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Mustang Mania

The staying power of the P-51 proves that a thing of beauty is a joy forever, if you can keep getting parts.

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Early in the first week of April, Tim Shea, the manager of a small airport just south of Orlando, Florida, got an e-mail from a friend and airport manager at Falcon Field, near Mesa, Arizona. "Tim, 12 Mustangs just came through here bound for your place," he said. "What's going on?"

Shea's delighted answer was that the aircraft were coming east for the historic Gathering of Mustangs and Legends, a fly-in of restored P-51s and a celebration of the legendary pilots who flew them. The vintage fighters trickled in until by Saturday, April 10, a total of 67 Mustangs--about half of all the ones still flying in the world--were parked at the airport in Kissimmee. They were invited by Stallion 51 Corporation, a small operation offering orientation flights and checkout training. Stallion 51's director, Lee Lauderback, organized two days of seminars on handling and maintenance, with lectures on such topics as "gyroscopic principles and propeller performance." The pilots came, first, to be a part of the largest assembly of Mustangs since the Korean war, second, to check out everybody else's Mustang, and third, to swap stories and share information on things like where to find dwindling parts.

After two days of schoolwork, there was a day for fun: The airport was open to the public, and the participants simply came out to the airport to stand by their airplanes, listen to war stories from vets who flew the aircraft, and shoot the breeze with each other and 12 of the most famous Mustang pilots of all time, including sound barrier breaker and World War II ace Chuck Yeager and airshow great Bob Hoover. Every few minutes a pilot would crank up a big Merlin and take his prize up for a quick flight around the airport.

But those who came to the public day of the Mustang gathering expecting an airshowand there were a few among the throng who wondered when the aerobatics would startwere disappointed. "This is not an airshow," announcer Sandy Sanders admonished periodically (a disclaimer made somewhat unnecessary by the prolonged absence of aircraft in the sky). This, instead, was more of a class reunion.

Most of the Mustang owners were coming back to Florida as alumni of Lauderback's flight training program. Since 1987, about 75 pilots have checked out in Lauderback's dual-control TF-51, Crazy Horse. "If you fly a Mustang, I probably trained you," he says. Novices can get a brief (but expensive) orientation and walk on the wild side. The more seriousand wealthiertrainees learn how, in the words of one, "To do everything I could do in a Mustang and everything I'd never want to." The length and cost of the flight training vary greatly, depending on the student's proficiency. Training includes ground school and practice in takeoffs, landings, stalls, and spins.

The training is not a Federal Aviation Administration requirement. Anybody with a pilot's license that has high-performance and tailwheel endorsements can hop in a Mustang (the non-racer variety) and go; anybody who has taken off and landed the airplane three times can take a passenger along. But according to many pilots at the gathering, if you've just purchased a Mustang and want to buy insurance, your underwriter is likely to suggest a visit to Stallion 51. The training lasts "until Lee thinks you're qualified," says Dick Thurman of Louisville, Kentucky, who was there with Slender, Tender, and Tall, a TF-51 rebuilt by Lauderback's twin brothers, who run Stallion 51 Maintenance Operations.

The trick to flying a Mustang is "you have to think five minutes in front of it," says Steven Coutches, an American Airlines captain and one of a minority at the event whom Lauderback did not train. Coutches learned to handle a Mustang by riding along in the back seat of his father's restored H model from the time he was nine until Dad let him try the controls. He restored and now flies a P-51D with an extended tail, owned by his mother, Frances. "When you fly jets for a living, you're already thinking at that speed," he says. "You have to have the plan before it happens." Thinking ahead, Coutches briefed the controllers and emergency crews at his local airport on his flight plan before he took the restored D model up for the first time. ("I told them where I wanted the fire trucks," he says.)

Michael, the elder Coutches, is from a different school. He bought his first batch of Mustangs--six of them--in 1957, paying $1,000 for each at an Air Materiel Command auction. The next day he flew one from the base in Sacramento to his home in Hayward, California. "I read the handbook," Coutches says, "and it's a pretty good handbook." He has bought and sold more than 30 Mustangs.

Michael Coutches is an exceptional pilot; there's hardly another around today who would attempt to fly a Mustang after spending one night reading the handbook. But the need for proper training has been a hard-learned lesson in the warbird community. According to Federal Aviation Administration records, 16 people have been killed in Mustangs since 1983. "We lost two in Europe last year," says Anders Saether, a Mustang owner from Norway who is a graduate of the Stallion 51 training program.

