When someone offers you the chance to fly in a P-51 Mustang, you do not pass it up.
I recently flew “Betty Jane,” a rare two-place P-51 that is making its way around the country on the Collings Foundation Wings of Freedom Tour. The foundation also has its B-17, “Nine-oh-Nine,” and the B-24 “Witchcraft” making the rounds. I was going to be flying with the bombers.
During the flight from Corvallis to Hillsboro, Ore., I flew from the rear seat. In the front seat was Jimmy Rollison, a professional pilot who flies like a fish swims.
Climbing into a P-51 requires a certain amount of physical agility. Step on the tire and swing your leg up. Step carefully toward the cockpit. Be careful not to lean on the canopy. Swing your leg in and step on the seat. Be prepared to get friendly with the guy who straps you in. Make sure the harness is snug and note where the D-ring is for the parachute so that you don’t grab it by accident.
“We won’t do any hang upside down maneuvers,” Rollison said, but I was warned there would be some gravity-defying moves.
I made sure I was able to reach the controls, then stowed my camera and turned on the digital audio recorder. The pre-start checklist was executed and the engine roared to life.
Rollison let me on the controls for taxiing. I was happy that I recently got some tailwheel practice in, but there is a big difference between a Cessna 140 and the P-51.
A pre-takeoff checklist and a few radio calls later we were ready to go.
I shadowed Rollison on the controls as the throttle went forward. I had heard that Mustangs climb like homesick angels and, brother, is it true! I left my stomach back on the ramp and it was a good 10 minutes before I got it back. We gained some altitude and Rollison put us into a barrel roll.
“DO IT AGAIN!!!” I screamed, one hand on the stick, the other on the trigger of the camera.
The first part of the mission that morning was a photo flight.
Formation flying is more than a skill, it is an art form, like an aerial ballet. The pilots are in constant communication, letting each other know location and intentions.
“Coming up on your right, Jim,” Rollison said to Jim Harley, the B-17 pilot. “I’m putting him on your left, Meg. Here we come Jim, I’m going to bounce you.”
The B-17 got closer and closer to us. I could see Harley in the cockpit taking pictures. The wastegunner position was nothing but cameras. I shot them, they shot me. After the flight the other photographers commented that they thought a Cheshire cat was in the back seat of the Mustang because all they saw was a smile.
I shot more than 300 pictures during the 90-minute flight. The downside of this is that looking through the viewfinder can get you queasy. I put the camera away and focused on flying.
“Your airplane. You have the controls,” Rollison finally said.
“I have the controls,” I repeated, taking the stick and putting my feet more securely on the rudders.
“Let’s gain some altitude,” Rollison said as we approached some hills, “and give me a turn to 330°.”
You have not lived until you have done climbs, turns and descents in a Mustang. It was lighter on the stick and rudder than I thought it would be, but I was very conscious of how fast we were going. The P-51 has a drum-type airspeed indicator and I kept thinking, “does that really show 200+ mph?”
He had me slow it down so I could see the rudder forces. Wow, talk about p-factor! We headed over to McMinnville to make a low pass over the runway by the Evergreen Aviation Museum. Seeing the museum as you are barreling by is a interesting experience. People on the ground waved as we went by.
Finally it was time to land. I didn’t want to get out of the airplane.
“I think she liked it,” Rollison remarked to the people who approached the airplane to ask how the ride was. He had to answer because I was non-verbal due to the smile to end all smiles.
The adventure did not end there. A few days later the Collings Foundation tour was in Bremerton, Wash. The airport is not too far from me, and I took one of my students to see the bombers. We were in a Cessna 152. After a little over an hour on the ramp, it was time to head home. As we climbed away from the airport I heard Rollison’s voice over the unicom: “I’m on your right, Meg.” I looked over and there was the Mustang. I rocked my wings. Rollison rocked his in return, then pulled up and climbed over us in a majestic arc.
“FREAKIN AWESOME!” my student screamed.
I fully agree.
For more information: CollingsFoundation.org.
Meg Godlewski is GAN’s staff reporter and a Master CFI.