Every Guy’s Dream – Flying a P-51 Mustang

Every Guy’s Dream – Flying a P-51 Mustang


(photo Paul Bowen)

Perhaps it is genetically engineered, but every guy who sees a P-51 Mustang wonders what it is like to fly in that sleek, slippery silver plane. The muscular lines of the plane evoke the scrappy WW2 heroes of the air. I was amazed when the dream came true, that I’d be flying the plane. I am no pilot, but I love the idea of flight in all its incarnations. Whether a business trip across the country or flying a kite with my kids, up in the air is a thrill. 

In Orlando, Stallion 51 has acquired two very special, dual cockpit/dual controlled TF-51 Mustangs and since 1987 has made them available for orientation and training flights.

I assembled with Steve, my instructor pilot for the morning. In a preflight briefing, we went through all the technical terms familiar to real pilots: pitch, yaw, G-forces and the flight plan. It was a lot of information coming at me, but it was delivered perfectly with confidence, which is what I silently sought.

Although quintessentially American, the P-51 Mustang had its genesis in Britain. In World War II the Royal Air Force commissioned North American Aviation to develop a long-range single-seat fighter aircraft. Designed and built in just 117 days, the Mustang first flew in RAF service in raids over Germany, helping ensure Allied air superiority by 1944. Reichmarshal Hermann Göring, commander of the German Luftwaffe during the war, was quoted as saying, “When I saw Mustangs over Berlin, I knew the war was over.”

The P-51 also saw limited service against the Japanese in the Pacific War. The Mustang began the Korean War as the United Nations’ main fighter, but was relegated to a ground attack role when superseded by jet fighters early in the conflict.

During World War II, a Mustang cost about $51,000 dollars. Many planes were sold after World War II for the nominal price of one dollar to specified countries. The Mustang remained in service with 55 national air forces around the world until the early 1980s. Most intriguingly, a few P-51s found their way to Cuba prior to the 1959 revolution, but were fortunately in disrepair during the Bay of Pigs scenario. I expect those planes are in the same random condition as all the pre-1959 American cars rumbling around Havana today.

The last Mustang ever downed in battle was in the Dominican Republic in 1965.

Ford Motor Company was so enamored of the plane’s heritage that it became the name of their new youth-oriented sports car in 1964. Undoubtedly for men of all ages, the rugged reputations of the plane and the car melded.

My favorite imagery of the P-51 in films is in Empire of the Sun. The US military sold as surplus many P-51s after World War II, often for as little as $1,500. The P-51 is perhaps the most sought-after of all warbirds on the civilian market; the average price usually exceeds $1.5 million, almost regardless of condition. There are only about 175 still flying today. Stallion 51 has named its two Mustangs Crazy Horse and Crazy Horse 2, and I was getting ready to fly one.

The ground crew had plans arrayed for our takeoff in formation, meaning we’d start our flight nearly in tandem.

On the tarmac, Steve walked me around the plane, poking our heads into the cooling ports and other areas that were critical to everyone else nearby and mysterious to me.  Steve pointed out the fuel lines and other important looking parts. Everything looked fine to me. Even my untrained eye was impressed by the engines, which were overhauled and retrofitted to zero time standards.

As fanciful as the scenario was to me at this point, it became real when Steve showed me how to step up to the wing and climb into the cockpit.

“Ever jump from a plane?’ he asked.

“No,” I said with a quizzical expression.

“Me either, but let’s cover the egress procedures just in case” he replied.

Parachute, straps, buckle, D ring, harnesses.

Suddenly the scenario became very real.

The superior characteristics of the P-51 were immediately apparent upon its introduction in the mid 1940s. Chuck Yeager was one of the first American pilots to shoot down a German Messerschmitt and Yeager went on to chalk up a dozen more kills before becoming America’s most famous test pilot. Many of the aerodynamic advances of the P-51 were eventually integrated into the designs of jet planes. Enhancements to the original P-51included a lighter airframe, extra power from a supercharged intercooler and a more streamlined radiator. The P-51 was among the fastest propeller fighters ever, able to reach 487 mph (or Mach 0.74) at 25,000 feet. One of the few hassles about the P-51 became apparent during the Battle of Britain; poor rearward view was a common problem in most fighter plane designs of the era. A teardrop-shaped bubble canopy solved the problem. 

