Sunday, October 23, 2011

Mustang Fever

This P-51D Mustang was restored and is now owned by Mark Peterson. "Hell-Er-Bust" was the mount of WWII ace Ed Heller of the 352nd Fighter group and appeared at the Chino Airshow this year carrying 2 bombs underwing in addition to the six wing-mounted machine guns. Photo credit, David Brown

In company with countless pilots who normally take to the skies at weekends in small aircraft, I’ve often looked enviously at the North American P-51 Mustang. All the cliches are there: Fire – breathing Fighter, Exceptional Performance, Noisy, Fantastically expensive…OK....OK That’s enough.
But this does not help… It’s an addiction. Just watch a pilot…any pilot… when a Mustang flies by. Their eyes swivel, they drool over the sound of the Merlin. It’s incurable, and it’s called Mustang Fever.

Tony Banta flies his beautifully restored P-51D Mustang "Kimberly Kaye" during a visit to Southern California. A marvel in polished aluminum, the Mustang is painted with the black and yellow checked nose of the 353rd Fighter Group, and the black rudder of the 352nd Fighter Squadron. Photo credit David Brown

But how does one ever get to fly aboard one of these classic fighters?… well, there are just a few ways…inherit the money…be a film star…own the company….or be lucky.
So I was lucky.
On my first Mustang ride some years ago I flew with veteran Mustang pilot and owner, Elmer Ward. The mission was a two-ship flight from the Hawthorne Air Faire in Elmer’s Mustang “Man O’ War” in company with a second Mustang “What’s Up Doc” flown by Ross Grady. Just a quick ferry from Hawthorne in California to Elmer’s base at Chino.

Although this Mustang of course was built as a single-seat fighter, the cockpit had been modified to accommodate a second seat behind the pilot, in the place normally occupied by a fuel tank. It was a bit cramped, but a small price to pay for the experience.
"Man O’ War "sat on the ramp at Hawthorne in a line of eight Mustangs. Silver with red nose and tail, it was painted in the colors of Claiborne Kinnard, 334th Fighter Squadron of the 4th Fighter Group, operating in Europe in the latter part of 1944.

Before start our two fighters were pulled out of the lineup and parked on the ramp parallel to the crowd behind the ropes, to keep our slipstream away from the audience.

Elmer gave a through briefing and pre-flight introduction before we flew. We donned parachutes and helmets. Flying a Mustang is done as a no-kidding military mission and is briefed as such. When his victim was strapped in the back seat Elmer finished his emergency egress briefing with a question, “Have you ever done a parachute jump? (Pause) I’ve been flying these things for years and haven’t done it yet.” Then, still grinning he climbed into the front seat and strapped in.

"Man O’ War" was immaculate, Red nose and tail, squadron letters on the fuselage and with distinctive black stripes along the fuselage and on the wings to break up the outline in combat. It was not your average flying club aircraft. It’s a no-compromise fighting machine.

Elmer Ward's P-51D Mustang "Man O' War" on the ramp at Hawthorne, Southern California.
Six machine guns and excellent performance and range made the Mustang one of the top fighters in the Second World War. Photo Credit: David Brown

So what’s it like to be sitting in the back seat of a Mustang? Visibility in all directions through the bubble canopy is superb, apart from the total lack of vision ahead. The hardware in the cockpit is in some ways familiar to me, with some items identical to the AT-6 of the same era. But the big throttle, the supercharger and the whole Merlin powerplant are different. With the complication of the liquid cooling, the Merlin engine is more complex. And the aircraft handling is different. It's a big, fast and heavy aircraft by light plane standards. Stories abound of new Mustang pilots coming to grief with the torque roll induced by opening the throttle too quickly on a go-around, or having directional control problems on takeoff or landing. The average pilot requires a lot of training before leaping into the air in the Mustang.

Once strapped securely into the back seat, parachute straps and harness prevent any movement. It’s getting quite hot, with the sun beating down through the partially-open canopy. I can see some of the instruments and switches over Elmer’s shoulder, and monitor the action through my headphones as Elmer goes through his pre-start checks.
One thing the Air Force training did was to instill in the student pilot the absolute necessity to follow the appropriate checklist.

