Time Machine

October 23, 2017

There is a time machine. I’ve seen it, touched it, even been in it. On Monday of last week, its polished metal sides and clear Perspex glistened in the early morning Florida sun. It sat silently, waiting for the operators to bring it to life, unleashing it to do what it does best – taking believers back to the machine’s origins in 1940 and the skies over a war torn Europe. It has numbers associated with it but one of the most amazing is 102. It took 102 days to design and produce the first prototype using pencils and slide rules. While the yearling’s lack of power masked its true capabilities, the thoroughbred quickly matured into the elegant, swift, and agile version known simply as “Mustang”.

 

On this day, I was going to get the opportunity to ride the thoroughbred. While riding along has its own special magic, there was an extra set of reins and stirrups on this one. Control would be handed to me. The grin started on the way to the airport.

 

The first impression is size and elegance. Her sleek lines drip speed and grace. The 11’ 3” diameter, four bladed propeller looks far too big when she sits, waiting, on the ground. The landing gear appears a bit spindly and the nose rears upward to ensure the prop tips don’t tear up anything attached to the ground. The ground is not her element. It’s not where she belongs or wants to be. She looks to the air for that is where she belongs.

 

Settling into the rear cockpit requires a small bit of gymnastics, however, my middle age 5’ 8” frame fits comfortably but snugly. The working area is more narrow than the rear cockpit of the T-6A Texan II but similar in length. The stick is taller and the throttle sits high on the left side. With all parachute, seatbelt, and comm connections checked, we proceed to bring the beast to life. Steve reads through the checklist, explaining the various steps and pointing out unique Mustang features to me. I’m a sponge, soaking it all in. We double check the gear indicators and warning horns, verify gauge settings, and he signals the ground crewman for the start. The airframe jolts noticeably as the starter engages. It takes a lot of torque to start swinging 450 pounds of propeller but the Rolls Royce Merlin pops to life in less than one complete revolution. A little grey smoke blasts from the short exhaust stacks and the engine settles into a smooth, powerful rumble. You can feel the vibrations coursing through the airframe as the various pressure and temperature needles start to come alive. We have awakened the beast. My cheeks are hurting now from the grin. It’s time to ride.

 

Taxiing is a lesson in anticipation, patience, and planning. With only 6 degrees of tailwheel steering, she is not a quarter horse and there will be no turns around barrels on the ground. Turns have to be planned and led well in advance. S-turns are necessary to see over the long nose that obstructs everything in front. Temperatures are rising nicely into their happy places. Run-up is fairly straight forward and all systems look green. She’s ready to run and we’re at the gate.

 

Cleared for takeoff, we roll onto Kissimmee’s runway 15 and Steve has me follow him through the initial takeoff. Stick back to lock the tailwheel, he smoothly advances the power to a medium setting. You have to accelerate a bit before letting her run or she’ll carry you off the runway and be galloping across the infield. As the tail comes up, we smoothly advance the power to takeoff and the acceleration is reminiscent of the Texan II. The controls begin to feel solid and responsive. She lifts on her gear struts and very soon the thump, thump, thump of concrete expansion lines fades. “Gear coming up!” is followed by a few whines and thumps, then it’s just the roar of 1500 horses and the slipstream rapidly increasing towards 180 knots. Steve says, “Ok, you have the controls!”, and, just like that, I’m flying a Mustang!

 

Pulling the power back to cruise climb, we ease our way out towards the Avon range and open airspace to the southwest. All the trims are manual so I spend a few minutes getting used to the control feel as airspeed changes and figuring out how much trim does what. We dodge clouds as we climb through a scattered layer of late morning puffy cumulus. The warm humid air starts to cool and dry as we pass 5000 feet and continue skywards. The controls are heavier but more solid than the T-6, T-37, and T-38s. It’s all mechanical and I like it. She trims out and wants to run in level flight once we reach 9500 feet. The canopy provides an almost unbroken overhead and side view and I’m amazed at how short the wings look from the cockpit. The Air Corps roundels out there sure do look good. After a thorough systems check and clearing turn to search for traffic conflicts we do a quick series of slow flight and stalls to explore the low speed flight regime. The stick tickle starts around 90 knots and the elephants are partying on the wings at around 80. The breaks are docile and standard recovery responses are immediately effective. I can feel myself relaxing and starting to enjoy rather than evaluate everything. This is a fun airplane…with a huge prop. Now it’s time for the really fun stuff!

