Robin Olds’ P-51
Now you can fly the WWII ace’s Mustang
Try and imagine how you would feel if, completely out of the blue, you got a call asking if you would like to go and fly your favourite WWII aircraft of all time. And not only that but also your most revered WWII pilot’s own personal aircraft. Bob Stanford Tuck’s Spitfire? Guy Gibson’s Lancaster? Or even Adolf Galland’s Bf109! What a totally ridiculous dream−pie in the sky.
Well, it happened to me in May this year and yes; it’s a very good feeling indeed. But before you choke on your cornflakes, spill your coffee over this page or just start cursing the name of Davy, let me explain that the P-51 Mustang in question is now a fully converted, dual-control TF-51 trainer based in Belgium, and you can fly it too. Named Scat VII, the aircraft is run as part of a non profit-making organisation in Antwerp and is available to fly for a very attractive price that is not much more than you would pay in the USA, where warbird operating costs are much lower than they are in Europe.
I did literally get the call out of the blue, and initially thought one of my mates might be winding me up, because they do that sort of thing. After going out to Florida in early spring 2015 to do my type rating on the Mustang, I had admittedly become a bit of a Mustang bore−especially down at the local flying club. This would have been a typical retaliatory ruse, and at first I was sceptical as this chap with a Belgian accent explained that he had read the ‘Beyond the PPL’ article I had written for Pilot (‘Mustang Conversion’, April 2015) and he was operating none other than Robin Olds’ personal Mustang from the end of WWII. Oh, and Robin Olds’ daughter would be flying in from the USA and I should write a story about it. Yeah, right…
But it was true and I didn’t need to be asked twice. A couple of weeks later I was jumping in my car, driving down to the Channel Tunnel and completing the 300 or so miles to a restaurant in Ghent (a beautiful city and much more interesting than Belgium’s capital, Brussels.) There I met Lieven Lavaert, an airline pilot who helps to run the Vintage Dream Factory in Antwerp where the Mustang is operated, and who now has just under fifty hours on Scat VII. With him at the table was the rest of the team and also none other than Christina Olds, Robin Olds’ daughter from his marriage to Ella Raines, a famous Hollywood movie star of the 1940s and 50s.
Christina and her father were extremely close and after he died in 2007 she was able to complete the autobiography he had researched and collated but never completed. She has since toured extensively all over the USA and now Europe, talking about Robin Olds’ life and times, and how his leadership and progressive military thinking continue to influence successive generations of fighter pilots. (Today, the elite 8th Fighter Wing ‘Wolf Pack’ air combat unit which Robin Olds set up nearly sixty years ago is deployed in South Korea, defending the region from North Korea and its leader, the dreaded and completely bonkers Kim Jong Un.) We had such a fantastic evening in the restaurant, and the company was so interesting that I cannot remember the name of the place or even what I ordered.
First and foremost a killing machine
The following day we were up early and driving across to Antwerp airport, where I would come face to face with Scat VII for the first time, and Christine would actually be flying in it with Lieven. That first sight of the aircraft in its hangar set the hairs standing on the back of my neck and arms. If that suggests my caveman inner self was experiencing primal fear you would be correct, the eleven kills along the left rim of the canopy and the six fiftycalibre weapons in the wings reminding me that this most beautiful of aircraft was first and foremost a killing machine. Indeed, Robin Olds scored his last four victories of WWII in Scat VII.
Like so many surviving highperformance aircraft of the period, the machine has been involved in several major scrapes. in 1993 and again in 2006 it was given a ground-up restoration in the classic American style (replace rather than rebuild), so you do wonder how much of the original aircraft is still extant... One thing for sure is that it’s probably in better shape now than when it was first built in 1944.
For all that happened to it along the way, this Mustang really is correct in almost every sense. The cockpit floor is one example of the aircraft’s authenticity. Made of wood, it saved valuable metal in production – metal that if scuffed could be a spark source and fire hazard if petrol was washing around underfoot, as did sometimes happen in combat. The cockpit even has the original oxygen regulator fitted
on the right wall and only a modern GPS navcom box on the left of the instrument panel gives the game away that it’s now 2016 and not 1944.