Next the Elmer sings out “ CLEAR PROP”. This gets a thumbs up from our ground crew.
I duck my head as Elmer winds the canopy forward part-way and fires up the Merlin
This is followed by a series of loud barks from the engine and a burst of smoke from the open stacks. The huge four-blade prop jerks to life, then blurs into a shimmering disc in the late-afternoon sun. From the back seat it sounds like a huge and very loud tractor chugging away as it idles, even through my helmet. At least the biggest fan in the world is blowing some cool air in my direction.
We are looking good so far. Elmer checks in with me on the intercom, then calls Hawthorne tower for taxi clearance.
Elmer waves our chocks away.

While we have been starting up, Ross Grady in his camouflaged Mustang, ahead and to our left, has also fired up and is ready to go.

“What’s Up Doc” starts to move and Elmer eases the throttle forward. “Man O’ War” starts rolling gently forward as we follow the other Mustang down the taxiway.

As the Mustang has a tailwheel, it has no forward vision on the ground because of the long engine cowling obscuring the view in front of the nose. So the pilot has to S-turn down the taxiway, looking alternately down the left, then the right side of the fuselage to clear the blind spot ahead.

At our run up area, Elmer winds the canopy fully closed, makes sure the brakes are on, brings the stick back and pushes the throttle forward.

The noise of the Packard-built Merlin engine is quite awesome. It’s standard practice to wear earplugs in addition to the noise-canceling headset. With a twelve-cylinder piston engine running only a few feet in front of you, there’s a real feeling of power when the throttle is advanced.
With 12 open exhaust stacks pointing straight at you, IT IS ALSO EXTREMELY LOUD.

Pretakeoff checks complete, Elmer looks across to Grady and signals that we are ready.

”What’s Up Doc” pulls onto the runway, and we follow him.
We line up on runway 25 cleared for a formation takeoff .We are to the right of the other Mustang, and on the right side of the centerline.

Both pilots increase power. Grady looks across at us, gets a thumbs up from Ward, and gives a head nod to signify brake release. Both Mustangs start to move and accelerate together. In “Man O’ War” the noise is overpowering.
Both Mustangs become airborne. I see the gear doors of the other Mustang flash in the sunlight, then his gear starts up and the Mustangs start an exhilarating climb into the sunlit California sky.
We bank left and turn through 180 degrees until we are on a downwind leg, then settle into a slow climb heading east.

Ward brings the engine back to cruise at 35 inches MP and 2300 rpm. Airspeed settles down at 200mph. I’m in the enviable position of having nothing to do but look around me.

There may be some things in life more satisfying than riding in the back seat of a Mustang, with one of the best Mustang pilots in the world at the helm. But only a few. The other Mustang is riding just feet away, so close that I can see the tiny movements of his controls, the lazily turning arc of that huge propeller strobing through your own propeller.

“What’s Up Doc” is in full camouflage and military markings, a real fighting machine. The sun is setting behind us, so a golden glow is illuminating every detail of the fighter. Downtown Los Angeles is clearly visible in the crystal-clear air, with the San Gabriel Mountains towering in the distance. The ground is scooting past perceptibly faster than I am used to seeing it move. We head East for Chino, past Fullerton, Anaheim, over the Prado Dam and turn left up the Chino Hills and then in over Chino airport for an overhead break to Runway 21. Every second of flight is magic as I watch the other Mustang against the background of the hills, then the dairy farms surrounding Chino.

As the Chino control tower floats back beneath us, Grady banks away to the right. After another couple of seconds we follow him, banking hard right and onto the downwind leg.

Elmer calls the tower “ Finals, Three greens ”.

Over the fence the throttle came back and the Merlin started its characteristic popping
then we touched in a perfect three-point landing and taxied in to Elmer’s hangar at Square One Aviation where he restores Mustangs, in addition to flying them.

So am I a happy person after this flight? Well, yes and no. I've been flying in a Mustang. It was a great ride. There are only a handful of these hot fighters still around. But I must admit, there are limits to a ride as a passenger. Any pilot really wants to get his hands on the controls after all…Let’s fast forward a few years to a subsequent occasion when an opportunity presented itself of flying a two seat dual control Mustang, “Tempus Fugit.”
With a few days advance warning , I took the opportunity to read up the pilot manual of the P-51 and caught an airliner to Reno, for the Air Races, Air Display and who knows what else…

Tempus Fugit (Time Flies)

This motto is painted on a polished aluminum cowl. The cowl is attached to N 151TF, which just happens to be a North American TF-51 dual control Mustang. The paint scheme is distinctive, with red nose, yellow-striped wings and a striped red tail. This Mustang is painted to represent the mount of Colonel William Daniel when the aircraft flew with the 31st Fighter Group with the 15th Air Force in Italy during 1944.

