The saying around my office is “Pics, or it didn’t happen”. Sadly, I was too busy having fun, and it was only as I was swinging the P-51 around on an overhead break to land at Moffett that I realized I hadn’t taken a single picture the whole flight. But perhaps the stupid bug-smashed grin plastered on my face is evidence enough.
For those of you who don’t relish all the aeronautical antique airplane babbling that pilots do when they’re really excited: TL;DR: I got to fly the Collings Foundation P-51C for an hour this morning. It was fun. You can skip all this and come back in a couple of weeks to read about my next road trip out to Minnesota and Wisconsin. Tumblr, Facebook and Feedly are waiting.
The rest of you still with me? (Anyone there?)
Okay. Geeeeeeeeeez that was fun!!!!
Some background: after 60 years, the P-51 Mustang is still armwrestling the Spitfire for the title of “most iconic fighter plane ever”. It revolutionized the air war in Europe by being the first plane with the range to escort Allied bombers all the way to their targets. And once it got there, the Mustang’s unmatched performance and maneuverability made it a match for any Axis fighters that came up to challenge them. It’s a pilot’s plane: fast, powerful, nimble and well-balanced – as they said, it was the Cadillac of the Skies (remember: back then, that was a good thing).
Now, I’ve been flying a T-6 for a bunch of years now. The T-6 was the advanced trainer for the Air Force back in the 40’s, and the idea was that it prepared you to go out and fly Mustangs, Hellcats or Corsairs. It has relatively few bad habits, but it really makes you pay attention, and will bite you in a second if you don’t mind the shop on landing. By comparison, the P-51 is faultless.
Or so I’d heard. Because I, like the 99.999% of the rest of the world, had never ever ever actually flown a P-51. Or flown in one. I’d just watched them from the ground at every airshow I can remember since I was a tyke, jumping up and down like the kid in Empire of the Sun. The window-rattling growl of the Merlin, the whistle of the scoop, the…. whoa, sorry, I’m getting dizzy thinking about it.
But now? All that’s changed. The Collings Foundation is in town, and earlier this week I committed to a couple of hours of flight instruction in Betty Jane, their gorgeous, polished aluminum dual-control P-51C. And today I got my first ride.
Okay, now the piloty stuff: Being a “C” model, N251MX has a high-back greenhouse-style canopy in place of the iconic “D”-model bubble. That makes visibility from the back seat even a bit more abysmal than it would be from the back of the T-6 – you’ve got no rear visibility at all. Forward vis is no worse than the T-6, though, and aside from mags, gear, fuel selector and radiator controls, you’ve got everything in back that the guy up front has.
Jim Harley was my instructor for the flight – very calm and competent, and clearly loving his job. He talked me through startup and taxi, which felt much like in the T-6 albeit with crappy brakes. Stick forward to unlock the tailwheel, and a touch of power to keep it rolling. It may have just been that the backseater brakes were intentionally almost useless to prevent pax from inadvertently, well, yeah.
Jim guarded the stick, but let me do the takeoff, talking me through the numbers: 45-50″ of power at 3000 r.p.m., let the tail come up when it’s ready, and rotate at 100. I think I did get a touch of gyroscopic-induced excursion when I brought the tail up, but other than that, it really felt just like the T-6, but with things happening 40% faster and 50% louder.
Still, what with the new sight picture and OmigodI’mflyingaP-51 brain rush, not a lot of the take-off sequence stuck in my head. The first thing I remember is Jim saying “Very nice – but let’s keep climbing, okay?” as we completed the right 270 departure with a windshield full of Hangar One.
Once we were up – honestly, it felt pretty much like a T-6 with heavier controls. No, I’m not kidding. The “heavy” was because we were climbing out at close to 200 knots rather than the T-6’s relatively sedate 100 (~120 m.p.h) – recall that the ‘6 stiffens up a lot as you get above 140.
We headed for the coast above Pigeon Point; on the way, after leveling out at 3500′, I brought the power back to 36″ and 2350 r.p.m. Steep turns were solid and straightforward, except that she just didn’t slow down as I hauled over and added Gs. Lazy 8’s the same. But the first place where I really noticed the difference was when I did an RAF-style wingover, pulling a bit past vertical with light positive G’s. Not surprisingly, the Mustang’s vertical staying power was much closer to that of the Spitfire than the ‘6, and I never felt like I was running out of airspeed. You can really feel the difference there.
