Robin Olds’ P-51

Now you can fly the WWII ace’s Mustang

Pilot - - FRONT PAGE - Words Bob Davy Air-to-air pho­tos Rick Des­met

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

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