The Experience of a Lifetime!
It’s a rare thing to see a P-51 flying these days, let alone to be able to say that you personally know someone who owns one. Then, to be offered a ride in one is about as rare as it gets, especially for an airplane geek like me! February 28, 2015, armed with my wits, an iron will to hold my breakfast down 😉 and my iPhone, I took to the skies in the back of one of the most beautiful P-51s out there, “Lady Alice,” owned and operated by Ken Wagner. It was the ride of a lifetime, something that I have dreamt about so many times and it was incredible! Thank you, Ken, for one of the coolest experiences of my life!
It was a spontaneous event, so I only had my iPhone with me. Nonetheless I was able to put together a short video and some pictures from it so, I hope you enjoy! Needless to say, I feel a P-51 ARF kit bash in the future. I need a “Lady Alice” P-51 in my hangar so that I can push it around while making airplane noises to relive this unforgettable day! The full story follows below:
A Typical Morning
Saturday, February 28, 2015 started out like any other day really. We had driven up to my parents’ house the night before since we had some family activities to attend to that day. We had arrived late, but my dad stayed up for us as he wanted very much to invite me to go to the hangar at Chino with him. You see, my dad has been helping to restore a PT-17 Stearman with his friends and they all share a hangar at Chino airport. They are all RC guys with an undeniable love for airplanes and aviation. Ken Wagner is amongst them and hangars his two aircraft there (the P-51 “Lady Alice” and an N3N) alongside the beautiful bones of the PT-17 that is a work in progress. My mom always loves time with the kids, so I was happy to join my dad for a father/son day working on the PT-17. It doesn’t get much better than that!
According to plan, we headed out early to the usual meeting spot, Flo’s Airport Cafe. It was a brisk morning with the breath of rain in the air as a grey dappled blanket floated above; thankfully, though, nothing too threatening. As we drove, an occasional glow of sunshine would peek through offering a gleam of anticipation for what waited behind. We filled up on the usual eggs and biscuits and gravy, the hearty breakfast required for a morning of airplane restoration work! Filled to the brim, we made our trip to the hangar. As the hangar doors opened, the first thing that came into my sight was the sparkle of Ken’s beautiful P-51. She was resting peacefully, primarily covered in blankets, but still a beautiful sight to behold if even under wraps. We walked in and my dad went straight to his work. The task at hand was to final install the brakes onto the Stearman as the previous week there had been some difficulties getting the right side brake to fully seat. Of course, before I could begin to help, I had to tour the hangar and explore all the goodies and airplanes like a kid in a candy store. I had been there only a few times before, so it was fun to see what was new and rediscover some forgotten treasures as well. Needless to say, throughout the morning, the highlight was getting up close and personal with “Lady Alice.”
Around mid-morning, a flash of sunlight peered through the back door and Ken Wagner came walking into the hangar. Ken is a really fun and personable guy who offered up morning pleasantries to all who were there as he looked to see what we were up to. I’ve known Ken for a number of years through my dad, for in addition to flying full size, he is an accomplished RC pilot. Ken enjoys flying jets and warbirds and can be found at many of the local west coast RC events with his good friend Col Bob Thacker (another well-known RC pilot/designer and former AF test pilot). I always enjoy Ken’s company and relish the stories he tells about flying “Lady Alice” and where he’s flown. During our conversation, Ken revealed that his plan for the day was to fly “Lady Alice” to Palm Springs for a celebration of a new flyable P-51 which was out there. There was the looming threat of rain, so his hope was to get to Palm Springs early if the weather allowed it. There was a twinkle in his eye and with a small endorsement from my dad, Ken turned to me and asked if I would like to join him–if my schedule allowed it. Before even processing what I had just been asked, my mouth blurted out “YES!” If my schedule wasn’t clear, it was about to be–and in an instant, the airplane was awakened from her blanket covered slumber, I had been briefed, and was strapped into the airplane!
Strapped into a Piece of History
The rear jump seat in “Lady Alice” is surprisingly roomy, especially considering you’re sitting in the rear half of a P-51 cockpit. Getting in, however, is a different story. It took some torqueing (no, not twerking…) and a slight arch of the back, but it was manageable enough to squeeze between the inside of the canopy and the front seat. As I sat strapped in, the airplane was towed out of the hangar and the excitement roiled up inside me. I couldn’t believe where I was: sitting inside this P-51, knowing I was about to soar inside of this stunning warbird. I was in shear disbelief!
With the pre-flight checks complete and the airplane ready to go, Ken hopped into the front seat and began the start-up sequence. The fuel pump sang as it primed the engine, then after a brief silence, the 12 cylinders of Rolls-Royce Merlin magic turned over, spitting smoke from the exhausts as it started. The engine purred like a beast of the Sahara at idle. We taxied to the runway with the canopy open and pulled into the run-up position for the engine and mag checks. The canopy was closed, brakes applied, then Ken throttled up for the engine checks giving me a glimpse as to what lay in store ahead of us. With the checks completed and clearance from the tower given, we taxied onto the runway.
