I really don’t know where to start. Do I start with pushing the throttle forward on 1400 hp of V-12 Merlin, clawing and clattering into the sky on a go-around in a glittering, mirror-polished P-51 Mustang? Do I start with hauling the yoke around for an overhead break from the right seat of a 25 ton B-17? It’s day three touring with the Collings Foundation, and my aviation fantasy generator has pretty much burnt out for good.
The overview is that the Collings Foundation is a non-profit committed to keeping historically significant military aircraft flying, sharing them with the public, and keeping the stories of those who flew them alive. They spend most of the year barnstorming the country with a B-17, B-24 and P-51. They’ll set up at an airport for a few days, offering tours for a small fee ($12 to climb around in the airplanes), or a somewhat larger fee to ride in them. Most of the people who are traveling with the planes, maintaining them, flying them, running the PX and hauling all sorts of stuff behind in the van, are volunteers. Like me.
I’m here in Florida for about a week to help out – unpacking the planes, setting up, making change, answering questions and packing up to do it all in the next town. In the quiet times, I’m getting in flights here and there to qualify as a tour pilot – co-pilot for the B-17 and instructor/pilot for the P-51. I’m in complete, unmitigated heaven.
The Mustang: I’ve flown this plane before – twice – but there’s something special about staring down a runway centerline from the front seat of a P-51 with nothing ahead of you but that chugging 12 cylinder Merlin and an 11 foot prop.
“Okay – bring her up to 55 inches – gently – and come off the brakes. Then just let her fly when she’s ready.”
Eliot Cross, ex-Stallion 51 instructor and warbird legend is in the back seat, Jiminy Cricket whispering into my ear through the intercom. But when the brakes come off, he might as well be miles away (I’m glad he’s not though – I’ve not dialed in enough elevator trim, and he needs to give me a nudge before I apply the back pressure needed to get us unstuck).
And then we’re flying – I know it must still be insanely noisy – gear up, verify, initial power reduction, trim, check temps, verify coolant door position, maintain 150 knots…. yeah, I’m doing all of that, too, but there’s a singular overwhelming sensation as the runway disappears behind us and we launch out over the glittering morning waves of the Sun Coast: We. Are. Just. Flying. In so many senses of the word.
I won’t bore you with a play-by-play of the flight, but Eliot talks me through a bunch of airwork: steep turns, lazy eights, slow flight and every manner of stall. The Mustang responds in a vaguely dream-like way: I indicate, somehow, that I want to go there, or there, and she swings her nose around And Just Goes There. Right Away. As I said, I’ve flown this plane twice from the back seat already, but – I don’t know why – being up front is a surprisingly different experience. Dreamlike.
Eventually it’s time to return to the field. Hard to believe we’ve been flying for almost an hour. Eliot tells me to set up for a wheel landing, but there’s a Cessna doing a touch and goes ahead of us in the pattern, so I get a bit behind the curve. I end up dragging it in a little, not quite cutting the grass, but she’s definitely done flying when I plant the mains. “That was, uh, firm.” – Eliot doesn’t shy away from the truth, but he can be mighty diplomatic about the way he delivers it.
With the barn door flaps hanging out, we decelerate quickly, and I bring the tail down, forgetting to check how much runway we’ve got left before it disappears behind the Mustang’s long nose. But we’ve got plenty, and roll gently off onto the taxiway. Flaps up, tailwheel lock disengaged, checklist, checklist, checklist, but the glow of the flight feels like it could go on forever.
The glow stops, quite suddenly a half out later, when Whit catches me on the ramp. The plan has been to move all three of the Collings planes to Sarasota at noon, but there are some logistical burbles in terms of who has cars where. Mark is needed to take the P-51, which leaves a hole in the line-up – am I available to co-pilot the B-17 for this next leg?
Heh. Available. Yes. Terrified. Yes. OM.
Mac will be in the left seat, and he’s been flying this plane for almost two decades. All I need to do as co-pilot is read out the checklist, verify his responses, and pull/push/twist knobs and levers as directed. Oh yeah, and run the radios. Whit sits me down in the right seat we rehearse everything from preflight to final switch off. “Oh yeah, you’ll do fine.” I actually believe him. But I’m still terrified.
We’re on the ground longer than planned – almost the entire Gulf coast of Florida has blue skies, except Sarasota. But we finally get word that it’s all cleared and I scramble out to the tarmac, swing myself up through the chin door and strap myself into place. Good co-pilots are always in place when their captains show up.
Mac slips into his seat just wearing his usual uniform: loose polo shirt, shorts and a tan that would make George Hamilton envious. “You ready, Pablo?” He’s got a fatherly air about him, like he wants to be the gruff leatherneck curmudgeon, but is just too nice, and having too much fun to pull it off – that boyish isn’t-it-amazing-that-we-get-to-fly-this-stuff smile keeps creeping through.
I put on my headset and start calling out the checklist: hydraulics – check, circuit breakers – in, etc. etc., until we get to the bit where he says “Okay, Pablo – this is your part.” Engine starters and prime are all on the co-pilot side. Number three engine: boost on, engage starter – 5 blades with ignition boost, then juice the primer – crank, crank, crank – and caROOOOOOOOOMMMM! – the the big R1820 just outboard of my right ear springs to life. We repeat with the other three out the checklist and start reading out the call-response on all the remaining items.
Mac calls for the tailwheel to be unlocked and feeds in some differential throttle to roll us onto the taxiway. We’re two stories up, bouncing along in a 103’ wide taildragger. Just as naturally as… no, it’s not natural at all. It feels completely unreal.
I read off the rest of the checklist as we work through the engine run-ups; final hydraulic check, engine temps good. Mac looks over and gives me a toothy grin. “Okay, Pablo – let’s go flying.” He pushes the fist full of throttles forward and the twelve enormous prop blades just outside spool up into a hurricane of noise. My job is to stabilize engine power, watch the gauges and pull the gear up when told. Oh, and run the radios. We accelerate slowly, but with a feeling of immense inertia building up. You can feel the B-17 getting light on its big balloon tires – there’s a small bounce, and then we’re airborne, drifting upward with a gentle, ponderous dignity. I’m grinning so wide I miss the next radio call. Mac covers for me – not for the last time – and I play catch up all the way to Sarasota. But I get the gear down and put the props where they need to be, and by the time we pop the parking brake at the end, Mac seems reasonably satisfied with my performance. Because once we’re stabilized at altitude on the second flight, he hands the yoke off to me and says “How ‘bout you fly it for a while…?”
I may never stop grinning.
[note: sorry, no pix of me flying because, you know, I was busy flying.]
[Also: I really want to write about the people on this tour, more about folks like Mac, and Eliot, Mike, Jim, Carl, and all – remarkable people from remarkably diverse backgrounds all pouring their hearts into sharing these planes. Will write more later.]