My Dream Came True

Flying Acrobatics in a Stallion TF P-51

 

by Randy

August 21, 2012

 

 

I woke bright and early Monday, Aug. 13, as I could no longer sleep.  My appointment was for 9 AM but I was going to get there early “to watch”.  At 8 AM, I was standing in a very impressive eat-off-the-floor hangar with 2 beautiful, mirror finished, P51’s.  I was directed to a large, equally impressive office above the hangar.  At 8:30, I met Steve, who would be my instructor.  He happened to arrive early, so he said “we might as well get stated”.  It was what I had hoped he’d say.  In just our casual greeting, I could tell that I would like flying with Steve.  He joked that he actually gets PAID to fly P51’s.  Life is good! 

We sat in a rather large meeting room with posters, mementoes, electronic TV stuff, and model airplanes.  Steve began by asking my expectations and qualifications.  It was HIS expectation that I would do 90% or more of the flying.  Music to my ears!  We discussed various aerobatic procedures, using the models to demonstrate what the airplane “should” be doing.  I answered by telling him that his expectations mostly mirrored mine, with the exception that I don’t know how to do ANY aerobatics, but I desperately wanted to go upside-down, even if that meant being a passenger.  He assured me that he would walk me through the maneuvers.  We discussed airsickness, as well.  I have never gotten airsick, but I have never done this stuff.  The whole discussion lasted at least an hour.  In it, Steve warned me that we’d be tape recorded the minute we turned on the switches, so I should not say anything that I didn’t want my grandkids to hear.  <grin> 

In the hangar, we did a very thorough preflight on Crazy Horse II, while discussing the airplane’s systems, as well as what makes it so remarkable.  Even the guppy-style belly was designed as a lifting surface and a jet-like ram for the air going through the radiator.  I also learned that this particular airplane just went back on line 2 days earlier after an extensive top-end.  It flew approx. 1.5 hours on the new goods before we got in.  We’d be test pilots of sorts, so we’d “zoom climb” to 8K to give us a buffer zone.   

Now implanted in the rear seat, Steve showed me all the good stuff, gages, trim knobs, throttle quadrant, etc.  I studied hard.  I was then attached to the parachute and the seat with a harness that makes NASCAR seem wimpy.  Steve gave me a quick lesson on the chute’s operation.  He had never jumped, so he was not real impressed with the thought of using it!  Nor was I, even though jumping is fun (I have tandem jumped twice).  I assured him that I did NOT want to be responsible for losing an American treasure.  They give me a water bottle and a sick sack “just in case”. 

Steve climbs in as a Jeep pulls us onto the apron.  With a rather thorough systems check, we fire up.  Cool!  The sound, the smoke blowing back in the open cockpit, just knowing that I was living a long-term dream at that very moment, was nearly too much.  We get the ATIS and call ground as “Mustang 5 with Victor, ready to taxi”.  I could tell that ground control is cool.  It was easy to hear that they love watching these Mustangs as much as the rest of us.    

Steve explains S-turn taxing although I thought the visibility was good from my back seat.  To unlock the tailwheel, we needed to go full forward with the stick.  Steve is narrating the whole time; some for my benefit, some for the tape.  We do the run-up, being very careful of temps.  I guess one doesn’t want to ruin a $1 million engine, especially one that has just been reworked. 

I am to do most of the take- off.  This fire-breathing bitch takes LOTS of right rudder!  I forget the power setting, but we were nowhere near full power.  Steve claims that full power on a light load is asking to run off the runway edge.  I instantly believe him.  Here is where I really got fuzzy.  The moment we began to roll, my eyes went blank.  They were seeing stuff, but nothing registered.  I had the stick and the rudder pedal, but I could not find the ASI, even though it was right in front of me.  Adrenalin rush?  Too damned much excitement for my age?  Perhaps. 

Off the ground it was hard to keep this thing from climbing.  The sight picture is very different than anything I have flown.  To me, in a very nose-down attitude, I was still ripping toward heaven.  I quickly learned that this airplane flies on trim and you’d better be “with it”.  It was difficult to keep wings 100% level, as the left wing had a tendency to droop ever so slightly.  I’m not sure if that was all of my doing or an anomaly with this bird.  Steve helped me get her trimmed correctly (and quickly), including rudder and aileron. 

It was time for maneuvers, as we were in some “Military Range” airspace that plays nicely with Stallion 51.  First we did slow flight.  What a breeze!  This thing takes no more input than my old Six, perhaps less in some ways.  Stalls were easy, but you really know when it stalls as this thing shakes violently.  It wasn’t scary, and she will break to one side, but no more so than other smaller airplanes.  Steve did say it takes a substantial amount of altitude to recover from a full stall. 

Next were steep turns.  What a blast!  Drop a wing 90 degrees and grin!  Steve was constantly vigilant about scanning, as well as Mode S traffic, so we were constantly doing clearing turns, and he would call “clear to ___ side” before starting the turn.  Then came aileron rolls, barrel rolls, loops, and split S.  It was all I could do not to hoot and holler on the tape.  As I said, this girl would do anything asked of her in real easy fashion.  Of course, I had to be coached in the maneuvers, but it was beyond my expectations.  Steve was constantly doing “systems checks”, again, I thought, as much for the tape as for safety.

I learned the hard way that you can stall a P51 on the downside of a loop.  I was able to instantly diagnose and correct it due to the harsh shake, but it took a lot of push on the stick.  Steve says that is the “gotcha” of many a Mustang beginner, as well as some seasoned guys. 

It was soon time to head back, so Steve had me take her into a 290 knot dive toward a large cloud.  I then did a shoot-up and victory roll above the cloud, just like at an air show!  It was awesome, because I now had full command of what to do. 

Upon approach, and completely on his own, the tower asked us to do a 1000 ft fly-by followed by a wing-over to another runway more aligned with the wind and Stallion 51’s hangar.  Way too cool!  There is NO way I could have landed this on my own, as my mind was still too far in the clouds.  Steve claims that I did 90% of it but I know he was stroking me.

As we taxi in, folks came running; some to see the plane, others to make sure we were alright since they lost sight of us due to the unusual approach given by the tower.  As suspected, I was grinning from ear to ear!  We then watched the tape and debriefed for about another hour.  It was only then that I suggested that I pay for the ride.  No pressure whatsoever on their part! 

Notes to myself: I should have prepared better in learning the airplane systems in advance; however, I thought that I would be more pax than PIC.  Also, I should have gotten a few hours of aerobatic training to make my time more valuable due to the expense of the thing.  But, above all, it was a truly incredible experience.  I will have to fight against the will to go back.  It is damned expensive, but I could be dead tomorrow and my retirement is already taken care of.  As I always say, my tombstone will say “BTDT”, not “wish I woulda”. 

Side note: I also met Bob Lauderback, brother to Lee Lauderback, the famous pilot.  See: http://www.stallion51.com/about/about-lee-lauderback.shtml 

Lee is the HMFIC.  Seems as if the Lauderback family is well known with P51 guys offering re-build services and flight training.  Many a new P51 owner has gone through their doors.  I wanna join them!  I was hoping to win the 300M lottery while I was there so I could fly my “new” P51 home!  I suspect that with about 10 hour of training, and some hard studying, one could get a sign off. 

Randy

See a YouTube video of a typical intro flight in the Stallion P-51 at Lauderback's facility.

 

 

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