Having read about and studied the North American P-51 Mustang for as long as I can remember, how on earth could I have been surprised by anything when I had the opportunity to fly it? I think a lot of it comes down to the fact that most of those other writers were so used to flying high-performance warbirds that they didn't write from the same perspective I had. Think about it. A guy who has a bazillion hours flying World War II airplanes has a completely different frame of reference than the guy who flies a 172 twice a month for a $100 hamburger.
For example, the flight manual description of the Mustang's stall behavior ("The airplane has a comparatively mild stall. The airplane doesn't whip at the stall, but rolls rather slowly. …") correctly represents the experience of someone trained during World War II or familiar with other airplanes of the era. To me, it was the understatement of the century! Now, whenever I read a statement like "This airplane is incredibly light on the controls and is a delight to fly," I immediately have to ask myself, "Compared to what?"
So why should you listen to me? What mental baggage am I dragging along with me, other than the images burned into my psyche from years of dreaming and reading about flying the Mustang? Even though I'm a retired fighter pilot (F-16/F-22), I like to think I'm a pretty clean slate when it comes to describing what a Mustang feels like. I've been flying fixed-gear single-engine airplanes for 20 years but have zero practical experience with any meaningful torque, P-factor, tailwheels, etc. Since my Mustang flight, I've taken a 10-hour aerobatics and tailwheel course (Super Decathlon and Pitts S-2B) and flown a couple of hours in a T-28C. That has helped me put everything into a bit more perspective.
My own moment of Mustang glory was in Kissimmee, Florida, with Stallion 51. Eliot Cross bravely sat in the front seat while I no doubt destroyed his faith in the current crop of Air Force fighter pilots. It was a beautiful winter day in central Florida with scattered clouds at 3,000 to 5,000 feet and a 10-knot breeze coming out of the southeast, gusting to 18.
When I approached the Mustang for my flight, the first thing I noticed was how big the airplane seemed now that I was going to fly it. I had to reach way up to touch the nose of the prop spinner (I'm 5 feet 10 inches), and the four-bladed prop was simply massive. This is from a guy who spent his days flying single-seat fighters weighing upwards of 60,000 pounds. Settling into the cockpit, I felt comfortably snug, not too tight, not too roomy. Even with my Air Force-issue helmet and mask, there was plenty of room to twist around and check six o'clock without bumping into anything. In contrast, plenty of F-16s are flying around with scratches and gouges on the inside of the canopy from pilots' helmets as they thrash about the cockpit evading bad guys. The only other thing I noticed about the cockpit was that the throttle quadrant seemed higher than I'm used to. But other than that initial reach, I never thought about it for the rest of the flight.
Ground operations were very straightforward but still brought a few surprises. Taxiing was much easier than I had feared it would be. The steerable tailwheel made it a cinch to S-turn the Mustang down the narrow taxiway. We had to sit in the run-up area for about two minutes while the oil temperatures rose within limits before we could do the engine run-up. This caught me off guard since it wasn't unusually cold (maybe 60 degrees F). I now understand why World War II crew chiefs would run the engines before the pilots showed up planeside.
The biggest surprise on the ground came when we did the engine run-up to check the prop and mags. I was totally unprepared for the wall of noise that came crashing into the cockpit from the 12 exhaust stacks barely 10 feet from my head. The airplane was shaking and bucking like the bronco she was named after. How on earth anybody could fly this airplane with the canopy open is beyond me. Also impossible to understand is how any World War II fighter pilots could hear anything anymore. To be honest, though, after that initial shock, I never noticed the noise again. I had too much else to concentrate on! With my helmet and earplugs, I was able to muffle the sweet sounds of the engine and still hear the radio and intercom.
I was intrigued by Eliot's takeoff technique, but apparently it is fairly standard these days. Well, actually I was annoyed that he refused my bribes and wouldn't let me do the takeoff, but I got over it. After running the power up to 30 inches, he released the brakes and pushed the power up to only 45 inches. "That's interesting," I thought, since full power is way up at 61 inches. Shortly after brake release, he lowered the nose, and it was only then that he set takeoff power of 55 inches (Stallion 51 engines are limited to 55 inches). Given the dire warnings in the flight manual about rapid power applications, this seemed a prudent technique. The wartime technique of using full power right away wasn't really needed at our light weight. Short runways and maximum gross weights would no doubt require full power from the get-go.
The surprises continued once airborne. Based on everything I'd read, I expected a highly maneuverable, unstable airplane that would take mere finger pressure on the stick to turn the horizon upside down. What I got was an airplane that would indeed do all that you asked, except you weren't asking so much as telling, forcefully.
One of the best, most detailed and, in my mind, trustworthy accounts of flying the Mustang is Len Morgan's masterpiece Famous Aircraft: the P-51 Mustang. He describes an aircraft that "simply would not fly hands off for more than a few seconds" and demonstrated an "inherent refusal to establish itself in stable flight." Immediately after taking the controls, however, I found the Mustang to be just as stable (or unstable, depending on your point of view) as the scores of bent and battered 172s I've rented over the years.
The way the airplane behaved when I let go of the stick to fold the map or take notes didn't seem unusual. Was Len smoking something? No, I think he just had much higher expectations than I did. How high I did not fully realize until I recently read an account of a Wright Field test pilot flying his F-86D at 41,000 feet who unstrapped, turned around and knelt on his seat, retrieved the forgotten ejection-seat safety pin from behind the headrest, and turned back around and strapped back in, all without the aid of an autopilot. Well, if that is the standard we're judging against, I can fully understand Mr. Morgan's concern. However, even in my super-whiz-bang F-16, I never would be able to let go of the controls for more than 10 to 15 seconds without having to pick up a wing or move the nose back where it belonged. So in my mind the Mustang was no big deal. But I realize that I flew the Mustang for only an hour. The average combat sortie was much longer. I can imagine that flying for six hours without an autopilot in the P-51 would get old very quickly, especially when turning around the next day and doing it again. And again. And again …