From AREA 51 to P-51

SPY PLANE TO STALLION

While I had the honor of flying the U2 Spy Plane during my USAF career, I had a “bucket list” item that I just had to do while I could still do it. Since I was 10 years old, I had an acute affection for the P-51 Mustang. I made models of it, read books about it, and drooled over it at airshows. The North American Aviation P-51 Mustang, an American long-range, single-seat fighter and fighter-bomber, was used first during World War II, and is credited with helping win the war by ensuring Allied air superiority and protection for our bombers in Europe.

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There are not many of them left in the world, and the two-seat versions are even rarer birds. During May of 2013, at a book signing in Washington DC, I was introduced to a new friend. Even though Art was not a pilot, our conversation drifted to the subject of airplanes and found we soon discovered we shared a common bucket list item: Fly the P-51 Mustang!

THE SEARCH IS ON

After corresponding with Art over the next month, we decided to head down to Florida and fly with Lee Lauderback’s Stallion 51 operation. By all measures it seemed to be a first class operation. The next few months made us realize it was the only choice. Art and I corresponded via email and phone. I sent an email to Stallion 51 in mid-June and had a very timely response from Julia. I had put in a request for a two-ship flight; me in one aircraft and Art in the other. This, as we learned, was not a normal request; and it was also complicated by the fact that some of the Mustang pilots there had vacation scheduled, but it all seemed that it could come together.

PHONE CALL GIVES US A GREEN LIGHT

I remember where I was standing in mid-July when the phone rang and it was from a Florida number. “Hello,” I said. The voice from the other end said, “Hi, I am looking for Sam Crouse, this is Lee Lauderback calling from Stallion 51.”  I had read about Mr. Mustang, as he is called; now I am in my living room talking to him on the phone. It was a great conversation. After exchanging pleasantries, Lee told me he was going to work hard to arrange the schedule so that there would be two airplanes and two pilots. He then asked what we wanted to do. I told him that Art was not a pilot and a little bit about him, and that I had a pilot background. Then, in pilot lingo, I rattled off, “formation take-off, split up enroute to separate areas, aerobatics, then rejoin for a formation return to a pitchout and landing.”  We chat a bit more, and he asks me about my pilot background. I run through my normal litany of planes I’ve flown, and he says very kindly, “Hell, I’ll just give you the keys.”  While that was a very nice comment, it served more to convey a message of trust and humility between the two of us. He pledged to put a note in the file and we would touch base closer to the date. Within seconds of hanging up with Lee, I was on the phone with Art.

PREPARATIONS

Art and I were banking on planets lining up: a second pilot, cooperative weather, good airplane maintenance, our health, and other unknown schedule impacts. We both arranged to arrive in Florida a day or two early and stay a day or two late. This would make sure we got there, and that if weather or maintenance problems arose, we had a backup plan. Also, due to mid-September Florida weather, we started watching the hurricane tracks a week or so out. I had already opted for a morning flight, so we would’t have to pay homage to the afternoon thunderstorm gods. We started to talk like we were going to a prom; “what are we going to wear?” Hell, we had to look good, and the only choice was to look like a pilot, so: fight suits, patches, boots, scarves, gloves were either procured from my aviation museum (as my wife calls it), ordered or borrowed. We were going for it! For mental preparation we started pouring over P-51 flight manuals we found online and comparing notes. Art even found a 3-D online cockpit simulator he shared with me.

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ARRIVAL

We got to Orlando and the fun began with a rendevous at a local bar, dinner and smiles that could not be stifled. We were there, in place, the weather was cooperating and we took a drive by the hangar just to make sure we knew where to go the next day. On the morning of the flight we went to breakfast at the hotel all decked out in our flight suits, scarves and patches. We got to Stallion 51 like two kids ready for their first roller coaster ride. We entered the hangar and there they were. Two of the most pristine P-51 Mustangs anyone could imagine sitting on a floor that you could eat off.  We were there. We asked the mechanic, Greg, who was busy babying the two mighty birds where we go. Greg welcomed us like family and showed us the stairway to flight operations. He was a former Navy Crew Chief and you could tell how much he loved his job and the airplanes. Art and I stopped along the way to admire the displays of the Mighty Merlin engine, the 50 caliber machine guns and pictures. In the very nicely appointed sales area and were greeted by Julia, who makes everything work in style!