It has been raced during the week and still has its race number 23 on the vertical tail.
And this aircraft just happens to be parked on the ramp at Reno Stead Airport.

After a hectic week of flying, problems, late-night maintenance and engine runs, we are on for my flight, as long as we do not run out of daylight.

Tempus Fugit ready for engine start prior to a test flight after some engine work at Reno Stead Airport. The Mustang is painted in the colours of Col William A Daniel, CO of the 31st Fighter Group operating in Italy in 1944. The 5 kills marked under the cockpit made Daniel an ace. Photo credit David Brown

It is shortly before sunset on the last day of the week-long event. After the display, everyone wants to fly….. I'm crossing my fingers.... and then the wait is over. I am to fly this fighter with Mustang pilot Robbie Patterson.

When it’s time for me to climb aboard I remember that the approved way to mount this beast is to climb up on one mainwheel, avoiding the machine gun ports on the leading edge, step up onto the metal connecting links of the gear leg, onto the leading edge of the wing, then walk inboard to the cockpit. When you are a young cocky fighter pilot this somewhat atheletic climb is a breeze.

As I lean into the cockpit I take note of a placard on the canopy rail to lower one’s head before jettisoning the canopy in the event of having to bail out. The reason being of course that the canopy jettisons rearwards and might take your head off as it goes.

In the rear seat, this time I have a full instrument panel, stick, throttle quadrant etc, everything you could wish for.
The cockpit of this dual-control Mustang looks practically the same from front or rear seats. Engine instruments for the Merlin are on the right hand side of the panel. The throttle quadrant is on the left hand cockpit wall. It's brand new and still has a new car smell.

Photo credit:Provenance Fighters

The cockpit, in a spirit of déjà vu, is very much like the T-34 which I have been flying recently, which is not surprising. The Mustang was designed in the 1940s, rather than the 1950s of the T-34 but they are similar. The systems of the T34 are just a bit simpler. In the Mustang I note the extra dials and controls for the coolant system (and a power increase of around 1250 HP) and an airspeed indicator that is marked up to 700 mph ( We have a dive speed of 505mph)
“Tempus Fugit” has been recently restored and is in pristine condition.

I have my checklist out and once we establish communications between front and rear seats, I follow through as Robbie does his pre-start checks:

Flaps up
Carb air cold
Coolant auto
Rudder trim six right
Elevator and aileron trims zero
Fuel quantity left and right (Maximum of 90 gals per side, but he has just flown and we have enough for a short flight)
Mixture idle cutoff
Prop full forward
Throttle cracked one inch forward..
Fuel on Main LH tank

The pilot’s manual makes no concessions. Getting this far involves a number of critical items. Any interruption of fuel on takeoff, or setting the rudder trim incorrectly could lead to a sudden return to earth, or a swing on takeoff and a fatal crash.

The Mustang start procedure is no different in principle to any piston engined aircraft, with the addition of moving the coolant and oil radiator switches to OPEN.

Starter ON. The prop starts to turn.
Count six blades passing in front of the nose and switch ignition to BOTH.
Fuel boost pump ON and PRIME
Mixture to Normal.

The Packard-built Rolls-Royce Merlin comes to life. We start up with much popping and banging, with the exhaust stacks blowing smoke both sides of the cockpit.

Check oil pressure up to 50psi.
Warm up at 1300rpm.
Check dead cut on each magneto in turn.
We get our clearance and taxi out with the callsign of RACE 23.

Starting to taxi out to the runway. In addition to S-turning to see his clear path ahead, the Mustang pilot has to use differential brakes for directional control, helped by the steerable tailwheel , has to remember not to use too much power which could tip the Mustang on its nose. He is kept quite busy. Photo credit: John Rayner

Our taxi is westbound into the setting sun, so Patterson keeps S-turning to maintain visibility, wary of other traffic, and swings us into wind at the runup area for Runway 08.
At the engine runup area Patterson advances the throttle to give 2300rpm. He checks manifold pressure, cycles the prop, and checks both magneto drops are within limits,.
One complexity that is new to me is to check the supercharger in high gear.

