This post-script to my Reason and Reflection blog post of June 1, 2018 is intended to add some additional details regarding my flight on the Collings Foundation P-51 Mustang, Toulouse Nuts, on May 28, 2018 – Memorial Day.
Flying a P-51 had long topped my personal “bucket-list.” I begin by briefly reconstructing parts of two older blog posts to provide some background.
On July 6, 2016, I posted this on my blog:
The Iconic P-51 Mustang: The Fighter That Destroyed
Hitler’s Luftwaffe and Won the War
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!
I ended that post with the following:
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.
Sadly, “next year” came and hurtled by without even a visit to nearby Moffett Airfield to see the annual visit of the Collings Foundation Wings of Freedom tour.
Back in March of this year, with “P-51” still in my mind’s eye and at the top of my bucket-list, I visited the Collings Foundation website and discovered that the venerable Betty Jane, their P-51C Mustang, was undergoing a ground-up restoration/upgrade. That was the bad news. The good news: the foundation’s new P-51D, Toulouse Nuts was coming with the tour to Moffett in late May.
The “D” version of the P-51 became the iconic manifestation of the storied fighter. Like the Betty Jane, Toulouse Nuts is one of the world’s handful of flying, dual-control Mustangs that enable the passenger to control the airplane from the rear seat. For me, a tremendous advantage of the “D” over the earlier “A” thru “C” versions is the bubble canopy which offers unobstructed, panoramic views fore, aft, sideways and up from the cockpit.
There is a saying among pilots that “an airplane that looks good, generally flies good!” The P-51 Mustang lends full credence to that contention. Its war record and the loyalty earned from the thousands who flew her in air-to-air combat with the Germans and came back alive provide ample testimony. And she is just plain good-looking… on the ground and in the air!
On March 23, 2018, I posted this:
My Father’s Enduring Legacy: A Love of Aviation…
And a Prized Painting on Glass
My father was a most remarkable man. Today, at seventy-seven years of age, I have surpassed his longevity by one year. Even at this advanced age, my appreciation of him and his legacy continues to grow with passing time. There is much I could say about my father’s innate personal honesty, integrity, ambition, and commitment to excellence in all things, but I choose to dedicate this post to one particular aspect of his life and passion: His love of aviation and airplanes.
Here is the most important, early manifestation of that legacy for me, personally: a painting of his which is prominent in my earliest recollections of childhood.
I can still visualize this painting hanging on my bedroom wall in Chicago, Illinois when I was a youngster of six or seven. Today, this brilliantly created image hangs proudly in my den, high on the wall. Often, when in a pensive mood, I look upward and turn toward this painting for reflection, inspiration, and a renewed sense of longevity and permanence, qualities so absent in today’s peripatetic world. Few memories of mine go further back in time than this depiction of a furious World War I dogfight painted by my teen-age father around 1934/35. Correspondingly, few “things” in my life have been with me for as long as this little gem, painted on the back of glass using ordinary house-paints! My father’s family had no money for artist’s materials, so he did the best he could with what he had. His life-long ability to produce exceptional results in any endeavor is already evident in the clean, precise lines and brilliant images he produced while painting on the back of glass – a very difficult medium, indeed.
I concluded that post as follows:
The Legacy Continues!
My enthusiasm for aviation is hardly satisfied at this late date; there are still so many books on my shelves and stories waiting in the wings. Most significantly, both my curiosity about and my fascination with this life-long legacy of aviation gifted to me by my Father, Alfred Chester Kubitz, are still running strong. Time is running short, now, but the skies still beckon!
That last sentence, “Time is running short, now, but the skies still beckon!” soon proved to be a catalyst for me. My perusal of that statement after the post was published served to rejuvenate my quest for “the P-51 experience” which would become a reality in the cloudless, cobalt-blue sky over Livermore Municipal Airport on May 28, 2018 – Memorial Day.
Now, there were only two obstacles: the $2200 ticket-to-ride and the requisite moxie “to just go for it!”
The paraphrased quote from Mark Twain mentioned in my original post proved the antidote to cogitating any further about item number one on my bucket-list of things to do before I leave this world:
“You will regret most the things in life you did not do, not the things you did.”
