Old Aviators and Old Airplanes…

This is a good little story about a vivid memory of a P-51 and its pilot, by a fellow who was 12 years old in Canada in 1967. 

The Mustang was sitting on the ramp,  they said it had flown in during the night from some U.S. Airport because the pilot had been tired.

I marveled at the size of the plane, dwarfing the Pipers and Canucks tied down by her. It was much larger than in the movies. She glistened in the sun like a bulwark of security from days gone by.

The pilot arrived by cab, paid the driver, and then stepped into the pilot’s lounge. He was an older man, his wavy hair was gray and tossed. It looked liked it might have been combed, say, around the turn of the century.  His flight jacket was checked, creased and worn- it smelled old and genuine. Old Glory was prominently sewn to it’s shoulder.  He projected a quiet air of proficiency and pride devoid of arrogance.  He filed a quick flight plan to Montreal (Expo-67 Air Show) then waled across the tarmac.

After taking several minutes to perform his walk-around check, the pilot returned to the flight lounge to ask if anyone would be available to stand by with fire extinguishers while he “flashed the old bird up, just to be safe.”  Thought only 12 at the time, I was allowed to stand by with an extinguisher after brief instruction on its use- “If you see a fire, point, then pull this lever.  I later became a firefighter, but that’s another story.

The air around the exhaust manifolds shimmered like a mirror from fuel fumes as the huge prop started to rotate.  One manifold, then another, and yet another barked- I stepped back with the others.  In moments the Packard-built Merlin engine came to life with a thunderous roar, blue flames knifed from her manifolds.  I looked at the others’ faces, there was no concern.  I lowered the bell of my extinguisher.  One of the guys signaled to walk back to the lounge.  We did.

Several minutes later we could hear the pilot doing his pre flight run-up.  He’d taxied to the end of runway 10 out of sight.  All went quiet for several seconds; we raced from the lounge to the second story deck to see if we could catch a glimpse of the P-51 as she started down the runway.  We could not.  There we stood, evels fixed to a spot half way down 19.  Then a roar ripped across the field, much louder than before, like a furious hell spawn set loose- something mighty this way was coming.  “Listen to that thing!” said the controller.

In seconds the Mustang burst into our line of sight.  Its tail was already off and it was moving faster than anything I’d ever seen by that point on 19.  Two-thirds the way down 19 the Mustang was airborne with her gear going up.  The prop tips were supersonic; we clasped our ears as the Mustang climbed hellish fast into the circuit to be eaten up by the dog-day haze.  

We stood for a few moments in stunned silence trying to digest what we’d just seen.  The radio controller rushed by me to the radio.  “Kingston tower calling Mustang?” He looked back to us as he waited for an acknowledgement.

The radio crackled, “Go ahead Kingston.”

“Roger Mustang, Kingston tower would like to advise the circuit is clear for a low level pass.”  I stood in shock because the controller had, more or less, just asked the pilot to return for an impromptu air show!  The controller looked at us, “What?” He asked. “I can’t let that guy go without asking, I couldn’t forgive myself.”

The radio crackled once again, “Kingston, do I have permission for a low level east to west across the field?” “Roger Mustang, the circuit is clear for an east to west pass.”

“Roger Kingston, I’m coming out of 3000 feet, stand by.”

We rushed back onto the second-story deck, eyes fixed toward the eastern haze.  The sound was subtle at first, a high-pitched whine, a muffled screech, a distant scream.

Moments later the P-51 burst through the haze.  Her airframe straining against positive Gs and gravity, wing tips spilling contrails of condensed air, prop-tips again supersonic as the burnished bird blasted across the eastern margin of the field shredding and tearing the air.

At about 500mph and 150 yards from where we stood she passed with the old American pilot saluting. Imagine. A salute!  I felt like laughing, I felt like crying, she glistened, she screamed, the building shook, my heart pounded.

Then the old pilot pulled her up and rolled, and rolled, and rolled out of sight into the broken clouds and indelibly into my memory.  I’ve never wanted to be an American more than on that day.  It was a time when many nations in the world looked to America as their big brother, a steady and even-handed beacon of security who navigated the difficult political water with grace and style; not unlike the pilot who’d just flown into my memory. He was proud, not arrogant, humble, not a braggart, old and honest, projecting an aura of America at it’s best.  That America will return one day, I know it will.  Until that time, I’ll just send off this story; call it a reciprocal salute to the old American pilot who wove a memory for a young Canadian that’s lasted a lifetime. 

For those who’ve never heard a P-51 Mustang in full ‘song’, you don’t know what you’re missing… 

Jets are loud, but jets are for kids. 