There is a stark line in the handling notes in bold lettering.
Do not exceed 40 inches MP (Manifold pressure) on the ground.
Unless the tail is tied down this amount of power will tip the Mustang onto its nose. The cost of replacing the prop is horrendous, so caution is the watchword here.

Robbie throttles back to 1500 rpm, checks that the coolant and oil radiator switches are AUTO, left tank is selected with boost pump on. Our flaps are up. Trims are rechecked at rudder 6 right, elevator and aileron zero. Finally the canopy is wound forward and locked.

With the exhortation, “Watch your knees” Patterson verifies we have full and free movement of controls. I’ve been wacked on the knees before so make sure I’m clear of the controls.
ATC talks to us, “Race 23 continue to hold for landing traffic”

We wait for the traffic and I’m anxiously watching the coolant temperature creeping up. Mustangs, with their liquid-cooled engines are notorious for overheating on the ground.
Here is the traffic, a B-25 and a pair of Mustangs,. They fly in from the west in formation, perform an overhead break, then one at a time roar past us for a landing.

Finally it is our turn. We are cleared onto the runway.

From the tower, "Race 23 is clear for takeoff."

We line up on the centerline.
Patterson brings the stick back to lock the tailwheel.
Throttle forward to 30” MP. Full right aileron. Right rudder.
We release the brakes in a crescendo of noise.

There is no turning back at this stage.

We are on the centerline but the stick and rudder pedals are moving significantly to keep the Mustang on its arrow-straight track. Engine torque is trying to pull the nose left and force the left wing down.

At 50 mph the tail comes up and as the control effectiveness increases, power is further increased to 46 inches, together with the noise level.

We leave the ground

Race 23 gets airborne at Reno and the gear is just starting to retract. The rudder is deflected to the right to counteract the effects of the Merlin at full power trying to pull the nose to the left. Photo credit: John Rayner

Once the gear is up, Patterson reduces power, we turn north and clear the field.

“Want to fly it?…..” asks Robbie. I take the stick, wiggle it to confirm I have control and do a couple of gentle turns to left and right. The controls are nicely balanced. Not like the hydraulic flight control systems of a jet fighter. This is a classical rod and cable system connecting me directly to the ailerons, elevator and rudder. I head north along Highway 395, heading towards the slopes of Granite Peak.

We are climbing at 2700 rpm, 46inches MP and 180mph. Barely a couple of minutes later we are at 8000 feet, with Pyramid Lake off to our right.

I ease the stick forward until we are in level flight, and retrim on the elevator and rudder. It's time for some turns, so I check we are clear to the left, ease the stick towards the left and co-ordinate with the rudder. The Mustang is nicely balanced and I reverse the bank to the right.

I steepen the turns, first to 30 degrees and then a couple with 45 degrees of bank. I'm having to work a bit harder as the g comes on, but the Mustang is steady in the turn.

No surprises there and I come back to level flight.
In cruise we are loafing along at 280mph, engine running at 2500rpm and 42 inches MP, while burning a mere 80 gals per hour (Mustang operation is not for the thin of wallet)

Tempus Fugit has the same Merlin engine as the single-seat P-51D. The second cockpit has a full set of controls to enable training to be carried out in this powerful warbird. The vertical tail is taller than the original fighter. Photo credit Doug Fisher, Warbird Digest via Platinum Fighters.

Visibility out of the bubble canopy is superb. In fact it is Awesome. We are heading north and I can see Stateline Peak out in front of us with Honey Lake on the horizon. Pyramid Lake is over my right shoulder and the sun is dropping rapidly towards the mountains to our left.

"Let me have it for a minute," says Robbie, and I relinquish control. He pulls the nose up above the horizon and does an immaculate slow roll.

"Want to try one?" Sure .
I do a roll, repeating the maneuver.
We are at 35”MP and doing 240 mph. At the end of the valley I reverse course. Now a 60 degree bank and pulling 2g. This is fun.

