When we got the P-51's we re-visited an old problem. In Italy when we changed from the A-36 to the P-40F's we changed from the Allison engine to the Rolls Royce Merlin. But our P-40's here were the K model and had an Allison engine. But the P-51 had the Merlin engine and it was metric. We had no metric tools. So I went down to the tool shop in the hangar and asked if they could make broaches to convert our American tools to metric ones. They agreed and made them from tool steel. They used a hydraulic press to push the broach into the sockets to convert them to a metric dimension. It worked well. Metric tools were a rarity at that time.
One of the crewchiefs, Normand Mandeville, got in to do the first run-up. He started it up and almost immediately shut it down. He jumped out and asked what's wrong with it! That's where we found out about the ground running characteristics of the Merlin engine.
Perhaps you will forgive me for digressing a little about Cpl.
Mandeville. I remember several memorable events he was featured in! He was from Connecticut and
had the clipped New England speech. But he spoke French fluently. Of course, it seemed everyone in
Louisiana spoke French and they assumed that all outsiders did not! He, a friend and two girls,
went to Marksville to a night club one night. He, of course, understood when the two girls spoke
French to each other. On the drive back the one in the front seat with him turned to her friend in
back and in rather frank French told her that she had to go to the bathroom. It caught Normand
unawares and he burst out laughing and slid to stop at the side of the road and said something
like, "Be my guest!". So much for his secret.
One day he had just replaced the magnetos in his P-51. It was parked on the line, with chocks, and aimed at the hangar. He got in the cockpit and started the engine. It started to wind up and instantly he jerked the idle cut-off and killed the engine. If he had not the plane would have been destroyed and he might have been killed. He realized in an instant that he had not removed the locks that held the magneto in the fully advanced position. This means 61 inches of Hg, full throttle. But what made it even more precarious is that the idle cut-off was spring loaded and if the manifold pressure got to about 46 inches of Hg the fuel pressure would be high enough to blow by the idle cut-off and the engine could not be stopped. Perhaps one could stop it by switching the fuel tank selector to OFF, if one would think of it before the plane jumped the chocks and rammed into the hangar! His instant reaction saved the plane and probably himself!
He had an old Buick he would work on. I went with him on a "test hop" one day and as we were going along the road, the accelerator stuck. He froze on the wheel as it accelerated. I just reached over and turned off the switch! He reacted so well with the P-51, and froze with the Buick!.
He decided to sell the Buick and went to a used car lot downtown. The salesman turned to the boss and they discussed in French what they thought they could get for it, perhaps $800-1000. The manager suggested a price, like $500 and the salesman turned around and offered him $300 in English. Mandeville was a bit upset so he told them off in French and left.
There had been some accidents in P-51's in Florida that were
mystifying. There was no apparent cause when pilots would just fly into the Gulf. They took all
kinds of instruments and test equipment up and were at a loss till someone noticed that if the
cockpit heat was on, the cockpit temperature would rise to 135 degrees. Apparently the pilots were
passing out from the heat. We wore our leather jackets while flying there even in the summer
because the temperature drops as you go up in altitude, usually at the adiabatic lapse rate of
about 4 1/2 degrees per thousand feet. So if it was 90 degrees on the runway, it would be 40
degrees at 10,000 feet. -20 degrees at 20,000 feet and -55 degrees at 38,000 feet. They devised a
change in the cockpit cooling. The original arrangement did a good job for the radio compartment
but wasn't very effective in the cockpit. They changed the inlet and put it in the air scoop to
get better ram air. They put a Y in the radio area and brought a tube in on each side of the
cockpit. The one on the left was mounted in a ring clamp that was just loose enough so the pilot
could take it out and spray it on his face should the need arise.
We, of course, wanted this modification on ours. They said they would modify one of ours at Sarasota if we wished, so I flew mine down and let them do it there. Then it would be a model for our hangar to change the rest of them.
