You could make the argument that my first flight lesson was in a 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 flying 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!
In an era of contemporaries who were 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. My fleet wasn’t huge but it consisted of a B-17G Flying Fortress, B-25 Mitchell, P-51D Mustang and a Messerschmitt ME 109. Someone gave me a jet model of some sort as a gift, but in my mind it was far less interesting compared to the piston pounding aircraft of the “Greatest Generation”. These models were suspended 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 understand the depth of my affinity for the people and machines of the Second World War. 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 helped feed my desire to get closer and develop a deeper understanding of that era and its people and aircraft. Despite being so many years removed, it seemed deeply personal, relevant and important. It still does.
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 for the majority of my adulthood. My life moved away from anything related to airplanes and flying. In the year 2008, there I sit in the radio studio taking a call from Rob Collings of the Collings Foundation. From their website: “Since 1989, a major focus of the Foundation has been the “Wings of Freedom Tour” of WWII aircraft. This tour showcases two fully restored bomber aircraft: a B-24 Liberator and B-17 Flying Fortress”.
They were coming to town to sell rides in the B-17, B-24 and B-25. Before learning that the Collings Foundation was coming to town, 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 retraced the days of my childhood and those models in the sky of my bedroom. Then, Rob said something that stunned me, a surprise. He announced to me and the listening audience, live on the air, that the Collings Foundation would be bringing a P-51C Mustang with dual cockpit controls and would be offering flying experiences in it. 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. There was no hesitation whatsoever. 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 simultaneously declare and ask for the flexibility to modify our vacation schedule. The interview ended, I asked; declared and my wife in the graceful way she usually does, joined me in the wild throws of my enthusiasm. Then there’s the waiting.
In the couple of days leading up to the experience, I began to rethink my decision but there was encouragement from a good friend and my wife. 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 and me. It was the first year for the Collings Foundation to come to our city and I was to be the first person up in the P-51. It’s an interesting feeling being escorted past the barrier that divides the onlookers from the participants. Nonetheless, there it was; the big, beautiful, shiny P-51C. With little small talk I was coaxed on 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 first observation was that you don’t sit on the seat as much as you put on the P-51.
The engine roared to life, and I realized — there was no turning back. We climbed fast, banked hard to the left and were out of there. We then did all of the things you would want to do in a Mustang like, not fly straight or level. Then, I got to take the stick for about fifteen minutes. That was a thirty minute flight and I will always remember it. It took a couple more years and a 737-300 simulator session (more on that in coming posts) to get around to beginning flying lessons. But I got there and am now a licensed pilot. I must say one of my favorite things about aviation is the people. With a few other deranged pilots around you, what you are doing seems almost normal. I now realize I had no idea what I was doing on the P-51 ride but I wouldn’t trade the experience for any other really. With it came the forgotten memories of what I had once studied vigorously and a new world of people who share a similar interest. This new world requires that you commit your whole self to its act; a world that pays great dividends in the form of friendships, ever miraculous sunsets and an almost criminal highway congestion avoidance, among other things.
When unique and life altering experiences present themselves, I encourage you to take advantage of them; make a bucket checklist and get to work on it. You may find something from the past, screaming to get out and be fulfilled in the reality of the present.