Yanking G in a P51D
Want to fly an historic WWII warbird? You can!
By Paul Jansen
There is a Science Fiction story I once read where all war had ended. State-of-the-art fighter aircraft once vaunted for their killing ability had been converted into vehicles for entertainment. “Battles” were now fought between teams and in front of global audiences whose only risk was losing a wager on the wrong side.
It would be fantasy to hope that this will come to pass anytime soon and that the sophisticated machines currently guarding each country’s skies could be converted to less lethal use.
Swords into ploughshares. F-22 Raptor stealth aircraft racing over Singapore instead of F1 cars screaming along the city’s streets. Billion-dollar F-35 Lightnings versus Chinese J-20s in dogfights for points in a PGA (Professional Global Aircraft) tour.
This is not likely to happen. But, thanks to dedicated fans with big wallets, we do have a chance to see warbirds of old do just that. Better yet, we can even get into the cockpit of one and fly it for fun.
I’ve done it a couple of times and I can vouch that it will do more for your face than a dose of Botox can. And pilots in Southeast Asia need not have to go far for their fix. There are several places in the region where you can fly a warbird.
A ride in a Mustang P-51D in Australia was one of my most memorable flight experiences.
The Mustang was designed and built from scratch in an astonishing 117 days. Despite the brevity of the creation process, it proved its worth in World War II.
Its incredible range, with external tanks, of 1,435 nautical miles or 2,655 kilometres, enabled it to accompany bombers deep into Germany and protect them from Luftwaffe fighters, some say turning the tide of war in the Allies’ favour.
The commander of the German air force, the Luftwaffe, during the war, Reichmarshal Hermann Göring, was quoted as saying: “When I saw Mustangs over Berlin, I knew the jig was up.”
What I particularly liked about the Mustang was that long after jets had joined air forces, the venerable propeller-driven P-51D continued to remain in active service, finally retiring in the mid-1980s. Proving the point that too often, we are too quick to chuck out the old warhorses in favour of the new kids on the block when there’s considerably more life left in the “old-timers”.
Interestingly, a P-51D flown by Chuck Yeager even shot down a German Me 262 jet fighter during the war, according to Wikipedia. Although, to be fair, the “kill” was while the jet was making a landing approach. This made Yeager one of the first American pilots to down a jet. (Ironically, Yeager later made his mark in the jet world again but in a more benign way. He flew the Bell X-1 jet past the sound barrier, the first person to do so.)
With such an impressive history, the P-51D was on my bucket list of planes to fly. After scouting around, I found several Mustangs available for joy rides. Some of the most impressive ones were at Stallion 51 in Kissimmee, Florida. But there was also a pretty good-looking Mustang much nearer to home – near Brisbane, Australia.
In addition to saving on the cost of a plane ticket, the price for the joy ride on the Australian-based Mustang was also reasonable: A$1,800 for a 30-minute ride during which I would handle the controls except for the take-off and landing. At the time, a P-51D flight of the same duration in Florida would have cost me US$2,150.
So I made my way to Australia and found myself at Caboolture Airport (YCAB), 50 kilometres north of Brisbane city in the state of Queensland before 8am one cool August day.
The airport had a nice community feel about it. Two grass strips 2,952 feet long (06/24) and 4,429 feet long (12/30) were available to the mostly recreational pilots. I headed to Hangar 104. This was the address of the Caboolture Warplane Museum where the Mustang was housed when not flying. My wife Marjorie and I were met by Mr. Damien Kinsey who she had made the arrangements with via email.
Tucked tightly beside each other in the hanger was a small selection of warbirds, including a Wirraway, an advanced trainer that saw action in the war. But it was obvious that pride of place went to the silver Mustang P-51D.
This particular aircraft was one of 200 Mustangs built by the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation under licence from North American Aviation in the United States. However, World War II finished before the aircraft were completed. These Australian P-51Ds were stationed in Japan as part of the Occupation Force and went into combat in the Korean War. The Royal Australian Air Force stopped using them in 1960.
“My” Mustang was a CA-18, Mk 21 model bearing the RAAF serial number A68-110. Manufactured in 1947, de-commissioned in 1957 and sold for scrap, it subsequently underwent a lengthy 7-year restoration by Sandora Aviation for the owners, Warplanes Pty Ltd. The owners took the opportunity to convert the single-seater fighter into a two-seater, by removing the 318-litre fuselage tank and inserting a second cockpit in its place. With main and external tanks having a capacity of 649 litres, the fuselage tank was not needed in its current role.
VH-MFT did its first post-restoration flight at the beginning of 2002. It was painted in the colours of A68-769, which was the personal plane of the Commanding Officer of No. 82 Squadron in Japan, and bears an image of a wing horse and small dog on the fuselage below the name “Snifter”.
Powered by a Packard (Rolls Royce) V1650-7 Merlin engine, the aircraft can fly straight and level at 380 knots (643 kmph) at 25,000 feet. In a dive, it can hit 500 knots (925 kmph) and pull +8G and -4G, impressive for a propeller-driven plane.
As it was towed out of the hanger, I was struck by its rakish lines. The tail-dragger looked ready to leap into the air. The housing for the Merlin flowed downward into a curve, which carried a shark’s mouth of an air scoop, before tightening again into a slim tail.
A four-blade Hamilton Standard 24D50 Hydromatic propeller stretched over 11 feet in diameter, ready to pull the 4,000 kg Mustang through the air.
VH-MFT (or A68-769) had been updated with 2 VHF radios, intercom and transponder, a Garmin GNC and Collins VOR avionics and instruments. The bomb racks and gun holes remained empty (understandably).
