Mustang Sallies Flying a WW2 Mustang. Ever wanted to fly a WW2 Mustang? Pilot Bob Davy explains how you can make that dream a reality Photography Paul Bowen.
Fly a P51 Mustang How to take to the skies in a WW2 icon
I am sitting eight feet in the air on Runway 33 at Kissimmee airport in Florida. Ahead of me is 12ft or so of aircraft nose – it looks and feels as if I’m atop a very big shark. Except that it’s got wings, and 13ft in front of me is a four-blade propeller turning at 750rpm, about half the engine speed. I’m mesmerised by it, but the growling, blatting and popping of a 27-litre V12 Merlin between it and me brings me back to reality.
I crank the canopy closed. I’ve got to man-up now, as I move the throttle to 2300rpm on the toe brakes and take a last look at Ts and Ps (temperatures and pressures). The noise is incredible. Now I release the brakes and push the throttle forwards; the Merlin is snarling and, as the Air Speed Indicator sweeps past 50 knots, I’m going even harder on the throttle. The tail comes up with a progressive pressure on the stick and a firmer one on the right rudder, but everything wants me to go off the left side of the runway – the crosswind from the left, the prop biting more air on the down stroke, the torque of the engine pushing the left tyre into the ground, and the gyroscopic effect of the propeller as it’s moved to the vertical.
There’s a further shove to the left as the tail rises, but I catch it with firmer pressure on the right pedal, and the Mustang now feels like a four-ton Ferrari as we tear along the tarmac. We’re at 100 knots and then we lift off as I pull the stick a little further back. Make a final go/no-go decision with Ts and Ps as we arc into the pattern around the airport while climbing hard at 150 knots. It’s a go, and I am flying a Mustang. All this for just 60 pence… per second!
Along with the hurricane, the Spitfire and Mustang changed the outcome of World War Two entirely. The Spitfire (40%) and Hurricane (60%) won the Battle of Britain, which halted the German invasion and also made America realise that the Allies had a chance of winning the war if they stepped in, when previously they hadn’t planned to. Later, the Mustang escorted American bombers on European daylight raids all the way to Germany and back and reduced their terrible losses to bearable attrition. No other fighters had the range to do this at the time, whereas P51s could be fitted with papier-mâché fuel drop tanks: if Axis fighters were sighted they could be jettisoned so that the Mustang lost weight, sped up and regained its air superiority, chasing the enemy down.
My own exploration of the Mustang began when I completed a novel back in 2008. The title, In Case of War Break Glass, is a reference to legendary wartime ace Robin Olds. His infamous antics on the ground as well as in the air prompted some to say he should be housed in a fire case in the Pentagon with ‘In Case Of War Break Glass’ across it. My fictional character in the book starts out flying a Spitfire and as part of the research I did two flights in a two-seater. I wanted to put the reader firmly at the controls of this aircraft: how to start it, how to taxi it, how to fly and fight it.
Several years later and here I am researching the sequel, where the character returns to the fight in a P51 Mustang. And, until recently, if you wanted the best Mustang training in the world, there’s only been one place to go – Kissimmee, Florida, the base of Stallion 51 Corps. It’s also home to Lee Lauderback. Lee has 9000 hours in Mustangs, making him the highest-houred P51 pilot in history. The fact that he still loves it says quite a lot about how special this aeroplane is.
Two months before my visit I had received a parcel in the post containing a hard-arsed exam that had me trawling the internet for several weeks. If the instructor asks you what the emergency drill for an electrical failure is and you say ‘Ummmm…’ then you just wasted five dollars. Yes folks, it works out at about a dollar per second in the air. And that’s (relatively) cheap. Expect to pay at least twice as much outside the USA. I had a conversation with a very famous P51 owner in the UK and he said he can’t even operate his aircraft for that amount in the UK, when we’re paying for fuel per litre what the Yanks pay per gallon.
My first look into the hangar at Stallion 51 takes my breath away. There, in a space so clean it could be an operating theatre, are parked not one but four Mustangs: three two-seater TF51s and a P51D fighter. Unlike the Spitfire, the two-seat Mustang isn’t compromised in terms of centre of gravity by the addition of a rear cockpit and its occupant. In fact, back in the day, the single-seaters were often flown with 25 gallons of fuel remaining in the fuselage tank aft of the cockpit to draw the CG back. Some say the TF two-seater actually flies better than the fighter. They also sell for 30-40% more – after all, there’s nothing better than taking family and friends with you in a Mustang.
So, what’s it like to fly, mister? The Mustang is a big machine. With 225 gallons of fuel in its wing tanks and two-up, we are topping out at 8000lb; in wartime, with the fuselage tank plus external stores, bombs, six machine guns and armour plate, you could up that to 12,000lb. I had previously flown a T6 Harvard and had thought how huge it was but, strangely, now it appeared almost toy-like in comparison.
The WW2 fighter jocks would look cool as they climbed onto the Mustang’s main wheel tyre to get up to the cockpit. Today there is a thoughtfully provided spring-loaded step in the flap; put your left foot in, grab the canopy rail with your right hand and launch yourself up so that your right foot lands on the wing. Climb inside the cockpit by standing on the seat and then shimmying down.
First impressions? It’s higher up and roomier than a Spitfire, but nothing is more than an arm’s length away. If the gun sight was fitted you would probably have just banged your head on it, but without it the view forwards and outside is impressive: better forwards than from a Spitfire. They are both powered by almost identical tightly cowled Merlins, but the Mustang sits more nose-low on the ground than the Spitfire because its tail is higher off the ground.
