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.

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