July 1, 1999
By Alton K. Marsh
Fifty-five years ago the North American P-51 Mustang defended freedom. What's it defending now? Itself. Against extinction. Out of 15,686 built, 283 remain in one form or another. Only 149 still fly. m Thanks to hundreds of dedicated warbird owners, pilots, and the living legends who flew the famous fighter into our history books, the Mustang is winning once again. That was the impression on the ramp at Kissimmee, Florida, in April where more than 60 of the mighty 12-cylinder monsters amassed.
Lee Lauderback — owner of the Stallion 51 company which organized the event — called it the "Gathering of Mustangs and Legends." Stallion 51 offers Mustang restoration, introductory flights, and training in a TF-51 (see " Crazy Horse," August 1996 Pilot). With the legendary aircraft came a dozen P-51 pilots who either carried the fight to the enemy or the fire to the moon — from World War II aces to Apollo VIII astronauts Bill Anders and Frank Borman. Both astronauts own and fly Mustangs.
How do you get to be a legendary fighter pilot? Word on the ramp was that in addition to stick-and-rudder skills, it takes the eyesight of a hawk and a world-class crew chief. The legends also paid tribute to the airplane designed and built in 117 days by Raymond Rice and Edgar Schmued at North American Aviation: The pilots who flew the Mustang in harm's way still love it — this fighter with a Merlin engine so reliable you had to shoot it to stop it.
Yet, the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine, also built in this country under license by Packard Motor Company, was complicated. Mike Evans of the Rolls-Royce Heritage Trust recalled in his clipped British accent that the early Merlin models had at least 11,000 parts (counting nuts, bolts, and washers) but added it "could be higher." World War II triple ace C. E. "Bud" Anderson says in his book, To Fly and Fight: Memoirs of a Triple Ace, that the parts number on the later engines is 14,000, based on the data he collected from World War II — so extensive it fills his garage.
The pilots flew the aircraft as if there were no tomorrow because there wasn't. They were in Europe to win, and if they could not win, then they'd die trying, because they felt that it was their duty. They still feel that way.
Despite the heat and a frenetic schedule at Kissimmee, 82-year-old triple ace Ken Dahlberg stood in the strength-sapping sun on the hard concrete ramp near Old Crow, a P-51 painted in the colors of Anderson's World War II fighter, and marveled at Rice and Schmued's work. "It is a match of form and function," the now-CitationJet pilot said.
On Dec. 19, 1944, Dahlberg — in a P-51 he named Beantown Banshee — led eight Mustangs in an attack against 90 enemy fighters, personally shooting down four. He got the Distinguished Service Cross for that one, according to "Experience Freedom," the official program for the Gathering of Mustangs and Legends. (There are a few copies still available from Stallion 51.) After the war he formed a successful hearing aid company called Dahlberg Incorporated, manufacturer of Miracle-Ear systems.
Anderson is a close friend of P-51 double-ace Gen. Chuck Yeager, but was never his wingman (Hollywood movies, books, and even a historic plaque at Anderson's old base in England got it wrong). His book, out of print for nearly a decade, is scheduled to be republished in July by Pacifica Press. Historian of the U.S. Air Force Dick Hallion said of the book, "It is, I think, the finest pilot memoir of WW II. I have made it mandatory reading for all my historians." In this excerpt from To Fly and Fight, you get a sense of how the pilots felt about their Mustangs. The battle was on May 27, 1944, and the German plane chasing Anderson is carrying a ground-strafing cannon in its spinner big enough to explode the Mustang with a single shell:
"I am extremely busy up here, hanging by my propeller, going almost straight up, full emergency power, which a Mustang could do for only so long before losing speed, shuddering, stalling, and falling back down; and I am thinking that if the Mustang stalls before the Messerschmitt stalls, I have had it.
"I look back, and I can see that he's shuddering, on the verge of a stall. He hasn't been able to get his nose up enough, hasn't been able to bring that big gun to bear. Almost, but not quite. His nose begins dropping just as my airplane, too, begins shuddering. He stalls a second or two before I stall, drops away before I do.
"Good old Mustang."
The Messerschmitt soon climbs again, but this time, it is Anderson in pursuit.
"I bring my nose up, he comes into my sights, and from less than 300 yards I trigger a long, merciless burst from my Brownings. Every fifth bullet or so is a tracer, leaving a thin trail of smoke, marking the path of the bullet stream. The tracers race upward and find him. The bullets chew at the wing root, the cockpit, the engine, making bright little flashes. I hose the Messerschmitt down the way you'd hose down a campfire, methodically, from one end to the other, not wanting to make a mistake here."
Now imagine yourself flying for your life while constantly twiddling all three trim wheels — rudder, aileron, and elevator. P-51 pilots had to, according to Anderson, who got two victories that day. In all, he was decorated 25 times without ever taking a bullet from an enemy plane.
