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There I was... At about 100 feet and going pretty darn fast. It wasnít
so much that things were whizzing by the canopy quickly - they were just
blurs of color."
Donít all good flying stories start out that way? They do if you happen to be flying a P-51 Mustang, and they get better when you consider I was flying N991R.
If that N number doesnít sound familiar to you, try this. Think of a famous red, white and blue racing Mustang and youíll know her as Miss America. A lot of people would give a small body part to be able to simply ride in Miss Aís back seat, but here I was flying her with Bruce Lockwood. This was all part of the Santa Monica Museum of Flyingís "Be a Race Pilot" program back in the early 1990's. Since I didnít have the $3,500 entry fee sitting around, I secured some sponsors so I could get a chance at being a race pilot.
At the time, I was flying night bank cargo in Cessna 210s and 310s. I had already bagged a good deal of T-6 time, as well as some T-28 time. The try-outs were limited to about twenty pilots or so, and each applicant would be graded on a number of items. I made a plan to work up on these areas, and made a few practice flights in a friendís T-6. I went through each maneuver that I would be tested on several times.
For several weeks before my flight in the Mustang, I spent most of my spare time with my nose in a P-51 Pilot Handbook. I paid close attention to glide speeds, and kept in mind that Miss America had clipped wingtips. I also memorized a few points on the chart that shows how much altitude and G you need to recover from a dive in the P-51. If you ever have a chance, take a look at it - it will get your attention.
I also spoke with some skilled Mustang pilots like Rick Brickert and Mike Clarke; they were very giving in terms of their time and advice. Each one had different experiences in the airplane, so I got two very different perspectives. Both were valuable. A week before my flight, I learned that I was paired with Bruce Lockwood. I knew him from my time at Santa Monica Airport, and I respected him a lot. For my particular experience level, I felt I had prepared the best I could for the flight. I was confident but cautious.
The test flights were conducted out of Fox Field in Lancaster, California. The day of my flight was a clear, warm desert day with light winds. My family drove me up from the Valley; everybody was pretty excited - except me. I wanted to be a race pilot, so I was relaxing with my eyes closed and going over what might occur on the test flight. Best glide speed... Power settings... When to call for gear and flaps...
The other pilot and I met Lockwood near the aircraft and went inside to brief the flight. Lockwood went over each maneuver we would fly and how we would be evaluated on it. There were plenty of details to remember.
"When we get to the low level-fast part of the flight," Lockwood said, "We are going to enter it from a dive. Very similar to the start of a race. When we get to about 100 feet AGL, I want to feel a firm level off. I mean it. I donít want to have any question in my mind that we are going to level off or hit the dirt."
We were going to make a normal departure from Fox, and proceed out to the northwest for some airwork. This would entail slow flight, stalls, rolls and steep turns. Then we would proceed to a area where we would fly our Ďrace courseí at 100 feet. The last maneuver would be a simulated engine failure. After recovering from that, it all would end with a 360 overhead and a landing at Fox Field. Lockwood, in the front seat, would do the takeoff and landing.
My world consisted of the back seat, a throttle, a prop control, the stick, and two rudder pedals without brakes. He probably laughed as I stuffed my big frame into the back seat. After I got the chute and the seatbelts on, I couldnít move. If we had to leave the aircraft in flight, I was hoping he would be nice enough to jettison the canopy and give me a fighting chance of getting out. At least I felt like a part of the airplane.
Lockwood fired up the Merlin and we taxied out to the runway, did a quick runup and were off. "Follow me through on the controls," he said as the canopy rolled shut. I placed my right hand on the stick, left on the throttle and feet on the rudders. Lockwood fed power to the Merlin, brought the stick almost full right, and put in some right rudder. As speed built, the stick was brought closer to center, but never really got there. He was light and reactive on the rudder; it didnít seem like the airplane was squirrelly at all. Since I couldnít see the airspeed or power gauges, I canít tell you what those values were. All I know is that it sounded like I was inside a washing machine set at some insane level.
