P-51B "Eager Beaver"
The department head's meeting was over, and Major Broadhead, our CO, said the only fair way was to choose numbers. I guessed number one; it turned out to be the lucky one. I had won a ride in a piggyback Mustang!
I suppose there have been piggyback P-51's converted before, but some ingenious mechanic in our top-scoring 357th Fighter Group had dreamed this one up by himself. The radio was taken out, the guns were taken out, and an extra seat complete with air speed indicator and altimeter was directly behind the pilot. As a "paddlefoot" usually on friendly relations with pilots, I had gotten quite a few rides, but never in an operational, single-seater fighter aircraft. I've always wanted to ride in one - but I was a little bit scared, too. Major Broadhead, on his second tour and with eight ME 109s to his credit, didn't make me any more at ease by explaining how difficult it would be to bail out. The make-shift canopy may stick, and things happen awfully fast.
It seemed that at least half the GI's in the squadron were watching me climb into the ship - secretly hoping I'd get the hell scared out of me. Which - I did.
Bob taxied to 06 (the long runway), and before I knew it we were airborne. It was a beautiful day, with a layer of white baby wool clouds at 5,000 feet. Bob climbed up slowly through a hole, although to me the altimeter seemed to be spinning like the second hand of a watch. Then before I knew what was happening, the nose of the ship dropped and the plane seemed to be falling right out of the sky. The aie speed rose..200..250..300..350...and the nose came up again. All the weight of my body seemed to be directly against the seat. Ice water was flowing through my legs instead of blood. My jaw had involuntarily dropped, and I could feel my cheeks and eyes sag like an old man's. I tried to lift my arms; they seemed glued to my lap. This, then, was G strain. Approximately four G's, Bob said later.
Now the nose was going straight up. If the altimeter had looked like a second hand before, it looked like a Ferris Wheel now. Before I knew it, we had looped. Not being satisfied with a gentle pullout, Broadhead dropped her on one wing, and did a barrel roll.
After a few minutes of straight and level flying (while I got my breath back), Bob decided to hedgehop some clouds. A beautiful layer of white fleece stretched, endless as earth, as far as the eye could see. Toward it we dived, 300 miles per hour. For five minutes Bob indulged in his favorite relaxation of clipping the tops off clouds and turning on one wing. Occasionally the earth would wink at us, or clouds would engulf us from every direction.
"Now what would you like to do?" Bob seemed to signal from his cockpit. Ther was nothing I would rather do at the moment than get out and walk home - but that seemed a little impractical. Bob seemed to be making all sorts of "hangar flying" motions with his hand. In my brief experience, that hinted of violent maneuvers to come. Happily, I pointed to a lone fortress at seven o'clock. I thought we might fly alongside and wave at the pilot. Instead, we peeled off and made a pass at him.
There turned out to be two forts, and two mustangs were already giving them a bad time. It wasn't long until a flight of four more arrived from nowhere and joined in the fun. It was about that thime that everything from nowhere I had ever heard about "ratraces" was completely forgotten; I was learning from scratch. For a while I kept my eyes on two 51's directly overhead. I looked straight down, and there was the sun. We were up, down and around the bombers - right on the tail of a 51 - on our side, upside down, in a dive, in a pullout, I lost all trace of horizon, airspeed, ground...my head was spinning...the prop was spinning... I was conscious only of the throb of the engine and the occasional flash of an airplane overhead.
After a king-size eternity, the ratrace was over, and although I could not see Bob's face, I knew he was grinning from ear to ear. We had been up about thirty minutes. Seeing nothing else of interest, Bob headed "Eager Beaver" for 373. we flew straight and level, on a compass heading, all the way home. I saw a town of around 90,000 from the air, but I couldn't get very interested in it. I felt dead tired, as if I had worked a week without resting and had suddenly stopped. I had the thought that I was dead weight as much as a sack of flour. I wanted to collapse.
By the time we arrived at the station I felt much better. The field looked like three toothpicks touching, with the ends overlapping. The altimeter read 8,500 feet.
"Fifteen minutes more, and we'll be landing," I thought. bob grinned back at me. More maneuvers with his left had. I nodded agreement, and wondered what would come next.
One wing suddenly slipped out from under us, and we were upside down. Little pieces of mud an debris went past my eyes and hit the canopy, I remember thinking they were falling upside down. Then the nose dropped, and we split-essed out, going straight for the ground. The airspeed increased; the earth grew larger. The huge prop was spinning like a man gone mad. I watched the airspeed: 350...400...425. The altimeter was spinning backward like a watch going the wrong way...6,000...5,000...4,000. The earth had never looked so hard. At 2,000 we leveled out, with the airspeed indication 450.
After that, the peeloff and landing seemed dull. We had traveled a vertical mile in a matter of seconds, and had reached approximately 550 miles pre hour ground speed. The landing was rough. I tried to swallow, and couldn't. My throat was dry. My hair was tousled, my legs were cold, my face was white, and I was glad to be on the ground.
Thanks to Major Broadhead, that was forty-five minutes of my life I'll never forget. And each time I remember it, the more I enjoy it!
By Paul Henslee, 362nd FS Adjutant and Executive Officer