Captain Ed Field, a Cathay Pacific airlines pilot, was going to be the Pilot In Command. His briefing was thorough and included where we would operate. I listed the manoeuvres I wanted to do and we went through them on the whiteboard and, in typical pilot fashion, hand gestures.
Then it was time to strap in. From afar, the profile of the Mustang gives you the impression that it is a small machine. Close-up, it is a different matter. Boarding involves using a step on the wheel assembly. The cockpit is tight, as with most fighters. And my forward visibility is blocked by the helmet of Captain Field in front.
The instrument panel for the second-seater is limited but enough for me to take control of the plane and fly it. We make the required radio calls and weave our way to our chosen strip. Tail-draggers are notorious for their restricted view while on the ground and so pilots have to turn their planes from side to side while taxiing in order to ensure nothing is in their way.
The take-off is short but the sound of the big Merlin growling in gratitude as Captain Field advances the throttle to the stops is unforgettable, like hundreds of Harleys or a flock of Ferraris straining at the leash. The vibration runs past the firewall and along the side panels and floor and through the seat into my spine.
We are quickly up in the air. My view improves considerably as the nose levels off. The smell of gasoline fills my nostrils and remains constant throughout the flight. Although the Mustang can reach 42,000 feet, we will remain far below that and do not need oxygen masks. I inhale the fumes and treat it as part of the exhilarating experience.
With minutes, Captain Field hands over control to me. This is what I came for. This is what I paid for. But it is with some caution that I hold the control stick. The V12 engine is far more powerful than the engine of any production supercar. And while the P-51D can travel fast, it will happily do so vertically as well.
The first thing I notice is that stick movement requires very positive pressure. You have to firmly tell the Mustang where to go. First, some gentle wing-overs for me to get a better feel of the plane. Then I pull up into a loop. Wings level. Watch the horizon cut into right and left wing at 90 degrees.
Relax pressure on the stick as the speed decreases. The whole world slides above my bubble canopy and I strain my neck upward to look at it. I am upside down and weightless but only briefly before I am pointing the nose straight into the ground.
Every inch of my body begins to increase in weight as we head back to earth at breakneck speed. I know the plane can take 8Gs but wonder how many my body can. I clench my stomach muscles to force the blood to pump harder and keep the oxygen flowing to my brain. Wings level, I begin pulling out of the dive, blood draining from my eyeballs, my vision tunneling, as I try to keep the loop a nice circle and level off at the same height and direction I entered it.
I won’t win any aerobatics prize but I am happy with my performance. It’s been almost 30 years since my last aerobatic forays in fighters and I’m instantly reminded how tiring submitting your body to rapid changes in Gs can be.
Later, I learn that I had experienced 4+ G during the sortie. Which meant my body felt like it weighed over 300 kg.
No time to waste. I do a series of manoeuvres, more loops, barrel rolls, snap rolls, as the clock ticks down. Weightless one moment. Weighty the next. Despite the wear and tear of the Gs, I can’t seem to stop. My hand almost has a life of its own, seemingly jacked in directly to my pituitary gland and hypothalamus as they churn out endorphins.
I’ve forgotten the cramped state of the cockpit before taking off. It is as if I am out of my body, looking down at the two men in the little plane zooming about in the sky. It must be the natural high athletes feel as they push past the psychological and pain barriers.
Too soon, Captain Field asks for control of the Mustang. We have to return. But he doesn’t head straight back. Instead, he takes me on a simulated bomb run over a lake. We drop low and head to the target fast. Over the bomb release point, he calls the simulated drop of the two 1,000 lb bombs. Then a yank of the stick and a gut-wrenching pull to the right to take us away from the anti-aircraft guns.
On the way back, Captain Field asks me if I’ve had enough. Nope. He obliges with more aerobatics as we travel to home base. The landing, as with tail-draggers, is dramatic. He keeps the nose up as we roll down the runway to reduce speed and improve visibility.
My heart is pumping hard, my face flushed, as I climb out of the backseat. Captain Field is saying something to me but I don’t hear him: My mind is still locked in the womb-like cockpit, and centred on my communion with the Mustang through the touch of just five fingers, as I will the sky and earth to trade places again and again outside my bubble canopy.
It is hard to describe how different the road trip to Caboolture was from the air trip in the Mustang even though both took 30 minutes. A ride in a warbird can be an exhausting and possibly even frightening experience but I highly recommend it to pilots and non-pilots alike, and even if you do not opt for aerobatics. It pushes you past your preconceived notions of what flying was in the past and is today. And the 117-day wonder that is a P-51D will open your eyes to what determination can achieve.
Motivational guru Anthony Robbins in recent TV episodes has brought depressed and handicapped clients on aerial trips to show them and their families that they are capable of much more than they ever dreamed.
Author and pilot Richard Bach nailed it 41 years ago in his book Jonathan Livingston Seagull when he scripted one wise bird as telling the eponymous rebel who would not accept conventional mental straightjackets:
“The gull sees farthest who flies highest.”
If you are going to take this advice, do it soon. I flew the P-51D on Aug 4, 2006. “Snifter” is still available but the price has gone up: $2,640 for a 30-minute sortie. (There are shorter flights of 10 minutes for A$980 and 20 minutes for A$1,860 but I would suggest taking the longer ride since it is likely to be a once-in-a-lifetime thing for most people.) And the number of accessible operational warbirds is going down.
Mishaps and regulations are making flyable Mustangs and their World War II brethren scarcer. It may not be long before the closest you can get to one is in a museum or through a movie.
Copyright: Paul Jansen 2011. All rights reserved.
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