Captain Jason Grieff (Southwest Airlines), as told to Jesse Bastide
Late fall, 2013
What flies higher than a 737, faster, and has a propeller on the pointy end?
It’s the P-51 Mustang.
The one I’m thinking of has a 1700hp Merlin engine, can hit 505 mph, and will climb almost up to the angels at 42,000 feet. That’s higher and faster than the jet airliner I fly for Southwest, and the P51 was designed and built in the 1940's.
Every time I think about it, it gives me shivers. But it should — I got up close and personal with a P-51.
I was so up-close and personal that I was pointing the nose at the ground, doing over three hundred miles per hour, and setting up a strafing run on MIGs parked at the end of a runway…
Lee Lauderback has more time in a Mustang than anyone else alive today.
In the world.
They also call him Mr. Mustang.
He owns three P-51s and runs a business out of Kissimmee, Florida, where he allows people the rare privilege of experiencing the best piston-engine fighter aircraft the world has ever known.
If you ask him, you just might get a chance to do barrel rolls, aileron rolls, Cuban-8s, and all other kinds of aerobatic maneuvers. Just don’t bring up spins, or he’ll tell you why they’re forbidden. According to his brother, if he spins one of his airplanes again and cracks more engine mounts, his brother will stop working on the airplanes. That’s a pretty good reason to play nice when you run a family business.
I met Lee at a Southwest Airlines Check Airman party. It turned out Lee knew our Chief Pilot, and somehow Lee got himself designated as an honorary Check Airman.
Lee’s flying background was this: For about fourteen or fifteen years, he was Arnold Palmer’s Chief Pilot. Then, almost a quarter of a century ago, he quit his job, mortgaged his house, bet his life savings, and bought his first Mustang. The rest, as they say, is history.
My wife Jenn was at the party, and while I’ll adhere to the gentleman’s code and not divulge too many details about the party itself, I will say that a good time was being had by all.
Jenn entered me in a raffle.
When it was time to announce a winner, Lee went to the front of the room, took the mic, and announced my name. I didn’t even hear it the first time, but Jenn said, “You won.”
“I what?” I said.
“You won. You won the raffle.”
“What did I win?”
“I don’t know. Go see.”
So, with a silly grin on my face, I went up to the front of the room to shake hands with Lee and accept my still undetermined-to-me prize.
In what I would soon learn is typical Lee fashion, he said, It will be an absolute honor — for you — to fly with me in my P-51, Crazy Horse 2.
I accepted the award, still trying to wrap my head around what was happening. A ride in a Mustang? That sounded like it would be –
The Merlin engine at idle is enough to bring a grown man to tears. That low, throaty sound as 1700hp rumbles under the cowling gets you right in your chest. You feel it through the seat of your pants.
I kept my eyes dry, but just.
Lee went through the startup procedure. The little fighter we were sitting in was a $2.6 million dollar airplane, and the engine took a good chunk of that.
Before we even started it, we spent a couple hours on the ground, going over everything. Safety procedures. How to take off. How to land. What switch did what. Positive exchange of flight controls.
He knew I had time in a Stearman and a DC-3, in addition to being a Check Airman, so I got the benefit of that. He knew he wasn’t dealing with an automation button pusher who’d forgotten how to fly stick and rudder.
After engine start, with my wife Jenn watching from the side of the runway and taking pictures, we started to taxi. I had the controls. I did S-turns for visibility, keeping to the centerline. The stick was pulled back to my crotch, pinning the tailwheel to the ground. I was taxiing by the book.
We got to the run-up area, and Lee took over for a moment. His motto was: Be nice to the Merlin. He did the mag check and the run-up, bringing the RPMs up to look for anomalies in oil pressure and temperature. He listened if anything was wrong.
When Lee was satisfied, he said, Your airplane.
I replied: “My airplane.”
I grasped the stick. I smelled the leather and the oil and the overtones of aviation fuel. I looked at the switches, which reminded me in some ways of the DC-3. I felt like I was back in the 1940s, getting ready for a training flight in America’s hottest new piston-engine fighter.
Lee told me, Bring the power in gradually, then raise the tail.
I advanced the power, being careful not to jam it forward. The airplane accelerated, gaining speed, the airflow making the tail come alive. I pushed forward gently and saw the visibility increase.
Lee coached me through the take-off. He told me to feed in more power.
I pushed the throttle forward, and the plane jumped off the runway.
Then, just as we’d briefed it, Lee raised the gear and took the stick.
We were level at one hundred feet over the runway and fast. Then I waved at my wife as Lee pulled back and I rocketed straight up.