The Flight: A Wannabe Flyboy’s Dream
I was surprisingly pushed back into my seat as Ken applied the throttle for takeoff. As we accelerated, the Saharan beast beneath the cowling began to howl as the Merlin engine came alive. On acceleration, the tail wiggled, seeking a straight path along the runway, and within what seemed an instant, we were airborne. I welled up with excitement as we climbed skyward, enjoying the view of the Chino airport slowly shrinking below us. We turned outbound, heading towards Palm Springs.
The weather was nothing short of amazing with cloud formations all around. The clouds hovering above and below us offered a beautiful contrast to the scenery, painting a breathtaking canvas before us. As we flew, we skirted and maneuvered about the clouds as they passed on our right and left; it was a wannabe flyboy’s dream come true! The air was remarkably smooth given the numerous misty clouds around and about us. We came to a clearing in the clouds at which time Ken (after a quick thumbs up confirmation I was doing well) pitched the nose up and rolled “Lady Alice” onto her back, gave a quick hesitation in the inverted and rolled her right again. I was giddy as a school girl sitting in that jump seat, being unable to wipe the smile from my face, even if I wanted to. After a bit longer, continuing to skirt the clouds as we flew, Ken pitched the aircraft up a second time and rolled us again. It was just as awesome as the first time! I had always dreamed of flying fighters (hence my affinity for scale RC) and have dreamed of rolling in an aircraft, oh, for so long, never having had the opportunity. It was all that I wanted it to be!
We continued on our way as the Merlin engine sang, noticing more clouds forming as we flew along. Before long rain began to fall, at which time Ken decided to abort the trip to Palm Springs and return to Chino. Promptly, he turned us around and began our descent. As we descended, it was noticeably bumpier (much to the dismay of my stomach) especially over Lake Mathews and the hills adjacent to it. “Lady Alice” howled into the pattern at 250 KIAS and once adjacent to the tower, Ken rolled the aircraft into a steep bank to slow the airplane down, pushing me down into my seat as we turned. I imagined myself returning from a successful sortie in WWII as we turned in our overhead approach pattern. At 150 KIAS, Ken dropped the gear and we both observed 3 green lights on the instrument panel (indicating the gear was down and locked). I gave Ken 3 firm pats on the shoulder, letting him know that I was in agreement the gear was down, and we were ready for landing.
We turned to base and approached the runway as Ken throttled back the beastly Merlin. The touchdown was as though we had been settled into a large pillow, soft and perfect. The tail again wagged and slowly settled onto the runway. We pulled onto the taxiway, called up ground, and began our taxi back to the hangar.
A Successful Mission
As we rolled along the taxi way, I reflected on the flight and was in complete awe of the experience I had just had. It was without a doubt one of the most amazing experiences imaginable; even now, I still can’t believe it! We pulled up to the hangar and Ken shut down the engine, bringing to rest our Saharan cat. Getting out of the airplane, he turned to me and asked, “What did you think?”–to which I promptly blurted out, “INCREDIBLE!” With a smile he dismounted the airplane and I lingered in the cockpit for a while, crawling into the front and relishing the beauty of what it must be like to fly the P-51.
Unfortunately, at some point it all had to end and after I had my fill of making airplane noises while sitting in the front seat and pretending to fly sorties over northern Europe in 1944, I dismounted the airplane. Ken pushed her back into the hangar and tucked her back into sweet dreams, covering her in blankets so she could rest up for her next sortie. Amazingly, not more than minutes after getting the airplane into the hangar, the skies opened up with a full rain squall. Perfect timing on our arrival!
The flight was only about ½ hour in duration, but it was perfect. Stellar views, a beast cowled before us, and the elegance of flight–what more could one ask for? As I reflect on the experience from the day, I can honestly say, it was something that happens once in a lifetime. I have dreamed since I was a kid of flying fighters and high performance aircraft (eyes weren’t sufficient to be a pilot in the military) and that dream was realized that day. It is one thing to behold and appreciate the beauty of the P-51 design with its elegant lines, powerful engine and laminar flow wing, but to experience firsthand the power, the aerodynamics and sheer delight of how that design operates brings that appreciation to a whole new level. It brings it to life! This was the work horse of our US military for so many years and even now, it represents so much more than just an airplane design. The P-51 is a pivotal piece of aviation history that has influenced so many future aircraft designs and I was fortunate enough to experience that history first hand with just a simple ride.
Thank you, Ken, so much for an unforgettable experience! You are an RC Hero!