I love you, Betty Jane…

Collin County Regional Airport/McKinney, TX/Local

Logbook: March 15, 2011.  Aircraft: North American P-51 C, N25IMX; Time 36 minutes. Comment: Flight of my dreams! Got to fly in Betty Jane, P-51C. Turns, climbs, Lazy 8s, barrel rolls. Incredible.

How do I best describe my thirty minutes in the rear cockpit of Betty Jane, at age almost-seventy five, and do justice to the experience? I can only hope to do so by first acknowledging the role that airplanes, and flying, played in my life, from my earliest childhood. I simply cannot remember far enough back into my earliest years as a child, to a time when I had no perceivable interest in airplanes.

I played with my little toy Wildcat fighter plane, under a pear tree in the back yard of the house where I was born. We moved from that house when I was about seven, so those memories would likely have been from around age five.

Other than being quarantined in a blacked-out bedroom for a week, hoping to avoid going blind or dying from the measles, playing with that plane is about all I remember from that age. Later, after we had moved a few blocks to a different house, I spent a lot of time at the house of a neighbor kid, making model planes from balsa wood sticks and tissue paper for skin.

After moving to the farm, when I was nine, models of a big Douglas DC-7, the Black Widow P-61 night fighter, and others soon were hanging from the ceiling of our bedroom. Summer afternoons often found me down at the airport, hanging around the hangar or in an old WWII trainer plane stuck out in the weeds (an engineless Fairchild PT-19), engaged in dogfights to the death.

Those feelings never left me, only developing more deeply as they ultimately led to my Private Pilot license, Instrument Rating and Multi-engine rating, with countless flights and trips being logged. My logbooks show I flew thirty one different models of airplanes, over my years, and logged over 1700 flight hours, enjoying each and every plane, every hour.

But…throughout all those years, all those hours in the left seat, in each of those planes, somewhere in my inner being there was always my “Lorelei,” my “Sweet Lenore,” the marvelous, indescribable, unattainable, perfection on wings, the North American P-51 Mustang, the plane of my dreams.

In Oshkosh, Wisconsin, I stood beside them on the grass at Wittman Regional Airport, home of the Experimental Aircraft Association and its annual Airshow, imagining myself in that cockpit, hand grasping that control stick. I’d listen to that marvelous Merlin engine as they roared past in low-pass fly-bys, and…dream. But that’s all it ever was, ever could be, an unachievable dream.

Betty Jane, Collings Foundation P-51C, with added second cockpit

Then one day, I picked up the phone and my son, Clint, asks me, “Dad, are you aware that the Collings Foundation has a C-model P-51 that has been modified to have a second cockpit, behind the pilot, and they let you fly it?” No, I wasn’t aware of any of that. “And did you know they are going to be at the McKinney Airport in a few weeks, and are signing up people now who want to get to go up in it, and fly it?” No, I didn’t know that.

And so, it came to pass. I was to get to spend half an hour in the rear cockpit of a P-51C, hand on the stick, flying my dream.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011, dawned sunny, a bright blue sky, just crisp enough to wear my jean jacket, as Colleen and I headed our little CRV for the McKinney Airport, site of so many of our flying ventures. Clint and family met us there, dutifully recording the event on his video camera. I spent some time visiting with the pilot who was to make my flight possible, then we headed out to Betty Jane, her highly-polished aluminum skin shining in the sunlight.

The North American P-51D, with its iconic bubble canopy

The C-model, also known as the “Razorback,” was the version originally introduced by North American. It did not have the iconic bubble canopy that was introduced on the D-model, the one all the world came to know through the many films of it in combat roles during WWII, and featured in many movies.

But that more traditional cockpit design of the C-model had made it feasible to add a complete second cockpit behind the normal cockpit. Everything in the front cockpit, other than the landing gear actuator handle, was duplicated in the second cockpit. Jason, the assistant to the pilot, helped strap me in, got my headset plugged in, making sure I was ready for the flight.

Second cockpit added to the Collings Foundation P-51C “Razorback,” for a second pilot to be able to fly the plane

I thanked him, gave the pilot up front the requested “thumbs up,” signaling I was ready to go, and moments later that great 1600 HP Merlin, with the 12-foot four-bladed propeller, was smoothly rumbling, anxious to do its thing.

After the long taxi to the end of the runway, and impatiently waiting for the oil temp gauge to get to the green, he pulled out onto the runway, shoved the throttle full up, and my dream began coming true. He had warned me that, even with my David Clark headset on, the noise from that Merlin at full power would be a bit overwhelming. He was right. It was…loud.

But it rapidly accelerated, we were soon off and climbing, landing gear coming up. As soon as we were a safe distance away from the airport traffic area, the pilot’s voice came over the headset: “It’s your airplane. Have fun.”

