Sierra Sue II

The Story of a P-51 Mustang

Great Planes Press

ISBN 0-7388-0889-X


Chapter One
Wednesday and Thursday

North of the Minnesota River, between the two small prairie towns of Belle Plaine and Jordan, the country is dark green, hilly and rugged.  South of the river it is bottomland and flat pasture marked by an occasional silver-domed silo sticking up.  Patches of woods are splattered like green Rorschach blotches on the otherwise brown landscape.  The sky over this ten mile stretch is outside commercial traffic lanes and the FAA control zone.  It is remote airspace, the perfect location for practicing aerial combat maneuvering at sunset.

Doc climbed to 6500 feet and positioned himself just over the crude grass strip of the Belle Plaine Airport.  He closed the radiator scoop door on the belly of Sierra Sue II and made two quick turns, standing her on her left wing, then her right wing to check for any traffic below.

The beginning of his workout was always the same: a zoom-dive heading east to start a huge loop that took him over the top at 9000 feet.  What followed was never the same from day to day: a varied sequence of loops, Immelmanns, Cuban eights, reverse Cuban eights, aileron rolls and tight slewing turns which were all tied together in a continuous east-west drift.  Sometimes it was one loop instead of two, or three Cuban eights.  He varied the order too, depending on speed, altitude and position at the end of each maneuver.

The finish was also always the same: one-and-a-half rolls going straight up belly to the sun just over the Belle Plaine airstrip.  He began the maneuver Wednesday just as the sun touched the horizon and left behind a heavy prairie twilight that seemed as palpable as soup.

Coming over the top of his last loop, Doc added two hundred rpm's and four inches of manifold pressure as he headed down.  At the bottom of the loop, his airspeed hit 320 mph and he pulled back hard on the stick and the elevators dug in.  The G-meter indicated six Gs as Sierra Sue II lugged straight up against gravity.

At 5000 feet Doc neutralized the stick--centered it momentarily to remove all back pressure so that Sierra Sue II would not continue looping.  A second later, he jerked the stick to the right.  The first corkscrew was immediate and the horizon whirled like a top.

It took only two seconds to complete the full roll, but Sierra Sue II's rate of climb dropped suddenly from the drag of her wings spinning against the climb.  Now timing was critical.  He had only a second to complete the last half roll before she ran out of climbing speed and stalled out.

Suddenly she shuddered.  Her nose tipped slightly back, and Doc felt her beginning to hang.

Still, he told himself, I've been here before.  On the edge at the top of a vertical roll.  Close to falling onto my back instead of nosing forward.  Close to sliding into a dangerous power-on spin.  He was confident that he knew exactly where the edge was, and how to stop short of it.

Without completing the last half roll, he thrust the stick forward to get her nose down.  He jammed the right rudder to the floor, to keep her from pivoting left.

Neither counter-measure worked.  Sierra Sue II dropped backwards and then slid into an upright, flat spin.  The powerful left torque of her engine threw her nose around the axis of her cockpit as she dropped five hundred feet a turn.  Fifteen seconds later, still holding right rudder and forward stick, he knew he was in an uncontrollable, power-on spin.

"Power-on spins are extremely dangerous," the wartime manual for P-51 Mustang fighter pilots warned.  "They must never be performed under any circumstance."

Who the hell would perform one? Doc had questioned when he had first read the manual warning.  You got into it by mistake.  Once into it, she spun and turned uncontrollably with her nose slightly up, the spin tightening until she was just an engine whirling rapidly around her own cockpit.  The best chance for escape was to cut the throttle and pray.

After three more spins, Doc pulled back the power.  She spun two more times, lurching and shuddering as the wind whistled around the spinning airframe.

She stopped her left whirl suddenly and bucked to the right.  Doc's body jerked left, reflex English against the sudden change of direction.  He also slammed left rudder now, still holding the stick forward to get her nose down.

As suddenly as she had veered right, she whirled left again.

"God-damnit!" Doc swore.  "She's going down!"

He had fallen almost 3000 feet in less than a minute.  Despite cutting the power,  Sierra Sue II's nose remained up, the spin tightened, and Doc felt as if he were being sucked into a vortex.

At 2000 feet, he shouted, "Back to the basics!"

He pulled the stick to neutral, pumped it forward twice, then held it.  At the same time he held hard right rudder.

At 1500 feet, her nose lifted twenty degrees.  Her spin slowed and the whistle of wind died.  She stopped rotating momentarily and seemed to freeze in the sky.

Doc tensed.  What's she gonna do now? he thought.