Amen. Damn the torpedos: go for it!
I dialed-up the Collings Foundation in late March to assure myself that I had plenty of time to reserve my half-hour, adventure-of-a-lifetime on Toulouse Nuts. I was quite certain that reserving a week ahead of time would suffice. We had planned a trip to Irvine, California to visit our daughter for a few days about a week and a half before the Wings of Freedom tour was arriving at Moffett Field; there would be plenty of time to reserve a flight.
Who Invited Back Spasms to the Party?
Not in my plans, however, were the back spasms that suddenly hit me one morning while on the road – the result of abandoning my daily exercise regimen while traveling. This bout was worse than most I had in the past, and I spent the remainder of the trip barely able to move about. Back at home, I thought a few days rest there would solve my problem, but such was not the case. There was simply no way I was going to be able to clamber up onto the wing and into the cramped cockpit of a P-51 with a bad back. Finally, after a few more days passed, my back improved, but it was still questionable. And then the weather was cloudy and overcast for yet a few more days, hardly ideal for such a milestone flight. As my back condition and the weather were both finally improving, the tour and Toulouse Nuts were ready to move on to their next tour stop – Livermore, California, some fifty miles north of here. I called Collings in the hope that they might have a last-minute flight-time open prior to packing-up at Moffett and heading for Livermore, but, alas, it was not to be. Apparently, my P-51 flight experience was not happening this year, either, despite my determined decision to actually do it and my best efforts to make it happen! It was more than disappointing. Depressing was a more apt description given the vagaries of the variables involved: me not getting any younger, and the ever-present uncertainties regarding vintage aircraft. Despite the fine track record of the Collings Foundation, there was no guarantee that Toulouse Nuts would be available and ready to fly the tour next year. And there certainly was no guarantee that I would be present and ready to fly! I resigned myself to the realization that the top item on my personal bucket-list would remain in-place for at least another year.
Livermore Municipal Airport – The Tour’s Next Stop
As luck would have it, Linda and I had planned to drive north to the town of Pleasanton on Sunday, May 27th, the day before Memorial Day. The main street of the quaint town would play host to dozens of antique and collectibles dealers, stretching for blocks through town – all part of the annual antique fair held there and an event we had enjoyed in the past. By that time, my back was feeling much better. The evening before heading to Pleasanton, I recalled the fact that the Collings tour’s next stop after Moffett Field was Livermore Municipal Airport. Knowing that Livermore was somewhere in the general vicinity of Pleasanton, I checked the map. Indeed, the airport at Livermore was no more than a fifteen-minute drive from where we would be. Linda agreed that, after spending the morning antiquing in Pleasanton, we should head over to catch the Wings of Freedom tour at Livermore.
After getting a bit lost on the way over, we arrived at Livermore Municipal Airport, a beautiful, small-scale layout located amid picturesque hills and grassy plains – an almost pastoral scene as opposed to the huge concrete expanses of Moffett Field. Sure enough, there were our old friends, the vintage B-17 bomber Nine ‘O Nines, and the venerable B-24 Liberator, Witchcraft, the last one of its genre still flying (18,500 built in total). Linda and I first attended the tour back in 2013 at Moffett Field, and we clambered at our leisure though every nook and cranny of both airplanes – a delightful and eye-opening experience! We purposely went early on a weekday morning when we had the airplanes to ourselves. An added attraction at Livermore this year was a B-25 Mitchell medium-range, twin-engine bomber also owned by the Collings Foundation.
As we walked up to the entrance to pay the nominal admission charge, a very large big-band ensemble of young musicians struck-up Glenn Miller’s timeless hit from the early 40’s, In the Mood. That was a total surprise which immediately put us “in the mood” for the whole afternoon. There were flags, music, hot dogs, and all things requisite for a memorable Memorial Day holiday. Linda and I decided right then and there that we loved the atmosphere and that this was the way to see the Wings of Freedom tour!
And there, on the tarmac, was Toulouse Nuts, the P-51D that remained stubbornly stuck in the recesses of my mind. She was obviously busy taking lucky folks with a flight appointment and $2200 up for a ride and the thrill of a lifetime.
