P-51D in flight

Several years ago my close friend Lewis Shaw and I took a trip south from Dallas to Encinal, TX, in his North American P-51D Mustang. We were flying to the remote and little-known town to visit with an associate who was a serious collector of warbirds. He was looking to buy a second Mustang to add to his collection and Lewis was looking to sell his—a polished aluminum beauty that was an exquisite example of the legendary WWII fighter in every way.

Neither Lewis nor the interested buyer were new to the Mustang world. Lewis had owned two beautiful Mustangs prior to this one and the interested buyer had one already in his stable and a number of other perfectly restored and flightworthy warbirds to boot. I had arranged the meeting between the two and was invited along for the ride to handle introductions.

P-51 Mustang

Acceleration in a North American P-51D is rapid and seriously forceful.

Acceleration in a North American P-51D is rapid and seriously forceful. If you’ve ever put the pedal to the metal in a high-dollar sports car, no further explanation is required. During the first few seconds following brake release, the pilot has no direct forward view. Because the tailwheel is still on the runway, all Mustang (and taildragger) pilots must momentarily compensate by developing a peripheral sense of where the airplane is heading. Once a little forward stick is applied (which, incidentally, also unlocks the tailwheel from the rudder) and the tail lifts, the view forward is excellent. At that point, the mission objective becomes simply keeping the airplane on the centerline while it accelerates to takeoff speed.

During acceleration, engine power is metered out in measured quantities. Too much torque can be a dangerous thing when airspeed and lift are marginal, so max power (approximately 40 inches of mercury at 3,000 rpm) isn’t applied at the very beginning of the takeoff roll. It is, in fact, eased into at a somewhat conservative pace using a good mix of experience, book learning, and common sense.

Staying centered is no overly simple task; the P-51D’s Rolls-Royce Merlin engine and Hamilton Standard four-blade propeller develop a lot of torque. Right rudder in serious quantities is required to offset the pull to the left (five degrees of right rudder are, in fact, pre-set by the pilot prior to takeoff to ease rudder pedal forces), but once the airplane’s airspeed gets to the point where the rudder and vertical tail have acquired some authority, the pilot can reduce the right rudder input and start concentrating on other things.

Once airborne at just over 100 miles per hour, the landing gear are retracted and, if flaps were used (20 degrees–optional), they are retracted also. The oil and coolant shutters are usually operating in automatic mode, so they are not an issue–particularly on a cool day.

Immediately after takeoff, the pilot has to be conscious not only of too much engine power being applied too quickly, but also P-factor. Sometimes referred to as asymmetric blade effect, it is a condition that occurs usually at low airspeeds and relatively high angles of attack. Without getting into the modestly complicated aerodynamics of it all, suffice it to say that P-factor forces a propeller driven airplane to yaw, usually to the left, in concert with the added force of torque. At low airspeeds and low altitudes, P-factor and torque can create a deadly duo that P-51 pilots do their best to avoid at all costs, particularly during takeoff and landing.

My friend, pilot, and Mustang owner, Lewis Shaw and I were, of course, communicating throughout the takeoff roll and departure from Addison Airport. I was having a seriously enjoyable time in the back seat documenting everything with my Nikons and trying to keep up with all the activity in the front seat. After some radio chatter with the tower, ATC got us heading in the right direction and out of the way of Dallas-Ft. Worth International Airport traffic. Basic route for us was due south/southwest to Waco, Austin, and San Antonio, and then a slight veer to the west after we passed over the Alamo.

Encinal—population 629—our destination, is just over 100 miles south of San Antonio, so air time from Addison (just north of Dallas) to Encinal was just about an hour and fifteen minutes cruising at around 300 mph. Cruising altitude was around 6,500 feet. All in all, a comfortable setup for the airplane and Lewis and me.

P-51D in flight

Cruising along in the P-51D is an unforgettable experience.

The Merlin, at cruise, is a relatively smooth and responsive engine. With a helmet and headset on, the cockpit noise level is easily bearable but far from quiet.

