Stallion 51 celebrates silver anniversary

As Lee Lauderback taxied to the Warbird Ramp on opening day of this year’s SUN ’n FUN, a group of students immediately began pointing at his P-51 “Crazy Horse” and waving to him. He waved back with a big smile on his face. It’s a reaction he’s used to getting.

“Everybody recognizes the P-51,” he said. “It’s an amazing airplane.”

And even after 25 years of heading up Stallion 51, his company at Kissimmee Gateway Airport (ISM) in Florida that offers training and rides in the P-51, Lauderback is still that 10-year-old boy who saw Bob Hoover flying a P-51. “I thought, ‘wow, that is so cool,’” he remembered. “I am truly blessed to get to fly one every day.”

And he shares that blessing with his customers, who travel from all over the world for the chance to fly — not just ride — in a Mustang.

“You’d be shocked at the scope of our customers,” he said, telling of one of the latest, a 90-year-old gentleman who always wanted to fly in a Mustang. “A lot of it goes back to the bucket list.”

But there’s also young kids who want the chance to fly the venerable Mustang, while middle-aged guys going through a mid-life crisis find new thrills flying the P-51. A lot of Stallion 51’s business is repeat customers, who learn new maneuvers each time they go up.

“It’s addictive,” Lauderback said with a smile.

And Lauderback should know. As a kid he built “dozens” of Mustang models and, once he saw Bob Hoover fly, he was officially hooked.

“The Mustang makes you look good,” he said with a smile.

As a boy growing up, Lauderback says all he wanted to do was fly fighters. He soloed at 16, then learned that because his vision was not quite 20/20, he had to find a different destiny.

But that different destiny had its own cool factor: He became a pilot for golfing legend Arnold Palmer, getting to fly all kinds of jets and helicopters for 18 years. And while that was a dream job, Lauderback admits he wanted more. “My heart was still into flying this kind of airplane,” he said.

So in 1987, he started Stallion 51 and now he gets to fly the Mustang “almost every day.”

“It was a back door to flying fighters,” he said, “and I haven’t been promoted out of the cockpit yet.”

While Lauderback is the face of Stallion 51, when you ask him the secret to the company reaching its 25th anniversary — especially during the recent economic downturn — there is absolutely no hesitation in his answer: “Teamwork.”

“That’s the real key,” he said. “A P-51 Mustang is very maintenance intensive. The parts are 65 years old. The airframe and engine were built for two hours combat time. North American never imagined that they’d be flying for hours and hours.”

Keeping them flying are Lauderback’s brothers, twins Peter and Richard, who he says are the “best P-51 mechanics in the world.”

“The joke is I break ’em and they fix ’em,” he said with a laugh.

Also critical to Stallion 51’s success is his cadre of instructor pilots, he said. He’s got four on staff who are very experienced and whose #1 mandate is safety. #2 mandate? Fun.

“They all have a passion for flying the Mustang,” he said. “That’s really key, because what we do is share the Mustang with people who never thought they’d get the chance to fly one.”

And fly is the operative word, he said. Customers who go up aren’t sitting idly by, watching the instructors fly. “We’re not there to show them what we can do,” he said. “This is not a ride. All time is logged.”

The customers fly after going through an in-depth briefing, where the instructors assess the customer’s goals for that day’s flight. “We spend a lot of time around the airplane — at least an hour and a half,” he said. “We really share the airplane with them.”

Flights last an hour, followed by a “very extensive” debriefing. Stallion 51 has had cameras on its planes since the late 1980s, so customers receive a video of their flight, complete with audio, so they can share their experience with other people.

“If you go on YouTube and search Mustang, you’ll see more of those flights than you ever wanted to see,” he chuckles.

Lauderback runs Stallion 51 like its own fighter squadron “with flight operations to keep things running smoothly, a crew chief to keep planes ready to go, briefing rooms to plan upcoming flights, and a flight surgeon at AVMed 51 to keep pilots in the cockpit.”

And while it is best known for its P-51 Mustangs, Stallion 51’s fleet also includes the historic T-6 Texan and the L-39 turbojet.

But when you talk to Lauderback, it always seems to circle back to the Mustang. He hopes his efforts will help pay tribute to the men and women who flew the Mustang in the war.

To that end, he was the force behind the Gathering of Mustangs and Legends five years ago in Columbus, Ohio, which drew 80 Mustangs and 150,000 people. A book, “Gathering of Mustangs and Legends — The Final Roundup,” has been released and includes hundreds of photos from the event.

“Of all the fighters, the Mustang has the No. 1 following all over the world,” he said. “It has an incredible history. When the last combat pilot passes away, all we can hope is that the P-51 is available for the next generation to fly. The Mustang is one of a kind.”

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