The Collings Foundation made a stop at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport (BJC), between Denver and Boulder, Colorado. The B-17 and B-24 bombers were familiar to me, but they now have a new addition to their road show. The TP-51C, a two-seat, dual-control modification of the P-51B Mustang. Flashback to 17 Feb 1974: My dad and I attended an air show at Merritt Island Airport, Florida. There were several warbirds flying or on display, but the one that stuck in my mind was a P-51 with a second seat for a passenger. I thought about how cool it would be for a non-pilot to be able to go up and experience flight in the legendary Mustang. Fast forward 35 years to 2009: So when I learned the Collings' TP-51C was giving rides in my neighborhood, it was a no-brainer. I immediately made a reservation for my flight, even though the thirty minutes was going to cost me more than two months rent!
Painted as "Betty Jane," this TP-51C (said to be the only flyable dual-control P-51 in the world) was built by North American in Dallas, Texas. During a recent major restoration the plane was modified to TP-51C specifications.
Although storms were lurking in the forecast, the weather was just fine at my appointment time on 3 July 2009. I checked in with crew chief Wayne and took care of the paperwork. The Mustang was taking off with another passenger at that time, so I got to hear the 1,300 horsepower Packard Merlin engine in the background. Then we enjoyed looking at the B-17 and B-24 as we waited for my turn.
When the Mustang returned, it had to be refueled before my flight. I wandered around the plane, enjoying the classic Mustang lines that look good from any angle. I spoke with Stu, the pilot, about the flight. After Stu climbed into the forward seat, Wayne guided me through the process of getting onto and into the back seat. Getting on the wing is a choreographed move; approach the leading edge of the left wing, left foot on top of the tire, right foot on top of the strut, then left foot onto the wing. You only step on certain areas of the wing as you walk to the rear seat. Then you grab the handhold and swing your right foot into the cockpit onto the seat, then lower yourself down onto the seat. Once you're seated the awkward angle reminds you that this is a tail dragger. With guidance from Wayne, I secured myself first to the parachute, then to the aircraft with several heavy straps and buckles. Then I put on my radio headset and kept my hands off the stick and my feet off the pedals while Stu got us underway.
Taxiing and takeoff were fun, I always enjoy the sound and feel of flight in a vintage aircraft. We had a nice view of the mountains as we flew north away from the populated area. Then Stu gave me the signal that I had the stick. Wow. I made some gentle turns and some timid climbs and descents, impressed by how responsive the controls were and by how solid the airplane felt in flight. I think I was boring poor Stu, so when he took back control he made some really tight turns to let me feel what the plane was comfortable with. Then he did some aileron rolls and inside loops -- always exciting no matter what type aircraft you're in!
Time goes by way too fast in a flight like this, and soon we were turning onto final back at BJC. As we taxied back to the Collings area we had a good view of the bombers parked there. Once we stopped, Wayne climbed onto the wing and opened the right side windows of the canopy. Unbuckling was quicker than the buckling had been, and I climbed out again using the marked handhold. I think Stu enjoys each of these flights as much as his passengers do. The dismount is easy -- just sit down on the wing and slide down and off the rear of the wing! This was a great experience, look up Collings Foundation on the web and see when they will be in your area!
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