Finding that I had overdressed a bit and had put on a sweatshirt that proved redundant, I decided to remove it in the tight constraints of the back seat. This required some serious twisting and turning, a complicated unbuckling of belt and chute harness, and of course the removal of my helmet. The latter quickly gave me a much better sense of actual ambient cockpit noise without any ear protection. Suffice it to say it was a relief putting the helmet back on after I got the sweatshirt off!

Midway through the flight Lewis turned the stick over to me. This was not a simple matter of communication, but also involved my pulling the back seat stick from its storage clamps on the right side of the cockpit and installing the stick in the base stub on the floor just in front of my seat. No major effort involved, but it was easy to understand why the stick was removable. Getting in and out of the rear seat area would have been all but impossible without this feature.

Rudder pedals are permanently installed, so there was no issue there and nothing to do but place my feet on them. After that, it was grip the throttle and have a good time!

With Lewis’s blessing I did a few gentle maneuvers, input some partial rolls to the left and right, watched my horizon flip flop around without a lot of effort, and overall thoroughly enjoyed the rare treat of flying a real-deal Mustang. Though this was not my first Mustang ride, it was most certainly the first time I had been given full control of the airplane. It was a most memorable experience.

The Mustang’s stick and rudder coordination are excellent and very smooth. Response is near instantaneous to inputs from either, and the throttle response is equally fast. One has to be conscious of the engine/propeller torque (and airspeed) at all times, as too much power input too quickly, even at cruising airspeeds, can quickly affect the airplane’s direction and stability. Everything on the other end of the throttle handle needs to be handled with finesse and forethought until flying the Mustang becomes second nature. Even then, it’s nothing to be taken for granted. Mustangs do not bear fools lightly…

As noted previously, the Mustang’s back seat is not the most comfortable perch on the planet. After an hour of flying, keeping an eye on the GPS and compass, and cooking under the clear bubble canopy, I was ready to land and stretch my legs and rub my back. When Encinal finally appeared on the horizon, I was not unhappy about it. After locating our destination runway, we made the customary high-speed pass down the centerline, pitched up, rolled, and turned onto base leg and final.

The wheel landing, with Lewis back in control, was uneventful. Approach, with a modest amount of flap, was around 110 mph with touchdown taking place at about 95 mph. Once the tailwheel was on the ground, things slowed in a hurry. Five minutes after the main gear kissed the asphalt, we were pulling up in front the main hangar and shutting down.

Our visit lasted for about two hours. The airport proprietor was a kind and absolutely first-class host. After Lewis and our host finished their business, we were fed and the Mustang was fully fueled for the trek back north. The Mustang holds around 180 gallons of hi-octane avgas internally and has a range of about 1,100 miles in standard fighter configuration. Add two 75-gallon external wing tanks (which Lewis has on his Mustang), and the range jumps to just short of 2,400 miles. Either way, those are long non-stop hauls. If you’re in the back seat, you better take some pain pills with you and possess a very large bladder.

Mustang cockpit

Made for performance, not comfort.

Departure from Encinal was uneventful except for the obligatory high-speed pass and roll. Aiming north and getting back up to cruising altitude and airspeed, Lewis again turned over the stick. For the next hour and several minutes, I cruised along fat, dumb, and very happy while my pilot dozed for a few minutes in the front seat.

All too soon it was over. After turning control back to Lewis, I pulled the stick from its stub connector, inserted it into its storage clasps to my right, took my feet off the rudder pedals, and relaxed back into passenger mode. Before I knew it, we were on final to Addison. A minute or two later, the mains kissed the runway and the Mustang began to decelerate. A few seconds after that, the tail wheel was back on the ground with a light bump and the snake dance back to Lewis’s well-known “Toy Barn” hangar got underway.

One thing that sticks with me is how many people came out of their hangars and buildings lining the Addison Airport runway and taxiway to watch our cackling and popping passage. Though Lewis flew his Mustang regularly from Addison, it’s obvious the locals never got tired of seeing or hearing it. Polished aluminum, a Rolls-Royce Merlin, and the name Mustang are eye candy that no red-blooded aviator can ignore.

Once the big Hamilton Standard prop came to a halt and Lewis extricated himself from the front seat, I was able to follow suit. I must say that that moment arrived none too soon, as by then my back and butt were absolutely killing me!

Would I do it again?

