All my life, I wanted to be a fighter pilot. As a kid, I was just insane for WWII aircraft, aviation history and real life fighter pilots. This is my story of how I got a ride in a P-51D, and a tribute to the guy that gave me that ride, and really set me on my path.....
P-51 Ride: November 1963, Brownwood, Texas!
When I was a youngster growing up in Abilene, Texas, I had two passions: flying and playing the guitar, in that order. I knew at a very early age what I wanted to be. I wanted to be a fighter pilot. Nothing else would do. My mother used to tell me that it always amazed her that from the time I could talk, I said I wanted to be a fighter pilot. None of this "cowboy" or "fireman" stuff for me! She always said she could never figure out how I even knew what a fighter pilot was when I was so young. I lived and breathed flying, and read everything I could get my hands on about fighters, knowing in my heart one day I would fly one as a military pilot. My heroes at the time were all big time WWII fighter pilots: Douglas Bader: Royal Air Force hero of the Battle of Britain, Robert S. Johnson: P-47 Thunderbolt Ace, Don Gentile and John Godfrey: the P-51 Mustang Ace team of the USAAF 4th Fighter Group during WWII, among others. My desire was cemented in my very soul one day in 1963 when I got a ride in a real, no kiddin' P-51D Mustang in Brownwood, Texas.
I can still vividly remember that day. It lives in my mind like yesterday. It was in November of 1963, and I had just turned 16 the month before. Earlier in the year I had checked out the airport at Brownwood based on a rumor I'd heard that there were a bunch of WWII aircraft there. When I drove my motorcycle over there one day to check it out, I was not disappointed. It was a dream come true. At this old WWII training base there was a P-51 Mustang, F-4F Wildcat, P-40 (can't remember the model), F-8 Bearcat, F-6 Hellcat, T-6 Texan, and a B-26 Maruader. This was a major part of the, at the time, Confederate Air Force. That summer, I wangled a job at that airport as a line boy. I lived in the hangar in a small room next to the men's latrine. I can still remember the main cross beam in the hangar roof had a warning printed on it in big block letters from WWII days: "BEWARE - SPINNING PROPS ARE THE SHARPEST EDGE HONED BY MAN", true words even today. I used to get the flight manual for one of those aircraft each night after dinner, go into the hangar and sit in, say, the P-51, and study it long into the night while dreaming about flying. It was a really great time, with literally everything in life still in front of me.
The guy that gave me the ride just died several years ago. His name was Marvin L. (Lefty) Gardner. He grew up in south Texas on a ranch, and joined the Army Air Corps when the war started. He ended up flying the B-17 and B-24 out of England during the war, and when he finished his 25 combat missions, he volunteered to extend his combat tour with the OSS, flying another 27 night missions in cargo configured B-24s over Europe in support of resistance fighters. These missions were every bit as dangerous as his first tour in the bombers. This guy was the real deal! He came back after the war and went to Texas A&M and got his degree. He then started his crop dusting service, and was one of the founding fathers of the Confederate Air Force, now renamed the Commemorative Air Force . Now back to the story!
After the summer working at the airport and living in the hangar, Lefty said he would give me a ride in the P-51, which I had pestered him about for months. It took a while, but in November the big day finally came. After a short briefing, I got strapped into the P-51 which had been modified by taking out the standard fuselage fuel tank which was
usually located behind the pilot's seat, and made room for a cramped jump seat. We started up and taxied out to the end of the runway, did our run up checks and positioned the aircraft for take off. Lefty turned and looked at me. He said, "Are you ready, youngster?" and I shook my head rapidly up and down, hoping my heart would stay in my throat where it belonged. He then said rather emphatically, "Don't you go throwin' up on me!", released the brakes, and advanced the throttle pretty quickly to take off power.
