Mustang Magic

A formation flight of P-51s at the Gathering of Mustangs and Legends. Paul Bowen

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.

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.


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