I decided then and there that it was now or never for me. We went over to the flight desk and asked if there were any openings for that afternoon. Alas, the answer was no. “How about tomorrow – Memorial Day?” I asked. The girl at the desk said she had an opening at 11:00 am and late in the day at 5:00. I looked at Linda: “Would you like to drive back here, tomorrow?” We decided we would, and I jumped at the 11:00 slot.
Memorial Day, May 28, 2018
The next morning dawned bright and warm across the entire San Francisco Bay Area. The temperature would be in the low 90’s that afternoon at Livermore. After a fifty-minute drive north, we pulled into the friendly airport grounds, easily parked the car, and headed for the tarmac and the planes parked there. At 10:15 am, the holiday crowd was beginning to grow. The cloudless sky was a brilliant cobalt blue: a perfect day for flying if ever there was one! As we passed through the entry gates, I noticed Toulouse Nuts pulling away from its parking spot on the tarmac and heading for the taxi-way and runway. I could discern a passenger in the rear seat – apparently the 10:00 appointment which preceded mine. I felt a rush of excitement in anticipation of soon going up and flying that iconic P-51 warbird. In less than two minutes, my heart fell, almost with a thud, as I spotted Toulouse Nuts working its way back up the taxi-way to its parking spot on the tarmac.
I knew immediately that something serious was wrong, and that my opportunity to fly that afternoon was surely in jeopardy. I could only hope that, perhaps, the passenger had second thoughts after being securely strapped in the cramped cockpit and experiencing, first-hand, the sights, the sounds, and the exhaust smell of that powerful Rolls-Royce/Packard Merlin engine. Alas, that was not the case. The passenger was soon out of the plane standing patiently nearby while the pilot, and a few extra hands conferred. In short order, the pilot and two others began removing aluminum panels from the nose of the airplane. From outside the roped-off security area, Linda and I could only guess as to what the problem might be. A half-hour went by and then an hour…and the sun was heating up the tarmac as work continued on the airplane. We sought relief in the shade provided by the huge wing of the B-24, Witchcraft, parked nearby. Finally, I went back to the roped perimeter and motioned for the “stranded” passenger to come over and tell me what he knows. He introduced himself as “John,” an older man in his seventies (like me), I would guess. He did not know the nature of the problem, except that it would likely take a while if a solution is even possible. I asked if he intended to “wait it out” as the scenario played itself out well into the second hour. His response: “Yes, I’ll wait. For me, it’s now or never.”
Linda and I would wait as well, harboring much the same feelings expressed by John. By the third hour, the pilot (and apparently chief mechanic for the day) came over to us and explained there was a problem with the indicated fuel pressure to the engine. They were not sure whether the problem was with the fuel pump and its system or with the dashboard gauge-indicator, but they were working to determine the exact cause. During that brief conversation, I was very impressed with this pilot and his demeanor, but, given the circumstances, my hopes for flying in that warbird on Memorial Day, 2018, sunk to a new low at that moment. “What are the odds that this handful of folks and the pilot would be able to fix this crippled bird anytime soon?” I thought to myself. It seemed that a mechanic familiar with this warbird and possibly some replacement part would be mandatory for any realistic chance.
Just to satisfy my curiosity, I asked the pilot whether he travels with the Collings tour and what credentials are generally required to fly a warbird like the P-51. His response: “I live in the area and I own a Mustang!” My response: “That will work!” I am well aware that the significant brotherhood of people who own Mustangs not only fly them, but know them quite intimately from an operational/maintenance standpoint. Furthermore, many of these owners, scattered across the U.S., know each other personally and each other’s airplanes, as well. The brotherhood of Mustang owners is quite exclusive given the reality that purchasing a P-51 in flying condition carries a price tag of at least 1.2 million dollars, not to mention the expense required to house and maintain a warbird like that in top condition! The fact that this pilot owned his own Mustang would explain why he, his grown son (also flying that day as an alternate), and a few others felt confident in attacking the fuel pressure problem. Fairly quickly, they had several aluminum covers removed from the nose area exposing the engine; these were carefully laid-out on the tarmac. There was even an attractive lady in nice clothing out there helping by moving ladders and passing tools up to the men at work. She later told us that she was a friend of the pilot. All the while, this proud warbird sat forlornly on the tarmac like a bird with clipped wings, unable to fly!
