Where to start...
The entire Stallion 51 experience from beginning to end was one of the most professional and friendly I have ever had. From the initial contact asking about flights and pricing with Kelly, I could tell that they were going to go the extra mile. I had actually heard about Stallion 51 maybe 20 years ago. I did not know you could actually fly in a warbird, and someone told me about this place you could ride in a P51 Mustang. I was so excited because the P51 had been my favorite plane since the 1960's, when my brother and I used to exchange model kits for Christmas. I couldn't fly back then because of my personal life situation, I opened a savings account several years ago and saved enough money each month so I could take a flight on my 55th Birthday. As it ended up, my birthday this year happened to land on a weekend, and orientation flights are monday-friday. But, I digress...
I had a week off of work and contacted Stallion 51 and scheduled a day for the flight. I live in Tampa, about a 1.5-2 hour drive to the airfield. I arrived early on the designated day, a little nervous, a bit excited. I tried not to think about it too much, knowing that they have been flying ops for decades and they haven't lost any planes or passengers. Planes like this you want to keep them in tip-top shape, they are a piece of history and extremely valuable. Anyways, I check in with Kelly in the upstairs office at the hanger. To get there, I walked by the open back door of the hanger and saw three mustangs inside and several more out on the ramp. I was in Mustang Heaven! They were all TF-51 or P51D models. I believe they said there are about 12 TF-51's in the world and at least 3 of them were sitting right there.
After checking in, I met my instructor pilot John Black. John retired from the Air Force after 21 years flying F-15 Fighters. He has his own aerobatic plane, and is a rated instructor on the P51. After some pleasantries, we went down to the briefing room to discuss the basics and review safety. The important thing to understand is that you are not on the spot for remembering everything that was going to happen or remember how to do everything - John was going to review everything while in the air and walk me through everything in real time. So we talked about flight basics and the gyroscopic effects of a spinning propeller on the aircraft. The briefing lasted 30-45 minutes. There wasn't any overwhelming information and he noted that, in doing the briefing, it would increase my ability of doing everything required for the flight from 70% to 95-98%.
My flying experience was limited to 30 minutes flying a small Cessna in the mid 1990's. I am a bit of a science geek and love WWII era planes, so I understand the basic physics of flight - though don't have have any practical experience. So, I am a complete novice with only theories on how planes work. However, I was going to be sitting behind a pilot who has been flying for a couple of decades and knows what to do in the event of an emergency. Understand too, you are not going to be pushing the plane to any extreme limits. For the flight, you put your toes on the bottom of the rudder pedals and a light touch on the stick while the pilot is flying. We would pass control of the plane back and forth using the inboard intercom system.
After the briefing, it was time for any questions. I felt like i knew enough and had confidence in the pilot. He would take off and land the plane as well as getting us to the flight area. So, time to get to the plane.
I was going to be flying Crazy Horse. I have lots of photos of this plane from various air shows, so there was already a bit of bonding. I climbed into the back seat and John strapped on the seat parachute and reviewed the ground bailout procedures and the in-air bailout procedures. I have been skydiving before, so, I know how parachutes work - and this one has a static line that opens it automatically. After that briefing, he strapped me into the plane via a 5 point harness. I put in hearing protection (it is very loud when the powerful Merlin engine is running) and a skullcap and helmet - which has a microphone and speakers for the intercom. They hooked the plane to a vehicle and towed us out to the ramp. John got in the front seat and strapped himself in and started running through the checklist and fired up the engine, explaining everything that he was doing. Everything looked good and we headed out to the runway.
The moment of truth, we get the go to take off. With the bubble canopy I had 350 degrees of clear view, the other 10 degrees was the back of John's head. turn around, and you can see the tail, look straight up, out left and right, no obstructions. The take off was nice and smooth and we started to climb and headed out to the fly zone. on the way (which was only a few minutes), he trimmed it out so it would fly straight and level for our airspeed without having to hold the controls. he held his hands up to show that it was flying itself. I won't go into all of the details because there was lots of discussion. The plan called for general flying - keeping everything level and doing some banking turns. Then we would do wing-overs, aileron rolls, barrel rolls, and loops. BTW, it was a mostly clear day with spotty clouds. I think we had to stay under 10,000 ft because of FAA rules regarding student pilots. I could be wrong though. John asked me if I was ready to take control. I pressed the intercom and responded "Roger". He responded back "The plane is yours". Holy %$^#&! I was really flying a Mustang!!!!
Here are my steps of Mustang Reality...
1. Learning about Mustangs
2. Seeing a Mustang
3. Finding out you can fly in a Mustang
4. Scheduling a flight
5. Getting in a Mustang
6. Flying in a Mustang
7. Flying a Mustang!!!
So, next up, doing banking turns. John walked me through the procedure - my first real lesson. You want to go right, push the stick right - but the nose will drop and you will lose altitude. So while pushing right, you also must slightly pull the stick toward you. The horizon is your reference. so keep the nose on the horizon and you will maintain altitude. I looked out the right side and the wing tip is point about 60 degrees down, toward earth. Looking over the nose, you can see it traversing the horizon - I was turning! Nice and smooth! We were going 180 (or so) knots. The amount of effort was minimal to get the plane to respond. Keep in mind that we were not pushing the speed and trying to track or evade a Messerschmidt, so no crazy snapping of the stick back and forth. I could feel that sort of activity would require some good strength and endurance. We wouldn't be doing anything like that today! We did some cloud flying (going between them, not through them - safety first!).
John walked demonstrated the moves and walked me through each one. I will admit that the aileron roll did a number on my orientation and made me nauseous. Sometimes that happens to me on roller coasters or when I am on a boat on a scuba trip. No big deal.
Before I knew it, my time was up and we headed back to the airport. The landing was very smooth. We taxied back to the hanger and John shut the plane down. He took a photo of me with the plane. Note: you will have helmet hair! We went back to the briefing room and reviewed the flight video and he pointed out various things I did well :). I went back to the office and talked a bit with everyone. They invited me to stay and check-out the planes in the other hangers.
The whole experience was top notch. I was nervous for no reason at all. Once we got up in the air it was obvious that the plane is still a fine tuned machine. Crazy Horse was extremely easy to fly and with the verbal instructions, all of the maneuvers were a piece of cake. Just know if you do something wrong, the pilot has the complete capacity to correct it. I plan on going again - it was that much fun!.It's really difficult to explain what it is like being 8,000 feet up, zooming around between the clouds in one of the most iconic planes in aviation history. You need to experience it for yourself!
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