Last month, I had yet another opportunity to ride in and fly one of the most iconic military aircraft of all time, the North American P-51 Mustang. Sadly, it did not happen. Maybe next year!
The chance to ride in a P-51 materializes yearly when the Collings Foundation and its “Wings of Freedom” nationwide tour of restored World War II aircraft lands at nearby Moffett Field. For nearly a week, the public has the opportunity of getting up-close-and-personal with several “survivors” from the mass post-war scrapping of airplanes which defeated Hitler and Japan not so long ago.
The Betty Jane P-51 is a flying survivor from 1945, one of the very few Mustangs outfitted with two seats and dual flight controls (that’s her pictured above in a Collings Foundation photo and below, in one of mine). For $2200 along with a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” attitude, a visitor can reserve a half-hour ride over the San Francisco bay area in that venerable war-bird along with the opportunity of briefly guiding her through a gentle turn or two.
Linda and I took our two young grandsons to Moffett for an afternoon of gawking at and clambering through the foundation’s B-17 Flying Fortress and B-24 Liberator bombers. These two aircraft were the major weapons used to dismantle Hitler’s war machine by destroying German factories, airfields, and infrastructure. Implementing a revamped allied strategy in late 1943, these four-engine airplanes commenced attacking the civilian populations of Berlin, Hamburg, and Dresden in a successful effort to erode the German people’s support of Hitler’s war effort. The Collings Foundation’s B-24, Witchcraft, is the lone remaining flying example of its genre (close to nineteen-thousand of them were built during the war)!
The B-17 Flying Fortress was the more storied of the two workhorse bombers early in the war, and the Foundation’s Nine O’Nine is a beautiful example. It was anticipated that the multiple 50 caliber machine guns protruding from the aptly named “Fortress” would provide an adequate defense against German fighter-interceptors. That soon proved to be misplaced idealism as the Luftwaffe and flak from the ground took its toll on the “heavies.”
But the airplane on the tour that, as in years past, captured my imagination even more than the others, was the Betty Jane. The P-51 Mustang rapidly became the best friend of the B-17 and B-24 bomber crews who flew mission after mission in large formations from their airfields dotting Great Britain’s countryside. Their destination: Targets deep into German airspace. Earlier in the war, the slow-flying four-engine bombers and their deadly cargo were initially escorted during the long flight into Germany by allied fighter planes like the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt, a plane of limited flying range and mediocre maneuverability. Typically, well before the heavy bombers reached their targets over Germany, the fighter escorts were forced to break-off and return to base due to their limited range (fuel). At that point, the bomber formations became sitting ducks for the agile and deadly German fighter planes which came up to meet them.
The P-51 Mustang: Just-In-Time Delivery to Allied Fighter Groups
The deeper the penetration into German airspace, the greater the allied bomber losses. The turning point came during the infamous raid over Regensburg, Germany, where 60 bombers were lost, each with a ten-man crew – 600 men. Just at this critical point, the newly-developed P-51 Mustang reached operational status and became available to the fighter groups based in England. Designed from the get-go to be a superior fighter, the P-51 was just that. With its fine maneuverability and the powerful, in-line, twelve cylinder, liquid-cooled engine conceived by Rolls-Royce but built under license by the Packard motor car company in the United States, the Mustang was superior to its German counterparts, the Messerschmidt Me 109 and the Focke-Wulf 190.
A German Me 109 caught in the gun cameras of a P-51
Critically important was the Mustang’s superior range, aided by external, under-the-wing, drop-tanks carrying fuel. Now, the bombers had an escort fighter which could not only accompany them deep into German territory in a defensive, protective posture, but could inflict losses on the Luftwaffe as its pilots attacked the bomber formations. In this dual sense, it can justifiably be said that the P-51 both destroyed the Luftwaffe and won the war by allowing the “heavies” to reach and destroy their targets.
At about that time, allied commanders expanded bombing targets to include the populations of Berlin, Hamburg, and Dresden. Late in the war, General Jimmy Doolittle also famously altered the successful defensive role of the P-51 from solely a long-range bomber escort by ordering the fighter groups to adopt a more offensive posture, attacking Luftwaffe fighters wherever they could be found. The mandate was to leave the bomber formations, when feasible, and destroy the German interceptors before they could locate and reach and the bombers. Doolittle wanted to strafe and destroy German planes on the ground – at their airfields – when possible. The goal: To gain complete air superiority prior to the planned ground invasions central to D-Day. The Luftwaffe was nowhere to be seen by D-Day, thanks in large part to the effective dual role of the P-51 both as bomber escort and Luftwaffe killer.
Firing-Up the Big Packard Engine of Betty Jane
As my grandsons and I stood outside the roped area, a mere 50 feet from Betty Jane, the pilot fired up the big Packard-built twelve-cylinder engine sporting a large, four-bladed propeller. The pilot yelled “clear” from the cockpit, the big prop started to turn, and the engine came to life after belching smoke and the usual series of backfires. The engine sounded a throaty roar as Betty Jane moved out toward the taxi-way. My grandsons held their ears…I did not and drank it all in. In my mind’s eye, I could imagine the emotions of a pilot on the flight line at Leiston, England, bringing that big engine to life en-route to yet another bomber escort mission over Germany in 1944/45. Despite the huge war effort and all the backing provided by the allies for combat flight operations, out there on the flight line, as the engine coughed, sputtered, roared to life, and the canopy closed, it was one man in one machine – very far from home. The pilot was about to face the uncertainties of weather, navigation, and his enemy counterparts who would be out there, somewhere, waiting for him and the opportunity to shoot him and his machine out of the sky.
For me, it is difficult to conjure up a more daring and exhilarating human experience than that encountered by those flyers in World War II. For them at the time, there surely seemed nothing “romantic” about the deadly task they faced – only a sense of high adventure and “what the hell, I hope I come back from this one!” I have read the late-life accounts of some who flew Mustangs against the German Luftwaffe and lived to tell about it. Despite some surely ugly recollections of killing and death which stubbornly remain, time dulls many of the sharp edges – as it always does – for these men. These flyers are revered by the public for their courage, daring, and skill during wartime, and that is appropriate. Despite old age and the challenges of settling down after flying, these warriors possess indelible and precious memories of that time in their young lives when they and their machines defied the great odds stacked against them. Those who flew the P-51 Mustang, to a man, relate their admiration of and gratitude to the airplane that saw them through.
Lt. Jim Brooks and his P-51, February – 1945
Perhaps next year, when the Collings Foundation tour returns, I will have an extra $2200 to go up in Betty Jane as well as the requisite moxie to do so. I cannot think of a greater, more meaningful thrill.