Toulouse Nuts: Flying the Collings Foundation P-51D Mustang (Post-Script)

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

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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.

Toulouse Nuts_3The “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.

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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:

Prey for Mercy Print Display

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.

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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!

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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!

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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A low-pass over the runway!

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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.

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“Toulouse Nuts” : Flying the Collings Foundation P-51 Mustang

To celebrate Memorial Day last Monday, I was fortunate enough to fly an iconic World War II warbird, the P-51D Mustang owned by the Collings Foundation. The Foundation’s nation-wide Wings of Freedom tour and its airplanes had landed at Livermore Municipal Airport, in California, for a three-day stay before moving on.


Photo: Collings Foundation

The experience was not only unforgettable, but very meaningful for me. As a student of aviation history, particularly in the World War II time-frame, going up in a P-51 was something I always wanted to do: more accurately, something I had to do!
What finally moved me to act was a quote by the author Mark Twain which I recently heard and (loosely) paraphrase here: You will regret most the things in life you did not do, not the things you did.

Many are the accounts of young farm boys in middle America scrounging a quarter and going up for the first time in the rickety biplanes of traveling “barnstormers” back in the mid-nineteen-thirties. For many of those boys, that experience led ultimately to flight training in the Army Air Force during the prelude to war. This adventure of mine felt somewhat like my own, personal, modern-day version of the barnstormer ride, but more costly and with no future flight training likely!

That’s me (bluejeans) with the father of my young pilot (he also flies)

The P-51 Mustang was the greatest fighter plane in World War II, bar-none. For that, and for so many other reasons, it is the one airplane I wanted to fly and experience. It is often claimed that the P-51 won the war for us. Most certainly, without its introduction to combat in 1943, many more B-17 and B-24 bomber crews would have lost their lives to enemy fighters which flew up to intercept the “heavies” on their bomb runs over hostile territory. The P-51 was the first fighter with the fuel-range capable of escorting our bombers all the way to their targets in Germany and back to their bases in England and Italy.

P-51s also proved their air superiority over the best the Germans had to offer. When enemy fighters came up to attack our bombers, the P-51s excelled in the oft-times, close-quarter aerial dogfights with their German Me 109 and Focke-Wulf 190 counterparts. The Mustang quickly won the hearts and gratitude of the brave men who flew her and survived the war along with their indelible memories of combat. As for the bomber crews who were such vulnerable targets, they universally referred to the P-51 escorts as their “little friends.”

Heading out to the taxi-way prior to take-off

Toulouse Nuts is a rare variant of the Mustang which features not merely a seat behind the pilot, but a second full set of instrumentation and controls like the pilot’s. For a good portion of my half-hour flight, I was in control of the airplane from my rear seat vantage point. For the rest of the flight, my young pilot performed some textbook aerobatics per my request: wingovers, aileron rolls, etc. He began by pointing the nose of the airplane up a bit and then partially rolling the airplane into a dive while 90 degrees to the horizon. After a few warm-ups (for my benefit), we nosed up, “came over the top” while rolling into a fully inverted flying position while diving and leveling out. That uneasy feeling one gets when a Southwest Airlines 737 banks into a steep turn with “wing way down” is but prelude to the feeling of doing wingovers in a P-51! I now have some inkling of what combat maneuvers in a life and death dogfight with a German Me 109 must have felt like to our pilots.

Steep climb and sharp bank at take-off (runway in the background)

I have read many memoirs of World War II aces who survived, thanks to luck and skill, to tell their stories. In recent years, much of my time and library acquisitions have been devoted to learning more about the histories of the men and machines who defeated Hitler’s Luftwaffe. As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, I cannot conceive of more daring and dangerous, yet adventurous endeavors than those experienced by the bomber and fighter crews of World War II. A quote from one of the best, Clarence “Bud” Anderson, a triple Mustang ace (16.25 air victories) who flew 116 combat missions out of England, is embedded in my consciousness:

Staying alive was no simple thing in the skies over Europe in the spring of 1944. A lot of men couldn’t. It was a bad thing to dwell on if you were a fighter pilot, and so we told ourselves we were dead men and lived for the moment with no thought of the future at all. It wasn’t too difficult. Lots of us had no future and everyone knew it.

