Lockheed Burbank had the Skunk Works, a shop known for the rather secretive production of spectacular flying machines. West Georgia Regional Airport was home to The Possum Works, a hangar held by a couple of old-timers who were always playing with the fun stuff. Between the three of them, they owned a Stinson Gullwing, a Cassutt Formula One racer, a de Havilland Chipmunk and a P-51 Mustang.
Hess Bomberger owned the Mustang and had it painted in the colors of Vergeltungswaffe, the P-51D he’d flown in Europe. He drove his vintage Cadillac out every day and worked on the Mustang. He’d take someone for a ride every other weekend or so. I spent countless mornings at the Possum hangar, working on the Mustang with Hess. When I was around for one of his flights, he and I would pull alternating blades to limber up the engine and make sure no cylinders were hydro-locked, and then I’d end up manning his version of a start cart, a tired push-mower deck with wobbly wheels and two 12-volt batteries wired up to take the load off his ship’s onboard battery for the start.
As a young airport kid, standing in the prop wash of a Merlin, bathed in the fumes of half-burnt avgas, I often dreamed of what it’d be like to be in the passenger seat for a trip around the patch in his Mustang. Being of a less-than-wealthy upbringing, and having read advertisements for P-51 flights, I knew it was way outside my means, so I never even asked Hess the cost of a flight.
Then the day came that Hess listed Vergeltungswaffe for sale. He was getting older, his vision beginning to go. An expert came and looked at it, and while the prospective buyer made his decision, Hess decided that a few last flights were in order. “Be here Saturday,” he told me.
Inside the plexiglass teardrop that weekend, I looked out to my friend Rob manning the start cart. The starter groaned, and the airplane shook as 11 feet of Hamilton Standard windmill jolted into motion. Eeeeeewwww beew beew bew blat blat blat beew beew beew blat blat blat blat beew beew blat blat blat blat blat blat…One by one, the cylinders fired off, and the Merlin woke from its slumber with a snarl. I was 15 years old, strapped to the floor of a Mustang, and about to go tear a hole in the sky with a veteran horseman at the reins.
Hess pulled on his helmet, painted in a purple and red checkerboard to match his bird’s nose. “LITTLE OLD SILVER-HAIRED FIGHTER JOCK,” a label read across the back. Silver-haired, perhaps, but in that moment, he was back in the prime of his life, a young man at the controls of a capable machine.
I remember marveling at the takeoff roll’s acceleration—not a neck-snapping affair, but a continually escalating force as Hess pushed the power farther and farther forward. We broke ground, he reached down to suck up the gear, and we accelerated to speeds I’d never experienced behind a propeller.
We took it up high for a few rolls, made a low approach down the runway, then a second one to be sure that the compass was properly swung. After loosening my harness, Hess ducked to the side, and I managed to sight the pipper of the gunsight on our hangar in a strafing run, and with just enough of a stretch, I could reach the stick to feel a P-51 wiggle at my command. It was intoxicating. It was mesmerizing. It was everything I’d dared to dream, and I could not yet drive a car or take the rental Cessna for a solo lap around the patch. We landed and taxied back to the hangar with the canopy open, again awash in the mostly burnt vapors of 100LL.
Vergeltungswaffe flew south a week or so later, where she was gutted of all that original equipment and converted into a TF-51 with full dual controls and a taller tail, and the wings were re-skinned, allowing a polished finish I came to admire as I stood next to her, years later, at an air show. She’s now The Little Witch, and she’s much too pretty to touch. I laugh in thinking of all the greasy handprints I’d put on her, years ago. Whenever our paths cross, she puts a smile on my face as I remember a well-spent youth and the early chance to clear the top slot of my bucket list.
Jeremy King is an airline pilot from Atlanta, Georgia. He and his wife, Amy, are restoring a 1945 Piper J-3 Cub.