12 min read

Mention Australia and it is odds on that kangaroos and Sydney’s Bondi Beach will spring to mind. With its rolling surf and bikini clad babes, Bondi was my favourite hangout as a teenager after I had arrived in Australia in 1947. Six weeks after sailing from Southampton, I stood with my parents gazing in wonder at the beautiful foreshores of Sydney Harbour. Our ship was the SS Esperance Bay and in 1940 her sister ship, the Jervis Bay, had gone down with all guns blazing saving an Atlantic convoy from the awesome firepower of the German pocket battleship Admiral Scheer.

Biggles comic

After reading Biggles, who wouldn’t want to be a fighter pilot?

Five years later, after joining the Royal Australian Air Force as a trainee pilot, I graduated as a Sergeant in late 1952 with 205 hours on Tiger Moths and Wirraways – the latter being a beefed up Harvard. The RAAF needed replacement fighter pilots for the war in Korea and members of my course were asked to state their posting preferences. Having watched the Battle of Britain from the fields of Kent and being an avid reader of British comic heroes like Biggles and Rockfist Rogan, it seemed only natural that I chose to fly fighters, while others of my course went on to fly bombers and transports.

After graduation, I was posted to the fighter base at Williamtown, 80 miles north of Sydney – there to carry out 40 hours of operational training on Mustangs followed by 30 hours on Vampires. Those that passed the fighter course went to Korea to fly Meteors on operations. As it turned out, I never did get to Korea. Others on my course did, losing one killed and another shot down and taken prisoner. Meanwhile I went on a month’s leave to Sydney prior to starting fighter training. After three weeks of surf and sun at Bondi I began to miss the fun of flying and considered cutting short my leave in favour of travelling to Williamtown early. The first members of my course had gone straight to fighter training without taking leave and I was keen to meet up with them again.

An hour in the train from Sydney was the village of Schofields with a RAAF base of the same name nearby. No 22 (City of Sydney), based at Schofields, was a fighter squadron equipped with several Mustangs and a Wirraway.  Hatching a plan, I scrubbed the idea of going early to Williamtown and instead decided to beg, borrow or steal a Wirraway from Schofields and get current again. As it turned out, I had to beg. My plan was to fly on one day and chase Bondi blondes on the next – repeat for the seven days of the week. So it was off with the Speedo’s (Aussie swimming togs) and on with my dark blue RAAF uniform and brand new pilot’s wings.

The Commanding Officer at Schofields was very accommodating and he let me share the Wirraway with others as safety pilot on instrument flying and the occasional dropping off of senior officers at other nearby RAAF bases. Most of these pilots had flown Mustangs and Meteors in Korea and were awaiting posting to permanent squadrons around Australia   These pilots also flew the Mustangs based at Schofields and I watched with them with envy even though I knew that I would be soon flying the same type at Williamtown.

In between sunning myself at Bondi and flying the Wirraway, I spent idle moments in the cockpit of a Mustang reading the Pilot’s Notes and savouring the heady aroma of high octane fuel, glycol coolant and hydraulic oil. At knock off time, I would hitch a ride to the station in time to catch the last train to Sydney. Next day I would wake up, sniff the air, and decide between Bondi blondes or Schofields Mustangs. It was no contest. The Mustangs won every time, much to the dismay of my then current lady friend.

A few days before my leave was up, the CO called me to his office and said that as I had done a good job of hanging around his airfield and making it look untidy, I might as well fly a Mustang before I left for Williamtown. With that, he pointed to a beautiful fighter parked in the shade of some tall Norfolk pine trees that graced the edge of the tarmac. It was A68-144 being refuelled after having just returned from a gunnery exercise. I had earlier watched it land, not dreaming that soon it would be mine – all mine!

I thanked the CO profusely with my forehead not quite touching the ground, while at the same time only half listening as he sternly warned me not to bend his aeroplane. Strictly speaking he was probably sticking his neck out by letting me fly at all. After all, I was not a full time member of his squadron. But in those days, COs were gods of their own patch and only the brave or foolish questioned their decisions. The way I saw it, he was a Wing Commander and I a mere sergeant, and who was I to question his decision!

Having eaten a hearty last meal at the Snake-Pit – or Sergeants Mess as it is more formally known –  it was down to the flight hut to sign the Form EE77 maintenance sheet and gear myself up with parachute, flying helmet, and oxygen mask. As an afterthought, I slipped a copy of Pilot’s Notes Mustang into the knee pocket of my green RAAF issue flying suit. Just in case it was needed you understand.

By now the Merlin engine had cooled down which meant that there was less chance of over-priming and an exhaust stack fire. I had seen one Mustang catch fire while starting and the long gouts of fuel fed flame that belched from the exhaust stacks had almost reached the cockpit.  Meanwhile the ground staff helped me strap in and stood by while I carried out a left to right cockpit check. No checklists in those days – it was all in the head. In contrast today, one sees Cessna flying school checklists twice the length of the drills needed to fly a Mustang.

P-51 Mustang RAAF

Every budding fighter pilot dreams of flying the P-51.

Having got the thumbs up from the ground staff and noted the readily available fire extinguisher, I started the engine. A few lazy rotations of the four bladed propeller then the Merlin burst to life. After checking that the oil pressure was rising, I eased the throttle back to 1300 rpm and completed the after-start checks.

ATC knew it was a first solo on type and kindly kept a Wirraway orbiting in the circuit area while I completed the run-up facing into wind on the duty runway. The Merlin engine tends to overheat unless the coolant radiator is facing into the wind and this shows by quickly rising temperatures on the coolant temperature gauge. A jet of hot liquid squirting from a valve on top of the engine indicates a dangerous glycol temperature and unless the engine is shut down immediately, severe damage can result.