Besides the human tragedy, Lauderback points out, accidents have reduced by 10 percent the number of P-51s flying, "which is totally unacceptable," he says. So Lauderback started the flight training program in part as an act of preservation.

One of the grave dangers posed by the Mustang is its behavior during an accelerated stall--a loss of lift caused by disturbed airflow over the wing in a high-G maneuver like a tight turn. The Mustang can react violently, snapping into a roll and sometimes flipping over on its back. "It virtually gives you no warning," says Saether.

At Stallion 51, pilots get sensitivity training: They learn to notice the subtle vibration in the stick that presages an accelerated stall. They also learn the procedures for recovering. Perhaps the hardest part of recovery is that the pilot must be patient enough (and have enough altitude) to allow the air to resume laminar flow before trying to pull out. Don Lopez, deputy director of the National Air and Space Museum and former Flying Tiger and test pilot, recalls seeing a pilot get into an accelerated stall in India, recover slightly, pull out too quick, and reenter the stall. "He did that three times before he hit the ground," says Lopez.

So just what is it that gave the Mustang the edge over the Curtiss P-40, Supermarine Spitfire, Lockheed P-38, and Republic P-47all great fighters and all slower than the P-51? NACA airfoil series 4, for one thing. In 1938, engineers at the National Advisory Council on Aeronautics research center at Langley, Virginia, discovered that an airfoil that kept the flow of air laminar--smooth and attached--could reduce by half the drag produced by conventional airfoils. The first aircraft to make practical use of the discovery was the P-51, in 1940.

Edgar Schmued, Raymond Rice, Lee Atwood, and the rest of the talent trust at North American Aviation in the 1940s, for another. They turned out the AT-6 Texan advanced trainer, the Mustang, and the F-86 Sabre jet fighter as easy as one-two-three (see Frederick W. Meredith, the North American team designed the Mustang's cooling system to function as an air pump. With a variable exit, the system would heat the air streaming through it and eject it at the highest possible speed, thereby acting like a rudimentary ramjet.

At the heart of the Mustang's success is its Packard-produced Rolls-Royce Merlin engine, which replaced the altitude-challenged Allison V-1710 almost immediately, and the fact that NACA engineers and test pilots continued refining the aircraft's design. "It oughtta be good," says Steve Cavallo, a former NACA pilot who tested P-51s at Langley until 1947. "We spent the whole war refining the thing."

One of the P-51s Cavallo flew was a D model with an extended tail--now Frances Coutches' airplane--and he came to Kissimmee hoping to see it again. The weather, unfortunately, had kept the Coutches' Mustangs in California. But with so many P-51s there, it was hard to be disappointed. We watched one after another roll onto the runway and take off, parading before us like beauty pageant contestants. As they came back in to land, Cavallo pointed out that the pilots were "wheeling them in": touching down on the two main wheels, then letting the tail wheel drop, just as the cautious Lauderback had taught them to do. "You know the mark of a real pilot is to touch down on all three at once," Cavallo commented, remembering that, because the Mustang is such a skittish airplane on landing, he wheeled them in too.

Each aircraft was exquisitely restored. There was Glamorous Glennis, the P-51D that Chuck Yeager flew, and Old Crow, flown by his squadron mate Bud Anderson, both aircraft wearing the markings of the 357th fighter group. There was an array of "blue-nosers," P-51s of the 352nd fighter group, which in 1944 traded in its P-47s for the faster, longer-range Mustangs and began escorting B-17s all the way to Berlin. The most famous blue-noser is Cripes A'Mighty 3rd, flown by the 352nd's leading ace, George Preddy, and now owned by the wealthy Kermit Weeks, who has one of the most extensive private historic aircraft collections in the world.

Of course, all these aircraft are role-playing. Very few of the aircraft at the gathering saw action in the war. The common practice among warbird owners is to acquire an example of an aircraft type and restore it as if it were one of the famous fighters of World War II or another conflict. Butch Schroeder, who also owns a P-47, found his aircraft in a garage in St. Louis and brought it home to Danville, Illinois, in six pick-up trucks and three trailers. After a 12-year rebuilding project, led by warbird restorer Mike VadeBonCoeur, the aircraft was reincarnated as L'il Margaret, a photo reconnaissance variant of the Mustang known as an F-6, and won grand champion at Oshkosh in 1994.

Yet like most of the beauty queens at Kissimmee Airport, the airplane's assumed identity has only a distant link to its real one. The airplane pretending to be L'il Margaret spent the war Stateside as a trainer, albeit in the same squadron as the real L'il Margaret.