When I got ready to go back, I went to the weather bureau and found out that a hurricane was due soon. The continental air and tropical air would collide in northern Florida and a monstrous buildup of clouds would result. I wanted to get out of there and back to Louisiana so I filed a flight plan and took off. I got up around Dunellen and was at 30,000 feet and it didn't look like I could get over them. So I went back down to the deck and tried to get under. No dice. So, I went back up, resolved to get over the top. I climbed and climbed. Finally I staggered through a valley between two cumulus clouds that must have gone up to 50,000 feet. I was indicating about 180 MPH at full throttle, The altimeter said 39,700 feet. I didn't think it would go that high but it did. Now comes the chilling part. It was 55 degrees below zero and I couldn't turn on the cockpit heat. Some groundling that didn't understand about the adiabatic lapse rate figured the pilots wouldn't need cockpit heat in Florida in the summertime. I thought I was going to freeze to death! Later we made the usual corrections for temperature etc. and decided I was actually around 43,000 feet. I got over the clouds and headed for the nearest field because I had used a lot of gasoline. I landed at Waycross GA and when I was parked I shut off the engine and immediately hollered at the mechanic to bring me a screwdriver. I removed the screw from the cockpit heat knob that kept me from turning it on.
When I got back to the field I wound up with a chance to show off my mechanical drawing prowess. They needed a right angle bend in the ca 2 inch aluminum tubing. I laid out the templates for a four part bend. They would cut them out of sheet and bend them around and then weld them together. They were most surprised when it worked!
I have almost no pictures of this era. This one shows me and one of the six pilots, Lt. Franklin James, posing at one of our P-51's.
One day I came into my own as engineering officer. I had spent
a lot of time pouring over the tech orders for the P-51. One of the pilots had brought back a P-51
complaining of sloppy controls. The crew chief checked the tension in the rudder cables and it was
very low. No wonder there was a problem. Sometime later the crew chief and line chief came and
said they couldn't get to the turnbuckles needed to tighten the tension. They thought they would
need to take out the fuselage gas tank to get at them. I had been reading about this so I told
them that to take out the fuselage gas tank they would first have to take out the coolant cooler
and that it was fragile and weighed 246 pounds dry. We probably would have trouble re-installing
it without creating a leak. I said, "Let's look at an exploded view of the fuselage in the tech
orders and find out where the turnbuckles are supposed to be." So we did and there they were,
between the cooler and the rudder. I pointed out the inspection panel immediately below and asked
if they had looked there. They said they had but a radio was in the way. I told them I had too
much confidence in North American to believe that it was going to be difficult. "Let's go out and
take a look!"
I lay down on the concrete under the appropriate part of the plane and there was the inspection plate. I asked for a screwdriver and removed the plate and sure enough, there was the tail warning radar unit. But, it was mounted on a shelf that was fastened on each side with three Dzus fasteners. So I removed them. The connections all came in in one cannon plug. So I gave them the screwdriver and asked for a water pump pliers. (Nowadays we call it a slip joint pliers.) I removed the cannon plug, tilted the radio up so it was clear and took it out. And there were the turnbuckles! I handed the radio to the line chief, climbed out and in my most insufferable (but smiling) tones said, "There it is. Have it fixed in a half hour." I think at that moment they accepted me and I felt good that I had learned so much!
At another time we were having an annoying problem with one of the planes. I arranged to have us put the plane in the hangar while we worked on it so we could leave the cowling off from day to day. The next day was Sunday and I went to the hangar and went up to the mezzanine overlooking the hangar floor and went into the glass fronted room where they kept the library. I got out the tech orders for the 51 and tried to look up the problem we were having. While I was doing this I looked down on the hangar floor and there was the mechanic and the line chief discussing the problem. I went down and we talked it over. Finally we began to develop an idea. So the crewchief offered to go get some tools and we would try it out. We agreed. As he was leaving, a car pulled up with a number of their friends in it. They hollered at my people asking if they wanted to go swimming, but they both turned it down immediately saying they had something to do. We did fix it. I was surprised and pleased that they didn't mind working on Sunday.
Every base had a group called the Alert Crew. This was a group that took care of visiting aircraft and meeting planes that were landing or taking off at odd, non-working hours. I occasionally had to leave or come back at very odd hours like midnight or 3 AM. At these times I would tell my people they didn't have to meet me but every time I came or left at an odd hour, one of the crew chiefs would be there to take care of the airplane and get it re-fueled! I was very flattered by this!