PREBRIEF

2013-09-16 09.31.45We checked in with her and took care of the business end of the deal, spent more money at the gift shop, then waited until we were greeted by Lee and John, our lead pilots. Art spent some time with John and I spent some time with Lee chatting separately getting to know each other and talking about flying. Once that was complete, we all gathered together for a formation briefing. As a former military instructor, I’ll say this was one of the most professionally run briefings I had ever seen. For Art, they explained everything to him as a novice. I marveled at how these two professionals flying such vintage aircraft understood their students’ differing levels. Everything was tailored for us to ensure we knew what we were doing. We had a blast as the photo below suggests. John and Lee both ensured we were ready.

PREFLIGHT AND FLIGHT

2013-09-16 10.35.18It was time to head downstairs, get into the airplane and go fly. On the way down to the hangar, Lee told me, “Sam, forget everything you have read about the Mustang and let’s just go fly!” He knew I had studied the manual and read a lot about the airplane, but wanted me to experience the flight without too much thought. It was a good tip!

Everything was briefed and executed like clockwork. We went over cockpit familiarization items and egress procedures and soon it was engine start time. The roar of the Merlin was awesome and our taxi out, run up and line up were complete. 2013-09-16 10.34.47We took off and Art and John were soon on our right wing as we flew out to the area. I flew the aircraft soon after lift-off and pretty much had it the entire flight with coaching from Lee. Once we were to the practice area, Art and John split off and I went through a series of maneuvers. Some gentle turns, wingovers, normal stalls, accelerated stalls, Barrel Rolls, Aileron Rolls, Cuban 8s, Loops, Immelmanns, Split Ss, and Reverse Cuban 8s. It was a total blast and a perfect day for flying the Mustang (go to the top right sidebar of this page to see “Two Minutes with Lee and Me). We rejoined on Art and John (well, Lee did the rejoin) and I then took it for the rest of the flight. We reported Initial for Runway 06, a left break and took spacing, and I got to land the Mustang – what a superb day!

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POST FLIGHT CELEBRATION

2013-09-16 10.48.35We taxied up to the ramp, got out and greeted each other with beaming smiles and handshakes. Later, upstairs we were treated to a debrief using our films. Lee’s Mustangs have three cameras (one on the vertical tail, the horizontal tail and the cockpit). Art and I both got our “tapes” after the debrief. Lee and John took turns describing the flight to help reinforce learning, just like any instructional flight. We were also given certificates and pictures. I had prepared a special gift for Lee, a special bottle of wine we had made for the U2 50th Anniversary and signed it for him. For Art and for me, this was very special day, and we did something few get to do. Art, who had a very distinguished US Army career, was always intrigued with Area 51 stories. I knew some of what he did in the Army, and always thought he had been there. In any case, that day Art and I slipped the surly bonds of earth. We are still talking about it!

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Left to right: John, Art, Sam and Lee (Mr. Mustang)

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To all of my pilot friends, wherever you are…

This piece, whose author is unknown recently appeared on the back page of the February 2014 issue of the Order of Daedalians magazine. Pass it on to your pilot friends in the spirit of brotherhood!

“MILITARY AVIATOR TRIBUTE OR…
IN VICTORY YOU DESERVE CHAMPAGNE, IN DEFEAT YOU NEED IT!”
(Author Unknown)

          As we get older and we experience the loss of old friends, we begin to realize that maybe we bullet proof Fighter Pilots won’t live forever, not so bullet proof anymore. We ponder…if I was gone tomorrow did I say what I wanted to my Brothers. The answer was no! Hence, the following few random thoughts.                

          When people ask me if I miss flying, I always say something like – “ Yes! I miss the flying because when you are flying, you are totally focused on the task at hand. It’s like nothing else you will ever do (almost). But then I always say “However, I miss the Squadron and the guys even more than I miss the flying.

          ”Why you might ask?” They were a bunch of aggressive, wise ass, cocky, insulting, sarcastic bastards in smelly flight suits who thought a funny thing to do was to fart and see if they could clear a room. They drank too much, they chased women, they flew when they shouldn’t, they laughed too loud and thought they owned the sky, the Bar, and generally thought they could do everything better then the next guy. Nothing was funnier than trying to screw with a buddy and see how pissed off they would get. They flew planes and helos that leaked, that smoked, that broke, that couldn’t turn, that burned fuel too fast, that never had auto pilots or radars, and with systems that were archaic next to today’s new generation aircraft. All true!

