P-51 Solo at 21 Years Old! Video By: Scott Slocum
As the fighter taxis by, the sound of 12 hot-water Merlins crescendos, crackles and pops as the early-morning sunlight glistens off the silver paint highlighting the name Glamorous Glen III—the markings of Chuck Yeager’s Mustang from the 357th Fighter Group. Pulling onto the ramp with right brake and one last burst of power, the yellow and orange checkerboard nose spins back toward me as if to say, “I’m ready to go again!” Idle cutoff and the sound of applause replace the engine growl as the huge four-blade prop comes to a whirling stop. I move around to the left side to see Conrad Huffstutler exit the Mustang’s cockpit with two easy hops to the ground. He’s wearing a smile even bigger than that of his father, who climbs out from behind the pilot’s seat.
At 21, Conrad has joined the ranks of the few who can call themselves Mustang pilots. He has just completed three takeoffs and landings under the watchful eye of his father/instructor Mark Huffstutler, a 13,000-plus-hour pilot and warbird enthusiast from Uvalde, Texas. “He looks so young,” I think to myself as Conrad, dressed in a vintage uniform (with tennis shoes), is congratulated by friends and family. Yet by the time Yeager was Conrad’s age, he already had flown several combat missions, been shot down and wounded, and become an ace by shooting down five planes in one day—unbelievable!
A story like this begins with a love of aviation. For the Huffstutler family, this started with Conrad’s grandfather taking his son, Mark, to the airport for rides. The flying bug stuck, so Mark scrimped and saved, taking flight lessons in the early morning before school started. Knowing he wanted to make a living in aviation, Mark went to junior college in Uvalde to get all of his ratings. He was hired to fly a Howard 500 radial twin-engine taildragger for the former governor of Texas, Dolph Briscoe. Mark later purchased a local FBO, and after 30-plus years of growing the company, he now owns one of the most successful business jet and modification shops in the country, Sierra Industries. He has grown the company’s product line from five products to more than 300 performance and safety modification items, all approved by the FAA.
Friends and family gathered to support Conrad and Mark Huffstutler (center, left and right) as Conrad soloed in the family’s P-51 Mustang at their Uvalde, Texas, home airport.
Mark’s first contact with warbirds was at Oshkosh 1996, where he bought a T-28 fix-up project to restore at his shop. “It was a great project, as our crew could work on it during downtimes to keep busy,” Mark recalls. The enthusiast also added a Canadair T-33, North American T-6, Piper Cub, Waco YMF-5, Siai Marchetti 1019E and, finally, Glamorous Glen III to his collection.
“When I picked up the P-51, it turned out the owner had hurt his foot and couldn’t give me a checkout. Having quite a bit of tailwheel time, I just read the Dash 1 manual and took off.” Halfway home on the flight to Uvalde is where Conrad got his first chance to “steer a Mustang a little bit.”
But even though Conrad was in a great position to fly the Mustang, his father wasn’t going to just toss him the keys! A plan was put in place to get Conrad ready for his 21st birthday flight. The key to flying any vintage warbird is tailwheel time, and that was the focus of Conrad’s program. After fixing up and learning to fly in a Cessna 152, Conrad began flying in the Piper Cub, then an RV-4, and then logged 50 hours in the Waco. During this time, Mark traded the family’s T-33 for a T-6 Texan so that Conrad could get his final 50 hours in the advanced trainer. So much focus was put on tailwheel time that of Conrad’s 500-plus hours, 300 are in taildraggers!
To celebrate Conrad’s birthday, Mark threw a fly-in bash at their home airport in Uvalde. Pilot friends and family members were invited to come down for the event. The plan was to fly formation clinics and flybys on Saturday, and have a party on Saturday night. Conrad’s much-anticipated Mustang flight was to take place first thing on Sunday morning.
Featuring Cub, Chipmunk, Pitts and T-6 aircraft, the Saturday show was a blast. That night, despite 110-degree temperatures, the Huffstutlers hosted a festive dinner, featuring a cake with their Mustang on it. When it came time to blow out the candles, there was no question about the wish…
The next morning, Mark signed off Conrad in his logbook for solo flight. Because most of Conrad’s friends are warbird pilots, nobody wanted to just watch from the ground, so a photo flight was orchestrated. Conrad would fly the P-51, and Mark and Conrad’s grandfather would go up in the T-28. A four-ship T-6 flight launched, along with Jim Dale in another P-51 owned by Rod Lewis, who went up in his L-39. Mark was confident in Conrad’s formation skills, and after a few last-minute tips on the Mustang (“Don’t bend it!”), it was time for engine start.
We lined up on the runway behind Conrad for his first solo takeoff—right down centerline. In the air, Conrad joined up with us and flew formation like he had been doing it for years. It was amazing! Only five hours in a Mustang and he already was flying photo missions like a pro.
When it was all said and done, a great time was had by all and a wish had come true. Most importantly, however, a new link had been created in the chain of warbird pilots who’ll keep these great machines where they belong: in the air!
Making great airplanes even greater
When many owners think of Citation jets, they don’t just think of Cessna. Since 1986, Texas-based Sierra Industries has been a leader in maintenance, and performance enhancements and modifications for Cessna Citation aircraft. President Mark Huffstutler’s own need for speed and quality has been a driving force in the success of the company, which holds more than 75 proprietary Citation modifications and 300 FAA STCs. Among the most popular are the re-engining programs for Citation I, II and S/II models, featuring Williams International FJ44-series fan-jet engines. Visit www.sijet.com.