Before L'il Margaret found its way into that St. Louis garage, it performed a low-level mission in Michael Coutches' back yard as a jungle gym for his children. (Frances Coutches insisted that the airplane not be taken from the back yard until her children were in school so that they wouldn't be upset. Brothers Robert and Steven had not seen the aircraft since that morning until they were reunited in Kissimmee and met Schroeder, the aircraft's new owner.)

One aircraft at the gathering that really is who it says it is--Scat VII--has worn a few disguises in its time. Its serial number identifies it as the last Mustang flown by World War II ace Robin Olds. Before Jim and Carol Shuttleworth bought it in 1992, it had been modified considerably by John Dilley of Fort Wayne Air Services. Dilley had put LearJet wings on the aircraft, cut down the canopy, and turned the airplane into a racer, Vendetta, which eventually crashed. Dilley managed to get the original wings back and sold the bundle to the Shuttleworths, who had the aircraft rebuilt into a TF-51.

But if the real airplanes couldn't make it to Kissimmee, some of the real pilots could. The Gathering of Mustangs and Legends was a field day for autograph hunters. Besides Yeager and Bob Hoover, the group of Legends included World War II aces Bud Anderson (who signed copies of his 1990 book To Fly and Fight), Ken Dahlberg, Robert Goebel, Richard "Pete" Peterson, and the illustrious Robin Olds; highest scoring Tuskegee airman Lee Archer; the Patillo twinsBill and Buck, who had outstanding war careers and flew aerobatics in one of the Air Force's first precision demonstration teams and the Thunderbirds; and Apollo astronauts Bill Anders and Frank Borman, both Mustang owners. That evening, at a black-tie dinner hosted by Kermit Weeks at his Fantasy of Flight "attraction" ("We don't like the word museum,' " he warned), each of these pilots received a leather jacket, painted with the nose art of his airplane, and a round of applause. At the end of the presentations, the group, at the instigation of Olds, sang a chorus of "Good Night, Irene," complete with two-part harmony--12 old airmen singing what they might have sung as 20-year-olds when their sweethearts wondered if they'd ever see them again. It was a touching moment. But fighter pilots will be fighter pilots. The next musical number Olds led can't be printed in a family magazine.

So how does a mere mortal go about getting a P-51? "Well, you have to have a lot of money," says Butch Schroeder. A fully restored TF-51 recently changed hands for $1.2 million. Then a good place to start is to get to know Paul Coggan, editor of Warbirds Worldwide, the bible among collectors, who not only knows everything about the airplane but also who owns what, who wants to buy, and who wants to sell. Coggan found the P-51 that eventually became Anders Saether's (also restored as Old Crow--"Mine was first," Saether says). It had been owned by someone who was caught "importing pharmaceuticals," says Coggan.

"There are a queue of people waiting to buy," says Coggan. 'three or four people at this event. We get letters every month looking for a P-51." The last bulk sale of the warbird was in 1984, when the Dominican Republic retired its fleet of nine. Brian O'Farrell of south Florida snapped those up, along with an enormous supply of parts. Coggan, who was there when O'Farrell took delivery, says that many of the parts were still packed in original North American Aviation crates.

Norm Lewis, also of Louisville and one of the first graduates of Stallion 51 training, was lucky enough to find one of the 200 P-51Ds built under license in Australia near the war's end, designated C17s and C18s. Production was more leisurely in Australia, says Lewis, and the workmanship is exceptional.

Every now and then a crashed P-51 turns up. Coggan thinks there are probably some in Russia and some in Indonesia. Mike VadeBonCoeur is working on one that was pulled from a lake in Uruguay. "It was pretty much Swiss cheese," he says. Practically the only thing that will be original in the restoration is the manufacturer's data plate. "that's enough," says Saether. "then you have the airplane's soul."

If you have the money and find the airplane, there are four or five businesses in the United States rebuilding or restoring airframes and a like number overhauling Merlin engines. The majority of Mustang restorations today copy a modification ordered by the Army Air Forces near the end of World War II. So many pilots were killed in the P-51 during training that the Army finally decided to order a dual-control, dual-cockpit trainer. North American built 10 and a further 15 single-seaters were modified by Temco, an aircraft conversion operation in Dallas, Texas.

By Sunday afternoon, the Mustangs were gone. Some headed to Lakeland for the Sun 'n Fun fly-in; the rest went home to Indiana, California, Kentucky, New York. Tim Shea had never seen the airport look quite so empty.

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