The staying power of the P-51 proves that a thing of beauty is a joy forever, if you can keep getting parts.
- By Linda Shiner
- Air & Space magazine, July 1999
(Page 2 of 4)
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.