A Jet Jockey Flies the P-51 Mustang

Guess what? Not much of what has been written about the old fighter is true.

City of Winnipeg P-51DPaul Bowen

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 …

Lesson No. 2 came when we did some aerobatics. I've always marveled at how graceful the Mustang is as she carves through loops and rolls at airshows. Len eloquently recalls using "less wrist action than is required to stir a cup of coffee" to "flick through a climbing roll." Other pilots describe the fingertip control pressures, and even the wartime POH states the aircraft is "very light on all controls." Based on all that, I've always assumed that the airshow pilots were purposefully making the maneuvers slow and smooth. Nope. Turns out they were working their butts off. Rapid full left stick at 15,000 feet and 210 kias (knots indicated airspeed) yielded a roll rate in the region of 90 degrees per second, much slower than I had expected. That's four seconds to do an aileron roll! Was it just me and my giant fists of ham? Based on my research, no. It was again my expectations getting in the way, not my hands (hams?).

In one of Peter Garrison's columns in an old Flying magazine, he republished a table from, as he called it, "the classic aerodynamics textbook known by the names of its authors, Perkins and Hage." It documents the roll rate of a P-51B at 10,000 feet and 260 (knots?) TAS (true airspeed) as being 98 degrees per second. Still not satisfied, I referenced a presentation given at the 1989 symposium of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots ("Flight Test Comparison — Ending the Argument" by John M. Ellis III and Christopher A. Wheal). In the course of conducting an analytical comparison of the Mustang, Hellcat, Thunderbolt and Corsair, they measured the P-51D's roll rate at 71 degrees per second at 10,000 feet and 200 kias. Hmmmmm. At this point in the flight, perceptions are starting to change drastically.

Loops, Cuban-8s, Immelmanns and even a couple of Cloverleafs followed the aileron rolls. We kept the power at a max-cruise type setting (36 inches/2700 rpm), and while the airplane was indeed a pure joy to toss about the sky, I had to work a bit to make it happen. I quickly realized I'd have to spend more time in the gym to be comfortable flying any combat missions in the Mustang. That stick got heavy at the bottom of a loop! I don't think we got much more than 300 kias at any point, but I wanted to pull with both hands a couple of times. Before you tell me to put away my skirt and man up, let me 'splain. Full aft stick in the F-16 takes 25 pounds of force. Always. At 1G or 9Gs, if you're pulling full aft, it takes 25 pounds. (We'll save the discussion of fighter aircraft fly-by-wire controls for another day). Those same test pilots I mentioned earlier measured the Mustang stick force at 70 pounds for a 4G turn and about 90 for a 5G turn at maximum level-flight speed, about 240 kias for their test. Those are estimates, since their force gauge went to only 60 pounds. They concluded that "the Mustang was a two-handed airplane in which prolonged hard maneuvering was extremely tiring." Still don't believe me? The late Jeff Ethell writes in the October 1997 issue of Flight Journal that, while flying the P-51A, "I could move the stick at high speed without using two hands as I normally would in the D." Makes you admire Bob Hoover's airshow performances even more now, doesn't it? I sure do.

I haven't mentioned the stall characteristics of the airplane yet because they were no surprise. I expected a fairly wild ride (regardless of what the flight manual said), and I got it. We conducted what were essentially power-off stalls, both straight ahead and turning. We had the power way back at 24 inches and set 3,000 rpm on the prop. Straight ahead, we got a little bit of elevator buffet about 5 knots before the stall. At the stall the right wing dropped, quickly I might add, to about 45 degrees of bank. But as soon as I relaxed the stick, she started flying again, and it was very easy to pick up the wing with rudder. Turning stalls were started at 130 kias and the same low power setting. I rolled into a 60-degree left bank and pulled a nice 2G turn. About 90 degrees into the turn I picked up a slight buffet and, WHAM, the airplane quickly snapped into 135 degrees of left bank. Releasing stick pressure, right rudder and a little right stick quickly brought everything back to normal. I can only imagine the wild ride we would have had if the throttle had been up, as it would be in combat. Yikes. I think with time in the airplane, you'd get a good feel for where the limit is, but once you reach that limit, hold on tight. Not much margin there. Even the normally understated test pilots described the Mustang's stall and departure characteristics as "vicious." Again, my personal "respect-o-meter" for the boys flying combat in these airplanes went up a few notches.

Descent, pattern and landing were nothing but fun, even though I was secretly dreading my first tailwheel pattern. She was very stable at low altitude and about 250 kias. We flew a fighter-type 360-degree overhead pattern to Kissimmee's Runway 06. A 2G turn to downwind scrubbed off all our speed, and the airplane was rock solid as we lowered the gear and flaps, with fewer pitch changes than a 172 has as the flaps came down. Visibility over the nose on final was much better than I had anticipated. Even from the back seat I was able to see as much of the field as I wanted. Airspeed control on final was again rock steady, and I'll admit that I did smile a bit as I pulled the power in the flare and the engine crackled and popped as only a Merlin will do. I made an acceptable touchdown on the mains and then had what I thought was a wild ride once the tail came down. I thought the airplane was squirrelly but later came to realize that, for a taildragger, the Mustang is pretty tame on landing roll. But I kept it between the lines and my incorruptible companion took the airplane back after we taxied clear.

On descent back to the airport, not even close to staying below 250 kias by the way, Eliot asked me if the flight was what I thought it would be. I had to honestly answer him, "No, it was nothing like I expected."

My flight in the airplane completely shredded almost all of the things I previously "knew" about the Mustang. I had expected a twitchy, uncooperative airplane and instead got one very willing to do whatever you wanted, as long as you were willing to work for it a bit. A couple of hours in this airplane and a healthy dose of respect for its few vices is all it would take to forge a very strong relationship between man and machine. I have a much greater understanding of, and respect for, the fighter pilots in World War II. Now if I can just get somebody to let me fly a Spitfire. A World War II pilot I interviewed once told me that flying the Spitfire was "like trying to fly a butterfly" and that you "had to be on top of that lady every second." Now that sounds like fun.