It's the calmness with which they tell the tales that's most striking. "One time I flew unconscious for an hour and a half. I lost my oxygen from shrapnel and passed out. I came to out of gas, with the engine dead, and in a spin."
"When I got shot down the second time, I was rescued by an American tank that saw me go down. The third time, though, my plane got blown to pieces at 10,000 feet, and I free fell about 9,500 before I regained consciousness. I got captured that time."
"At supper, my commander came in and asked me if I was checked out in a P-51. I said 'no, sir,' and he said, 'Well, you'd better go get checked out. Because you're flying a mission in one in the morning.' "
"Well, I was chasing this [Messerschmitt] 109, and he dove low over Paris, hoping the triple-A there would get me. We got lower, and then he flew under the Eiffel Tower. Well, he wasn't going to get away THAT way; I'd been trained to fly under bridges. And there's actually a lot of room under there. So I followed him. And I got him, too."
It's not the first time I've heard tales from World War II fighter pilots. I've been around airplanes, airshows and historic air museum events for a long time. It's also not the first time I've been to a crowded airshow, watched the Air Force Thunderbirds perform, viewed an impressive lineup of P-51 Mustangs or even seen formations of them take to the skies. I've been to Oshkosh, after all.
But this is different. I survey the unbroken sea of people that extends almost two miles down the wide ramp at Rickenbacker Field, in Columbus, Ohio. There must be almost 200,000 people gathered here, under clear blue, late September skies, to see these old World War II fighter planes and the pilots who flew them. There are families with small children in strollers; balding, middle-aged men in baseball hats and aviation T-shirts; teenagers with dreams of wings and glory in their eyes-just like at any other big airshow. And yet, there's something distinctly different in the air here-a kind of reverence, focus and hunger for connection that ripples through the crowd like an electric current.
Lines for the veterans' autographs snake their way outside of the designated tent areas. A flatbed truck carrying a group of Tuskegee Airmen starts to make its way down the congested display line, and the crowd parts like the Red Sea in front of it, spectators turning away from the airshow to cheer and applaud the elderly, red-jacketed men waving like royalty as they make their way through the crowd. Time and again, a veteran standing near one of the 80 P-51 Mustangs on the ramp starts to answer a single spectator's question and, in a matter of minutes, the airplane is all but lost in a swelling crowd of listeners straining closer to hear the tale.
The reason for the difference isn't any great mystery. The event was billed as "The Gathering of Mustangs & Legends: The Final Roundup"-and not because the P-51 Mustang airplanes themselves are going away anytime soon. On the contrary. There are more Mustangs flying today than there have been in years. But the same cannot be said for the pilots who first flew them.
Even the youngest of the WWII veterans are now in their 80s. There's no good way to parse the fact that the entire generation they represent is slowly but surely slipping away from us. And with them, the chance to connect directly with the world they knew … to ask questions and get answers; to peer back in time through the window of their memories … is slipping away from us, as well.
"The reality is, these guys are in their sunset years," said Lee Lauderbach, whose Stallion 51 Mustang training and flight company was the main organizing force behind the event. "Right now, there are still a number of them who can travel and communicate with the public well. But that may not be true in four or eight more years. So this was my best effort to run the flag up the flagpole as high as I could and give something back to the Mustang community-to celebrate a plane and all the veterans who flew it and served their country, and create an opportunity for bonding among the airplanes, the people and the public."
The Columbus event was the second Gathering of Mustangs organized by Lauderbach's company. The first gathering, which drew 65 Mustangs from around the country to Lauderbach's home base of Kissimmee, Florida, in April 1999, was a mostly private event focused on educational seminars for current Mustang owner/operators. A public open house was added only when it became clear that Mustang fans were prepared to jump the airport fence, if necessary, to get close to the airplanes. But even without any airshow performances, and with ticket prices around $25 (profits went to the EAA's Young Eagles and the American Fighter Aces organizations), 8,000 people showed up.
The success of that event led Lauderbach and his team to look at doing an-other, larger gathering for the public. And this time, they decided to make it a full-fledged airshow. They also added more opportunities for visitors to get up close to both the airplanes and the veterans who'd contributed to the Mustangs' combat success-including the women who'd ferried them and the crews who'd worked on them.
They chose to hold the show in Columbus because it was centrally located and offered an ideal combination of support elements: Rickenbacker Field was a former airbase with two 12,000-foot runways, a rich aviation history and uncongested surrounding airspace, and Columbus itself had enough in the way of tourist accommodations and services to host an international event. It also had the added plus of being right down the road from the legendary Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
Serendipitously, the Gathering of Mustangs and Legends also fell a week after the 60th anniversary of the Air Force, and the Air Force decided to support the event as part of its official celebration. So in addition to performances by the Air Force Thunderbirds demonstration team, the Air Force brought in one of almost everything it flies, from the T-6 Texan II to the C-5 Galaxy. There was a fly-by of the B-2 Stealth Bomber and full flight maneuverability demonstrations by the F-22 Raptor. There were heritage flights of Mustangs, F-16s, F-15s and F-22s. There were missing man formations.