What’s It Like to Fly a Mustang?

photo: LA Times. Click through for LA Times slideshow.

Yesterday afternoon an airplane crashed horrifically at the National Air Races in Reno, Nevada, impacting the viewing stands and killing at least three people. Many more were injured. The aircraft involved was a heavily modified P-51 Mustang, arguably the most famous and best-loved fighter plane of WWII, at least on the American side. Built around a huge and supremely powerful Rolls-Royce Merlin engine, the Mustang was designed to accompany Allied bombers on the long journey from England to Germany and back, and fight off the best that the Luftwaffe could throw at them. Later, they became popular among air racers competing in the heavyweight “Unlimited” class of races at Reno. Wealthy owners spend millions to purchase the planes and heavily modify them, changing wings, lengthening the fuselage, swapping in even more powerful engines. According to racers I’ve talked to, there are two categories of Mustang pilots at Reno: those who fly to win, putting extreme wear and tear on the airplane and its engine, and those who are content just to take part, flying the plane gently enough to save themselves the expense of frequent engine overhauls.

As something of an airplane nut myself, I considered the opportunity to fly in a Mustang for a Popular Mechanics story to be one of the high points of my lifetime. In the interests of those who might wonder what it’s like to fly one of these machines, or who want to know why people fall in love with a potentially dangerous sport, I’m reprinting it below.

FLYING A LEGEND

You’re never going to forget your first 60 seconds airborne in a P-51 Mustang.

I’m strapped into the back seat of Crazy Horse II, a vintage World War II fighter plane, as pilot Lee Lauderbeck lines it up on the end of the runway at Kissimmee, Florida. I’ve got a parachute cinched around my torso and a five-point harness securing me to the airframe. Just in case worse comes to worst, I’ve been briefed in how to pop the top of the canopy and bail out.

Lauderbeck opens the throttle on the huge 1700-horsepower, Rolls Royce-built Merlin engines. The 12 cylinders rise to a throaty roar and we start to roll. As we gain speed, the tail lifts, and then we float off the runway. We hold steady, roaring along no more than 25 feet above the ground, as the airspeed indicator passes 150 mph. Then Lauderbeck pulls the stick sharply back and the nose swings up into the blue yonder. We climb like a rocket to 1000 feet.

Leveling off, we barrel along beneath the base of the clouds at 200 mph, the sun-dappled Florida flatlands sweeping past below us. “Okay,” Lauderbeck says, “Your controls.” He lifts both hands above his shoulders, open-palmed.

I tighten my hand around the control stick and nudge it to the right, just enough to feel the wing dip, then bring the plane back to level. I’ve been a pilot for seven years, but I’ve never felt a tingle on my spine like this. I’m actually flying a P-51.

Not many boyhood fantasies retain their appeal into adulthood, and fewer still have a chance at ever being realized. But I’m flying with a man who specializes in wish fulfilment. Lauderbeck’s company, Stallions 51, provides a rare flight experience for those, like me, who’ve fallen under the spell of WWII warbirds. Anyone can strap in, and if you’re a pilot Lauderbeck will give you control of the aircraft and talk you through air-combat maneuvers. Either way, the experience is unexpectedly intense. “Everyone that comes here gets bonded to the aircraft,” says Lauderbeck. “It’s like getting hooked on drugs.”

The North American P-51 Mustang has been suckering sky-gazers for the better part of seven decades now. Its story began in 1940, when Britain desperately needed more fighter planes to combat Nazi Germany’s Luftwaffe. The designers at North American Aviation (later absorbed into Boeing) promised an all-new design that could outperform anything in the air. They delivered, and quick. Four months after the contract was signed, the first prototype was ready to fly. Sporting revolutionary engineering and a gorgeously menacing shark-like profile, the Mustang was in a class by itself. Outfitted with a top-of-the-line Merlin engine, it boasted a top speed of 437 mph and a ceiling of over 40,000 feet. Duly impressed, the American Army Air Corps adopted the Mustang as the core of its long-range fighter force.

By wars end, its pilots were credited with destroying nearly 5000 German airplanes, with a kill ratio of 11:1. But beyond the Mustang’s concrete achievements, it had earned a place in the public imagination as the embodiment of American air supremacy. “It’s a national treasure,” Lauderbeck says.

Crazy Horse II started life in 1945 as a single-seat P-51D. After the war, a back seat was added so that it could be used as a trainer. There are only 14 like it in the world, and just 165 Mustangs of any stripe –- just 1 percent of the nearly 16,000 produced during the war. Given that their life expectancy in combat was only 200 hours, Mustangs simply weren’t designed to last very long.

To stay in the air, Crazy Horse II has undergone substantial restoration, with only about half the original airframe remaining. The result is a 64-year-old, $3 million aircraft that’s functionally new. From my vantage point in the rear seat, though, the plane feels like it’s straight out of the ‘40s, with solid-looking metal levers and handles and round “steam gauges” whose dials indicate altitude, airspeed, and other essential data.

With Lauderbeck’s coaching, I add power and climb up through the clouds. Soon we’re floating along at 7000 feet, blue sky overhead and towering white cumulus all around. I spend a few minutes getting comfortable with the plane, climbing, and diving, making turns around the pillar-like clouds. Compared to modern sport planes, the Mustang is stable and slow-rolling –- it’s a Cadillac, not a Carrera.

Lauderbeck shows me some basic maneuvers, then it’s time to try some aerobatics. He tells me to put the nose down into dive, and we pick up speed until the gauge reads 300 mph. Then he has me to pull back on the stick. I feel the pull of the g forces in my seat as the nose rears higher, higher, higher. The ground disappears; the canopy in front of me is filled with blue. “That’s vertical,” he says. “Give me a little bit of right rudder. A little bit more. Just a touch more elevator.” Now the horizon is appearing again, the sky and clouds and the brown earth, all the wrong way around. Strangely, I don’t feel upside down, because the centrifugal force is counteracting gravity and keeping me pinned to my seat.

The horizon slides beneath us, and now we’re facing straight down towards the brown-and-green patchwork of central Florida. It’s a skydiver’s view of the world, but I don’t feel like I’m falling. The g forces are holding me in my seat as if I were sitting flat on the ground.

Now, as our dive bellies, the g’s start to push me down with real weight. We’re pulling three g’s as we reach the bottom of the loop. It’s a sensation unlike any I’ve felt since the last time my brother sat on me, sometime in the eighth grade. Then, as we come through level, the plane shudders. “You’ve hit your own prop wash,” Lauderbeck says. We’ve come back the exact spot where we started the loop. “Couldn’t have done it better.”

Lauderbeck talks me through a half-dozen more maneuvers: a barrel roll, an aileron roll, a half Cuban Eight. Whether I’m rightside up or upside down, the Mustang powers through like it’s on rails. Too soon, our hour is up. The fluffy cumulus clouds around us have been building into thunderstorms, and the Kissimmee airport tower tells us to expedite our trip home if we want to land before the next shower hits. Lauderbeck lets me stay on the controls all the way onto the runway. As we touch down, crosswind gusts blast us at 30 mph, but the Mustang stays solidly on course.

We taxi to the hanger, the canopy slides open, an assistant helps me climb out, shaky-kneed. It’s not until my feet are on the ground, and I see my reflection in Crazy Horse II’s mirrored skin, that I realized what bad shape I’m in.

I need $3 million, quick.

(The story originally appeared in the August, 2009 issue of Popular Mechanics.)

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