I wanted to experience, as best I could, what it must have felt like to ride out to the flight-line in a far-away place on a cold, early dawn, to greet your crew-chief who got up even earlier to prepare your plane, and then to clamber into the cockpit for yet another mission over Germany. Your crew chief helps you strap-in and briefs you on the status of your airplane. You look at him and he looks at you, briefly, each realizing that you might not come back from today’s mission. Then you close the canopy to form an eerie silence, and your crew-chief slides off the wing to the ground – perhaps the last human you will see…at least for several hours. At your touch of the starter, the big four-bladed propeller slowly turns, and turns some more, and turns some more, and finally the powerful, twelve-cylinder Rolls-Royce/Packard Merlin engine coughs and belches its way to life, shaking the cockpit in the process. In a matter of seconds, the big Merlin engine settles into a smooth, steady cadence and you are set to face the great unknowns that await all pilots on such missions.

To capture some essence of that scenario in a real P-51 Mustang is what drove me to do what I did last Monday. What better way to pay tribute to the memory of our flyers than to take to the skies over Livermore in a vintage airplane on an absolutely gorgeous, cloud-free day like Monday, May 28, 2018. It was everything I had hoped it would be, and more. I will never forget the experience.

I was supposed to fly at 11:00 am on Monday. I did not get airborne until 3:00 that afternoon. A problem with the fuel pressure gauge surfaced on the flight before mine. As Linda and I arrived at the field, I saw the airplane head off to the taxi-way for the 10:00 flight scheduled before mine. In less than two minutes, my heart fell as I saw the airplane taxi back to its parking position on the apron. I knew there must be some problem. Soon, pilot and passenger were out of the plane and the engine covers were off the nose of the airplane. The pilot and several others were all over the front portion of the plane. The previous flyer, an older fellow like me named John, stood around for at least three hours as did Linda and I. He indicated he would wait it out because, for him, the experience was “now or never.” By the time the crew had the airplane ready to go after heroic efforts on their part, John had given up, cancelled at the desk, and gone. The flight crew told me, “You are next-up,” to which I retorted, “Let’s go, then!” The fellow who flew after me was also older – at least my age. I sense that there are many older guys like me who feel the significance surrounding this airplane and its historic role while confronting the approaching decision point for themselves: to go do it or not.

I had written an earlier post on the Collings Foundation and their older P-51C, Betty Jane. She is currently undergoing a ground-up restoration/overhaul. The tour introduction of their newly restored P-51D Toulouse Nuts occurred in 2016. Technically, she is known as a TF-51D, being a rare, two seat, dual-control airplane. “T” for trainer and “F” for fighter, I believe, is the way it works. The “P” in P-51 is an outmoded reference for “pursuit,” nomenclature which was commonly used early in World War II and prior. Toulouse Nuts represents the “D” evolution of the airplane’s design, its ultimate configuration during the war. For pilots and would-be flyers/passengers like me, the bubble canopy of the “D” offers a superior visual experience compared to the birdcage structure of the earlier “C” models like Betty Jane.

An amazing, unforgettable experience!

Toulouse Nuts is one of three original TF-51Ds remaining in the world. She is painted in her original markings of the West Virginia Air Guard, 167th fighter squadron.

B-24 Liberator Bomber, Witchcraft – the last one flying of over 18,000 built!

The Rolls-Royce Merlin Aircraft Engine: P-51 Mustang Power Defeated the Luftwaffe

The North American P-51 Mustang was the best fighter airplane in World War II. It became available to the U.S. fighter command as a potent package in enough time to tilt the air war with Germany in the Allies’ favor. I wrote about the justly-famous P-51 in a previous post (July 6, 2016). That post can be found in my home page archives. In it, I referred to the Merlin V-12 power plant which, when finally coupled with the great airframe platform from California-based North American Aviation, turned a decent performer into an iconic fighting airplane.

While “Rolls-Royce” on this engine clearly denotes an English heritage, the same can, surprisingly, be said of the P-51 itself. Designed and built by North American Aviation in Los Angeles, California, the airplane’s genesis actually emanated from England. The P-51 began as a specification provided to North American by the British Purchasing Commission early in 1940. Incredibly, the first prototype appeared on September 9, 1940, a mere 102 days after the contract with North American was signed. The NA-73X airframe first flew on October 26, 1940.