The old Mustangs and their brothers are the TRUE sound of Freedom!

h/t JP


Old Aviators and Old Airplanes… — 32 Comments

  1. The sweet symphony of Merlins and Wasp Radials is a sound i dearly miss in todays sky …

    Dang, must have something in my eye …

  2. I had a chance to see a P-51 take off followed by a B-24 J. An extraordinary day all the way around and something I won’t forget.

  3. Great read!

    Possibly a stupid question as I am ignorant about aviation matters, but is it true that a P51 will out perform jets under a certain altitude?

  4. We have an Airshow up here every summer, and we get lots of the old Warbirds. And since I live about 1 1/2 miles from the Runway, I get those wonderful engine noises all weekend long.

    One of my most favorite times of the Year.

  5. I’m not a big movie fan; mostly because my interests rarely align with what’s presented by Hollywood, but snippets of movies appear in my mind every once in awhile.
    Your post brought back the moment the P-51 destroyed the tank at the end of “Saving Private Ryan”. Even if it was only a tiny part of the entire movie, I was awestruck and impressed.

    Thanks for the post.

  6. A beautiful story.

    “That America will return one day, I know it will.”

    That line broke my heart.

  7. The story brought a lump to my throat and tears to my eyes…Nothing quite like that Merlin sound.
    The Americans he talks of are still here and we’re tired of the nonsense emanating from Washington – of both flavors; we’re getting ready to make our voices heard…

  8. This made me cry, both for what it represents & what we’ve lost. Please God, let it be once again.

  9. Many years ago I was flying commercial into Buffalo NY. I was dozing, but woke up as the plane began its descent. I glanced out the window and saw 4 P-51s flying in formation. Still half-asleep, my first thought was that I was in some weird Twilight Zone episode.

    A minute or so later the pilot came on the intercom and pointed them out to the rest of the passengers. They were on their way to an air show in Toronto.

    I still get chills remembering the sun glinting off those old warbirds.

  10. Johnny- Yep

    MC- You are luckier than most!

    Robert- It’s all about getting to altitude, and yes a P-51 will beat a jet to 10,000 feet, but after that, it’s all over.

    Les- Envious 🙂

    Jess- True, that IS a classic scene!

    MSGT- One hopes, one hopes!

    Differ- I hope we can.

    WSF- You’re welcome

    Andy- Good one!

    BP- Nah, just one little post…

    Danny- Good 🙂

    N1- Gopher it 🙂

    Rev- Concur

    Tim- They are special, no question!

  11. Wonderful read! Though I am not a pilot, I can’t help but watch any airplane; but those old warbirds are truly awe-inspiring.

  12. My husband has three rivals for his affection: The A-10 Warthog, the P-51D, and my own airplane. I’d never leave him for any of them… but… When I hear the scream of a Mustang coming, he knows I’m long lost, already riveted to the sound and aching to see her as she roars by.

  13. Yep, I was out at the Chino “Planes of Fame” airshow one year, and a B-17 escorted by SIX P-51’s came by.
    What MUSIC!
    Wasn’t a dry eye in the crowd……

  14. aca- True

    Brigid- Amen

    DB- Whatever works 🙂

    Wing- Those are three good ones!

    Earl- Feel free!

    drjim- True!

  15. Thank-You for sharing this story.
    Thank-You for your service.
    I have had the honor to see and hear some of the old war birds.A sound I will never forget.

  16. About 20 years ago, a company started traveling air races across the country. One race was to be held at Olathe, KS at the former Olathe Naval Air Station. The promoter came around to the local airports looking for volunteers to help during the race. I was one and was paired with a couple of others as a Pylon Judge.

    I don’t remember how many aircraft were in the race. One was flown by Bob Hoover. Most of the aircraft were P-51s. Others were F8F Bearcats and two former Royal Navy Hawker Typhoons. The race lasted most of the afternoon and we volunteers were almost deafened before the race was over. Before the race, a P-38 and a F-80 did aerobatics over the field. I don’t think there was a single plane there that wasn’t at least 50 years old.

    It was a great afternoon. I still have a race poster somewhere around my office.

  17. Excellent post!

    Never had the pleasure of witnessing the P-51, but that will have to change when my kids are old enough to go to an air show.

  18. When I was little my dad would regularly take me to air shows. I had the pleasure of hearing a the sound of a Merlin behind a P-51 and the Radials that ran a B-25.

    I remember them distinctly and unlike the sound of a jet the sound itself shows soul.

    Though I do have another story about a high speed pass, but that is for another time.

  19. Kerry- true 🙂

    Fuzzy- You’re welcome

    Crucis- Good! and a good post too! 🙂

    CT- You NEED to do that!

    Minuteman- Yep

    Murph- You know it!

  20. Sitting at a stoplight in Rockford, IL about 1972 and I heard that unmistakeable sound from overhead. The other drivers must’ve thought I was nuts, climbing half out the driver’s window to get a look. What a plane!