Mustang musings: what it’s like to fly the legendary P-51

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Several years ago my close friend Lewis Shaw and I took a trip south from Dallas to Encinal, TX, in his North American P-51D Mustang. We were flying to the remote and little-known town to visit with an associate who was a serious collector of warbirds. He was looking to buy a second Mustang to add to his collection and Lewis was looking to sell his—a polished aluminum beauty that was an exquisite example of the legendary WWII fighter in every way.

Neither Lewis nor the interested buyer were new to the Mustang world. Lewis had owned two beautiful Mustangs prior to this one and the interested buyer had one already in his stable and a number of other perfectly restored and flightworthy warbirds to boot. I had arranged the meeting between the two and was invited along for the ride to handle introductions.

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Acceleration in a North American P-51D is rapid and seriously forceful.

Acceleration in a North American P-51D is rapid and seriously forceful. If you’ve ever put the pedal to the metal in a high-dollar sports car, no further explanation is required. During the first few seconds following brake release, the pilot has no direct forward view. Because the tailwheel is still on the runway, all Mustang (and taildragger) pilots must momentarily compensate by developing a peripheral sense of where the airplane is heading. Once a little forward stick is applied (which, incidentally, also unlocks the tailwheel from the rudder) and the tail lifts, the view forward is excellent. At that point, the mission objective becomes simply keeping the airplane on the centerline while it accelerates to takeoff speed.

During acceleration, engine power is metered out in measured quantities. Too much torque can be a dangerous thing when airspeed and lift are marginal, so max power (approximately 40 inches of mercury at 3,000 rpm) isn’t applied at the very beginning of the takeoff roll. It is, in fact, eased into at a somewhat conservative pace using a good mix of experience, book learning, and common sense.

Staying centered is no overly simple task; the P-51D’s Rolls-Royce Merlin engine and Hamilton Standard four-blade propeller develop a lot of torque. Right rudder in serious quantities is required to offset the pull to the left (five degrees of right rudder are, in fact, pre-set by the pilot prior to takeoff to ease rudder pedal forces), but once the airplane’s airspeed gets to the point where the rudder and vertical tail have acquired some authority, the pilot can reduce the right rudder input and start concentrating on other things.

Once airborne at just over 100 miles per hour, the landing gear are retracted and, if flaps were used (20 degrees–optional), they are retracted also. The oil and coolant shutters are usually operating in automatic mode, so they are not an issue–particularly on a cool day.

Immediately after takeoff, the pilot has to be conscious not only of too much engine power being applied too quickly, but also P-factor. Sometimes referred to as asymmetric blade effect, it is a condition that occurs usually at low airspeeds and relatively high angles of attack. Without getting into the modestly complicated aerodynamics of it all, suffice it to say that P-factor forces a propeller driven airplane to yaw, usually to the left, in concert with the added force of torque. At low airspeeds and low altitudes, P-factor and torque can create a deadly duo that P-51 pilots do their best to avoid at all costs, particularly during takeoff and landing.

My friend, pilot, and Mustang owner, Lewis Shaw and I were, of course, communicating throughout the takeoff roll and departure from Addison Airport. I was having a seriously enjoyable time in the back seat documenting everything with my Nikons and trying to keep up with all the activity in the front seat. After some radio chatter with the tower, ATC got us heading in the right direction and out of the way of Dallas-Ft. Worth International Airport traffic. Basic route for us was due south/southwest to Waco, Austin, and San Antonio, and then a slight veer to the west after we passed over the Alamo.

Encinal—population 629—our destination, is just over 100 miles south of San Antonio, so air time from Addison (just north of Dallas) to Encinal was just about an hour and fifteen minutes cruising at around 300 mph. Cruising altitude was around 6,500 feet. All in all, a comfortable setup for the airplane and Lewis and me.

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Cruising along in the P-51D is an unforgettable experience.

The Merlin, at cruise, is a relatively smooth and responsive engine. With a helmet and headset on, the cockpit noise level is easily bearable but far from quiet.