Southbound, I do another roll. We are following the valley with Pyramid Lake now off to our left. Again I reverse course, gaining confidence and pulling to 60 degrees of bank this time, finding that the Mustang likes to climb in the turn. We soar up into the sky in a majestic arc as I squint into the setting sun. This is a world of difference from the staid T-34 I normally fly. I try to keep the ball in the middle. Power and airspeed changes require a lot of trimming on the elevator and rudder trim wheels, it’s a little bit…different…

We are northbound again and I go for a four - point roll. I pull the nose above the horizon to start. Over we go to the left, with wings vertical, halt momentarily, continue to inverted, and our world is momentarily upside-down. Stick left again and we continue the roll, stopping wings vertical to the right, and then back to level flight again. I'm kept busy on the rudder pedals co-ordinating the maneuver. I find myself grinning. Handling is good.

But all good things …..depend on our gas gauges. It’s time to head back to the field. Banking hard left round the hills we start letting down towards the setting sun. I ease the big throttle back. Speed is up to 300mph and as we bend round to the south over the hills Robbie points out an aerobatic plane in a vertical climb at our 1 o’clock.

Squinting against the sun I convince myself that this is an FW 190… against a Mustang he would not have a chance… but reluctantly I have to let him go, steer clear and continue on , pointing the nose towards the bulk of Peavine Peak to the south of the field.

The view you do not want to see. A Mustang at your six-o-clock would be bad news for any enemy aircraft. The 11 feet diameter propeller dominates this photo of Tempus Fugit on a photo shoot. The TF-51 has a full second cockpit and dual controls. It dispenses with the six wing-mounted machine guns of the P-51D single-seater.
Photo Credit Doug Fisher, Warbird Digest via Platinum Fighters.

Reno Stead airport comes into view at my 11 o'clock. Patterson calls the tower that Race 23 is five miles out on initial. I (reluctantly) hand control back to him.

By now we have our nav lights on and the sky to the east is darkening rapidly as dusk approaches.

We bank left, line up with the runway and zoom across the field in a low pass, then soar up until we are on a close-in downwind leg.

Downwind checks

Fuel on fullest tank
Boost pump ON
Throttle back to 26 inches MP.
Speed dropping through 190 mph
Continue slowing on downwind.
Usual checks:
Gas. Fullest tank
Undercarriage Down Below 170mph Hyd pressure OK.... 3 greens.

Mixture Normal
Prop-Forward to 2700rpm
Flaps, initially - 20 degrees
We curve round onto base at 165mph
Onto final approach at 150mph and we roll out on finals, lowering flaps to 50 degrees

Check 3 green lights to confirm the gear is locked down, then flaps are lowered in stages as we curve round onto base leg, the Merlin popping loudly, and onto final approach.

Airspeed hovers around 130 mph as we come down finals for a gentle wheel landing. As the speed drops so does the tail.
We taxi back, canopy open, swing the tail round and shut down.


Thanks to John and Simon at Provenance Fighters for giving me the opportunity of experiencing the Mustang.

I’d be the last person to claim that on the basis of one back seat ride in a dual-control Mustang that I was a Mustang pilot. Any more than someone who sits down at a piano for the first time can claim the capability of giving a recital at Carnegie Hall….

But having said that…Later that week, heading for the east coast, looking out at the sunrise from my seat on a Delta airliner eastbound from LA, I’m relaxing with scotch in hand and reading through the Provenance Fighters brochure when the attractive young lady in the seat next to me, noticing the colorful Mustang on the cover, says in all innocence, “Are you a Mustang pilot?”
“Funny you should ask that,” I’m forced to reply, “ as it happens…”

It’s Mustang Fever after all.

Specification of North American P-51D Mustang

Wingspan 37 feet
Length 32 feet 2 inches
Height 13 feet 8 inches
Engine 1 x Rolls-Royce Packard Merlin
Two-stage supercharged V-1650 (1490HP)
Empty Weight 7050lbs (TF-51 7320lbs)
Takeoff Weight 9600lbs
Armament 6 x 0.5 inch machine guns
Crew 1 (2 for the TF-51)
Fuel 180 gals internal + 2 x 75gal drop tanks.
G limits +8/-4


Max speed at sea level 360mph
Service ceiling 35000 feet
Range 750miles

Source: Platinum

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