One thing foremost in my mind every time I walk around a P-51 is the very modern way this aircraft is put together−it looks so far ahead of anything else of its time. As I stare down the finely-sculpted carburettor ‘chin’ under the spinner I know I am looking at the jet engine intake which would appear on North American’s first jet fighter, the F-86, just a few years later−the jet age was just around the corner when this Mustang flew in combat. Climb into the cockpit of a Spitfire and details like the fretted hands of the turn and slip gauge (looking like grandad’s clock) tell you you’re in the 1930s, whereas the P-51’s cockpit actually feels relatively modern. There followed a photo/film opportunity with the main Belgian TV company in attendance and at one point Christina insisted I put on her father’s combat jacket for a picture. I was absolutely blown away to be wearing it in front of his actual aircraft (it sort of fitted but my shoulders were unsurprisingly not quite as broad as Robin’s!) Then Lieven and Christine taxied out for their trip to a nearby military air base for a major event to ‘launch’ the Scat VII operation in Belgium. I watched in admiration as it took off, knowing that my turn to fly would come just a couple of weeks hence.
Back for my own turn...
Part two of this great Mustang adventure started in the first week of June. My good friends Tom Mccormack and Tom Lambert offered to fly me out with another pilot mate keen to get some stick time in Scat VII. Initially we were set to fly out of my local airfield but we had not reckoned with the Notam restricting its use, which meant my friend would have to meet us in nearby Blackbushe as he was flying down in his Cessna 180 from his farm strip in Derbyshire. This set us back a bit but half an hour later we were lifting, four-up out of Blackbushe in Tom M’s Cherokee 6.
While my friend and I swapped P-51 pilots’ notes, checklists and drills that I had plucked from the Stallion 51 course, the two Toms navigated round the south of the Heathrow TMA on the 200 mile hop to Antwerp (last year they crewed a Cirrus from London to Oshkosh and back so this trip was meat and potatoes for them.) I’m glad we had that time to revise because I was soon to be grilled on the subject…
One and a half hours later and we were setting down on Antwerp’s runway, me feeling ever so slightly apprehensive after the fifteen month gap since last flying a Mustang. Instead of clearing customs we were beckoned directly across to the FBO
Foremost in my mind every time I walk around a P-51 is the very modern way this aircraft is put together
(this turned out to be a mistake) which looks after the Dream Factory’s customers as well as hangaring Scat VII. Instructor Frederic Vormezeele was soon introducing himself and we set about planning the two flights.
The training in Scat VII is modelled on that for the world’s most long-lived and respected Mustang operation, Stallion 51 in Kissimmee, Florida. So much so that if you have graduated from Stallion you could be eligible to take front seat of Scat VII. Otherwise you will start in the back seat and move to the front only when you are considered ready. Before flying, expect a thorough check of your background and experience−if you can show a few hours in a T-6 or equivalent and solo standard in a Pitts S-2 (both available at airfields like White Waltham) then you shouldn’t have much of a hill to climb with Scat VII.
Frederic first checked out my technical knowledge, which initially wasn’t up to scratch! However, after this shaky start I managed to come out with enough right answers to permit me to fly from the front cockpit. No one should be disheartened to fly from the back at the beginning−the two cockpits are virtually identical and only the engine starting system, fuel selection and a few ancillaries are confined to the front. At first, I had actually found the Mustang easier to land from the rear cockpit due to there being more ‘seat-ofthe pants’ cues during the flare, whereas from the front you sit higher and are positioned on the C of G.