We had an "Armed Forces Day" display, in August I believe. My P-51 was on the display line. So I had to stay there and watch it all day. It's amazing what some people will try to do. I had several children that wanted to climb up on the tail. I was particularly concerned because my planned trip to Fargo was the next day!.
In about August 1945, my brother-in-law Rollie, Helen's husband,
returned from duty in England. He had the traditional leave so I asked for permission to take a
cross-country. While this sounds self-serving I assure you it was not. We were allowed two
cross-countries a year. It should be looked upon as part of navigation training. This training is
no less of a training exercise because you have family on the route. Unless, of course, if you go
back again. I had taken one such trip to Seattle in a P-40 with friends at the destination.
It was 1400 miles and I figured that if I tried to made it in one jump I would run out of gas four miles south of Fargo. So I decided to gas up at Lincoln, Nebraska. I took off at 7:40 AM and flew at 25000 feet, the most efficient altitude for the second stage supercharger. I landed at Lincoln, gassed, filed a new flight plan and took off for Fargo. This took about an hour. I landed at Fargo at 5 minutes after noon!
As I approached North Dakota from the south I started to let down from 25000 feet. I passed Big Stone Lake and started looking for Wahpeton, forty miles south of Fargo. I was around 16000 feet when I looked off to the left and saw this big town with a large airfield at the northwest side. I thought to myself, "When did Wahpeton get that big airport?" Then I realized, "Hey, that's Fargo!". I learned to fly there and and I was surprised by how small the area was. I had previously flown here in a Cub Coupe at 60 mph! So I heeled over and buzzed Fargo at about 3000 feet at 460 mph. I had to circle the field three times to slow down to land. I landed to the east and lightly bounced about three times! I was embarrassed. We used to say, "Hey, there were logs on the runway!".
Rollie and Helen's daughter, Linda Gayle Holsen, was just over three. The day I left to go back to Alexandria, they all came to the airport with me. There was a light drizzle. Although I was qualified to fly on instruments, I never enjoyed it. So I got my clearance, but I waited around to see if it would clear a little more. It would run out in an hour so I eventually had to go out and get ready to go. The wind was from the southeast, not a common direction in my memory. The terminal was at the SE corner of the airport and the runway was just south of the terminal. I taxied out to the NW corner and took off at full power, 61 In. Hg and 3000 RPM, leveled off at about 50' and went past the terminal at about 220 mph. I saw them standing on the steps at the terminal, waving. Helen told me later that Linda, with wide eyes said, "Gee, Uncle Charlie took off like a big bird!" I circled the field once and went up into the clouds at 1100' heading for Pratt KS.
A half hour so later, I broke out on top at 23,000 feet. I called in and reported my position and the height of the clouds and settled in for the trip to Pratt.
I had had trouble with the radio when I came up from Alexandria, so it came as no surprise when it quit and I looked no further again. I accepted it as radio trouble. I ran out of clouds and started trying to figure out where I was. From the rivers and other things I decided I was on course, but I couldn't figure out how far along I was. Nebraska has a bunch of rivers and they all go in the same direction and have towns in the same place and I couldn't figure out which was which! A bit later I noticed that some of the instruments weren't working and they were all electrical. So I started a cockpit check that I had given short shrift at takeoff due to the haste to get off the ground while my clearance was still active. Aha, I found that the generator switch had been turned off in spite of the safety wire that had kept it on. Ordinarily there's no real reason to turn it off so we had ours on and safetied. I found out later that there was a military pilot at the Fargo airport that had flown it while I was in town. He broke the safety wire and turned it off and he did not log the flight. He deserved to be court-martialed but I let it go. I turned it on and the ammeter jumped to 25 amps. I immediately turned off the battery switch so the generator wouldn't have to try to charge a dead battery.