Originally designed for the British Allison V-1710 engine, the Mustang prototypes demonstrated disappointing performance at altitudes above 15,000 feet. The B-17 and B-24 bombers of the Eighth U.S. Air Force typically cruised over 20,000 feet on their bombing missions into Germany from bases in England. During the Battle of Britain in mid-1940, the German Luftwaffe was already flying their front-line fighter, the Messerschmidt 109. The Me 109 and the Focke-Wulf 190 would both prove to be a significant threat to Allied bombers in the skies over Germany throughout the war. Despite Britain’s just-in-time introduction in 1940 of their own top-line fighter, the Supermarine Spitfire, the Me 109 still had advantages over it and the older Hawker Hurricane by way of its firepower and its fuel-injected engine. The Messerschmidt had, in addition to 50 caliber machine guns, a 20 mm cannon firing through the spinner of its propeller. That deadly weapon coupled with the much longer firing-burst capability of its guns gave the Me 109 a significant advantage. The Hurricane and the Spitfire had carbureted engines with a typical float-chamber in the fuel system which caused the airplanes to hesitate when abruptly put into an evasive dive maneuver. The fuel-injected 109s had no such problem and could easily overtake their prey on the way down.

The major problem faced by the U.S. Eighth Air Force bomber command by 1942 was the vulnerability of its B-17 and B-24 heavy bombers after leaving their bases in the English countryside and entering German air space. The B-17 “Flying Fortress” was aptly named given the eventual array of thirteen 50 caliber machine guns in eight strategic locations around the aircraft. Early in the war, it was believed that bomber formations of aircraft with that degree of armament would be quite capable of protecting themselves from German fighter interceptors who came up to meet them over German territory. That assumption quickly proved very erroneous as losses mounted.

The solution? Provide fighter escorts for the bombers. Prior to the introduction of the P-51 in late 1943, that assignment was handed to fighter wings typically flying the Republic Aviation P-47 Thunderbolt. The P-47 had two major problems. To begin with, the airplane had a short fuel-limited range which forced it to turn back and abandon its escort duties soon after entering German airspace. That, of course, was precisely when the bomber formations would most likely encounter German fighter resistance. Besides, the chunky P-47 suffered severe disadvantages in aerial combat with the more agile and faster Me 109 and Focke-Wulf 190 German fighters. Bomber losses were severe from the combination of aerial flak guns and German interceptors, culminating in the disastrous bombing raid on Regensburg, Germany, where sixty bombers were lost in one day – some 600 men.

Enter the P-51 Mustang in late 1943 whose horsepower, speed, agility, and high-altitude performance provided a palpable advantage over German counterparts thanks to its supercharged Merlin engine which had replaced the original Allison V17-10 powerplant. With the airplane’s inherently large fuel capacity and an added pair of drop-tanks beneath its wings, the P-51 could go all the way to the target and back with the “heavies.” The bomber crews fondly referred to the Mustang escorts as their “little friends.”

Most of the eventual Mustang production of some 15,000 planes was powered by the Rolls-Royce Merlin built under license by the Packard Motor Car company in Detroit. The Merlin engine was also widely used in other notable wartime aircraft including England’s top fighter, the Spitfire. Nothing in the air during the war could match the powerfully effective Merlin/Mustang combination, however.

I recently watched a wartime documentary on the momentous effort to design and ramp up production of the Merlin engine in England during the early phases of WW II. This was a huge wartime effort on the part of the English who faced the possible invasion of their country and the subjugation of Europe at the hand of Hitler’s Germany. The film was totally enlightening and engrossing – so many history and social lessons to be derived from the can-do spirit of the English.

My wife and I recently saw the movie, The Darkest Hour, which portrayed Winston Churchill’s lonely desperation in 1939/1940 as the destiny of England and, indeed, all of Europe became increasingly problematic. Fact is always stranger and more dramatic than fiction, and this fine movie drives home the point. So much hung in the balance, a balance which finally tilted favorably to the Allies on the knife-edge of numerous pivotal decisions and efforts. The Merlin engine and the P-51 Mustang airframe from North American Aviation were two of those very decisive factors which ultimately doomed Hitler – especially as combined together in the final P-51 designs. In 1945, many of Germany’s major cities had been reduced to rubble by Allied bombers based in England which, thanks to the Mustangs and their intrepid pilots, could now reach their targets.

I will close by calling upon a recollection from my earlier post on the iconic P-51 Mustang when the Collings Foundation brought their Wings of Freedom touring air show to nearby Moffett Field. My two young grandsons and I stood close by on the tarmac as their P-51, Betty Jane, prepared to fly.

