America’s most famous fighter, the P-51’s beauty of line generates a magic and visceral reaction which has lasted well beyond World War II to the present day. To actually climb aboard and settle in behind that wizard Merlin engine is one of aviation’s most coveted experiences.
Alone in the cockpit of a Mustang, I always feel secure. For the 1940s, the cockpit is a marvel of human engineering with everything easily accessible and logically arranged for a left to right sweep around the inside. Pilots could easily master it without a checklist, a real plus in the heat of combat. There are no emergency systems in the ’51, other than the canopy quick release handle, so pilot workload is low.
I have never avoided the rush of adrenaline and racing heart as my hands move across the switches to bring the powerful 1650 cubic inch Packard-built Rolls-Royce Merlin to life. When the massive propeller begins to turn, the airframe wiggles slightly from the force of the starter, then the exhaust stacks bark and the V-12 settles down to a loud purr. The smell of burnt oil comes rushing into the cockpit and the hydraulics start to close the large landing gear fairing doors and raise the flaps. Slowly, she comes to life under my hands and I sit there, allowing coolant and oil to warm up. There is no reining her in or forcing her down the taxiway until she’s ready.
Each time I fly the Mustang I am acutely aware of my human fragility and the necessity to pay the utmost attention to what is going on. The ’51 is delightful and straightforward to fly, but she is a very powerful steed and can easily get away from any pilot. As the throttle moves up to full power, the Merlin screams and my right foot moves down on the rudder pedal to hold the torque and keep it straight…my first impression was that of being dragged down the runway on my back by the heels. The visceral experience is frightening, joyful, fearful and wonderful all at once. Not until the gear is tucked way and the power brought back to climb settings do I recover.
Pointing the nose up into the clouds, I am awed by the amount of power I control. Rarely do I fail to smile, though no one is there to see my expression…it must look idiotic but I can’t help it. At 24,000 feet, power back to cruise, alone among the clouds and breathing a self-contained atmosphere, I sense that–as John Gillespie Magee wrote–I have “put out my hand, and touched the face of God.” Flying this magnificent, once deadly machine becomes a spiritual experience that remains so personal, so unique, it is difficult to communicate once back down on the ground.
The fighter is so well balanced, with just the right compromise between maneuverability and stability, any pilot can look smooth and capable in only a few hours. The only real drawbacks are ever increasing control pressures as speed increases, particularly over 300 mph, and immense fluctuations in yaw with power or speed changes, requiring a fair amount of fiddling with the trim wheels. It is also incredibly hot (120oF or more under that bubble at low level) and loud (130+ dB) inside…or freezing cold at altitude. Heat, air conditioning and noise proofing were future concerns in World War II. This can make flying the aircraft for any length of time extremely fatiguing. I know why 20-year-old pilots were recruited to fly these fire breathers.
With some experience, the Mustang is quite easy to land three points (all three wheels on at once) and its marvelous tailwheel steering makes it simple to keep straight, though one can tell it would love to ground loop without the slightest provocation, as with all “tail draggers.” Once the mixture is pulled to idle cut-off and that great propeller comes to a stop, the experience lingers. Minutes in a Mustang are worth hours in most aircraft.#