Despite the long odds, I had this vague feeling deep inside that Linda and I should wait this out – that this might all work out…somehow! Fueling those vague hopes was the confidence conveyed by the pilot’s demeanor and the image of father, son, and lady friend working with a couple of others so diligently out there on the tarmac under a blazing sun. That tableau represented “complete dedication and commitment” as far as I was concerned.
Another hour passed, and the pilot informed us that he believed the low fuel pressure indication was due to a faulty gauge, not a fuel system problem. He went on to add that they were trying to find a replacement gauge! Although my immediate thought could have been, “The local P-51 parts store is not open on Memorial Day,” my gut-feel told me to wait and see: keep the faith. Linda and I decided to pass more of our waiting time by having a Coke and a hot-dog (grilled by the local Knights of Columbus – another very nice touch at Livermore). We ventured over to a picnic table situated away from the airplanes and the tarmac, ate our “lunch” and passed some time talking with some folks.
It was now about 2:45 pm and our time was running short. We were scheduled to bring dinner to our daughter, son-in-law, and grandsons in time to see the tip-off of a key NBA playoff game involving the Golden State Warriors (who ultimately won the title). The problem: the nice dinner prepared by Linda was at home in the refrigerator; we would have to run home, pick up the dinner, and retrace our steps back north to my daughter’s home in San Mateo. Another hour at Livermore and that would not be possible, time-wise.
As the time approached 3:00, I decided now is the time to go over to the flight desk and just cancel the flight reservation which was beginning to look futile, anyway. Besides, there was John, the 10:00 passenger who was in line before me with a one-hour flight scheduled and equally determined, so it seemed, to “wait it out.” As we turned the corner and approached the flight desk, I heard a voice exclaim, “There he is!” Our P-51 pilot was standing there with a cardboard box in his hand. “We’ve got the gauge,” he said. When I inquired about the 10:00 passenger, they replied, “You are up-next! Apparently, John had given up earlier and left after canceling. “How long will it take to put in the gauge?” I asked. “About fifteen minutes,” was the reply. Without hesitation, my response was, “Well, let’s go then!”
The reality was more like one-half hour before being informed that the gauge was installed and the problem was, indeed, verified to be a faulty fuel pressure gauge. All looked good to go with the replacement! I gave Linda a hug and a kiss, ducked inside the roped security perimeter and clambered up the wing and into the cockpit. Once both legs are in the cockpit, one settles one’s behind on a parachute pack which doubles as the seat pad between you and the harsh steel “chair” bolted to the airframe. You are then helped with fastening the leg and shoulder straps on the chute prior to strapping into the military-strength harness restraint which affixes you to the seat and airframe. In case of emergency, the red canopy release lever on the lower right side is identified and exiting the plane is explained. To bail-out, you are instructed to unfasten the restraint harness straps (not those of the parachute!), release the canopy, and dive, head down, toward the back of the wing. Last and not least, one must pull the steel rip-cord handle, prominent, there, on your chest in order to deploy the ‘chute!
I thought to myself, “Unlike what so often happens with commercial aviation passengers, anyone with an attention-span problem during this ‘safety briefing’ really has no business going up in a warbird.”
At this point, I need to comment on the pilot and his son. It was the son who would be taking me up in Toulouse Nuts. I believe the dad’s name is Steve, and his son is Nicholas, or “Nick.” I asked the dad’s name earlier, and I believe he told me, “Steve.” I regret that, in the midst of such excitement and activity, I cannot be more confident of names, here. I will go with my best recollection from here on in the story!
An intercom headset is handed you with instructions for communicating with the pilot, and the big moment arrives. Nick, the son, volunteered to take me up so that his dad could relax and cool down after his strenuous efforts to get the P-51 flying again. His dad said to me, “He’ll take you up: he’s better than me.”