Firing-Up the Big Merlin-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.

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!

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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.

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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)!

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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.”

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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.

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 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.

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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.

Toyland, Toyland – Little Girl and Boy Land….Wishfully, Forever!

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The $50 gift certificate from Talbot’s Toyland in San Mateo, California had been burning a hole in my “pocket” for several months – reminiscent of my boyhood enthusiasms. A gift from my daughter Ginny’s family, I just redeemed it for a 1/72 scale, Corgi die-cast WWII British Spitfire airplane – and a beautiful little model she is!

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This is the airplane that saved England in WWII by winning the Battle of Britain in the skies overhead. I knew about all of that, but a recent PBS documentary really drove home to me just how heroic and crucial the aerial combat over England at the opening of the war was in deterring Hitler’s Luftwaffe from devastating the country.

A Senior Citizen Lost in a Toy Store?

Yes, a toy store like Talbot’s can still thrill a seventy-four year old guy with its offerings. I have been a customer of Talbot’s in downtown San Mateo since 1955, the year it first opened its doors – in the very same location! I was fifteen years old, living a few miles from the downtown and still building model airplanes, buying plastic kits from Talbot’s and more substantial models from the venerable Hobby Haven several blocks across town. Now, sixty years later, Hobby Haven has long-since disappeared, but the greatly-expanded Talbot’s continues today as THE place in the entire region to shop for electric trains, RC airplanes and cars, educational toys, bikes, and everything else in between.

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Things ARE changing, however. Many old-timers are no longer with us. As we disappear, so does the demand for airplanes that we knew so well from our youth, replaced in the young’s affections by space-age toys and conveyances from the post Star Wars era. I knew this to be true after noticing a relatively slow turnover of the “warbird” stock in the brilliantly illuminated display cases at Talbot’s. The long-term, friendly, and knowledgeable staff at Talbot’s confirmed that business in WWII aircraft has slowed considerably. My little Spitfire model had been on display for at least a few months, it seems, begging for an old-timer to come along, take it home, and lavish it with affection! I decided to be that “hero,” equally because I love the model’s graceful lines, its beautifully crafted detail, and because it is so historically relevant to the great history of WWII.

To Fly and Fight_1I have many personal accounts sitting on my bookshelves from the men who flew such aircraft in the war; their stories project unparalleled drama and adventure in a time and setting which can never be repeated. Unlike today’s trend toward automated drone warfare, these men actually climbed into a cold cockpit on some far away airfield, fired-up their coughing, belching engines, and taxied off  to today’s mission and, often, into oblivion. Clarence E. “Bud” Anderson, one of America’s greatest aces flying the storied P-51 Mustang fighter expressed it succinctly, yet poignantly, in his fine book:

 

“Staying alive was no simple thing in the skies over Europe in the spring of 1944. A lot of men couldn’t. It was a bad thing to dwell on if you were a fighter pilot, and so we told ourselves we were dead men and lived for the moment with no thought of the future at all. It wasn’t too difficult. Lots of us had no future and everyone knew it.”

Today’s allure for youngsters involves Star Wars style spacecraft dripping with laser cannons and chock full of presumed, computer-based systems! That modern allure and fascination seems no match for the real-life drama of the “stick and rudder” men wearing leather helmets who flew their machines in both World Wars – no match, at least, for us old-timers. Those men survived to fly yet another day thanks only to their unconventional courage and skill at maneuvering to get the enemy’s “tail” within the line of fire of their machine guns, all the while insuring that another of the enemy was not closing in on their tail. Skill, daring, and “just plain luck” were each factors in the survival equation. But that was then, and today belongs to the young, though I cannot help but wonder if, in their old-age, today’s youngsters will view their boyhood passions in the same dramatic human light as we do. Perhaps so.

For me, this post is a collage of mixed messages: The wonder still present for all ages and interests, and both sexes (Talbot’s has a great doll department) in a really fine toy store; the fleeting vision over passing time of the receding culture which so influenced our childhood; our changing attitudes and outlooks; and, finally, the joy of still encountering a surviving link to our fondest personal memories and recollections. Talbot’s sixty year tenure and enduring influence in downtown San Mateo represents an uncommon, present-day reminder of who we were and what life was like, many years ago. I will think of all this whenever I gaze at my latest gem from Talbot’s.

Talbot's Storefront