Tail up, some more rudder input, and Lockwood brought the gear up. Lockwood let the airplane fly off when it was ready. After making the power reduction, he said, "Your airplane," over the intercom. I wiggled the stick, said I got it, and was flying a P-51 for the first time. "Let me know what trim you want."
After making some clearing turns as we climbed, I found the Mustang isnít hard to fly at all. Granted, we were right in the middle of the speed envelope and we werenít doing anything wild. But for now, the Mustang was a manageable airplane and didnít show any intimidating signs to me.
I leveled off and asked for some nose down and left rudder trim. I saw that any change in power or airspeed would require some rudder trim; it was sensitive to that. I opted to just hold some rudder so I wouldnít bother Lockwood with a trim request every few minutes.
For slow flight, I brought the power back, and Lockwood configured the gear and flaps for me. After some trimming, I was flying nose high in slow flight. There isnít any visibility over the front, so we flew it with reference to the horizon out the side. We made some turns and I kept my airspeed and altitude by adding small amounts of power. The rudder was effective and the ailerons were definitely not. It occurred to me this is a place where a low time Mustang pilot could get into a lot of trouble. "Absolutely," Lockwood said. "Thatís why we want to see how you guys handle the airplane when itís slow. We want to see if you know there could be big trouble if youíre not paying attention."
After coaxing the airplane through some turns, I added power to recover from slow flight, Lockwood brought up the flaps and landing gear and retrimmed. Trim. Trim. Trim. This is a no-kidding trim airplane. Keep it trimmed, and it will fly nicely. Get out of the ballpark, and your workload and control forces will rise dramatically.
Stalls were what I expected, having done a lot of clean stalls in the T-6 a week before. The Mustang will talk to you a little when it approaches the stall. I seem to remember a bit of a rumble leading up to the stall. Compared to other planes, there isnít a lot of warning. As the wing stalls, one wing will drop - dramatically for some people. Keep backpressure on the stick, and the airplane will buck and snort back at you. It might even want to get downright mean on you. Release backpressure, add some power and coordinated rudder - and it will begin flying again. "Add too much power and either not enough or too much rudder, and unpleasant things can happen," Lockwood said. I believe him. This was just a small glimpse of what could be a dark Mustang trait.
The hard part was over. Now came the easy part - for me. Steep turns, rolls, and then some low level, high speed pylon turns. It must be the scary part for Lockwood. He has to trust the person in the back with limited forward visibility will not drive him into the ground. The steep turns were a joy. Back up around 250 mph or so, you just bank over, feel the right amount of rudder, and add a touch of power to keep airspeed. I felt the Mustang was a very precise airplane. Maybe not like a Pitts, but in its own way. It would show how well the pilot was doing. It will reward a good pilot with great performance. Sloppiness, it seemed to me, would not be tolerated by the airplane. The rolls were a lot of fun, and Lockwood did mention to us that the psuedo-race Merlin under the cowl did not like zero or negative G. Some nose up pitch, stop it, stick all the way over, rudder here, rudder a bit there, stop the roll. Just like any other airplane.
As Lockwood and I dove towards our fake race course, I made it a point to tell him that I will make a firm level off at 100 AGL. He laughed at me, "I know you will!" This is the part of the flight I was looking forward to the most. This is the element I had dreamed about since I was a kid. Flying a racing P-51 at low level and lots of knots. However, I did not prepare for one thing.
As I made my first pylon turn, I recalled how Darryl Greenamyer, Tiger Destefani and Skip Holm said that race flying is about finesse. They made as few control movements as were required and werenít ham fisted. If you watch them around the pylons, they are smooth and consistent.
At first, I was not.