With Lee on the stick, we were doing somewhere over 200 mph, the nose pointing up at the sky. It was the antithesis of a controlled, airline-style departure. This was real fighter-aircraft show-off maneuvering.
When my heart rate subsided and we leveled off again, he said, Your airplane.
I was back at the controls.
The only way to be is meticulous. That’s what it’s like to fly and maintain an aircraft designed in the 1940’s. Before our flight, we went through the logbook, and I signed my name.
Part of our pre-flight briefing, after the walk-around, was for me to get in the cockpit while we were still in the hangar. This was (and still is) a strategy to get familiar with the controls even before we fired a single cylinder.
Lee told me about our flight. He said we’d head up to the mid-teens for some acro (aerobatic practice). Then, if it was ‘cold’, we’d head for a restricted area near Kissimmee (with official permission, of course). There was an old airfield there that the military used for training pilots. If we got clearance, the airspace would be ours between zero and 60,000 feet. There would be no speed limits below ten thousand, which would be a difference from the rest of the airspace system.
If we got the okay to fly into the restricted area with our hot little fighter, we’d have permission to go nuts and not get in trouble for it.
In fact, it was encouraged.
18,000 feet up, and we got right to business. Lee asked me if I wanted to try slow flight.
We mushed around at low power; I could feel what a docile, well-harmonized airplane this was. I could understand why it had such a stellar reputation. You can learn a lot about how an airplane behaves when it’s flying slowly. That’s when you find out if it has any bad habits waiting to bite you.
The P-51 was a dream.
He told me, This airplane has no stall warning. He said, At 98mph with the power back, you’ll feel a little tickle, which is the onset of the stall. Keep pulling back gently, and you’ll break off to one side.
That sounded fine to me.
He said, Don’t pull back sharply, or we WILL SPIN.
He said, Don’t use aileron to correct the roll, rudder only.
I acknowledged the instructions. The words about rudder use (and avoiding aileron to lift a low wing) and not pulling back sharply, those were just in case. Lucky for Lee, I had a good feel for hand flying airplanes of all sizes.
100…99…98 mph and I felt the tickle in the controls. I gently increased back pressure, and the Mustang dropped a wing.
The nose sliced downward through the horizon.
I released back pressure, increased the throttle, and we were flying again after a fifty foot altitude loss.
I could hear Lee on the intercom: Nice job.
His tone told me he wasn’t disappointed.
He asked me: Want to do another one?
Of course I wanted to. So we did. And another.
That’s when it was time to start the party for real.
We started to toss it around the sky.
We did wingovers. We did barrel rolls in both directions.
We did aileron rolls at 280 knots. The P-51, in contrast to the Stearman, would flip and turn around its longitudinal axis as fast as you could think it. After the first one, I said, “Wow.”
I told Lee, “If I ever win the lottery, I don’t want just one. I’ll have to buy myself two.”
He grinned in the cockpit mirror.
Lee told me, The restricted area is cold. We’re free to head over.
That’s where we went, with me on the stick. I had that supreme mix of adrenalin, self-confidence, and the feeling of being at the stick of a very shiny, very powerful, very expensive toy.
We did loops. We did a Cuban Eight, which I messed up big time; Lee had me do another one. On the second attempt, I was concentrating on every detail of the maneuver, double checking my reference points off the wings and the nose. I was sweating and completely immersed in the moment, in the experience of controlling this majestic, fun-as-hell little fighter plane.
When we were vertical, or nearly so, Lee looked in the mirror and said, Jason, when you roll out of this one…go get em!
The MIGs were getting bigger in the windscreen. Our airspeed was increasing as we rushed toward the ground and our targets.
The MIGs were parked at the end of the runway, next to the military control tower.
I lined them up in my gun sight, then allowed my finger to kiss the spot where the trigger would be for the 20mm cannon. We closed on our targets, and I squeezed gently.
The rattle of the cannon was all in my mind, we weren’t destroying actual government property, but it was as close as I’d come to feeling the rush of the hunter in a fighter plane.
It’s the kind of feeling that can get addictive, fast.
With our hour almost up, Lee told me to fly us back to the field in Kissimmee. I took us all the way, back to the pattern, then executed a perfect landing, rolling the wheels on.
After we turned off the runway, with the stick once more pulled back against my crotch to pin the tailwheel (which is standard operating procedure), I heard Lee say over the intercom: Can I taxi back to the ramp?
I laughed and told him, “Yes, sir. Your airplane.”
Lee took us back.