           But a little closer look might show that every guy in the room was sneaky smart and damn competent and brutally handsome! They hated to lose or fail to accomplish the mission and seldom did. They were the laziest guys on the planet until challenged and then they would do anything to win. They would fly with wing tips overlapped at night through the worst weather with only a little red light to hold on to, knowing that their Flight Lead would get them on the ground safely. They would fight in the air knowing the greatest risk and fear was that another fighter would arrive at the same six o’clock at the same time they did. They would fly in harms way and act nonchalant as if to challenge the grim reaper. 

          When we went to another base we were the best Squadron on the base as soon as we landed. Often we were not welcomed back. When we went into a O’Club we owned the bar.  We wore our commanders name tag…..all of us.  We were lucky to have the Best of the Best in the military. We knew it and so did others. We found jobs, lost jobs, got married, got divorced, moved, went broke, got rich, broke something and the only thing you could really count on was if you really needed help, a fellow Pilot would have your back.                

          I miss the call signs, nick names, and the stories behind them. I miss the getting lit up in an O’Club full of my buddies and watching the incredible, unbelievable things that were happening. I miss the Crew Chiefs saluting as you taxied out the flight line. I miss the lighting of the Afterburners, if you had them, especially at night. I miss the going straight up and straight down. I miss the cross countries. I miss the dice games at the bar for drinks. I miss listening to bull shit stories while drinking and laughing till my eyes watered.                

          I miss three man lifts. I miss naps in the Squadron with a room full of pilots working up new tricks to torment the sleeper. I miss flying upside down in the Grand Canyon and hearing about flying so low boats were blown over. I miss coming into the break hot and looking over and seeing three wingmen tucked in tight ready to make the troops on the ground proud. I miss belches that could be heard in neighboring states. I miss putting on ad hoc Air Shows that might be over someone’s home or farm in far away towns.                

          Finally I miss hearing DEAD BUG being called out at the bar and seeing and hearing a room of men hit the deck with drinks spilling and chairs being knocked over as they rolled in the beer and kicked their legs in the air, followed closely by a Not Politically Correct Tap Dancing and Singing spectacle that couldn’t help but make you grin and order another round!                

          I am a lucky guy and have lived a great life! One thing I know is that I was part of a special, really talented bunch of guys doing something dangerous and doing it better than most. Flying the most beautiful, ugly, noisy, solid aircraft ever built. Supported by ground troops committed to making sure we came home again! Being prepared to fly and fight and die for America. Having a clear mission. Having fun.                

          We box out the bad memories from various operations most of the time but never the hallowed memories of our fallen comrades. We are often amazed at how good war stories never let the truth interfere and they get better with age. We are lucky bastards to be able to walk into a Squadron or a Bar and have men we respect and love shout out our names, our call signs, and know that this is truly where we belong. We are Fighter Pilots. We are Few and we are Proud.                

I am Privileged and Proud to call you Brothers.
Push It Up! &  Check SIX!
——————————————————————
This piece, whose author is unknown recently appeared on the back page of the February 2014 issue of the Order of Daedalians magazine. Pass it on to your pilot friends in the spirit of brotherhood!

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Damn, I landed at the wrong airport!

In November 2013, a modified Boeing 747 Dreamlifter landed at the wrong airport in Kansas. The two-person crew touched down 8 miles north of its intended destination on a shorter runway than planned. While embarrassing for the crew, intriguing to the public, it is conceivable for those who have been there (or almost have been there). The next day, a new crew took off the massive jet safely. The FAA will investigate the incident and we all will have the opportunity to learn from the facts.

A story like this is rare in the professional pilot world. The stick_figure_plane_150_wht_6648constant crosscheck of air traffic control procedures, onboard computers, radio transmissions, visual clues and basic navigation skills normally work in a positive manner to help pilots avoid these types of mistakes.

On the other hand, in the United States there are a total of 19,786 landing facilities. So, there are a lot of places to land smaller airplanes, and given that airport runways are laid out to take advantage of local prevailing winds, many airports look similar. Just like the sign at the baggage claim carousel that states Many Bags Look Alike, pilots can be lured into making a wrong choice.

STUDENT PILOT STUNT

Such was the case early in my career as a student pilot on my long solo cross-country flight. My flight plan had two scheduled stops and then a landing back where I began. I landed at my first destination without incident, taxied up to the Fixed Base Operator (FBO) and then shut down my engine. After properly chocking my venerable Cessna 150 and doing a post flight inspection, I found someone to verify that I had actually landed there and had them endorse my paperwork. After checking the weather, milling around for a while in the pilot’s lounge and gawking at some of the airplanes, I went back out to the ramp. I did the pre-flight, cranked up the mighty Continental O-200 engine and departed the controlled field for my next destination, an uncontrolled field, where I planned to refuel for the third and final leg back home.