The radio came back on and I was right on the beam of the radio range to Pratt KS! So I was feeling great that after all I was right on course. I kept on as the saying goes, fat, dumb and happy. I finally tumbled that the radio was getting fainter. I had not done the elementary test of turning right to see if the beam changed from a steady tone to an A or an N which would have told me whether the station was in front or in back of me! So I checked it now and found out that I was already past Pratt. I had apparently had a fairly hefty tailwind! So I turned around, called Pratt and told them I would be a little late. I landed, forty minutes overdue. Yes I was embarrassed. I contacted Alexandria and told them I had to RON (remain overnight) to have the battery replaced.
I went to the flight line the next morning and found that the alert crew had run up the engine after replacing the battery. They didn't like the way it sounded and they put it on a red cross, that is, they grounded it! I was the engineering officer back at Alexandria so I told them I would run it up and see if there was anything wrong. The Rolls Royce Merlin engine is a bit odd. When running on the ground it sounds terrible. It pops and bangs and makes a disconcerting racket. But in the air it's beautiful, smooth, sweet, it sings! I got in and started it up and ran the usual tests. It was fine. I explained to them about the engine and then signed the form returning it to flying status.
I went back to the line, got in and started the engine. The alert crew waved me off and I taxied out to the runway. I took off as usual, leveled off just above the runway and looked at the airspeed indicator as I was going to pull up sharply at the end of the runway! It said zero mph! That was a shock and then I realized the alert crew had forgotten to remove the pitot tube cover. I turned on the pitot heat but it wasn't hot enough to burn it off. So I went back and landed, rather fast without an airspeed indicator. I taxied back, glared at the alert crew and pointed down to the pitot tube area. They removed it and with a last disgusted glare, I taxied out and went to Alexandria with no further incident! What a trip!
This was a large base, probably a hundred B-17's flying, training crews for overseas duty. As I mentioned, we flew patterns around them to give the gunners practice with camera guns. We could see the day's film at night in a projection room. I went a couple times. We couldn't tell who was flying of course. Except I decided to add an identifying feature which freaked out the projectionist! I made my first pass upside down. Then I would know it was me. But the projectionist thought the film was upside down or something but the right side up part came very quickly so he relaxed, I hope with a smile. I was a young idiot at the time.
One day, after we got our P-51's, the Assistant Base Operations
Officer came down and asked for a P-51 to fly. He was a Lieutenant Colonel bomber pilot and wan't
interested in any instruction from me. There are a few rather critical things to remember when
flying a P-51 and I finally reluctantly assigned him one of our planes. I expected him to have
trouble so I went out to the runway with him. I taxied behind him and I could see by the strobe
effect of our propellors that he was using too much power and had to be riding the brakes. This is
a SEVERE NO-NO. When he got out to the runway, he didn't stop at the run-up line but pulled out on
the end of the runway and parked the plane at a 45 degree angle to run it up, check the mags, etc.
He was a hot rock you see and didn't have to go by the rules. When finished, he released the
parking brake, and added throttle to taxi into position and takeoff. It wouldn't move. He added
power. He was lifting the tail but it still wouldn't move. I was parked back at the run-up line
and he looked over at me, shrugged his shoulders with his palms turned up in a gesture of
non-understanding. I killed my engine, got out and walked over to his plane and felt the brakes,
They were red hot. I gave him the hand across the throat sign to turn it off.
When he got out I explained that he had frozen the brakes by riding them. I told him to go over and get in mine and take it up. This was with great misgivings. I really thought he would kill himself but I couldn't stop him. He went back and started mine and then he shut it off, telling me that the radio was out. I told him to go back to our flight line shack and I would get back as soon as I could and get him another plane, but that I had to get the first one off the runway as soon as possible. I went back to his ship on the runway and called the tower. I asked them to page several of my crew chiefs at the enlisted mess and have them bring wing jacks, towbar, tools and tractor to the end of the runway immediately and explained that the brakes were frozen and the plane could not be moved off the runway.
Soon, they arrived with the equipment. We jacked it up, removed the wheels, took out the brakes, re-installed the wheels and towed it back home. The Lt. Col. was nowhere to be seen. As a matter of fact I never saw him again and no one else ever came down to fly a P-51.
