Flying the Collings TF P-51-D Mustang(Toulouse Nuts) at Moffett (NUQ), CA in May 2017

For years, The Collins Foundation nationwide tour of historic WWII aircraft spends a week at the former Moffett NAS in Mountain View, CA. Half a dozen years ago, I purchased a flight in the Collins B-25. As a Jimmy Doolittle fan (“Thirty Seconds over Tokyo”) it was thrilling as just passenger to hear the roar of those Wright engines and feel the sensations of that historic aircraft. However, a P- 51 Mustang was always a plan for a future flight. So, with the Collins Foundation annual aircraft visit to Moffett in May of 2017 with a “dual control” TF-51D, I just had to do it…!

The adventure began with the ground assistant helping me unto the front of the wing and then into the back seat. The cockpit and those “dual controls” in the TF P-51D Mustang were a beautiful sight! Because the magneto ignition timing is set for cruise RPM, the Rolls-Royce Merlin V-12 engine at idle “snaps, crackles, and pops” with the smell of unburnt high octane gasoline. However, after increasing the RPM to a fast idle, the Merlin Mustang goes from an anxious snorting race horse at the gate to a resolute steed.  After lining up for takeoff and adding throttle, the smooth power of the Merlin pushed me back into my seat as the tailwheel lifted, and we were climbing at several thousand feet per minute!

Our departure was Southeast on Runway 14R, and we climbed to five thousand feet MSL.  Initially, I had advised the Collins folks that I was a civilian commercial pilot with several thousand hours of flight instructing.  The P-51 pilot that day was Fred Barnes with a “day job” as an airline pilot. Fred initially let me hold altitude. With about 700 hours in Citabrias (also a tandem seat taildragger with a control stick), the level flight attitude of this P-51 was very familiar(but slightly lower than a KCAB Citabria). When combined with a 1400 HP engine at about 50 percent power, precise elevator trim was required to avoid a natural tendency to raise the nose and climb… However, the combination of a large and precise elevator trim wheel along with 2-3 second scans to the altimeter, created the level flight control that allowed the pilot to let me do medium turns… Voila! What a magnificent aircraft with incredible visibility from the bubble canopy!

Because the Northern California coast was overcast, we headed to a practice area 60 miles south over the San Luis Reservoir.  Even with the 50 percent power setting of 2400 RPM and MP of 35” Hg at 5000 MSL, the IAS was 230 mph.  So, with a direct route over San Jose using ATC clearances, it was about a 15 minute flight to our practice area.

ATC cleared us in the airspace from 3000 ft. to 7000 ft. within a 5 mile radius, so it was now time to play! As a flight instructor, a favorite maneuver has been steep turns (45 bank).  This maneuver is a good test for any pilot to control both bank and pitch with extra G-force and situational awareness.  The high wing loading of the Mustang along with abundant power required less pitch up than a Citabria. Within a couple of attempts, I was completing good 45 steep turns with less than 100 feet change of altitude.  Surprisingly, little rudder was required even with a quick aileron deflection, and when trimmed the Mustang was very stable.  With steep turns mostly mastered, Fred then demonstrated an aileron roll.  Initially nose down to pick up an extra 25 MPH IAS and then nose up to about five degrees below the horizon using full aileron deflection, around we went …!

After a couple of tries, both the left and right aileron rolls were smooth and feeling good.  So, Fred then demonstrated a loop.  This is a more difficult and distracting maneuver with 0 G at the top and about 3 G’s on the descending recovery back to level flight. However, after one sloppy attempt, I realized with just another 15 minutes remaining in our practice area, it would be more rewarding to fly the Mustang with more comfortable maneuvers and enjoy the feel of the airplane. (Next year…Loops!) When ready to return to Moffett, Fred let me fly most of the way back, and he did a low pass over the runway with a medium climbing right turn 180 degrees to a 1000 ft. altitude for a downwind to Runway 14R.  A wheel landing is preferred for the Mustang and from reduced power and 150 IAS mph on downwind with no flaps, we transitioned to 100 mph IAS with full flaps on final approach.  Fred flew nose level down to the runway and with a little forward stick the main gear was rolling on the runway. After reducing power to idle, the tail wheel slowly dropped to the runway, and we taxied back to the tarmac.  And finally, a 45 minute entry of P-51 time in my logbook!


IAS – Indicated Air Speed, RPM – Revolutions per minute, MP – engine manifold pressure (usually inches of Hg (mercury),  MSL – Mean Sea Level altitude, G’s – Force of Gravity, ATC – Air traffic control (FAA), NAS – Naval Air Station, Rolls-Royce – Original designer and manufacturer of the V-12 Merlin engine (under license during WWII, the US  Packard Corporation also built thousands of Merlin engines)