She snap-rolled left suddenly.  Doc felt himself hanging in the straps.  A screwdriver and pliers cradled in the cockpit longeron fell past his face and clattered in the dish of the upside-down canopy.

"If the normal recovery procedure doesn't take you out of the spin," the Mustang manual's instructions for spin recovery read, "let the controls go."  It was recognition that once a Mustang was deep into her spin, she was in command of herself and recovery controls had no effect.  "Fix in your mind the altitude at which to bail out," the manual advised finally, "and bail out before it is too late."

It was good advice, except Doc never wore a chute.

He rode out the snap-roll and braced himself.

At 1200 feet, Sierra Sue II finished her abrupt roll with her nose down forty-five degrees.  A second later, Doc got his bearings looking south toward the town of Belle Plaine.

"She's flying!" he shouted.

He eased the stick back gently to avoid diving into pasture.  He glanced at his airspeed--110 mph--and pushed the power up slowly.  She swooped up and he turned left gradually to avoid Belle Plaine.  He headed east down the river valley over familiar territory.  He shook violently from the adrenaline rush, and his heart fell into what he recognized were supra-ventricular contractions--premature heartbeats that thumped in his chest like a trip-hammer.

Now I'm gonna have a heart attack! he thought.

With his free hand he pounded himself on the chest twice.  The blows, he knew from his medical training, sent tiny electrical impulses through his chest and depolarized the irregular rhythms.

He landed on runway 27L, bouncing Sierra Sue II awkwardly.  He taxied, parked, put the chocks and stack plugs in place, then walked shakily to his car.

Driving away, Doc glanced back at Sierra Sue II.  He had had her painted with her exact combat markings: a flat silver with her name in bright blue script just beneath her exhaust stacks; farther back, the cowling portrait of a sultry brunette in a peasant blouse, one bare shoulder cocked forward, seemed to be accusing him of inept flying.

He looked away quickly and drove home.  That night he poured himself a stiff vodka and sat staring into space in his leather fireplace chair, trying to rebuild his confidence.

"What the hell," he told himself, "I got out of it."

But that conclusion was contradicted by the sinking feeling that he was a lucky son-of-a-bitch who had miraculously escaped an uncontrollable spin.

On his hospital rounds the next day, he stared at charts in a half daze and kept seeing himself as a ghost who had died the day before.  By noon, his confidence was so shaken that he found himself mentally rehearsing the simplest rules for piloting an airplane.

How in hell can I go to Omaha and fly in an air show in front of a huge crowd if I'm spooked? he questioned.

At dusk he headed again for Flying Cloud Airport.

Flying Cloud sits on the north bluff overlooking the Minnesota River where it winds a course ten miles southwest of Minneapolis.  On the south side of the airport, at the edge of the bluff, the Flying Cloud tower sticks up with green windows like fish tank glass.  A sign on the tower marks the elevation at 905 feet.

Doc mounted Sierra Sue II by stepping first on the top of the wheel with his good leg, then swinging the knee of his bad left leg onto the wing.  Once seated in the cockpit, he finished his checklist quickly.

"Mustang Five One Delta," he called the tower at 8:30 p.m.  "I'm ready to taxi, departing southwest."  Straight for Belle Plaine, he was determined.  And right into another vertical roll.

"Mustang One Seven Five One Delta," a woman's voice recited carefully from the tower.  A trainee controller, Doc realized, breaking in on the busy but uncomplicated traffic at Flying Cloud.  "Taxi to 27L," she directed slowly.

Doc taxied and held short of the runway until the trainee controller cleared him for takeoff and a southwest turn toward Belle Plaine.  For a second night, the roar of Sierra Sue II's engine down the runway brought out a gallery of grease monkeys, pilots and spectators.

As soon as Sierra Sue II lifted off the runway, the familiar feel of the stick and Doc's pilot instincts took over.

"What the hell was I so spooked about?" he wondered aloud.

With his left hand, he pulled the handle to retract the gear.  Climbing gradually west, he glanced at the green gear lights on the top of the instrument panel.  They were both still on.

Maybe only a light switch failure, Doc guessed.  Recycle the gear, he told himself.  Put them back down, then up again.  If it's a bad connection in the light switch, the recycling procedure might somehow correct it.

He reached again for the red handle on the left side of the cockpit.  He pushed it forward and checked his flight path as he continued climbing a mile west of Flying Cloud.

When he glanced back at the green gear lights, only the right one was on now.

Still in his climb, he felt Sierra Sue II wobble and crab.  This was no light switch failure.  Sierra Sue II's left gear had stayed up and she was now a dangerous, one-legged bird.

