Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Warbirds And Me

On being the right age, in the right place, at the right time

It's difficult to explain what it is about warbirds that attract so many of us. If we're talking about the gun-toting combat birds like the Mustang, Corsair, Spitfire, etc., the attraction probably begins with their raw performance. And I'll have to admit, that horsepower does have attractive qualities. One of those is the way horsepower sounds when it's racing out of the exhaust stacks. Songs, soul-stirring songs, come from V-12s in the Mustang and Spitfire. Not so much the P-38. Its cockpit is much quieter than the Mustang's, which is downright painful without a good headset. The P-38 Allisons blow their excess horsepower out through turbochargers that are mounted well behind the pilot, so there's no bark or growl.

There is, however, a not very loud, but high-pitched, dog whistle-type sound that's far more painful to hear than the sniper-rifle bark of the Mustang or the soft-but-loud shotgun sound of a B-25. It's like an icepick in each ear. Headsets are an absolute must. Ask me how I know that.

I also love the variety of form to be found in warbirds. This is the result of different mechanical artists, all constrained by the same laws of physics and seeking the same goals, but interpreting both through their own creative eyes. You only have to compare the diminutive and svelte Spitfire or Bf 109 to the hulking Lightning or Thunderbolt to realize that the laws of physics may be absolutely inviolate, but the ways of interpreting and applying those laws are endless.

Personally, when I see a combat warbird, I can't help but think of their place in history. And I visualize them in context with dozens of them S-turning down the taxiway, like so many serpents, ready for takeoff. Kids, some of them not old enough to buy a beer, glance back at their wingman and give a thumbs-up: ready to go. To do what? To purposely put themselves in a live-or-die, kill-or-be-killed situation. To fight for freedom, one flight, one victory and one pilot at a time.

I'm especially attracted to the liaison birds, the warbugs, as I call them (and have been criticized for doing so). Some are pretty funky, and to me, the funkier the better. I loved my old L-5 and would dearly love to own a Convair L-13, surely the biggest, most unusual L-bird made. And I should have owned an L-19 somewhere along the line simply because they actually make sense for me. Besides being a wondrous short-field airplane (there are way too many canyons and mesas around here that need exploring), it's also a surprisingly good air-to-air camera platform. Unfortunately, the escalating prices have always been just one step ahead of me.

I'll bet that the majority of readers' bucket lists include flying or owning a warbird. Luckily, I've done both. But that doesn't mean there aren't still more warbirds nestled in my own wish list. Who knows? Maybe someday.


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