This 1967 true story is of an experience by a young 12 year old lad in
Kingston, Ontario, Canada. It is about the vivid memory of a privately
rebuilt P-51 from WWII and its famous owner/pilot.
In the morning sun, I could not believe my eyes.
There, in our little airport, sat a majestic P-51. They said it had
flown in during the night from some U.S. airport, on its way to an air
show. The pilot had been tired, so he just happened to choose Kingston
for his stop over. It was to take to the air very soon.
I marveled at the size of the plane, dwarfing the Pipers and Canucks
tied down by her. It was much larger than in the movies. She glistened
in the sun like a bulwark of security from days gone by.
The pilot arrived by cab, paid the driver, and then stepped into the
pilot's lounge. He was an older man; his wavy hair was gray and tossed.
It looked like it might have been combed, say, around the turn of the
century. His flight jacket was checked, creased and worn - it smelled
old and genuine. Old Glory was prominently sewn to its shoulders. He
projected a quiet air of proficiency and pride devoid of arrogance.
He filed a quick flight plan to Montreal ("Expo-67 Air Show") then
walked across the tarmac.
After taking several minutes to perform his walk-around check, the tall,
lanky man returned to the flight lounge to ask if anyone would be
available to stand by with fire extinguishers while he "flashed the old
bird up, just to be safe." Though only 12 at the time I was allowed to
stand by with an extinguisher after brief instruction on its use -- "If
you see a fire, point, then pull this lever!", he said. (I later became
a firefighter, but that's another story.)
The air around the exhaust manifolds shimmered like a mirror from fuel
fumes as the huge prop started to rotate. One manifold, then another,
and yet another barked -- I stepped back with the others. In moments the
Packard -built Merlin engine came to life with a thunderous roar. Blue
flames knifed from her manifolds with an arrogant snarl. I looked at the
others' faces; there was no concern. I lowered the bell of my
extinguisher. One of the guys signaled to walk back to the lounge. We
Several minutes later we could hear the pilot doing his pre-flight
run-up. He'd taxied to the end of runway 19, out of sight. All went
quiet for several seconds. We ran to the second story deck to see if we
could catch a glimpse of the P-51 as she started down the runway. We
could not. There we stood, eyes fixed to a spot half way down 19.
Then a roar ripped across the field, much louder than before. Like a
furious hell spawn set loose -- something mighty this way was coming.
"Listen to that thing!" said the controller.
In seconds the Mustang burst into our line of sight. It's tail was
already off the runway and it was moving faster than anything I'd ever
seen by that point on 19. Two-thirds the way down 19 the Mustang was
airborne with her gear going up. The prop tips were supersonic. We
clasped our ears as the Mustang climbed hellishly fast into the circuit
to be eaten up by the dog-day haze.
We stood for a few moments, in stunned silence, trying to digest what
we'd just seen.
The radio controller rushed by me to the radio.
"Kingston tower calling Mustang?" He looked back to us as he waited for
an acknowledgment. The radio crackled, "Go ahead, Kingston." "Roger,
Kingston tower would like to advise the circuit is clear for a low level
pass." I stood in shock because the controller had just, more or less,
asked the pilot to return for an impromptu air show! The controller
looked at us. "Well, What?" He asked. "I can't let that guy go without
asking. I couldn't forgive myself!"
The radio crackled once again, "Kingston, do I have permission for a low
level pass, east to west, across the field?" "Roger, Mustang, the
circuit is clear for an east to west pass." "Roger, Kingston, I'm coming
out of 3,000 feet, stand by."
We rushed back onto the second-story deck, eyes fixed toward the eastern
haze. The sound was subtle at first, a high-pitched whine, a muffled
screech, a distant scream. Moments later the P-51 burst through the
haze. Her airframe straining against positive G's and gravity. Her wing
tips spilling contrails of condensed air, prop-tips again supersonic.
The burnished bird blasted across the eastern margin of the field
shredding and tearing the air. At about 500 mph and 150 yards from where
we stood she passed with the old American pilot saluting. Imagine. A
salute! I felt like laughing; I felt like crying; she glistened; she
screamed; the building shook; my heart pounded.
Then the old pilot pulled her up and rolled, and rolled, and rolled out
of sight into the broken clouds and indelible into my memory.
I've never wanted to be an American more than on that day! It was a time
when many nations in the world looked to America as their big brother. A
steady and even-handed beacon of security who navigated difficult
political water with grace and style; not unlike the old American pilot
who'd just flown into my memory.
He was proud, not arrogant, humble, not a braggart, old and honest,
projecting an aura of America at its best.
That America will return one day! I know it will! Until that time, I'll
just send off this story.
Call it a loving reciprocal salute to a Country, and especially to that
old American pilot: the late-JIMMY STEWART (1908-1997), Actor, real WWII
Hero (Commander of a US Army Air Force Bomber Wing stationed in
England), and a USAF Reserves Brigadier General, who wove a wonderfully
fantastic memory for a young Canadian boy that's lasted a lifetime.