Having been cleared for takeoff, I closed and locked the canopy, tightened the throttle friction nut and carefully lined up. The forward view was now blocked by the engine. A glance at the rudder trim confirmed that it was correctly set to 5 degrees right bias, and after a last look at the coolant temperature I set the radiator shutter from open to auto. This ensures automatic regulation of the coolant temperature during the rest of the flight.

And then it was on for young and old. With the control column hard back to lock the tailwheel, I released the brakes and slowly opened the throttle to 61 inches of manifold pressure. There was no real trouble in holding the aircraft straight down the runway providing you don’t force the tail up and cause a gyroscopic swing to occur. However, the sheer volume of noise from the Merlin almost deafened me while at the same time the acceleration pushed me back hard against the seat. After the small throttle movement of the Wirraway, I seemed to be forever pushing the Mustang throttle forward. Having never ridden a donkey, let alone a beast like a Mustang, I found it had quickly got ahead of me by the time I realised I had passed liftoff speed.

Once airborne, I remembered the pilots notes caution not to apply the brakes lest they were hot and seized on. After fumbling the gear lever to up, I felt the satisfying clunk of the gear locking into the wings. With another long pull back on the throttle to attain climb power of 44 inches of manifold pressure, I eased back the pitch lever from 3000 to 2650 rpm. By now the speed had got to 150 knots without trying and once settled into the climb I noticed the VSI steady at 2500 fpm.

RAAF Vampire

The Mustang is great, but the Vampire made it seem pedestrian.

It was then I realised that I had been holding my breath! The sheer magic of flying the nearest thing to a Spitfire kicked in, and I thought how wonderful it was to be alive and flying this fantastic aircraft. Yet all things are relative, and when only a few weeks later I was asked to fly a Mustang on short notice, after having by then flown single seat Vampires, I bitched like crazy because I didn’t want to fly a noisy old Mustang after a jet engine Vampire! Such is the arrogance of youth and as I write this today, I would give my left whatsit to fly a Mustang again.

After climbing quickly to 15,000 feet, it was time to get the feel of the Mustang at high speed.  The aircraft was a delight in aerobatics although I shied away from upward rolls (340 knots entry speed) in case I stalled and spun off. Having carried out a roll off the top of a loop at 300 knots and barrelled around some fluffy cumulus, it was time to try an intentional spin. The pilots notes warned against leaving power on during a spin because as much as nine or ten thousand feet may be lost during recovery. That was a serious height loss in any language, and although practice spins were not recommended to be started below 12,000 feet, I climbed back to 15,000 feet just to make sure. I was glad I was wearing a parachute!

Having checked all clear below, I closed the throttle fully and gradually raised the nose. There is a marked yaw when power is changed in the Mustang but I was ready for this and kept the aircraft in balance. At the pre-stall buffet it was a case of full rudder in the direction of the desired turn, and full back stick. Then we were away, with the nose falling steeply initially, then rising above the horizon, while the rate of turn in the spin alternately slowed and speeded up Having quickly carved off 3000 feet, I thought enough is enough and took standard recovery action. There was the expected slight delay in stopping the spin as the rate of turn increased momentarily, then the recovery was complete and I pulled out of the dive. No great drama, but having been brought up on Wirraway spins, I can vouch for the old saying that if you can fly a Wirraway, you can fly anything.

Then I carried out some dirty stalls but apart from one particularly vicious wing drop because I had not kept an eye on the skid needle, the recoveries were quite docile. A few steep turns and a fun-run through some cloud tops then it became time to go home. While I was tempted to flash over the airfield in a classic fighter buzz and break, it was clear that with only 210 hours up my sleeve, a sedate circuit entry would be more appropriate for my level of experience. A good decision, as it turned out a few minutes later.

Merlin engine

The mighty Merlin engine.

The downwind checks included radiator shutters to auto, flaps to 20 degrees, mixture to run, and carburetor air to unrammed filtered. Over the fence was planned at 100 knots. Everything went fine until shortly before turning base when I selected the gear lever down and nothing happened. Thank goodness I had the Pilots Notes with me.

ATC cleared me to circle the aerodrome while sorting things out. The book said to rock and yaw the aircraft.  I did that but the wheels stayed up. There was plenty of fuel so endurance wasn’t a problem, but it was late in the afternoon and I didn’t want to miss the last train to Sydney.  The CO came on the radio and led me through the remaining emergency procedures, which included pulling the fairing door emergency control. To my relief the landing gear locked down and I returned for another crack at landing.

The view over the nose on final was fine until the round-out when the runway disappeared and I was left with only a limited side view. After a prolonged float, which was too high for comfort and with the Merlin merrily popping and crackling away, the Mustang hit firmly on all three points. With the stick full back, the landing run was kept moderately straight by use of the lockable tailwheel.

As the Mustang rolled to a stop I slid back the canopy and unclipping my oxygen mask savoured the scent of country fresh air.  The feeling was wonderful and after retracting the flaps and opening the radiator shutters, I made a careful 180 and taxied back towards the shade of the tall Norfolk pines. A relieved CO gave me a pat on the back for bringing his Mustang home in one piece, and the ground staff invited me to their Mess for a drink. The first beer went down as the last train to Sydney pulled out of the station.

John Laming
1 reply
  1. Ralph Compton
    Ralph Compton says:

    22000 hours of flight time, most of it ag and only one time in a mustang. A friend of mine, Mike Smith of Johnson,Kansas has owned several warbirds, Bearcat as well as a mustang. I made a flight with Mike, enjoyed the ride. I really wanted to fly his airplane but did not him to say no but a great airplane.

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