He immediately throttled back to 160 mph and banked thirty degrees left over the river valley.  He held the turn until he was headed back toward the tower at 2000 feet.  Passing just south of the tower, right at the edge of the river bluffs, he called for confirmation of his predicament.  "Mustang Five One Delta.  Check my gear."

It was the trainee controller who answered.  "Mustang One Seven Five One Delta," she said carefully, "your nose wheel is down.  Your main gear are not down."

"I don't have a nose gear!" Doc snapped.  "Check again."

Thirty seconds later, after the tower put binoculars on Sierra Sue II, a familiar Flying Cloud controller's voice came on.  "Correction.  Your right gear is all the way down.  Your left gear is still up."

Doc banked slowly right and advised the tower that he was heading southwest back to the area over Belle Plaine and Jordan.  The challenge of confronting a vertical roll was forgotten.  He'd have to put Sierra Sue II through a series of violent, sudden maneuvers in an effort to shake her gear loose.  Failing that, the challenge would be to crash land her.

Along the way, he tried again to recycle the gear.  This time when he pulled on the red gear handle, it was stuck.  A sure sign of some linkage screwup, Doc felt.

He remembered then that earlier in the week he had detected a small hydraulic leak somewhere in the left wheel-well.  In an effort to pinpoint the spot of the leak, he had stuffed a small rag into the well.  Now he figured the rag had come loose, wrapped around one of the gear rods, and jammed the linkage.

In a few minutes he was at 2000 feet over the town of Jordan, heading for Belle Plaine.  He squared himself firmly in the cockpit and began climbing.  At 4000 feet, he put Sierra Sue II into a steep, sixty degree dive.  His air speed quickly shot to 220 mph.  At 2500 feet he pulled up sharply so that four Gs tugged down on Sierra Sue II's airframe.  At the same time he wiggled and jerked the jammed gear handle and watched for the left green light to come on.

The light remained off.  At 4000 feet again, he pushed the stick forward and Sierra Sue II arched as if she were going over the top loop of a roller-coaster ride.  This time one-and-a-half negative Gs made Doc float in his seat.  But the sudden buoyancy did not unload the gear.

Short of Belle Plaine, Doc turned steeply back toward Jordan.  He dove a second time, then zoom-climbed and went over the top, still hoping that the sudden combination of down-load and lift would break the gear loose.

The green light stayed off.

Doc flew a third and fourth route between the two prairie towns, diving and swooping up, jiggling the red handle of the gear lever.

The handle remained stuck and the gear still refused to come down.

On the fifth route, turning west back toward Belle Plaine, Doc thought, I'm gonna move that handle.  I don't give a shit if it breaks off.

He put Sierra Sue II in level flight, reached for the handle, and gave it a series of rapid jerks.  Then he pulled steadily at it with a lunge that flushed his face and bent him in the cockpit.

The handle broke free and Doc banged against the seat.

He glanced at the instrument panel.  The stubborn left green gear light was still off.  He noticed too that his hydraulic pressure gauge dropped to 250 psi and then stayed there.

It could only mean one thing.  Tugging on the gear handle had broken the linkage and snapped a hydraulic line somewhere.  Meanwhile, the left gear remained stuck in the wheel-well.  He'd have to crab Sierra Sue II in flight, angling the wheel-well into the wind to lock the gear down.

Doc applied full right rudder.  Sierra Sue II responded immediately and crabbed through the sky.  She also began rolling right, and Doc countered the roll with heavy left aileron.  The effect of the cocked attitude was to run the left gear almost sideways into a rush of air.  Sierra Sue II wobbled, buffeted and whistled from the canted flight.

The green light remained off.

"C'mon!" Doc begged.

He turned over Belle Plaine and headed back toward Jordan.  This time he increased his speed and hurtled Sierra Sue II through the sky like a car broad-sliding on ice.

The green light was still out.

He turned again toward Belle Plaine.  Now he alternated slamming the rudder pedals so that Sierra Sue II yawed left, then abruptly right into the wind.

No green light.

He checked his gas.  Enough for fifteen more minutes.

I'll keep trying, he told himself, until the gear breaks loose.

But after four more runs, he vowed, "One more time!"

One more time back toward Jordan failed.

Another "one more time" and he checked his gas again.  Down to ten minutes.  Five minutes to get back, he calculated, and five extra if he had to circle Flying Cloud before landing.

"One more run," he paraphrased the dark joke of Catch 22, "than the five more I've already done."

Nothing.  Sierra Sue II was still a one-legged bird.