The bubble canopy closed, and quickly the Rolls Royce engines thundered to life. We were sitting behind approximately 1700  horsepower. Steve ran through his drill, confirming the instruments and gauges were all reporting correctly.

Thumbs up to the other plane, and onto the runway we rolled.

Steve had told me to keep my hand loosely on the stick, so I could get a feel for how the plane responded. He let me maneuver the plane for the S shaped ‘drunk walk’ toward the end of the runway. Steve explained that the serpentine path allowed us to see clearly down the runway; the pitched angle of the plane on the ground blocks a clear view straight ahead. In other words, the only way we could see straight down the runway is like a four legged mustang, turn your head.

At the end of the runway, we paired up with the other P-51 as the oil temperature and pressure were optimized for take off. All eyes on the golf course next to the airfield were on us. The nearby Cessnas did not warrant the longing stares.

RPMs up, flaps up and soon we were roaring down the runway, the other P-51 only three seconds and a few feet in front of us. 

The ground fell away, in that fantastic way, very quickly for the first hundred feet and then slowly the horizon expanded around us.  The cockpit suddenly seemed less cramped, as the feeling of being part of the sky grew around us. 

The engine noise was muffled by sound proofing inside my helmet. We traded positions with the other P-51 nearby, getting very close and leveraging the photo opportunities. Soon we tipped our wings to the other plane, banked away and the sky everywhere was clear, blue and open. We could see for miles and miles and miles.

(photo Paul Bowen)

Steve’s voice cracked the reverie, and he invited me to take the stick more firmly, and try a left turn.  “Straighten it out, keep the wings even with the horizon. Well done, now try a right turn, straighten it out.” 

In the pre-flight briefing, Steve asked my inclination for anything more robust than some gentle turns. Now that we were airborne, he astutely asked again to be certain I was comfortable with something beyond relatively flat flying.

There was no way this glider flying kid was going to fly flat.

“Good for you, let’s try a wing over.” He instructed me to pull the stick back and left, and we did a soaring banked turn. Things happened rather quickly thereafter, as he deftly instructed me on a barrel roll and worked up to the vaunted loop. He explained the need to develop a faster airspeed, which meant going into a slight dive. I dipped the nose, vaguely saw the gauges begin to react and then heard his instruction to pull the stick right back toward me. The nose reared up (I had a vague image of a four legged stallion rearing up), the G-forces kicked in and then the horizon disappeared.  When my stomach refound its original location, I flattened out the plane and brought my eyebrows down from mid-forehead.

“Well done…another?” asked Steve, somewhat rhetorically.

“You bet!”

Soon my flight was nearing its end, and it was time to head back.

We made a pass over the airfield, and then I heard Steve say the improbable, “I will let you land it.”  My silence was followed by his reassurances that he’d be right there with me. There was nowhere else he could be, of course.

Steve handled all the airspeed and countless other tasks for the landing, and I know his hands were on the stick. But down I brought the plane, and watched the runway flatten out and grow wider and longer. I am unsure if it was a classic three point landing, but Steve was ecstatic at the result. I again brought my eyebrows down from my forehead and realized it was indeed a rather smooth landing, without bounces.

The grin I had from ear to ear as we slowed our ground speed and headed for the hangar was confirmed when Steve later handed me a videotape of our flight. The Stallion is rigged with 3 cameras [tail, rear wing and cockpit], and so I am able to relive the flight not only in my daydreams but with anyone who will watch the video.

Brad Auerbach has been a journalist and editor covering the media, entertainment, travel and technology scene for many years. He has written for Forbes, Time Out London, SPIN, Village Voice, LA Weekly and early in his career won a New York State College Journalism Award.