How the P-51 Ride Happened
You could make the argument that my entry into aviation was a Flying lesson in the P-51 Mustang. I tend to avoid this approach because most longtime pilots I encounter, turn green with envy upon discovering details of my P-51 ride. So, I usually keep that little detail to myself, unless I am encouraging someone to have the experience themselves. Prior to my birth, my father and mother had taken flight lessons; I remember being aloft once at a very young age in someone’s small aircraft. The memory is vague at best but I do recall peering down at the very small cars and trucks on the ground below. That’s about the extent of it though. In retrospect, my parents were in the latter days of their flying. Their active participation dwindled to occasional visits to the airport and air shows. We would attend some general aviation air shows and a few Confederate Air Force shows (now Commemorative Air Force). I remember being severely intrigued by the World War II aircraft. I suppose hours perusing dad’s WWII aircraft books congealed in my consciousness with my first personal encounter with these war birds. Who isn’t moved by the stunning visual and auditory reality of the beautiful lines and auditory marvel that is the radial engine. Whatever it was, I was hooked!
Propeller Airplanes — before the Flying Lesson
In an era of contemporaries mostly enamored with jet fighters, I set about getting my little piece of WWII aviation experience within the complex manufacturing infrastructure of model building. I don’t remember which model was first but I remember vividly which one’s there were. While my fleet wasn’t huge but included a B-17G Flying Fortress, B-25 Mitchell, P-51D Mustang and a Messerschmitt ME 109. Someone gave me a model of an jet, but in my mind it was far less interesting compared to the piston pounding aircraft of the World War II. I suspended these model aircraft from the sky of my bedroom in full dogfight attitude with battle scars including lines of bullet holes, the result of close calls with the enemy.
To this day, I don’t fully understand the depth of my affinity for the people and machines of the Second World War. At any rate, I have great respect for the volunteers and draftees who dropped what they were doing and headed off to face death and destruction in the most daring way. Dad had a number of books filled with facts and photos which fueled my desire to learn more about that era, the people, and their aircraft.
Before Aviation — the Real World
Fast forward a decade and a half with the above memories buried beneath a plethora of life rubble. I have been in broadcast radio and broadcast audio production and advertising for much of my adulthood. My life well removed from anything related to airplanes and flying. Then, on an otherwise unremarkable day in 2008 I sat in the radio studio setting up a phone interview with Rob Collings of the Collings Foundation. I wasn’t familiar with them, and hadn’t really given flying much thought for many years.
The Collings Foundation would be in town during the coming weekend with their, B-17, B-24 and B-25 bombers. My wife and I had planned a road trip vacation and were going to be leaving town the day of their arrival.
As the interview with Rob Collings began, my mind began to retrace the days of my childhood and those airplane models that graced the sky of my bedroom. Then, Rob said something that stunned me, a surprise. He announced to me and the listening audience that they would be bringing and offering flying experiences and lessons in the P-51 Mustang. Suddenly, time seemed to stop. I was shocked. I realized in that moment that I had to be in that plane and absolutely must have that experience. It really was that clear. The remaining seconds of the interview seemed to go on for an eternity. I was solely focused on shutting of the microphone, firing off the next programming element, and contacting my wife to see about modifying our upcoming road trip schedule. The interview ended, I promptly contacted my wife. As is often the case, she me joined in a moment of enthusiasm. Then the waiting.
The engine roared to life, there was no turning back.
In the couple of days leading up to the experience, I began to rethink my decision. However, encouragement from a good friend and my wife kept me from changing my mind. Ultimately I stuck with my decision. After all, “it was good publicity for the nonprofit, the local museum who hosted the foundation, and the radio station,” I thought. This would be the first year for the Collings Foundation to come to our city and I would be the first person on this stop to go up in the P-51 Mustang. The feeling of being escorted past the barrier dividing the onlookers from the participants is unique. Finally, there it was; the big, beautiful, shiny P-51C. With little small talk I was ushered to the plane and onto the wing and down into the rear cockpit. On went the harness and a little briefing about where to find and how to operate the sick sack. The smell inside the plane was reminiscent of those war birds from childhood. The perch, was as you’d expect, a bit like a sports car — you essentially put the plane on and wear it. How fantastic.
The big aircraft engine roared to life — there was no turning back. We climbed fast, banked hard to the left and were out of there. Rob did all of the things you would want to do in a P-51 — loops, barrel rolls, aileron rolls — a few times. Then, I got to take the stick for about ten or twelve minutes. A couple more years passed and a 737-300 simulator session (more on that in coming posts) before I got around to taking flying lessons.
Aviation is People
While I love the machines, the history, and the challenge of being pilot in command, one of my favorite things about aviation is the people. I really had no idea what I was getting into when embarking on a flying lesson in the P-51 Mustang. The net result has been becoming reacquainted with forgotten interests — all the way back to childhood, a new world of terrific people, and outstanding adventures.
When unique life-altering experiences present themselves, I encourage you to take advantage of them. Make a bucket list and get to work on it. You may discover something from the past, set off on a new adventure, and will likely make new friends along the way.
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