He turned a last time over Belle Plaine.  I'm gonna have to decide where to crash land, he thought.  For a second he considered the crude grass strip directly below at Belle Plaine.  But there was a ditch at the north end of the field, too short for Mustang comfort.  Besides, landing on a rough grass strip could bend the airframe beyond repair.  After having survived more than forty years of flight, from perilous combat over Germany to his own hard combat maneuvering in her at U.S. air shows, she'd be lost forever,  destroyed in a crash landing on a remote piece of Midwest prairie.  She was too historical for such an ignominious end.

It had to be Flying Cloud, he decided.  He headed back for the familiar airport.  Maybe she'll slide on the concrete, he hoped.

Back to basics, he reminded himself again.

The manual "basics" for a one-gear landing were simple:

Roll the canopy back on final.  Flaps down max to cut speed.  Keep the right wing on her gear side low.  Touch down simultaneously on her right gear and her tail wheel.  Horse right aileron to keep her left wing up as long as possible.  Then let her down smoothly onto her left wingtip.  Stomp full right brakes and pray she slides.

If Sierra Sue II didn't nose in or cartwheel, he could save the airframe.  Still, damage would be considerable: prop, $50,000, he figured quickly; wingtip, $2000; spinner, $2000; belly scoop, $20,000.  And he'd wind up a no-show at Offutt.  He pictured General Urschler going through the briefing roll call, with half the warbirds not there because they weren't O.R. or "Operation Ready," a euphemism for too dangerous to fly or already crashed.

"Doc?" Urschler would call his name for the Mustang flight.

No answer.

"Doc?" the general would look around.  "Sierra Sue II?" 

Still no answer.

"No-show!" Urschler would pronounce and go on.  Meanwhile, a few of the pilots would wonder what the hell had happened to Doc.  Had he bought the farm?  Sierra Sue II with him?

Tough luck, they would say, and Doc imagined his own pithy eulogy:  Nobody ever flew a Mustang harder.

So what happened?  He throw a piston at Reno?  Auger at Oshkosh?

He crashed at Flying Cloud.

Flying Cloud?  Where the hell is Flying Cloud?

The left green light came on just past Jordan.

"She's down!" Doc shouted and pounded the canopy.

His relief was short-lived.  He noticed now that his hydraulic gauge indicated only two hundred pounds of pressure, maybe not enough to put the flaps down for a slow, flared landing that would keep her from rolling off the end of the Flying Cloud runway.

He reached for the flap handle and set it at the first of six notches.  Then he glanced at the flaps and watched them travel down slowly from what little hydraulic pressure remained in the lines.

Six miles out of Flying Cloud, he called into the tower.  "Five One Delta.  I've done some fooling around out here.  I think my gear came down.  I've got two green lights.  I'm coming in.  Give me a check from the tower as soon as you can tell."

He pictured the tower officials searching the horizon for him with binoculars.  It seemed forever before a voice broke the drone of the Merlin engine:  "Both gear appear down."

Doc continued heading straight for the tower.  "Better clear out traffic," he told them.  "I'm not sure where this thing will go if the gear isn't locked."  He didn't bother to explain that he wasn't sure he could get the flaps down any farther either.

The tower directed a light Cherokee on final to go around.  The rest of the traffic was ordered to hold or clear out.  Meanwhile, Doc crossed the Minnesota River valley and put his flaps down another notch, slowing Sierra Sue II slightly to 140 mph.

He turned base leg over the river bluffs, and a sharp final over the abandoned drive-in movie screen east of the field.

One more flap notch slowed him to 110 mph as he swooped down for 27L.  But the flaps would not travel to the fourth setting that would have let him flare Sierra Sue II, and she hit the runway hard and rolled fast.

Small groups of observers watched Doc's landing from along the line of hangars on the north side of Flying Cloud.  A few had seen him go off toward Belle Plaine with only one gear down.  Others had overheard him explain to the tower that he wasn't sure where she would go on landing.  They watched him land Sierra Sue II, then slide back the canopy and lay both arms along the canopy sills as she rolled.  Either he was one of the coolest son-of-a-bitches in aviation, somebody said, or nuts.

Sierra Sue II stopped in the striped yellow warning zone at the end of 27L.  By the time he had taxied back to his tie-down spot on the parking ramp, half a dozen witnesses to his predicament had gathered.

"We saw you go out with only your right gear," one of them called as soon as he had shut her down.

"My linkage jammed," Doc said and hauled himself out of the cockpit.  "I was sweating it."  There was a huge dark circle on the back of his shirt.

"Sweating it!  When you touched down, with that no-hands landing shit, you looked like you were out for a Sunday drive."

He didn't bother to explain that his landings weren't as casual as they seemed.