Everything, and I mean EVERYTHING happened at once! It felt like Shrek was sitting on my chest from the acceleration, the noise was absolutely deafening, and in no time, the tail came up and I could see the runway rushing at us at a great rate. More about the noise. This was a P-51D Mustang. It had a Merlin V-1650-7 engine and developed about 1695 horsepower from its 1650 cubic inches. It burned 115/145 octane AVGAS, and the exhaust exits the engine through 12, 5 inch exhaust stacks that come directly off each of the 12 cylinders. All the exhaust and noise comes sweeping past the pilot in the cockpit about 3 feet behind the engine. This, needless to say, was something impressive. The amount of power transmitted to the 11 foot, 4 bladed prop was like unleashing the very hammers of hell! Total sensory overload for a 16 year old guitar player and wanna be fighter pilot! It was GREAT! We were still accelerating at a tremendous rate when Lefty rotated and put the gear and flaps up. We did not climb out like a normal civilian aircraft would do. Noooooooo, Grasshopper! He held the P-51 down at about 10 feet above the ground, and let the ol' dog hunt! Any one who has not been in a true fighter aircraft accelerating on take off under full power has no idea what an experience that is! Words fail me to describe that, and I'm not usually at a loss for words! It was the greatest experience of my life to that date, and it remains one of the most exciting things I've ever experienced even to today. The performance of that aircraft was astounding, especially when you consider that it was probably 2000 pounds lighter than its normal war fighting configuration due to having been stripped of six 50 cal guns, the fuselage tank, and all the armour to protect the pilot. It would really scoot! So, where were we?
Oh yeah, takeoff power, level at 10 feet and accelerating like crazy, with the gear and flaps up. Neat! Now what?
I can't see the airspeed indicator, but I know we're clipping along pretty good as the end of the runway gets closer and closer. Just before the runway's end, Lefty pulls up sharply into a (I'm guessing here), about a 45 degree climb, with the power still at max. (For you pilot types, the Merlin at takeoff power would pull 61" of manifold pressure, and the engine would turn 3000 RPM for takeoff, a magnificent beast, needed to accomplish the mission of the USAAF then, and the USAF today, TO FLY AND FIGHT, (and don't you forget it, bub!). The pull up to the climb wasn't that bad when I think about it today (after flying the F-4 and F-16, that is). It couldn't have been more than about two or three "gee's" (two or three times the earth's gravitational pull), but as a 16 year old kid, it made me think I was never going to breathe again. The gee's came off, and we were left rocketing upward, screaming toward the clear blue west Texas sky. Beautiful! After a bit of this rocketing upwards, the power came way back, probably close to idle, and we rolled inverted, and once again the gee's came on, a little bit more this time. Now I'm looking at the earth, upside down, from the back seat of a WWII fighter, doing what's
called a "split s" with the nose of the aircraft rotating back to the horizon, and heading back to where we came from. Back to the airport, and back to ten feet above the runway, all at once. I estimate we had been airborne about, what, three or four minutes, maybe, heading the opposite direction from takeoff and, once again at ten feet. But unlike the takeoff, this time we're going fast. Did I say, fast? Funny, I meant to say we're going leapin' lizards, great gadzooks, slap yo' mama, FAST, quick like a bunny fast! Faster than your hair line's receding, fast. Want to see that again? FAST! It was breath taking! Here comes the end of the runway one more time. And like before, a nice stiff pull up to a crazy steep climb, but this time we do three or four aileron rolls up into the sky. " WOW", I thought, "What's next." Well, for the remainder of the flight, about half an hour, we did loops and rolls, buzzed the airport a couple of times, and generally had an amazing time. It was great! And, it set me on the path that I would follow for my entire professional career, both military and civilian. When we landed and got out of the aircraft, Lefty looked at me and said something like, "You did OK, kid!", probably because after all that, I didn't throw up on him! He then surprised me, and gave me a big hug! It made a big impression on me, I guarantee that!
I always made it a point to keep in touch with Lefty, and to let him know how much he counted in my life. How he helped set my course, how he made a difference. The last time I saw him, he was living in Hunt, Texas, and I drove over from Houston to spend the day with him in 2002. We talked about the war years, with Lefty remembering a couple of his more harrowing missions, and he listened to me tell about flying the A-37, F-101, T-33, F-4 and F-16, and life as an airline Captain. My stories were tame compared to his, but he enjoyed talking to another military aviator. I will always remember Lefty Gardner, part of the "greatest generation", and hero of our nation. May he rest in peace.
What a ride! What an aircraft! What a hero I'll always remember: Marvin L Gardner, Captain, USAAF!