From the Cockpit Part 50: TF-51 Mustang

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Editor’s Note: This is part 50 of an ongoing series documenting the flights of active-duty US Navy Pilot Ryan Rankin on his journey to fly 52 planes in 52 weeks through the year 2017.

When Rankin began this journey almost a year ago, there was one particular plane that he had in mind and was looking forward to—the P-51 Mustang. Arguably the most famous and most celebrated of the Allied World War II warbirds, the Mustang was built during the war as an “immediate response to an immediate need,” according to Cliff Atkins, the pilot who took Rankin up on the momentous flight. And despite being designed with a pencil and paper and made by hand, the Mustang ensured Allied superiority over the German Luftwaffe and its pilots claimed nearly 5,000 enemy aircraft downed.

“It’s almost like when you walk up to someone important of famous,” says Rankin, of the experience. “You want to respect the airplane and put your best foot forward.” He remembers having his own toy Mustang as a child, just as his son does now. But though almost “starstruck,” it’s still, on some level, just a plane. And Rankin knows planes.

Flying out of Pensacola International Airport with Atkins, the opportunity to fly such a rare bird comes from the Collings Foundation, an organization dedicated to historic preservation and outreach, including but not limited to aircraft. Each year, the Foundation brings various WWII-era aircraft across the country as part of its Wings of Freedom campaign to raise awareness and sell rides (to support further outreach). In Rankin’s case, Collings is in the dream-making business.

To be fair, the Mustang is not technically a P-51, but a TF-51. They are essentially identical machines, except the TF-51 sports two seats, each with flight controls and avionics. Otherwise, Rankin would merely be a passenger.

Now, the scariest thing about meeting one’s heroes is the danger of being let down—that an awesome musician or actor or Nobel Peace Prize Winner just might not be an awesome person as well. In Rankin’s case, the Mustang was everything he hoped for. With the exception of some highfalutin, high-tech modern autopilots, he’s never experienced a smoother or more hands-off aircraft. “You trim it up and it goes in a straight line,” he says. It’s almost a given that prop planes are going to shudder and shake to some degree, but the Mustang doesn’t even do that. “It’s just a clean, smooth airplane,” says Rankin. “Coupled with how old it is and how quickly it was developed, it’s striking how smooth it actually is.”

Taking to the skies with Atkins, Rankin spends a little bit longer than usual, about 40 minutes, enjoying the flight. They get into the aerobatics, including an eight-point aileron roll from Atkins. A regular aileron roll roughly consists of “throwing” the stick to the side and rolling in the sky. And eight-point roll requires the pilot to roll the plane in eight separate movements, pausing at intervals in the roll. It’s a bit trickier, but a common airshow maneuver.

The only drawback—maybe—is the gas mileage. The Mustang is a guzzler. With a Rolls Royce Merlin engine powering the whole affair, the plane goes through about a gallon a minute, with fuel costing roughly $5 a gallon. But that’s hardly a negative, according to Rankin. “It’s an incredible aircraft and there’s no other way to put it,” he says. “And if you can afford a Mustang—millions of dollars—then you can afford the gas.

For more about the flight in Rankin's own words and a video of the flight, follow the link below.

Pictured: Ryan Rankin in a TF-51 Mustang. Photo courtesy of Ryan Rankin.

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