Charles Kennedy describes the experience of flying in a Mustang with Stallion 51 in Florida.
My father saw an advert for Stallion 51 which led to a conversation about flying in one of the most famous fighters of World War Two — the Mustang. The company is based at Kissimmee Municipal Airport in Florida and a look at the its website, www.stallion51. com, gave a good impression of a professional organisation. An e-mailed questionnaire, to establish our expectations and experience levels, included the ‘magic’ question: “How many gs would you like?” Plus, gave the opportunity to make requests for what we wanted to do during the flights. On the big day we were given a warm welcome at Stallion 51’s impressive hangar and office complex. We then met our pilots and taken into a room for a detailed briefing. My father would be flying with Steve ‘Mad Dog’ Larmore, who has spent a lifetime in general aviation and on the airshow circuit. My pilot, John ‘Homer’ Black, had flown the F-15 Eagle with the US Air Force for 21 years, including time on the type as a senior instructor and display pilot. Above: Charles and his father after their Stallion 51 experience. Charles Kennedy Right: Comprehensive instrumentation in the Mustangs’ rear cockpits enable Stallion 51 to offer a range of products from orientation flights to high-end instruction. Charles Kennedy The one hour briefing included a rundown of the points at which we would be able to take the controls and detailed descriptions of the aerobatic manoeuvres we would perform, flight paths and techniques required. The weather was excellent for flying, with scattered clouds around 8,000ft (2,438m). The emergency briefing was a more sombre affair – the instructions, should we need to abandon the aircraft, would be either “egress, egress, egress!” over the intercom or the pilot pulling an imaginary ejection handle over his head. Wide-eyed, I listened carefully as it was explained that I should duck when the canopy was jettisoned then climb forwards over my instrument panel and dive sideways, “reaching for the outboard aileron”. I asked if I would hit the tailplane, but Homer insisted that “gravity is a harsh mistress” and I would go under it. After pulling the ripcord with both hands (in case one was injured), the parachute would give a rate of descent equivalent to jumping off a 10ft (3m) high roof and so I was told I should not try to stand up when landing. I was reassured that such a detailed description of emergency procedures demonstrated how serious Stallion 51 is about the safety of its clients. Although Stallion 51’s website states that orientation customers will fly the Mustangs, given our limited experience I was surprised to learn just how much flying my father and I would be allowed to undertake. At the time I only had three hours instruction in light aircraft and my father had undergone a gliding course in the 1970s. I didn’t realise the flying would include most of the formation segment, stalls and recoveries, virtually all the aerobatics, the circuit and the approach to land. That we were able to accomplish all this with such little prior piloting experience shows what an impressively balanced and intuitive machine the Mustang is and demonstrates the exceptional instructing skills of Stallion 51’s pilots.
Outside the Stallion 51 facility we strapped on the parachutes and then climbed carefully into the rear cockpits of our Mustangs, which looked factory-fresh in the afternoon sunlight. The insertion of earplugs and donning of helmets followed the detailed evacuation briefing. The groundcrew then strapped me in tightly with the five-point harness and, although very little movement was possible, it was snug rather than claustrophobic. Homer ran the pre-start checklist and closed the canopy most of the way. The Packard engine burst into life and he called for clearance to taxi. On the way out he performed a brake check and worked through the pre-flight checklist. Before entering the runway both Mustangs wheeled into the wind and stopped for an engine run-up. The throttle was pushed up to 2,300rpm and magnetos, temperatures and manifold pressure were checked, coolant doors opened and mixture set to ‘auto rich’. Homer turned off our transponder as the other Mustang was designated to ‘squawk’ on radar for the take off and formation segment of our sortie. We turned to enter Runway 15 and took our place to the right, leaving space for the Mustang carrying my father. Power was set and brakes released, beginning an exhilarating acceleration. Our tail wheel lifted off the ground and we were airborne. The main gear thumped into its wells in the wings and the contrast between our dynamic flight progress and the movement of my father’s Mustang, apparently floating stationary in the air ahead of us, was disorienting in the nicest way. We closed in on the other aircraft and then flew together at 5,000ft (1,524m) over the Florida landscape, just 20ft (6m) apart. If a Mustang is a beautiful sight on the ground, then to see one in its natural environment was dream-like, almost beyond belief. With Homer flying the aircraft he asked me to follow through on the stick (have my hand on the control so I get get a feel for the movements I would soon have to do myself) as we swooped underneath the leader, popping up on the other side to enjoy the same view but reversed.