 

I set 32” of manifold pressure with throttle, line up on a southbound road, and lower the nose slightly to hit 220 knots. Reaching 220, execute a 2-G pull to approximately 20 degrees nose high, release the back stick pressure, move the stick full right and watch the world describe a nearly perfectly symmetrical circle around the airplane. I’m going to need a surgeon to remove this smile. Aileron rolls to the left and barrel rolls are equally easy! Look, pull, bank, blend! She seems almost as giddy as me.

 

Next, we move into vertical maneuvers. Set the power, point the nose slightly down, hit 260 knots and smoothly execute a 4-G pull to the vertical. I let off the pull too much at the top and we get a little slow which allows the gyroscopic precession of that huge prop to pull me about 20 degrees off my road reference. I’ll fix that on the next one! Rudder is required to keep rolls on point and loops on line but not as much as my Decathlon . Cuban eights are followed by an Immelman. The Mustang, like its namesake, is a wonderful blend of power, speed, agility, and strength.  

Finally, we end on a cloverleaf with a twist. The first two leaves are standard, just like we taught them in the Air Force. Steve talks me through a couple of twists on the third and fourth. The third delays the blended roll until the inverted position, at which point the quarter roll towards the 90 degree reference is executed. On the fourth, we wait until reaching the vertical downline on the back half of the loop and then hold it just long enough to execute the quarter roll. I don’t want to go home but this time machine is temporary.

 

On the way back, we let her run downhill. She wasn’t even breathing hard at 300 knots. A large sweeping barrel roll enabled us to find some traffic below us at 9000 feet we couldn’t see earlier and a final victory roll over a cloud preceded the descent into the traffic area. Like a jet, going down and slowing down simultaneously is an unlikely proposition. She is just too slick. So, you go down at the speed limit, level off and let the speed bleed. This technique also negates having to pull off too much power which is not good for the Merlin. The ability to throw in 10 degrees of flaps at 250 knots doesn’t hurt!  

 

Approaching Kissimmee, we slow to 180 and line up for an overhead approach to runway 33. Steve talks me through the numbers and gets clearance from tower for a mid-field break. At mid-field, I roll to about 60 degrees of bank, pull the nose across the horizon and alternate my scan between runway, traffic pattern ahead, and airspeed. Rolling out on downwind we’re at 140 and, after a quick “Gear clear!” call, we get a reassuring thump and 3 green lights, indicating the landing gear is down and secure. It’s time to land.

 

Holding 120 knots, I roll off the perch in a constant bank turn back towards the approach end numbers. The nose down angle is very apparent from the back seat. Halfway through the turn, I adjust power to hold the glide angle and pitch for 110 knots, just like the T-37 and T-6. Some power is held to the threshold because she drops like a hot potato if you pull too much power and, once you level off and flare, the runway disappears. Surprisingly, depth perception is fairly good from the back seat and I can adjust the back stick pressure to hold a slight descent until a light thump is felt and the chirp of tires on concrete comes through the idling engine noise. Holding the stick and steering with feet now, the tail smoothly settles onto the runway and she rolls out with only small but quick rudder inputs needed. Even the 5 knot tail wind isn’t causing too much rudder dancing. Steve coaches me through the taxi back to parking and laughs at my “wow!” exclamations as the ground handling peculiarities really settle in.

 

Silence. The Merlin has ceased its rumble. There is no wind. In the moment between “switches off” and unstrapping, I sit with my thoughts. I’m lost between the engineering marvel and valor of the young men who took this beautiful machine and used it as an instrument of war. In my mind, I can feel the shudder of the .50 cals, hear the chatter, smell the cordite. It truly is the worst of times that inspire the best in mankind. I’ve been enamored with this airplane since childhood. Able to escort bombers into the heart of Germany, providing protection during the daylight bombing campaigns, it saved tens of thousands while turning the air war tide in Europe. I built models, flew line controlled P-51s, parked Air Force Hueys next to them at airshows and have always wanted to fly one. The Mustang did not disappoint and this bucket list experience is staying on the list for future repetition. I also still need a good surgeon to remove the grin!

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