Sunday, October 19, 2008

Cadillac of the Skies

A compelling scene from a non-aviation movie made in 1987, Empire of the Sun, still sends chills down the necks of those of us who love flight and its history. Who can forget the sight of the British lad Jim, played by Christian Bale, standing on the rooftop of his prison barracks, after years of incarceration by the Japanese, seeing a vision of freedom coming? Remember the scene? What form did the freedom take? Click this link and watch: 

For today’s generation, it’s a symbol of the finest aviation can be: a flying machine that guaranteed our right to enjoy the freedom of flight; a machine so beautiful, simply seeing it is like kneeling in front of an altar. And for a blessed few, owning and flying one of the few that are left must be like stepping onto Heaven’s threshold. Okay, maybe that’s a bit over the line, but is it too cheesy to assert that the Mustang is a gift from God to a people who needed a good fighter? 

Personally, I think it’s the apple of His eye, too.

Denny Hickman, of Reform, Alabama is one of those blessed few. Denny worked hard to amass his fortunes and he deserves every cent. He used some of it to buy a Mustang, one that actually saw service with the 8th Air Force in Europe during WWII. And yesterday, during Fayette Alabama’s annual Airport Day, Denny invited me and three other Yak and Nanchang pilots to join up with him.

Denny pulled his throttle way back so that we could catch him, and I eased up along his right side. The others took his left and rear positions. I settled on that stubby wing, about three feet from it, and tried to control my breathing. The sight of the Mustang sitting there, inches away—the same sight countless WWII fighter pilots had seen—made my pulse race. How many pilots had ever done this? Had ever seen what my eyeballs were seeing? Dudes, I was entranced! This was a lifetime experience.

As we clung to Denny while he made a couple of passes down the runway for the crowd, I noticed my visual sense wasn’t the only one enjoying a king’s feast. I was hearing something other than my engine. It was a steady buzz, with a faint undertone of a growl. I took my hand off the throttle and pulled a side of my helmet away from my ear. It got louder. It was the Merlin! All 1,500 horses!

It was horsepower you could see at work. Denny had a bright yellow band painted on the tips of his prop and that huge thing spun so furiously it burned a brilliant yellow circle in the blue sky, a circle so big and bright it looked like Saturn’s rings.

The 15 minutes with Denny passed in a tizzy and we were back on deck, slapping each other’s backs, thanking Denny to the extreme. He wished we would quit thanking him. He took off and headed for home, but made a fly-by first. I saw those immaculate wings swing to the horizontal and that yellow circle pulling that magnificent airframe along behind it, zipping, pulling up in front of us, wings waggling so-long, the Merlin bathing the airport with its song. I wanted to jump up like Jim, and yell, “P-51 MUSTANG—CADILLAC OF THE SKIES!”

What a day it was. If I never fly again, I’ll be content to let that be a crowning culmination of a great life of flight.

I couldn’t take any pics of the Mustang because I was too close to it. But this photo, taken by Blake Mathis of Denny’s plane a week ago in Muscle Shoals, gives you a glimpse of its beauty. I was much closer to it than this.