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        P-51 Mustang
A restored P-51 Mustang in Flight    (NASA photograph by Jim Ross)

Fighter still in the sky

by Pat Christian

     Is Russ McDonald the luckiest man in the world or what!
     The 70-year-old Park City resident owns and flies a P-51 Mustang, arguably the finest all-around fighter of World War II, and it's keeping the retired airline pilot forever young.

     We landlubbers sat on University Avenue in Provo watching the Fourth of July parade.
     But not McDonald. He was looking down on us as he buzzed the parade route in his trusty steed.
     “I flew over the parade at 1,000 feet, then flew home to Park City for a second holiday flyover," McDonald said.
     Although he likes parade flyovers and air shows, the thrills don't come all that cheaply.
     "It costs $600 per hour to fly," McDonald said. "Fuel and oil cost $200 an hour. Then I put $200 an hour into the kitty for overhauling the engine down the road. I also put in another $200 per hour for brakes, tires and required inspections."
     Fortunately, parade and air show organizers often pay for gas and he often flys with a paying passenger. It was designed as single-seater, but he removed a small fuel tank and radio to make room for an extra seat.
     Even though he lives in Park City, you'll usually find him working at his hangar at the Russell McDonald Airport in Heber City on either the P-51 or his acrobatic, double-winged Pitts, which is cheaper to fly than his P-51.
     In 1947, McDonald helped establish the airport in that bears his name today.
     "I fly nearly every day," he said, admitting that neither his Pitts nor his P-51 are really practical transportation. But no problem—he’s a retired United Airlines pilot who flys free on commercial airlines.
     So what's the difference between flying his P-51 the DC-10 he used to fly?
     McDonald jokes the airliner uses even more fuel than his P-51.
     “It (P-51) only averages 60 gallons per hour. And unlike the DC-10, nobody brings you coffee."
     McDonald has been flying since he was 17. He learned to fly at the old Provo, Utah airport.
     He had wanted to be a World War II fighter pilot, but by the time he graduated from high school, military flight schools weren’t taking applications anymore. So the closest he got was finishing the final months of the war driving a fuel truck.

    Author Richard Bach says building a model of an airplane is a mystical act. If done right, it brings the real McCoy into your life he says.
     It seemed to work for McDonald. He admits to having made more than one plastic model of a P-51 as a boy, and voila, now he owns one.
     Especially in the romantic prop-driven days of aviation many red-blooded American boys’ dream was to sit in the office of a P-51.
     But today P-51s are almost as extinct as the passenger pigeon.
     North American Aviation in Inglewood, Calif. and Dallas, Tex. manufactured about 15,575 of the P-51s. Another 100 were made in Australia. But according to McDonald, there are only 144 flying today worldwide. And only 105 of those are in the United States.
     So what's it like to fly in a P-51?
     "It's a lot of fun to fly. I enjoy it every time," McDonald said, but what an understatement.
     McDonald took me up for a 15-minute ride that burned 40 gallons in two short buzzes of the airfield and a little game of upset-the-new-guy's-stomach, where he performed an aileron roll and a barrel roll.
     What a fantastic ride. For a moment I could imagine being a WWII fighter pilot.
     Starting the engine with the P-51’s onboard 24-volt batteries, McDonald warmed up the oil in the 1,680-horsepower V-16 engine and poured Prestone coolant into the planes radiators.
     Then he wobbled down the runway. Until you’re going fast enough to lift the tail-wheel up, the angle of the cockpit doesn’t afford the pilot a good view ahead, so they wobble or weave, back and forth to get a better view ahead of them.
     Pedal to the metal, prop spinning wildly, rolling, rolling faster.        In seconds, we were off the ground climbing fast. It only takes a minute for the P-51 to climb 2,000 feet.
     McDonald’s fine-tuned P-51 was smooth as a feathered eagle in the air. There was hardly any vibration.
     Noise, however, was something else altogether. With our earphones on, we could hardly hear each other talk over the engine’s roar.
     At one point, I lifted the an earphone off one ear, and a good way to describe the experience is to say it was like attending a loud rock concert and sitting inside the biggest, meanest loudspeaker there.
     There's a reason for all the noise—the unmuffled exhausts for the throaty Rolls-Royce Merlin engine exit right in front of the cockpit. I mean right in front of the Plexiglas office window.
     Inside the cockpit, you don't hear that distinctive, powerful whine folks on the ground hear when a P-51 zooms over them.
McDonald says the sound is caused by air being rammed through the belly scoop into a pair of radiators, and you just can’t hear that whine inside the cockpit.
     We were back on the ground almost before we knew it, and McDonald pulled up to his hangar and quickly shut the P-51’s engine off before the water temperature gage got to a critical point.
     "Now I can't turn it back on for four hours," he said. He explained that after the engine heats up to cruising speed, the air being rammed in flight through radiators keeps the plane from overheating. But when it lands, taxiing is just too slow to cool the already-hot engine anymore. So the engine starts to overheat, forcing him to wait for the engine to cool down before he can taxi out for another takeoff.
     “How fast did we fly?” I asked McDonald.
     "We went about 280, max," McDonald answered.
     That was quite a bit slower than the 442 mph maximum speed for the P-51. It was also somewhat slower than the cruising speed of 362 mph.
     No, it hadn’t been the speed of light, but it sure was faster than the speed of flying fun.
     Call me anytime Russ, and I’ll be there.

A version of this story was published in The Daily Herald .

© 2002 Pat Christian
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