Before we’d started, I’d told Jim that I wasn’t really a hard acro guy, but asked him to demonstrate a roll, and we took turns doing a few. Nose down just an inch to 210 knots, pull up 30 degrees and push stick over with a bit of left rudder. I kept cramming too much rudder in at the beginning, but got it after a few tries. Then it was Time To Fly Straight And Level for a little, and Jim talked me through slow flight.
He said that you really didn’t want to “depart” to either side on a stall in a P-51 – spin recovery officially takes 4000′ – so he kept me well into (unmarked) white arc as we decelerated into slow flight. Gear and flaps up, he wanted me to aim for – letsee, I think it was 110 knots, and limit the turns to 15 degrees. Felt… normal. Stick forces got a bit lighter – just like with the ‘6, the P-51’s wing talks to you, and lets you know when she doesn’t have a lot left to give.
We approached the stall very gingerly – power back to 16″, no, don’t raise the nose beyond there, just hold it and wait. Probably took close to 15 seconds, as the stick got even lighter, then I felt a touch of shake from the elevator, a bit of wing buffet, and then tiniest break. Nose dropped just below the horizon, and we flew it off on the power we had. Complete non-event.
“Wanna see an Immelman?”
“Sure! You’ve got the stick?”
“I’ve got the stick.”
He accelerated us to 250, then pulled back to 4 G’s. Up we went, and out went the lights. I’m such a low-G wimp; it was mostly just my vision – I was dizzy, and I could tell roughly when we hit the 90 degree mark by feel, but I couldn’t see a damned thing until we were on our back at the top of the half-loop. Got a brief glimpse of green-over-blue, then he rolled us right side up. Yeah, I know G-tolerance takes a while to build up.
We had a few minutes left before we were due back at Moffett, so we slid downhill from our stall-safe altitude and headed to the hills west of Hollister (“Remember, we’ve got to keep her below 250 down here.”). Scoped an area that was suitably unpopulated and dropped down to about 1500′ to get the feel of flight over terrain. I reminded Jim that I had zero forward visibility, and he should speak up if we were headed for anything terrain-like that incompatible with continued flight (“Don’t worry – I have other plans for my demise”).
Down here, over the alternating green fields and golden hills, was where it really felt like magic. The speed and maneuverability was breathtaking. You could be forgiven for imagining that you were 20 years old, coming back over the fields of France. You could be forgiven for feeling invincible, untouchable.
At 200 knots, we ran out of unpopulated landscape before I ran out of fantasy, so we popped up to a more “civilized” 3000 feet and dialed in Norcal Approach for our return to Moffett. I mostly got us pointed in the right direction by triangulating off of San Jose (remember, no forward visibility), and we were cleared for an overhead break entry.
Jim asked if I felt up to trying the landing, and I got an echo of Yoda in my head (“Try? There is no try – there is only do, or do not.”) But sure – if he was confident he could catch it before I got us too far into the weeds, I’d love to try Landing A P-51. Who wouldn’t?
Pulled the power to 18″ at 1000′ over the field and pulled hard (not toooo hard) left to bleed off the airspeed to 130. Jim dropped the gear as soon as we were downwind – he did have to steer me a bit here – then a touch more power in to hold us. Full 50 degrees of flaps, and trimmed like crazy.
Jim gave me a simple mantra: 115 knots. I mostly kept it there with pitch and power – whoa, a little low there! – and we came over the threshold right on the numbers. Got that time-collapsing ground rush as I rounded out, and he coached me through: throttle all the way back. Aaaaaall the way back, hold her, no, don’t raise the nose any more, hold her, hold her. Remember, you’ve got two miles of runway, just let her find the groun[Thump] Good! Keep the stick back, good, good [Feet tap dancing like crazy to keep both sides of the runway roughly parallel] No brakes, just let her roll, let her roll.
Taxi back was uneventful, except for my uncontrollable giggling. Jim swears he didn’t touch the stick throughout the landing. Guarded it closely, yes, but says the landing was all mine, and that, well, it didn’t suck. I’m not going to try too hard to disbelieve him – if that squeaker of a landing needed a little help, it won’t be the first fantasy I’ve indulged in today.
Overall? Great fun. Hell of a lot of fun. Eight times as much fun per hour as a T-6? Is it heresy to say probably not? I’m gonna hang on to the T-6 for now. But definitely an experience for the bucket list.