In a heartbeat…

Jay Miller
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15 replies
  1. Ron Alldredge
    Ron Alldredge says:

    Your comment about all the folks who came out to watch reminds me of something a friend of mine who owns a Mustang said once, that flying one was all about arriving and departing. Between those times you were just flying a regular airplane. I suppose you have to own one to really believe the “regular airplane” part but the rest of it is certainly true.

    Reply
    • Jay Miller
      Jay Miller says:

      I agree completely with your presumption, Ron… From my own lowly perch, it’s hard for me to believe anyone who owns a Mustang as a weekend flyer can ever view it as a “regular airplane”. Just watching the fuel truck pull up would give me long pause; at $2,500 an hour TT&L, that’s a mighty expensive spin around the cotton patch I’m about the take.

      Reply
  2. John Majane III
    John Majane III says:

    I think you meant a 1000 mile trip? A 100 mile trip in a Mustang would be 20 minutes not an hour. Great story, well written, gave me the a real feel of what you were experiencing.

    Reply
  3. Jay Miller
    Jay Miller says:

    Hi John. I think you misread. The distance from San Antonio is 100 miles. We were flying from Addison Airport north of Dallas and San Antonio was simply a way point. From Dallas, the trek is about 300 miles – and at 300 mph cruise, it equates to about an hour and ten!
    Thanks for the kind words, otherwise! Jay

    Reply
  4. Ed Lindsay
    Ed Lindsay says:

    “ It is recommended that maximum power (3000 RPM and 61 in. Hg) be used for all takeoffs and this will power setting be reached as quickly as possible after the takeoff running started.

    Do not attempt to lift the tail too soon, because this increases torque action. Pushing the stick forward unlocks the tail wheel, thereby making steering difficult. The best takeoff procedure is to hold the tail down until sufficient speed for rudder control is attained and then to raise the tail slowly.“ -USAF T.O. 1F-F51D-1

    Reply
  5. MICHAEL A CROGNALE
    MICHAEL A CROGNALE says:

    My Uncle George was a WWII fighter pilot, USAAF, and instructor in P51. He would regale me with stories of flying and teaching in them. There were only two warbirds that he dearly loved, P51 and the F86. I had a dream to one day fly both. Alas, I never had the chance and now at 75 I’m unlikely to fulfill that. Still……. A fella can dream.

    Reply
    • Jay Miller
      Jay Miller says:

      Never give up on your dream. I know of more than a few occasions when folks like you (and me!) – who are in their mid-70s – were in the right place at the right time and consequently found themselves sitting in the jump seat of a Mustang. F-86 rides are a little more problematic – only two, two-seat F-86s ever were manufactured by North American. One crashed during testing and I believe the second eventually was scrapped. I do not know if anyone in the private sector ever modified a standard F-86 to accommodate a second seat. I don’t think so! Jay

      Reply
  6. Bill Hodges
    Bill Hodges says:

    As a WW2 baby, I have followed Mustang history. Seems my biggest fear would be to flip on the runway with too much immediate torque. Your description on how to prevent that was perfect.

    Reply
  7. Kendall Wagner
    Kendall Wagner says:

    I’m lucky enough to own and fly a P-51, ‘Lady Alice’ from Chino, California. Really enjoyed the article. I would concur flying a Mustang at cruise is mostly monitoring systems, since one is drawing fuel from only one main gas tank at a time the trim changes rapidly as one wing gets lighter. Changing aileron trim affect rudder trim so the left hand is adjusting the trim wheels on the left side of the cockpit fairly often.

    There are al least a couple of ways to take off in the P-51. I trained at Stallion 51 in Florida, and the procedure was to taxi onto the runway, stop, go to 40 inches of manifold pressure release the brakes, bring up the tail, advance power to 55 inches and take off. The approved procedure at Chino is different and works well. With take off clearance taxi onto the runway, make sure stick aft of neutral to engage rudder pedals to tailwheel, go smoothly to 55 inches and hang on, keeping an equal amount to runway visible out of both sides of the windshield to stay in the middle of the runway. Keep the tail low and the airplane will take off all by itself when it is ready.