Nick went through his check-list and finally looked to verify all was clear of the propeller. The big four-bladed prop slowly turned, once, twice, and then three times before the big Merlin engine came to life, coughing and belching smoke a bit as the whole canopy shook. That was a magical moment for me, because I fully understand the legendary mystique between this iconic airplane and the Rolls-Royce/Packard Merlin V-12 inline engine which enabled this airframe to reach its full wartime potential as a deadly fighter plane. People who really know say there is nothing like the sound of that engine, whether on the ground or in the air.
As the engine of Toulouse Nuts settled into what should be a steady, raspy purr, I could detect that something was not right. The engine seemed to run slightly unevenly even to my untrained ears. Soon, Nick cut the ignition and the prop came to a stop. There was a brief comment exchanged with his dad, Steve, and others standing off to the side. Then a restart with essentially the same results. Once again, Nick killed the ignition. At this point, I really began to worry, thinking that, perhaps, there was something wrong with the fuel pump or the fuel system. I reckoned it would be a devastating disappointment should this warbird be grounded today after all my efforts. Even worse, of course, would be any engine malfunction once off the ground.
I mentioned my concern to Nick over the intercom. He told me his dad felt that the only issue is air in the fuel line stemming from the gauge replacement. I have seen this effect often in my home plumbing after turning off the water for a while and turning it back on. The water will spurt and splash from open faucets as captured air is gradually bled from the system. Nick and his dad felt confident that running up the engine for a few minutes on the tarmac should clear the fuel system of trapped air. As we sat there with engine running, I could readily discern the rough spots soon smooth out and disappear as the big Merlin began to purr, accompanied by the characteristic raspy crackle.
Heading out for the taxi-way
A thumbs-up between Nick and Steve and we were off onto the taxiway, heading for the runway and the hard-earned realization of my fondest wish. Within a minute or two we were poised at the end of the runway as Nick revved up the engine. I liked everything I heard, and so did Nick. At that, the brakes came off and Toulouse Nuts “took off” down the runway, literally and figuratively. The insistent pull of that big four-bladed propeller was impressive. Quickly, the tail lifted, then there was a slight lift-off sensation followed by a momentary hesitation in momentum (likely the landing gear retracting) followed immediately by a steep climb and sharp bank to the right, reminiscent of a roller coaster ride. It was as if Toulouse Nuts were telling me, “I am going to show you what I can do – right off the bat!” Impressive it was, indeed. Now we are heading parallel to the runway, high and off to the side, high-tailing it back past our starting point on the runway, then settling back down while banking hard right before lining up and executing a high-speed, low altitude pass directly over the runway for the benefit of the crowd (and me) before heading sharply up into that cobalt-blue sky and my thrill-of-a-lifetime – the opportunity to fly a P-51D warbird.
A low-pass over the runway!
Nick and me, post-flight!
My half-hour in Toulouse Nuts was worth the ticket-to-ride and all the considerable effort it took on my part to make it happen. After landing and taxiing back to the tarmac, I realized how lucky I had been. I offered my heartfelt thanks to Nick and his dad Steve for the ride and the experience, yes. I also made clear my tremendous gratitude for “saving the day” through their determined efforts not only to diagnose and fix the faulty fuel pressure gauge, but also to somehow come up with the appropriate replacement part, seemingly out of thin air – a miracle! After all, the P-51 stores are all closed on Memorial Day! As Steve walked off toward the airplane with the replacement gauge in-hand, I questioned out loud at the flight desk just how Steve found a replacement gauge under such unlikely circumstances. The girl at the flight desk remarked of Steve, “He knows a lot of people.” Apparently, he was able to telephone a fellow Mustang owner in the area who thought he had a spare fuel pressure gauge in his parts inventory. Somehow, it was located and delivered to the field just in the nick of time to salvage my dream. Indeed, the owner of a beautiful, polished aluminum P-51 had flown his airplane earlier in the day. Could that be the same fellow?
In closing, my wife, Linda, related afterward how worried she became when it was clear that the big Merlin engine was not running properly at the very beginning of the start-up sequence. Why was Nick stopping and restarting the engine accompanied by consultations with his dad, Steve? It so happened that Linda was standing next to the aforementioned lady friend of Steve’s as they watched the proceedings. She leaned over to Linda and said, “Don’t worry, he’s in good hands!” And, indeed I was.