The destination was Aeroflex-Andover a name that I will never forget. I don’t remember much about that second leg of the cross-country until after landing. I taxied up to the ramp, chocked the airplane, then sauntered into a small building I thought was the FBO and asked for a fill-up. A tall, lanky gentleman in overhauls looked down at me and politely told me that they did not have any fuel there. If Homer Simpson would have been born at that time, there would be a thousand DOH’s echoing through the New Jersey countryside!  What, how could this be?  I told the man that they had fuel listed in the airport directory! Again, he just looked at me and finally, the “Clue Bird” landed on my shoulder. The realization that I was at the wrong airport hit me. I remember thinking that my student pilot career was going to be shortened right then and there.

WHAT HAPPENED?

While I cannot remember analyzing why and how I got there, I do remember frantically assessing how to get to Aeroflex-Andover. I glanced at my sectional chart, but don’t remember actually measuring a course or distance to get to where I needed to be, but the kind gentleman said it was just a short distance away. Just takeoff and turn right, you will see it beyond the trees about two miles away – you can’t miss it.” Okay, that seemed to be about right. Fuel quantity, another important concern popped into my mind. I went back to the plane, and looked at the non-linear fuel gage markings (which always seemed to be a mystery to me) with a sharper eye. I knew it was damn low. I asked for a ladder, climbed up and checked the tanks visually with a flashlight. I could see fuel. I reasoned that if I took off, headed directly to the airport, could find the runway and landed there that all would be well.

Today, with nearly 40 years of flying experience, remembering this incident sends shivers up my spine and ranks as one of the most stupid things I ever did. I took off, found the right airport (although it was not as easy as I was led to believe), landed, dusted off my ego, and refueled. I do remember being aware of the time I wasted, so I hustled and got the plane back into the air, now fully fueled and headed on the final leg. Landing back at my home airport was uneventful. Upon taxiing up to the parking spot, I did get a glimpse of my instructor standing outside the FBO with his arms crossed – I didn’t think I was that late!

I do remember confessing my sin. Next, I endured a lengthy debriefing from my instructor, normally a calm, patient man. After a lecture on navigation, proper flight planning and procedures, he asked me for the fuel receipt. The Cessna 150 fuel capacity was 26 gallons. I won’t say how much fuel was on the fuel receipt, but suffice it to say that my instructor went into a rant on fuel starvation that rivaled Linda Blair’s exorcism performance.

WHY DID THIS HAPPEN?

A lack of experience combined with complacency resulted in my failure to use basic dead reckoning (time and heading) concepts, apply map reading skills and interpret radio navigational aids. My intention was to land on Aeroflex-Andover’s Runway 21 approaching from the north. Note the water to the north, and the road to the east of the airport.

Aeroflex-Andover

About a mile and a half northwest of Aeroflex-Andover was (at that time) Newton Airport with a Runway 6-24 configuration (I landed on Runway 24). Note the water to the north and the road to the east of the airport as well. Newton Airport has since been closed as depicted by the closed runway markings.

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Looking at a bigger picture, note both airports Aeroflex-Andover and Newton Airport below. Drifting off my course a little bit at a time and talking myself into following the wrong landmarks, I was lulled into believing what I saw was correct.

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USE: CLOCK to MAP to GROUND

Using basic navigation principles can back up any electronic guidance, even in the GPS era. Elapsed time, speed and heading are the three key ingredients for any navigational problem. How long have I held the heading? How fast am I going? And, in what direction have I traveled? That is it!  Later, as I became an instructor, I religiously taught “CLOCK to MAP to GROUND” in visual navigation flight lessons. A properly prepared map (sectional chart) will have a course plotted with tick marks for time. In the air, the student must first look at the CLOCK (to note elapsed time), then reference the planned spot on the MAP (to see where they should be), then look at the GROUND to confirm. Looking at the GROUND first, then looking at the MAP to find something that looks “right” can lead you to a wrong interpretation, and eventually to strange and unwanted places.

ALWAYS: CROSSCHECK, CROSSCHECK, CROSSCHECK

No matter what electronic gadgets are in the cockpit, they can always malfunction and the programming is prone to human error as well. If you are flying with another pilot, use crew resource management and crosscheck there. If you are flying with a passenger, give them an appropriate task to help you crosscheck. And finally, when you have the runway in sight, confirm that the runway number painted on the runway is the right number. That definitely would have saved me on my cross-country flight, and it might have alerted the Dreamlifter crew to go-around and sort it out!

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