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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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.)

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