But the stars of the show were, without question, the 80 bright and shiny P-51 Mustangs gathered together on the ramp-and in the sky. At the end of each day, the airshow concluded not with the Thunderbirds, but with a stunning formation flight of 20 P-51 Mustangs spelling out a giant "51" in the sky. It was, even for a seasoned airshow veteran, a sight to behold.
So were the crowds. "I was really humbled by the attendance and by the people who went out of their way to be here," Lauderbach said.
It was true. People and planes not only came, and came in large numbers, but they also came from all parts of the globe. One owner shipped his Mustang over from England. Another Mustang flew in from Mexico. Still another came from Canada. And the spectators hailed from even more countries than were involved in either of the big wars-WWII and Korea-in which the P-51 Mustang played a role.
There were veterans and families of veterans. There were "tail-spotters" or "serial number hounds"-the aviation equivalent of bird-watchers trying to sight as many different versions of their favorite winged birds as possible. There were history buffs who knew more about each pilot and plane's history than the veterans themselves could remember. There were former Mustang pilots and owners, and current Mustang pilots and owners. And there were everyday people who knew very little about any specific pilot or history, but who were drawn to Columbus by the lure of an airplane whose mystique is, itself, legendary.
"The Mustang inspires an almost religious kind of fascination in people," said one aficionado who researches the whereabouts and disposition of old Mustangs in his spare time. "It's just such a stunningly beautiful machine. And it's the only airplane from World War II that's more than just preserved. There's a whole market that's focused on building new ones every day, so people can still go out and fly them like any other great airplane."
Each year, in fact, another four or five rebuilt Mustangs take to the air. And thanks to improved training-such as that offered by Lauderbach's company-the accident rate among Mustang owners has fallen dramatically in the past 10 years. The result is a thriving community made up of a new generation of Mustang pilots ... with yet another generation close on its heels. On Saturday evening, a six-ship flight of third-generation Mustang pilots took to the skies for a photo shoot. The youngest of them was 20 years old. He looked far too young to be flying a high-performance airplane like a Mustang … until I realized that his face reflected the true look and age of the pilots who flew these Mustangs into battle, all those years ago.
Watching the young pilot, I thought back to what one of the Mustang veterans had said during one of the weekend's panel discussions. At the end of the session, a young man, not much more than 20 years old himself, raised his hand politely and asked the hero aces in front of him what lessons or advice they would give his own generation, just coming into adulthood. There was silence for a moment. Then one of the pilots leaned forward toward the microphone.
"The only lesson the younger generation should take from us," he said slowly, "is that there has to be a better way of spending your youth than to have to fight a war."
It was a moment of breathtaking honesty that epitomized what made this particular airshow so unique, and so moving. For the event wasn't just about fast or sexy airplanes. There was a real tangible sense, throughout the weekend, of a torch being passed. And the flame the elders were giving into the next generation's keeping wasn't just a legacy of fast airplanes, fanfare and triumph. It was also the memory of why all those beautiful planes had to be built in the first place; of an air war that was far more personal and difficult, because technology still required close-in combat. It was the history and truth of young men and women who did what was necessary, in a frightening time that took them to the limits of their courage, fears, strength and endurance. Of a part of their lives that they remember ironically as both the best and worst of times-where life was lived in sharp, essential colors, but where the highs of camaraderie, pride and adventure came with equally heavy burdens of hardship, tragedy and loss. And the quiet hope, as their time with us draws to a close, that future generations might find a way to avoid having to bear that kind of burden again.
The Gathering of Mustangs and Legends was at once joyous and somber; dazzling and bittersweet. But it was also a fitting and memorable tribute to an era, an effort and a remarkably beautiful airplane that-even at the age of 65-still sounds as sweet, and looks as good, as she did when she was young.