going to vote against Santa Claus and free airplane rides?”

An artillery officer in World War II, Lindsay earned his pilot’s license after the war in order to fly himself on business trips. He purchased his first P-51 from the Canadian government in 1957 and fell in love with the plane, soon buying up 30 carloads of spare parts and building new versions of the Mustang from them in his spare time. Ironically, in the mid-1960s the Air Force commissioned him to manufacture modified P-51s for the U.S. foreign aid program.

Lindsay was watching an air show in Panama with Barry Goldwater, his good friend (and a major general in the Air Force Reserve), when the Arizona senator suggested that Lindsay try converting the Mustang into a jet-powered close support plane. Two and a half years later Lindsay unveiled his Enforcer, with its cut-rate cost of $1 million—compared to $6.3 million for the A-10. “All I want is a chance for my plane to prove itself,” he says. “It’s the nearest thing there’s ever been to a flying tank.”

For the time being, however, the one-of-a-kind Enforcer prototype is grounded and under 24-hour guard in a reinforced-concrete warehouse near his base at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. He’s still bitter over Gold-water’s vote against him during the recent Senate battle but insists that neither he nor Piper Aircraft, which bought the prototype, is in the competition for the money: “Neither of us would have made a nickel on the test program.” What next? “For now I’m going to lie down and bleed awhile,” says the 54-year-old father of four, who has spent nearly $1 million of his own money on the project. Still, he is far from resigned. “We hope to talk to President Carter about it,” he says, “and there’s always the next session of Congress.”

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