For all the previous then-seventy four, soon to be seventy five, years of my life, I had at various times attempted to imagine what flying such a high-powered, high performance plane would have felt like. I had read stories of neophyte pilots suddenly rolling themselves upside down, too close to the ground, as they suddenly applied full power to recover from a botched landing approach. The massive instantaneous torque of the engine would roll the plane upside down before the inertia of the huge propellor could respond. A fatal crash was inevitable.

I had read books by former WWII combat pilots of high-G maneuvers, of “twitchy” controls, of inverted flat spins, high-G stalls, hidden tricks a particular plane could pull on a pilot attempting some maneuver the plane didn’t like, ambushing the pilot who didn’t have the “right stuff.”

And so, as I first gripped that stick with my right hand, two conflicting prayers were at the front of my mind: God in heaven, thank you. I actually have my hand on the stick of a P-51, collided with, What on earth does it take to actually fly this thing? Please, God, don’t let me screw this up. The pilot, probably used to such thoughts as each new passenger-pilot first took control, calmly suggested I just try a few steep turns, to get the feel of it.

So, I did that. Push the stick a bit to the right, add a little right rudder, look down the right wing at the ground, all things I’d done countless times. After two or three such turns, perhaps up to about sixty degrees bank, I commented to the pilot, “This thing flies just like my Comanche. I feel like I’ve been flying it all my life.”

Play time, in Betty Jane

And then it was play time. I did wing-overs, coordinated banks to full vertical, Lazy-8s looking straight down the wing at the ground below. I did snap-rolls. Generally speaking, I just had the grandest time I’d ever experienced in a plane. I don’t know how you fall in love with something you’ve loved all your life, but there you have it.

All too soon, knowing I wanted to do some loops or Cuban-eights, the pilot gave me a choice. “We have time to do a loop, or time to do a high-speed low pass over the airport, but not both. Which do you prefer?” Well, my heart cried “do a loop,” but my mind said, “you know Colleen, Clint, and all of them will appreciate seeing the high-speed fly-by.” And so we did that.

Unfortunately, his insurance restricted the fly-by to him being the pilot, but we dropped down low, went to full-up power, and “buzzed the tower.” Of course, we didn’t really do that, restricting ourselves to flying at low altitude down the runway, in front of the crowd. They loved it, and it looks great on the video Clint created of the flight experience.

The greatest reward of that day was, of course, those twenty minutes, or so, of being a for-real P-51 pilot. Nothing else in all my flying experiences could ever surpass that. But next to that, was the comment made by the pilot, as we talked about the flight afterward.

“In your rolls, that ball just hardly moved. Were you watching the ball in your rolls?”

The “ball” is literally a small steel ball in a curved steel tube filled with some viscous liquid. It is mounted in the instrument panel, and shows when the pilot is not properly coordinating his turns. If done incorrectly, the plane slips, or skids, through the air and forces the ball up one side or the other of the curved tube. A good pilot tries to always “center the ball.”

“No, I was looking outside,” I replied.

He laughed, then added, “Well, I thought I would have to tell you to add a little left rudder, a little right rudder, but that ball just hardly moved.”

Back on the ground, my head still in the clouds, after falling in love with Betty Jane

I suppose I’ve been paid greater compliments, in my life, but that one is hard to top. I flew a P-51, did some rolls, and “that ball just hardly moved.”

The pilot was an instructor for P-51s, so signed my logbook as having given me my first (and only) half-hour of instruction in the North American model P-51C. I paid, a few years later, to get my Biannual renewed so I could take grandkids sight-seeing, etc., but soon had to accept that the high costs, and lack of available planes to rent, quickly ruled that out. Flying Betty Jane, that day, was effectively my last logbook entry, in the third of three logbooks I had accumulated over my years of flying.

My very first logbook entry, made more than a half-century earlier, was made by the flight instructor after my first-ever flight lesson, in an old rag-wing, tail-dragger “Air knocker,” an Aeronca model 7A Champ. Doing rolls in a P-51 seemed a pretty good way to wrap up more than four decades of flying.

During a 1973 guest appearance on the Johnny Carson Tonight Show, a video of which I recently watched on YouTube, the Reverend Billy Graham was asked by Johnny about what Heaven must be like. “Johnny, golf was always very important to me,” he replied, “I loved playing it. I once asked Ruth (his wife), if she believed there would be golf in Heaven. Billy, she told me, if golf is important to your happiness, then there will be golf in Heaven.” The audience laughed, and applauded, of course. If that is true, I thought, then somewhere, in some corner of Heaven, there is a P-51 with my name on its side, just waiting for me.

Note: video footage from an in-cockpit camera, which recorded all my flying, was inadvertently erased on shutdown, and lost. To watch Clint’s video, on Vimeo, of the flight click on this link.

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