Just like the fighter jocks of yore
I climbed onto the wing via the left main wheel tyre just like the fighter jocks used to do−no after-market steps in the flap for
If you can show a few hours in a T-6... and solo standard in a Pitts S-2... then you shouldn’t have much of a hill to climb
old farts like they had in Florida−and then straight over the cockpit wall into the front seat. Everything was immaculately clean and yet I could still smell the familiar warbird aroma as I strapped in. The Mustang is quite a straightforward aircraft to operate and I didn’t have any problems remembering how to get the engine started and bring the systems on to line, taking care not to over-prime of course as I’m sure you’ve all seen what a carb fire in a Merlin looks like. Taxying isn’t easy because of that unfeasibly long nose and I was extremely careful as we manoeuvred out to the holding point, keeping the tailwheel lock in with aft stick for all but the tightest of turns, and at one point handing control to Frederic while I programmed the GPS for a local airfield we would transit for some circuits − it’s not practical to do them at busy Antwerp.
This ‘local airfield’ turned out to be none other than the infamous Sint Truiden, a Belgian military aerodrome captured by the Germans in 1940, used as a Messerschmitt 109 and Stuka base during the Battle of Britain, then as a bomber base during the Blitz, and finally as a defensive Focke Wulf 190 base in the closing stages of the war. It was regular practice for P-47 and P-51 fighters escorting our bombers to strafe Sint Truiden on the way over and I couldn’t help wondering if Scat VII had seen any action there in the hands of Robin Olds.
Bringing my mind back to the present I take back control from Frederic (keying in that GPS ‘direct to’ took me far too long) carefully check the approach and then line up on the hard runway, running forwards a few feet with the stick now hard back to ensure that the tailwheel has locked. A quick health check of the Merlin at a low power setting then I advance the throttle smoothly while keeping the nose exactly straight with right rudder (we preset six degrees right rudder trim to help matters).
But not all the way on the throttle−only to a slightly deafening 46 inches manifold pressure (‘only’ being a relative term) then up to an ear-splitting 55 inches as we pass fifty knots, the tail feeling as if it is being blown upwards by the prop wash as I push the stick forwards to the desired ‘tail-down wheeler’ attitude. At the same time I am feeding in more right rudder to counter everything trying to take me off the left side of the runway: the P effect of the propeller−the precession of that enormous gyroscope as it is tilted forward; even the extra drag on the left tyre as it is driven hard into the runway by the torque of 27 litres of Merlin up front. Oh; and a crosswind from the left! At little over ninety knots she is ready to fly−a deft pull on the stick and she is off cleanly.
I reach down the left cockpit wall, lift the undercarriage lever outward and up, then pull the power back to 46 inches and reduce the revs by 300 to 2,700 rpm for the climb. No time to waste, we need to start a turn to the right to avoid overflying the city and instead follow Antwerp’s version of the M25 as the safest course above the urban sprawl beneath us.
The controls are firm but responsive, the aircraft stable but bidable, control harmony perfect. At 2,000 feet we level off, the ASI nudging 250kt without trying, and I’m settling down, at home again in the best aircraft I have ever flown. The intensity of the flying meant that I didn’t have time to think too much about my hero, Robin Olds or the significance of doing circuits at that WWII Luftwaffe fighter base until well into the flight home to England in the two Toms’ Cherokee 6. Only then did it fully hit me that I had just had one of the best flying days of my life.
I’m planning to go back for further training next month and hope to fly SCATVII at least four or five times a year, to stay current.
But for the modern cars in the background and the taller fin fitted to postwar T-model Mustangs, it could be 1944...
HIS DAUGHTER’S BLESSING
“My father loved this P-51 and it remained his favourite aircraft of his thirty-year US Air Force career,” says Christina Olds. “When Scat VII was first restored in 1993, he was able to fly it again. Photographs of that day show a very happy 71-year-old boy! I am pleased to support the Vintage Dream Factory in all their efforts to maintain and fly this wonderful piece of living history.” At Christina Olds’ insistence, Bob dons her WWII veteran fighter pilot father‘s combat jacket
Above: in correct tail-up style, Scat VII gets airborne. While the aircraft looks suitably ‘period’ from outside, many of the panel instruments (right) are modern replacements/additions
Inset left: ‘memoirs of the legendary ace’ — the autobiography started by Robin and completed by Christina after his death