Finding that I had overdressed a bit and had put on a sweatshirt that proved redundant, I decided to remove it in the tight constraints of the back seat. This required some serious twisting and turning, a complicated unbuckling of belt and chute harness, and of course the removal of my helmet. The latter quickly gave me a much better sense of actual ambient cockpit noise without any ear protection. Suffice it to say it was a relief putting the helmet back on after I got the sweatshirt off!

Midway through the flight Lewis turned the stick over to me. This was not a simple matter of communication, but also involved my pulling the back seat stick from its storage clamps on the right side of the cockpit and installing the stick in the base stub on the floor just in front of my seat. No major effort involved, but it was easy to understand why the stick was removable. Getting in and out of the rear seat area would have been all but impossible without this feature.

Rudder pedals are permanently installed, so there was no issue there and nothing to do but place my feet on them. After that, it was grip the throttle and have a good time!

With Lewis’s blessing I did a few gentle maneuvers, input some partial rolls to the left and right, watched my horizon flip flop around without a lot of effort, and overall thoroughly enjoyed the rare treat of flying a real-deal Mustang. Though this was not my first Mustang ride, it was most certainly the first time I had been given full control of the airplane. It was a most memorable experience.

The Mustang’s stick and rudder coordination are excellent and very smooth. Response is near instantaneous to inputs from either, and the throttle response is equally fast. One has to be conscious of the engine/propeller torque (and airspeed) at all times, as too much power input too quickly, even at cruising airspeeds, can quickly affect the airplane’s direction and stability. Everything on the other end of the throttle handle needs to be handled with finesse and forethought until flying the Mustang becomes second nature. Even then, it’s nothing to be taken for granted. Mustangs do not bear fools lightly…

As noted previously, the Mustang’s back seat is not the most comfortable perch on the planet. After an hour of flying, keeping an eye on the GPS and compass, and cooking under the clear bubble canopy, I was ready to land and stretch my legs and rub my back. When Encinal finally appeared on the horizon, I was not unhappy about it. After locating our destination runway, we made the customary high-speed pass down the centerline, pitched up, rolled, and turned onto base leg and final.

The wheel landing, with Lewis back in control, was uneventful. Approach, with a modest amount of flap, was around 110 mph with touchdown taking place at about 95 mph. Once the tailwheel was on the ground, things slowed in a hurry. Five minutes after the main gear kissed the asphalt, we were pulling up in front the main hangar and shutting down.

Our visit lasted for about two hours. The airport proprietor was a kind and absolutely first-class host. After Lewis and our host finished their business, we were fed and the Mustang was fully fueled for the trek back north. The Mustang holds around 180 gallons of hi-octane avgas internally and has a range of about 1,100 miles in standard fighter configuration. Add two 75-gallon external wing tanks (which Lewis has on his Mustang), and the range jumps to just short of 2,400 miles. Either way, those are long non-stop hauls. If you’re in the back seat, you better take some pain pills with you and possess a very large bladder.

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Made for performance, not comfort.

Departure from Encinal was uneventful except for the obligatory high-speed pass and roll. Aiming north and getting back up to cruising altitude and airspeed, Lewis again turned over the stick. For the next hour and several minutes, I cruised along fat, dumb, and very happy while my pilot dozed for a few minutes in the front seat.

All too soon it was over. After turning control back to Lewis, I pulled the stick from its stub connector, inserted it into its storage clasps to my right, took my feet off the rudder pedals, and relaxed back into passenger mode. Before I knew it, we were on final to Addison. A minute or two later, the mains kissed the runway and the Mustang began to decelerate. A few seconds after that, the tail wheel was back on the ground with a light bump and the snake dance back to Lewis’s well-known “Toy Barn” hangar got underway.

One thing that sticks with me is how many people came out of their hangars and buildings lining the Addison Airport runway and taxiway to watch our cackling and popping passage. Though Lewis flew his Mustang regularly from Addison, it’s obvious the locals never got tired of seeing or hearing it. Polished aluminum, a Rolls-Royce Merlin, and the name Mustang are eye candy that no red-blooded aviator can ignore.

Once the big Hamilton Standard prop came to a halt and Lewis extricated himself from the front seat, I was able to follow suit. I must say that that moment arrived none too soon, as by then my back and butt were absolutely killing me!

Would I do it again?

In a heartbeat…

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