YOU HAVE CONTROL
Then came the momentous words “you have control” and my first stick time in a Mustang. I maintained close formation with my father’s aircraft while Homer provided continuous instruction. The stick input required to initiate a climb was expressed in weight, so as we began a formation turn I was told to squeeze ‘a gram or two’ of back pressure, plus a little extra power to keep wing tip to wing tip. I demonstrated an unhelpful tendency to bank towards the other aircraft, but Homer was patient with his rookie at the controls. “The only person who’s going to keep us level with him is you,” he reminded me. The controls felt heavy, but the tiniest movement shifted the aircraft in the sky providing an extraordinary degree of control. Then Homer took control again and the other Mustang whipped past over my head and we were off on our own. Transponder on, we set up for cruise with manifold pressure 37in, 2,300rpm and mix set to ‘auto lean’. I looked at the altimeter and was amazed to see that we’d reached 9,500ft (2,796m). To help with orientation Homer suggested I pay attention to the grid pattern of roads and property below us – and then I began the turning exercises. Very little rudder input was needed for a balanced turn and just ‘two grams’ of back pressure prevented loss of altitude. I was coaxed into a steeper bank angle (‘don’t be shy’) and reminded how important accurate pitch was to maintaining altitude. “At 225kts [417km/h] one degree of pitch will make a big difference to our altitude,” explained Homer. He pointed out that I should refer to the altimeter, but use external references for vertical guidance. At 60° of bank we were pulling 2g and I used the point where the canted horizon crossed Homer’s helmet ahead of me to nail the pitch. Homer demonstrated how flaps caused a more pronounced nose-down attitude – even with an otherwise clean wing the sensation was of flying nose down when we were actually level – followed by a demonstration of gyroscopic precession, a phenomenon whereby force can occur at right angles to the intended direction of torque due to the spinning prop. Homer applied two-thirds right rudder and, sure enough, instead of the aircraft yawing the nose dropped. I’ll leave it to the reader to discover the complex science of why this happens; at the time, my head was still spinning from the sheer magnificence of this eminently capable flying machine. Next in our packed sortie was a series of stalls – I held the stick progressively further aft and brought the power back. I used right rudder to counter the left yaw as the prop wash against the tailplane diminished. The aircraft demonstrated pre-stall buffet as the airflow over the aft portion of the wing began to separate. Finally, we stalled and dropped down to the left. Flying at the edge of my ability, I levelled the wings and kept the nose down to recover speed as the engine bellowed at a high power setting, before raising the nose to recover the lost altitude. We took a break to perform a clearing turn – 90° to the left and 90° to the right to check for other traffic – and change fuel tanks.
Then it was time for aerobatics, beginning with wingovers. After descending to increase speed, on Homer’s instructions I pulled into a steep climb at 255kts (473km/h). With a small aileron input to the left to get the aircraft rolling over I held enough back pressure to ensure that we never felt like we were floating, which would have been a sign that we’d departed from the correct trajectory for the manoeuvre. After a series of aileron rolls without elevator input, allowing the nose to fall while we were inverted, we moved on to loops. Admittedly the power settings required changing around the loop and Homer handled these for me, but the control inputs are surprisingly simple. Pull up, keep pulling up. I remembered that we had been briefed to look sideways as the ground ahead vanished beneath the nose – to pin the wingtip against the horizon and maintain wings-level as the aircraft went vertical and beyond. As we continued up and over the ground reappeared from above until we were flying directly towards the ground, but with crushing g (up to 5), the nose kept rising. Homer’s voice penetrated my swimming senses: “You’ve got enough airspeed to go straight into another one. Are you OK to do it?” Speaking clearly under that kind of g load was difficult, but I summoned all my energy to squeeze the push-to-talk button and replied in the affirmative. Homer’s instruction was a simple formula. “Pull, pull, pull, keep pulling, pull, pull, pull.” And over we went again, the Right: Stallion 51 takes the quality and safety of its operation extremely seriously. It has worked with the US Naval Test Pilot School for 20 years and offers comprehensive ground school packages as well as flight training. Stallion 51 world revolving beneath us. After five loops, Homer talked me through another wingover, then a barrel roll, and then it was time to return to Kissimmee. My heart was breaking at the thought of saying goodbye to this extraordinary machine. We joined the other TF-51 for a close formation flight back to the field, followed by a final fling as Homer handed control back to me for a steep right turn over the runway, swinging us round to line up for landing. As I held us in the turn and concentrated carefully on our height, Homer dropped the landing gear and flaps to 10°. I started descending, as the runway swung into view off to our right, and Homer managed the power settings for me to bleed off speed. Just as I began rolling out to line up with Runway 15, Homer announced he had control and we swooped low over the threshold and landed gently back on the ground. We stayed left so that Mad Dog had the whole of the right half of the runway on which to roll past us. With our canopy open, a rush of balmy afternoon air filled the cockpit as we motored along Taxiway Alpha and across Runway 24C. But the lesson wasn’t over yet – Homer handed me control to try the side-to-side taxiing technique required by tail draggers to ensure forward visibility. Drained by the flight, I veered towards the grass a few times as I struggled to coordinate my inputs on the rudder pedals, which control ground steering. We parked back on the Stallion 51 ramp an hour and one minute after leaving. Unstrapping from the Mustang was like peeling layers off an onion – unplug the helmet cord with helmet still on, release the five-point straps then the parachute harness, take off the helmet and finally climb out on unsteady legs to the solid tarmac of Kissimmee. Flying in such a high-performance aircraft resets one’s perception of what human achievement in powered flight has accomplished, and what it is possible to do in one’s own lifetime. The Stallion 51 Mustang experience is expensive fun, but as a one- off it’s difficult to imagine a more exhilarating flying experience.