That wasn't true for most of the aces. Some of the legends honored in Kissimmee, such as Dahlberg, Yeager, the late Bruce Carr, R.A. "Bob" Hoover, and C.A. "Bill" Pattillo, were shot down. (Hoover was flying a Spitfire at the time.) Many of them were imprisoned, like Dahlberg and Hoover, or escaped without getting captured, like Yeager. Or they stole enemy airplanes and escaped in them, like Carr and Hoover. (Hoover's exploits are recounted in his book Forever Flying, published two years ago by Pocket Books.) Some of the pilots, like Robin Olds, had their aircraft heavily damaged by enemy fire several times.
Olds, who would later become the only pilot with aerial victories in both World War II and Vietnam, is the son of Army Air Corps Maj. Gen. Robert Olds, a World War I combat pilot and aide to Gen. Billy Mitchell.
He is considered a pioneer of today's modern Air Force for proposing ideas that led to modern precision bombing tactics. Complaints he made at the highest levels during the Vietnam era about the use of out-of-date and deteriorating bombs left over from World War II helped usher in the era of the smart bomb, although Olds insists his role was limited to complaining.
Olds' fighters were all named Scat, after a West Point roommate with eyes so poor that they kept him from his dream of becoming a fighter pilot. The friend served on the ground instead and was killed in the Battle of the Bulge. The restored Scat VII now flying just happens to be a P-51 Olds used in World War II. He had 13 victories — a double ace — in the air with many more enemy airplanes destroyed on the ground.
Speaking of double, twin brothers Bill and Buck Pattillo were double trouble for any enemy throughout their careers. Both enlisted in the Army Air Corps in November 1942 and earned commissions and pilot wings in March 1944, according to "Experience Freedom." Both then fought in the 352nd Fighter Group, Eighth Air Force, where both earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with two oak leaf clusters. There was one important difference in their service records: Bill was shot down and captured by the Germans. After the war, both left the service and entered the Georgia School of Technology, but were recalled to the service in 1948 and assigned to the same base in Georgia before moving to the same base in Germany. Both were later assigned to Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, where they helped to organize the Air Force Thunderbirds demonstration team; Bill flew right wing on that first team and Buck flew left. Both later commanded fighter wings in Vietnam, and both became generals. (They have different wives.)
Lee Archer, an ace and one of the Tuskegee Airmen, will tell you on first meeting to please call him a "black" pilot. "There are kids in the cities that need to know it was a black pilot who did these things," Archer said. So here are the outstanding accomplishments of a black pilot: Archer had three victories in one engagement on October 12, 1944; during his service he won the Distinguished Flying Cross with an amazing 18 oak leaf clusters. Since retiring from the Air Force Archer has become a successful businessman, heading Archer Associates, a venture-capital holding firm, and serves on the boards of several major corporations.
His postwar success was not unusual among the legends in Kissimmee. For example, triple-ace Pete Peterson became an architect in civilian life and ended up conducting master planning for Air Force bases throughout Europe.
Also honored in Kissimmee was double-ace Robert Goebel, who earned a degree in physics after leaving the service and later returned to duty, where he contributed to various atomic energy and space programs. Goebel published his memoirs in a book titled Mustang Ace: Memoirs of a P-51 Fighter Pilot, published by Pacifica Press in 1991 and reprinted in 1998.
Almost unnoticed at Kissimmee, moving among the P-51s in a wheelchair, was a true P-51 legend of another kind, although his name did not appear on the program. He is David Lindsay, who restored and sold Mustangs from his Cavalier Company in Sarasota, Florida. Thanks to him, the P-51 lives on today not only in the United States but also in nations around the world that bought them for military use. In fact, it was Lindsay who sold the North American company a P-51 for use in airshow demonstrations by Bob Hoover.
As his friends moved his wheelchair among the beautifully restored aircraft, he must have felt what Dahlberg did as he looked at a P-51 painted as Glamorous Glen III, after Yeager's aircraft; Dahlberg said he felt a sense of satisfaction. Today's owners of P-51s — who keep them restored, pay the bills, and selflessly share them with the public — should feel that same satisfaction for a job well done. Maybe they should be called legends, too.
To Fly and Fight is scheduled to be republished in July by Pacifica Press, 1149 Grand Teton Drive, Pacifica, California 94044; telephone 800/453-3152; or visit the Web site ( www.pacificapress.com). The price is $29.95. To see stills and online video of the April "Gathering of Mustangs and Legends," see ( www.mustangops.com). Telephone Stallion 51 at 407/846-4400. For further information on Mustangs, see ( www.mustangsmustangs.com). Links to additional information on Mustangs can be found on AOPA Online ( www.aopa.org/pilot/links/links9907.shtml). E-mail the author at email@example.com.
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