Have you ever been given an opportunity of a lifetime? One that most pilots only dream about in today’s world. I was given that in December of 1999. I have always loved aviation and out of every plane ever made, the North American P-51 has always been the one single plane that I fell in love with. I’ve built models of them both in plastic and balsa to be flown RC. I have had a lifelong dream to fly one of these magnificent planes and in this special time in my life I got that chance. I’ve been a pilot since August of 1986 and have had the chance to fly lots of different aircraft, but what I was getting ready to experience would overshadow anything I had done or seen in the past. I made a call to the staff at Stallion51 in Kissimmee Florida to set things up and had the flight scheduled for March 20, 2000. These people are unreal in the way they work with their clients but I’ll get more into that later.
The next few months seemed to drag by as I anticipated the long awaited “ride of a lifetime” but eventually the day came that I would ride the wild stallion “Crazy Horse”. I awoke on the morning of the flight to find very low and overcast skies that looked like the rain would pour at any minute. The flight was scheduled for 10:00 am and I was feeling a lot of disappointment by now. I left the motel room and headed to Stallion51 hoping for the best but preparing myself for what seemed to be inevitable. I would not fly today it seemed, but at least I would get to see the Mustang and reschedule my flight for the following day. Stacy greeted me as I walked in the door. You would have thought I was the owner from the way I was treated! She took me up to the main office where I would wait for Candace who had handled the complete ordeal for me. She arrived very shortly afterward and from there I was taken to the briefing room to wait for my pilot to arrive. I felt like I was treated like a king there with everything being done to accommodate my needs. Still a little hope lingered inside that the clouds would go away but still holding out that they wouldn’t to spare the hurt of disappointment. My pilot, Eliot, arrived with little encouragement toward the flight but decided to go on with the briefing just in case. Together we went over what I could expect and the maneuvers we would be doing. The excitement again began to creep upwards and I found myself trying to bring myself back down to reality that I may not get up today. Eliot describes each maneuver and what the plane would feel and look like in respect to the outside world. By this time it was pouring down rain outside so the hope I was hanging onto had completely disappeared. We finished the briefing and decided to go down, check the weather, and then proceed to the hangar and get my first really close up and personal introduction to the Magnificent Mustang.
To be that close to a real working piece of aviation history is awe inspiring to say the least. Just the size and stance of the Mustang sitting there is enough to cause a slight shiver to run up a persons back. I’ve studied the Mustangs but never expected to have a feeling like I did at that moment. We did a complete walk-around with Eliot explaining the various hatches, technical data, service requirements, and also answering any questions that I had. The rain had subsided by now but it was still dark and dreary looking out the big hangar door. Eliot checked weather once more and took me to the back door of the hangar to look out. SUNSHINE!!! My adrenaline pumped up faster that anyone could imagine. We went back to the plane and started getting strapped in. This seemed like a large chore as there were belts coming from everywhere. They all came together in the middle and one clasp held it all in place. We went over the safety procedures and then the emergency procedures. There is quite a bit of time spent on these two important things and he was sure that I understood them all before he climbed inside. The checklist is quite lengthy but everything was gone over one at a time and verbally out loud so I could hear the pre-start items to check. One tends to wonder how the pilots in WWII went over this stuff before a flight, or did they? As the list drew to an end the canopy was rolled forward for the start, fuel boost pump on for 5 seconds and then the words I had waited so long to hear, “Clear Prop”. Four blades through then ignition on and with a few pops and a few bellows of smoke from the exhaust pipes the horses came to life up front. That huge 4 blade prop turning so slowly up front made me realize what kind of power I was about to take off on.
Taxiing to the run up area takes a little extra work as the huge long nose of the Mustang pretty much blocks the forward sight. Zigzagging is the only way to see where you are headed to and stay away from other things that are in the way. Once to the run up area we went over the final pre-flight checklist items and allowed the oil and water to come up to temperature. Once they were in the green the engine was then brought up to RPM and the mags, prop, fuel pump, and pressures were checked and once everything was verified OK, it was time to go.
We were given clearance to depart, rolled onto the runway, locked the tail wheel. One final check on all systems before power up and then it was time. Power was run-up to 30 inches of manifold pressure and the brakes released. I was on my way. Power increased to 45 inches, then to 55 inches and by now we were accelerating quite rapidly. Liftoff was very graceful and positive, as if we were on a set of rails. Gear up and power back a little for the climb. We leveled at approximately 1000 feet for a few seconds and this is where it really became a reality to me. Eliot handed me the controls and here I was, not only riding my dream but in total control. I was flying the Mustang! It flew as rock solid as any airplane I had ever flown. Controls were a little heavy but that was to be expected. Within a few minutes we started a climb up to about 3000 ft and leveled there for airspace clearance. Once we were outside of the TCA we headed for 11,000 feet to “play” for the next 40 minutes or so. Climb in the Mustang is very positive and there is no feel that it’s fighting for altitude, even at a reduced power setting.
