Saturday, October 13, 2007

Flyboys and Their Mustangs Had the Right Stuff

This article is from the online edition of the Newark, New Jersey Advocate, and was written by John Morgan.

"They had names like Grim Reaper, Glamorous Gal, Shangri-la, and La Pistolera. Their gleaming, polished metal skin gave no clue they were well over a half-century-old. More than 10,000 P-51 Mustangs were built during WWII and, over the weekend of Sept. 27-30, central Ohio was the gathering place of more than 100 of the fewer than 200 Mustangs still flying today, and some of the rapidly decreasing numbers of men and women, the legends, that flew or worked on them.

When introduced in 1940, after being designed and built in less than 120 days, the British, desperate for fighters, took possession of 320 of them. The U.S. Army Air Corps was not impressed, however. Although the design promised many advanced features not seen in fighter aircraft before, the performance of the Allison engine was lacking at altitudes over 17,000 feet. The Air Corps decided to concentrate on the P-47 Thunderbolt and the P-38 Lightning instead.

The resourceful British soon began testing their Mustangs with the 12-cylinder Rolls Royce Merlin engine, the same engine that powered their Spitfires. The most famous fighter aircraft in history had been born. The Merlin-powered Mustangs soon would be escorting the American bombers to anywhere in the Nazi heartland and back. It was reported many Nazi generals knew the war was lost when they saw Mustangs in the sky over Berlin.

Many of these great planes have been rebuilt and overhauled many times over the years and look better than when they rolled off the assembly line some 60 years ago.

The legends that flew them have not been so lucky. You've seen pictures of many I'm sure. Leather flight jacket and cap, a cocky smile perhaps. At the age of 18 or 19 they were flying hundreds of miles into hostile territory, responsible for making sure those big bombers made it to their target and back. Bud Anderson, Bob Hoover, Tex Hill, the Tuskegee Airmen. Legends of the fighter pilot world. Heroes to me.

I had the great fortune to work as a volunteer at the Gathering of Mustangs and Legends. I was in awe of these great planes and the veterans I saw.

I'm an emotional guy, and one instance in particular really got to me. A golf cart drove up to one of the parked Mustangs near me. A man in his 60s got out and proceeded to assist a very feeble older man out of the cart. He had a VIP pass around his neck. He wore a ball cap emblazoned with "P-51." The weather was very warm, but he wore a cardigan sweater.

The younger man was asking some technical question or another about the Mustang as he helped him gather his cane and steady himself. I did not hear the older man respond. He walked a few steps and simply placed his time-worn hand on the wing of the Mustang, maybe his mind going back to the skies over Germany so many years ago. A lifetime to us, only yesterday to him.

Someday the legends will be a memory and only the Mustangs will remain -- expensive toys to their owners, important pieces of aviation history, symbols of the greatest conflict and the greatest generation. "

John Morgan and family live in rural Knox County. He is a 2nd Lt. in the Civil Air Patrol, U.S. Air Force Auxiliary, Land of Legends Composite Flight, in Newark.

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