Let’s get started. I reach forwards and right to find the battery switch on the horizontal panel by my thigh, check battery voltage and the fuel gauges on the floor each side of the seat. To my left is the throttle quadrant; I want the throttle an inch open and so I stick my finger in the gap behind it and the rear of the gate – a useful tip from Lee. Lower down are the switches that operate the oil and coolant cooling doors underneath the aircraft; one at a time I flick them up to auto and listen for the motors running the doors shut beneath me.
Then I operate one of the toggle switches at the left base of the instrument panel to prime the Merlin – eight seconds for a cold engine on a standard day, as little as nothing for a hot engine on a warm day. I signal to the crew chief and then operate the starter switch next to it. The airframe lurches as it twists in reaction to the tremendous torque of the motor, and then lurches again as the first few pots fire. With my right hand I turn the magnetos on and then pass that hand under my left to put the mixture to ‘auto lean’.
The engine now erupts into a cacophony of pops and blats, literally roaring into life. The sound is spellbinding with the canopy half-open. And I’m wearing earplugs and a bone dome! No wonder that most of the Second World War pilots I’ve met were hard of hearing.
I release the start switch and place the guard over it, check that oil pressure is rising, winch the canopy shut, switch on the alternator, the avionics master, raise the flaps and signal the crew chief that I’m ready to taxi. The instructor is doing the radio for me so I can spend my time concentrating on weaving that beautiful nose and looking for obstacles. The foot pedals are predictably massive, with smooth, progressive toe brakes. With pedals alone you can steer through 5º but, for sharper turns, make the pedals neutral and then push the stick all the way forwards to raise the locking pin out of a disc atop the tailwheel, allowing it to castor. Our noisy yet docile aircraft just turned into a four-ton supermarket trolley going backwards.
As we get to the end of the taxiway, a bunch of elderly golfers on the adjacent golf course stop what they are doing, take their caps off and stand up straight. As if I didn’t already know, it hits me right between the eyes again what this aeroplane represents. Even sitting here, writing this a few days later and remembering the look on those old chaps’ faces, I have to admit I’m choking with emotion.
The engine run is also a premonition of what’s to come. We line up into wind – important, because it will overheat if you don’t – and open up to 2300rpm. I can barely think straight as I exercise the prop and check the mag drop, then clunk the supercharger into high gear with another innocuous little toggle switch, which knocks the revs down and the manifold pressure up. That little switch is why the Merlin-engined P51 was a game-changer. Back to ‘low blower’ and the numbers return: Ts and Ps are in the green, coolant is at 90ºC and oil at 40ºC. Next time I’ll close the canopy first. To save time, the instructor runs through the take-off checks as we taxi onto the runway – a dollar per second, remember. We’re ready.
I line up on the runway, stand on the brakes and push the throttle past 1500rpm to 2300rpm. That’s loud! I look at the manifold to check it’s at 30 inches’ pressure – manifold pressure is measured in inches of mercury equivalent, and is the main indication of power – and then release the brakes as I push up to 40 inches. That’s loud! Surprisingly, the rudder just needs little shoves to keep us straight and it gets better as we get faster.
At 50 knots I simultaneously push the stick forward an inch as I feed in 55 inches and counter the impending swerve to the left. That’s really, really loud. The impressive acceleration continues to build until, at 100 knots, a little rearward pressure takes us cleanly off the runway. Now we are really flying, in every sense. I let the Mustang accelerate as I lean down and raise the gearlever, then set 42 inches on the throttle and 2700rpm on the prop. A quick scan to check that all is normal and I sweep into a left turn.
The noise seems to go away now we are moving; the controls feel better the faster we go. As with all heavy metal, you don’t so much physically move the controls as press on them to make a roll or a pitch change. It’s progressive, balanced and harmonised. Nine thousand hours on the same aircraft and still loving it, Lee? Yes, I get it.
I like the film As Good As It Gets, with Jack Nicholson earwigging a psychotherapy group and announcing ‘Hey guys, maybe this is as good as it gets’, but he was wrong. Forget the therapy: they should have spent their money on a Mustang ride. At high speed the controls stiffen up but they’re still manageable. A Spitfire remains light in pitch at high speed but the ailerons get heavy, taking away from control harmony. In a Mustang it stays balanced, and long slow aileron rolls and massive loops and barrel rolls are the best fun. It’s easy to become a speed snob in a Mustang, too. The ‘Vne’ (Velocity you must Never Exceed) is 440 knots, or 505mph, or mach 0.7 – those are jet speeds. At a more realistic 250 knots you’ll be burning 63 US gallons of fuel an hour, which rises to nearly 100gph at 360 knots. The long ranges achieved during WW2 to escort the bombers were achieved at relatively low airspeeds and with huge drop tanks. Two thousand miles or more was doable but today we would be looking for somewhere to land after 750 miles – if only I could afford the mileage costs.
If you have a private pilot’s licence (PPL), then you, too, could fly a Mustang. Ideally you will start your tail-wheel conversion with something like a Cub or Chipmunk and then graduate to the Harvard. Recently, the personal WW2 Mustang of ace Robin Olds – whose story inspired this journey of mine – has become operational out of Antwerp in a similar programme to Stallion 51’s, and the cost is comparable when you factor in travel costs to the States. If you have a pulse and a passport, it should be on your bucket list. At the end of my time with Stallion 51, I went up one last time to fly in formation with my friend, Spitfire pilot Sam Whatmough, in the two Crazy Horse Mustangs. It was, by a considerable margin, the best flight of my life. And the best two weeks.
Facing page Stallion 51 Corps operates a pair of two-seat Mustangs, Crazy Horse I and Crazy Horse II: some say they fly better than a single-seater. Middle right Lee Lauderback, chief pilot at Stallion 51, has notched up the most hours flying a Mustang of any pilot, ever.
‘You don’t so much physically move the controls as press on them to make a roll or pitch change’