    I suppose we could debate the pros and cons of both techniques, but in my opinion the Florida method is superior for the low time Mustang pilot and the Chino procedure is easier since it eliminates gyroscopic precession as a contributor to the right rudder inputs needed to keep the thing on the runway.

    Hope this discussion of interest, I agree it’s the takeoffs and landings in the P-51 that cause the vast majority of accidents.

    Kendall Wagner

    Reply
  8. Ernest Ford
    Ernest Ford says:

    Having sat in a crash landed P51 as an 11y r old in 1944, I enjoyed reading of this Mustang. I met Chuck Yeager at Oshkosh WI, in 2004, and reminded him of landing at Newchurch 2 miles from here in ’44. As WW 2 ended too soon for me and my mates to fly Spitfires, and Mosquito’s, I had to wait until I was nearly 57, and could afford to get a p p l in Florida 1990, and enjoy flying 172’s 2-3 times a year in America for 7 y r s until irregular heart beat cost me my medical, but have wonderful memories of friendly hospitable American’s met in the many States my wife and I visited by rented Cessna’s, to look back on!
    Ernie

    Reply
  9. Merle Wright
    Merle Wright says:

    I am a retired private pilot and a navigator from the Koren Conflict. I am a member of the QBs I had the enjoyment of sitting next to the Colonel that was the lead pilot for the P-38 squadron that flew the Ploesti oil Feild air raid. He was 98 years of age at the time. It was said he did not talk about it unless you were a pilot. M.w

    Reply
  10. Mike Sheetz
    Mike Sheetz says:

    Really enjoyed your details of that set of flights! The P-51 is such an iconic steed, indeed! I saw so many of these marvelous aircraft at AirVenture, and never was disappointed! Had one come to our small city airport some 10 years as part of our festival Wings and Wheels Show. Upon arrival the pilot did the obligatory missed approach pass and climbing turn to downwind. Being inside a large hangar that was our show base, I only caught a glimpse of that initial entry yet proclaimed “well, the P-51 has definitely arrived”! Everyone was spellbound as the aircraft parked and drew a crowd. There was now doubt when the P-51 fired up for departure. Everyone was in awe of the big prop and sound of the Merlin powered beast, and everyone followed the movements as the plane taxied to the near end of the runway, followed by that heart throbbing take off! Upon departure, and making a brief 2 ship formation pass with a local T-34 pilot, the P-51 departed for home by screaming low down the runway, then rapidly climbing and doing a nice wingover as he headed home! Definitely a showstopper! My brother was so attentive he caught the departure on video! Everyone loved it!! Such an amazing memory!

    Reply
  11. Neil Sidwell
    Neil Sidwell says:

    A number of years ago I was lucky enough to get a birthday surprise from my wife in the form of a flight in a Mustang based at Point Cook here in Victoria, Australia. On the day of the flight we received a phone call asking if I could get to Essendon Airport as the Mustang had just finished a service there, and the pilot was happy to fly me from Essendon back to Point Cook, where we would then do the flight that my wife had actually paid for. I didn’t need a second invitation and although Essendon is only about 15 miles from Point Cook I was totally happy to get whatever extra time in a Mustang I was offered (especially as it was free!!). There was no joystick in the back so I was unable to get any hands-on, but it was still a fantastic experience, and we woke up a few sleepy fishermen as we zoomed over the bay. The pilot was careful not to overstress the airframe so we didn’t do any high-G manouevres but it was still a blast! Mind you,with no ANC headsets back then the noise in the cockpit from the engine was very loud – I would say the Merlin music is probably best appreciated from a slightly further distance away!

    Reply
  12. Tom Overeynder
    Tom Overeynder says:

    Dear jay,

    You and I meet at one of the Ft. Worth camera club luncheons a few years ago.
    I mentioned that my Dad had been in the Air Transport Command in WWII and flew all the Army Aircorp single engine fighters, flying them from the factories to wherever the Aircorp needed them to go. He flew one from the North American factory in Grand Prairie, which became Chance Vought and later became LTV, the company I worked at for 36 years. My Dad was an ag pilot for Lloyd Nolan at Rebel Field in the valley. It is on my bucket list to fly a P-51 someday.

    Reply

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