Once at the assigned altitude I was able to “get the feel” for the plane by just some lazy circles and turns. Then the real fun started. “Let’s try a few stalls” came across the headset in my helmet. I was game for about anything right now. We put the plane in a turn to slow down, dropped the flaps a few degrees to eat some airspeed (here I am trying to get the plane slowed down when I’m used to doing everything for a few more knots of speed) and then leveled off, cleaned it up and pulled the nose to the sky. The first stall I came out of a little to quickly and didn’t really get a full stall. The second one I held it there with a little coaching until it made the break. It was a lot different than what I remembered during training in a Cessna 150 almost 14 years ago. However different it was, it was still a very gentle recovery. Now with two stalls, in a Mustang no doubt, under my belt, it was time to do some rolls. First was the aileron roll to the right. A little nose up and then released and full right aileron. The roll was slower than I had expected but very positive. Once level it was a roll to the left. This is great I was thinking up there in my own little world. There was a faint smell of gasoline in the cockpit that Eliot quickly explained was normal having turned the Mustang upside down. It never even entered my mind as a problem anyway. Heck, for all I knew the Merlin was running on adrenaline, and it was my adrenaline. After a clearing turn and check for traffic, safety first, we proceeded to do a couple barrel rolls. Again coaching me through but allowing me to do all the flying was Eliot on the intercom. Nose up……..hold it and give me right aileron…….were his words. I still say there were tracks in the sky somewhere for the flight to be so solid. Same roll to the left this time. It was unreal! Another clearing turn before going on.
Next on the list was a couple of loops. Big firm pull carried me through the first loop very gracefully. I did release a little on the second one at the top and we hung in the belts for a few seconds. Out of every maneuver it was keep the nose up and exchange airspeed for altitude. This is great, or did I say that already. Next up, half-Cuban eight, or so I thought. Nose down for speed………then good firm pull through the top and full right aileron on the downside. Through my headset came my leader once again “ hold the nose down until I sing out and let’s do the other half. You think I argued? Hah. I was all grins. I listened for the word, gave a firm pull through the top, rolled on the downside. Here we go again so hold the nose down for speed and let’s do the Immelnium turn. Speed at 280, so give me a good pull. At the very top it was push and full right for the exit. I was on top of the world and got there in the Mustang.
By now it was time for the words I was dreading. “Guess we better be heading back to the stable” but before we go let's do a vertical roll with a pullover at the top. I’m game! Nose down, speed at 280, firm pull to vertical, release the pull and full right aileron. One roll around, release the aileron and give a firm pull over the top. Straight down for a few seconds before the pull out to level flight. My flight was on the last leg back. “How about we do a 4 point roll on the way back for fun?” I could hardly wait. “Little nose up then full left, release, full left…….you know what you’re doing came through the headset” so I carried it through the rest on my own. It was so natural feeling. Almost like I had been there before. Kind of scary if you think about it. It was time to head down as we were getting close the airport.
We told the guy at the military practice area where we had been playing thanks and so long. As we came through 3000 feet the heat from the coolant pipes which were directly below the rear cockpit floor really heated things up but I didn’t mind it one bit. We requested a midfield crossing to downwind and were granted clearance to land. On the cross-field leg the gear came out and some flaps were dropped. I flew the airplane around the pattern and lined up with the runway. Here I am almost ready to land and still flying faster than most of the small planes I’m used to flying go at cruise speed. The nose of the plane blocks the runway from view so side reference becomes very important. Eliot made a very good point here though “if you can’t see the runway, you know you are headed for it.” I must have been headed right for it because I couldn’t see a runway anywhere.
On final everything was checked once more. Three green lights for the gear. Mixture auto-rich, prop full forward, power set…….let's land this plane. I flew it to about 10 feet off the ground before I felt some help on the controls. Touchdown was smooth and fast and once again the runway disappeared behind the nose. As the tail settled onto the runway the canopy was rolled open a little for some cool air. We let it roll out on it’s own to save the brakes. The Merlin was crackling and popping back as it cooled down from a good workout in the sky. I’m sure I had the feeling that so many of our pilots felt taxiing back to the hangar after a successful mission during the war. Very thankful to be here! Once back at the hangar it was the shutdown checklist to go over now. The Merlin became quite as the previous 64 minutes raced through my mind.
Getting un-strapped took less time than strapping in. One latch and it all came loose. I took one last look around the cockpit for a mind refresher before climbing out. As I was stepping down the rest of the crew at Stallion 51 started back with their duties. I can’t say enough about the entire staff there. They were wonderful and very professional. We went back to the briefing room…….debriefing room now, and went over the flight. The entire flight was taped from the vertical fin of the Mustang and from the instrument panel, being switched between the two cameras. We watched a few sections of the tape to see the things I had done. I was then given the tape, a certificate filled out and signed by Eliot to remind me of this lifelong dream come true. The ride that I took is not a cheap ride but was worth every penny it cost and I can only hope to be able to do it again. To anyone that is as aviation crazy as I am and has a chance to do something like this, please don’t let it slip by. You will forever wish you had taken the chance. There is also an entry in my logbook that few of today’s pilots have stating that I have 1 hour of flight training in the best airplane ever built. The North American TF-51 !