“Let’s bring this thing to life.”
Jim Harley hit the starter in the two-seat P-51C Mustang called Betty Jane, and when the engine caught, the noise was deafening and the vibration palpable. With “gauges in the green” and clearance for take-off, he opened the throttle, the plane shot down the runway, we lifted off and quickly accelerated to over 200 knots. With the gear up, the wonderful sensation of “pulling some G’s” continued on our climb, and I realized my childhood dream of taking flight in a P-51 Mustang.
As a Navy pilot, I accumulated more than 3,000 hours in a variety of aircraft, but the P-51 looms large for me thanks to the stories and letters of my dad, Ted, a WWII P-51 pilot and instructor. My first flight with him came when I was four years old, in a Cessna 170 “tail-dragger” he shared with friends. On that first flight, I couldn’t see over the instrument panel, but I distinctly remember hearing him tell me to “fly the little airplane” on the artificial horizon and “keep it level.” Years later, while flying under instrument conditions in some remote corner of the world, I remembered him saying that. “Fly the little airplane.”
My early flying experiences and my father’s stories inspired me to follow in his footsteps as a military pilot, but the idea that I might be able to replicate them in a P-51 seemed nearly impossible. So when the opportunity arose, I jumped. Not only was I going to get a chance for some “stick time” in a P-51, but my 92-year-old father would be with me, although not in the P-51. He’d be aboard the world’s only flying Consolidated B-24J Liberator bomber. I was going to be my dad’s wingman.
Our flight began at Chicago Executive Airport with the unmistakable sound of a big-piston aircraft engine and that wicked acceleration. Once airborne in the P-51, we headed north and then east over Lake Michigan, where we entered into some gentle turns while we waited for Witchcraft, the aptly named B-24. This was familiar territory for me, as I’d flown T-34Bs out of Glenview Naval Air Station more than 20 years ago. It was great to be really flying again, and then things got even better with the approach of the Liberator. Anyone watching must have had a surreal experience as we formed up and headed south along the Lake Michigan shoreline toward Valparaiso, Indiana. Downtown Chicago was at one o’clock, and as I watched, I saw a lot of activity in the waist gunner positions on Witchcraft. Harley tightened up the formation and there, hanging onto a 50-caliber machine gun, was my dad. Even from a distance, I could tell that, like me, he was having a “bucket list” experience, sharing the moment with three teenagers and with Don Mullins, a fellow WWII vet, who had served as a B-24 tail gunner. As we flew south with the Chicago skyline on our right, I saw Don waving. He had climbed back into his old seat at the tail. In a wonderful way, we were flying a mission together. During our conversation later, he told me how “it all came back” and he’d easily found the connections for his flight suit heat and oxygen mask, as well as the switches for the guns.
While Witchcraft was providing plenty of magic for her new crew, I was enthralled with Betty Jane. Harley had extended the flaps to add drag and help maintain our formation, and the silky-smooth Merlin engine played a mechanical symphony as it turned the 11-foot-diameter propeller. From inside the aircraft, I had the sense that the engine was barely working. In a way that was completely unexpected; it sounded almost diesel-like and utterly different from the sound I’d experienced on the ground during a P-51 fly-by, which has always seemed turbine-like to me. The combination of engine noise with the massive prop gave me the sense that the plane was effortlessly devouring the atmosphere in front of it, and I was being pulled along for the ride. I was struck by how appropriate the Mustang name was for this plane.
Harley raised the flaps and we broke formation as Witchcraft made the approach to Valparaiso. He then gave me the controls and we let the reins out a bit. The Mustang’s breeding was immediately apparent when I dove to gain speed for some aileron rolls. It accelerated more quickly than I expected, and Harley asked that I “keep it under 250 knots.” I never got near the 400 mph that my dad reached, but getting close to 300 mph was fine. As if things couldn’t get any better, I managed to get four rolls in, too. With our aerobatics complete, we did a couple of low passes for the crowd at Valparaiso, and Harley brought the plane in for a perfect landing.
Like cars today, modern aircraft are packed with technology to improve safety, handling and reliability. While it’s probably for the best, it also leads to a certain disconnect from our machines that makes us long to return to the past so we can fully sense the physics of flying or driving. I loved hearing the sound of the exhaust coming off the short stacks of the Merlin, the vibration through the airframe, the torque produced by 1,300 horsepower twisting an 11-foot propeller and the pressure of the airstream on the flight controls. The appeal of the P-51 is that it’s always been the definitive flying machine. It’s visceral and speaks to you directly and unfiltered through all your senses. Yet, as great as the airplane is, perhaps the most magical part of this experience was the connections both of these aircraft created, not only between a father and son, but between brothers of war and across multiple generations. We’d been in time machines; old men were young again, children were living the history of their grandparents and I was, more clearly than I had ever known, a father’s grateful son.