What I did not take into account was the gyroscopic properties of an 11 foot diameter propeller. I banked smoothly into the first turn and put in what I thought was appropriate rudder. We slung out to the right, nose high. Not acceptable. Recovering into the next straight, I brought the airplane back down to 100 feet and banked into the second turn with more left rudder. Much better! The learning curve was working again! The third turn was even better; I felt like I had an understanding of the dynamics of pylon turns. Imagine what they are at 140 inches, 3,400 RPM and 480 mph.
Lockwood had been hunching himself over to the right side of the cockpit so I could have a better view of a few instruments and out the front. I donít recall spending a lot of time actually looking out the front, but being able to check my airspeed and such was nice. I tried to make one sweep of the instruments during the straightaways.
"Simulated engine failure," Lockwood said over the intercom. It got quiet as he brought the power back. The Merlin was letting us know it wasn't happy at idle; it was popping and farting. Imagine what a thrown rod sounds like...
I made a smooth pitch up and continued my left turn to ensure I stayed over the runways. The "runway" I had previously chosen was a dirt road next to our course. "Iíll pitch over at 140 mph and aim for the first third of the runway," I said. Lockwood nodded and told me to call for the gear and flaps when I wanted them. He seemed to like the fact I had a runway picked out beforehand.
Even though this was a simulated engine failure, the airspeed bled off quite fast. I was surprised that such a clean airplane can decelerate like that with a simple power reduction to idle. I imagined what the real deal must be like with the prop going to flat pitch.
I brought the nose down to keep something near 140 mph, and made a base turn a little high and tight. I knew I could come down in a hurry if I needed to. "Gear, please," and Lockwoodís left shoulder dipped as he put the gear down. Two clunks and the green gear lights signaled we had the landing gear down. I sensed I was sinking relatively fast, so I waited on the flaps. Lockwood always kept his eyes on the runway and the airspeed. I banked about 30 degrees to line up with the dirt road and called for flaps 10. It seemed to be working out. Over the threshold and around 500 feet, I told Lockwood I would bring in the rest of the flaps and open the canopy. He talked me through the go-around, brought up the gear and flaps for me and we climbed for Fox Field. We were done.
Well, almost. I flew the airplane back to the 45 entry at Fox, where Lockwood took over and had me follow through on the controls again. He brought the power up, made some trim adjustments, and stuffed the nose down. The sound in the cockpit changed a bit - more engine noise, but a lot of slipstream, too. Lockwood made a low approach for the people gathered at the airport and then a 4G pull to the downwind. My dad was either very proud or very jealous. Turned out it was both.
It was over. Lockwood rolled the mains on and let the tail settle by itself. Miss America seemed to be a well mannered airplane; definitely not like some of the horror stories I had read on the P-51. As he cranked the canopy back, I became aware that I was hot. The cockpit sits atop the radiator, so there is some heat transfer there. The wind through the canopy actually felt cold to me. I thought what it must be like in the cockpit of a racer like Dago Red or Strega. More power, more heat, and a sealed cockpit.
My learning curve through this whole flight was vertical. I had walked up to the P-51 with a clean slate - I had forgot what I had read about the airplane, and what people had assigned to the airplane. I wanted to make my own decisions and have my own opinions. In a basic sense, the Mustang is not a difficult airplane to fly in the normal realm of the envelope. I did not explore the darker corners; slow flight with high power, accelerated stalls or high speed/high G aerobatics. Then there are full blown aerobatics. These seem to be the areas that require training and maturity to handle properly. Maybe one day, I can address these areas with some degree of experience.
For this story, I come to you as a first time Mustang pilot. Obviously, there are hundreds of more qualified people to tell you about the Mustang. It struck me that the airplane doesnít require Superman to fly, but super men like Lockwood, Holm and Destefani fly them well.
Not surprisingly, I did not win the competition. Bram Arnold, a naval aviator fresh off of F/A-18's, got the ride and would race David Priceís stock P-51D. He did a good job, too!
Story and Photos by Scott Germain. Additional Photos of Scott by Janet Trivers. Lead Photo by Gerald Liang. Copyright 1993 - 2004. All Rights Reserved.
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