An explanation is due here. Most airplanes like the P-40, had
shoe type brakes, like those on old cars. But the P-51 had disc brakes. They were very good. There
were 23 discs total, half copper and half steel. They were very much like the New Departure brakes
on a an old bicycle. The total clearance was 0.055 inch! If one rode brakes for a distance and
then set the parking brake they would be so hot, they would actually weld the discs together. Both
sets of brakes were welded into one unit when they were removed. No wonder he couldn't move it.
In the military, in that time at least, when any part failed and was replaced, the old part was to be returned to supply with an unsatisfactory ticket called a URL as I remember. Then you could get the new part. This one time, I did not return the brakes because I wanted to show the next "guest" what they looked like and what would happen if they were abused. I was all ready and primed for the next one that never came. I was going to tell him that all of the planes were grounded at this time until I was finished telling them how a P-51 was to be flown. I never got the chance to do this, for which I was very glad. I took a large screwdriver and a small sledge and split one of the brake sets to see what it looked like. The weld did not break, there was a ring of bronze on the steel ring!
Towards the end of our tour here, we were sent on temporary duty
(TDY) to Ardmore OK. They had a bunch of crews there that needed practice. One of my mechanics
went into town on the bus and came back immediately. His comment was, "First cemetery I've ever
seen with lights!"
It's odd how little I remember of this time. I do remember one day when we didn't have anything much to do and two of the pilots thought they would just go out and fly around a bit. After they took off, I got the itch so I got in mine and took off to look for them.
I saw two silver planes in the distance so I climbed and got up sun from them and then peeled off for the attack from their rear right quarter. I sensed that I was approaching them awfully fast so I throttled back and I found out they were P-47 D's instead of my friends. I finally sailed by them with the throttle at idle and pulled up in a mild chandelle to the right. They seemed to be making a halfhearted attempt to break toward me so I obliged them and we mixed it up. I could have shot both of them down in a few minutes. They obviously weren't very experienced.
So we leveled off and I got on the right wing of the leader and tried to fly formation with them. Normal manifold pressure was 38-42 in. Hg. I had to throttle back to 28 inches Hg. and put down about ten degrees of flap to fly formation with them. I started to get concerned because the P-51 plugs were very finicky and could load up very readily at low power settings. One could lose the engine that way. So I moved out to the right, eased the RPM up from 2450 to 3000 and then firewalled it at 61" Hg. I leapt out in front. I let it roll for a minute or two and then pulled up in an Immelman (a half loop and a half roll on the top) and went back over them about 1500 feet higher. I had always known the P-51 was far superior to the P-47 but I had never had a chance to really compare them in the air before!
One day I was up at atitude, just about 30,000 feet when sharp
pains hit both wrists. It was the only time I ever experienced the bends. The air was so thin that
the nitrogen in my blood qas coming out of solution forming bubbles. These can block the blood
from going through the capillaries giving great pain. I could not operate my wrists or hands. I
clutched the stick with my wrists and lowered my altitude. I finally got low enough till the
nitrogen went back in solution and the pain subsided.
I might tell something most people don't realize. As yu may know, water boils at 100 dg C at sea level. But in Denver, where the air pressure is lower than at sea level, it boils aroound 92 deg C. The higher you go, the lower the pressure and the lower the boiling point of water. The boiling point keeps decreasing with altitude and finally gets down to the temperature of the blood at about 55,000 feet, at which point the blood will boil in your arteries and veins. This can be lethal. That's why people going above this altitude always wear some kind of pressure suit.
They were going to convert from B-17 training to B-29 training.
One B-29 was brought in and they wanted to test the gunnery training. So I went up in a P-51 and
started trying to attack it "in the usual manner." It wasn't working because the B-29 was faster
than a B-17, around 230 mph. A fighter has to be on the average at least a hundred miles faster to
make repeated attacks and a P-51 would average about 290.
Perhaps I should expain about air speed. The air speed is gotten from the comparison of the dynamic, ram air gotten from the pitot tube that sticks out of the wing and the static air from inside the cockpit. This comparison is registered on the air speed indicator. This airspeed is called the indicated airspeed. It is always less than the true airspeed. However, pilots put up with this because just as the ram air pressure decreases with altitude, so does the lift on the plane's wing. The effect of this is that the plane stalls at the same Indicated Air Speed, regardless of altitude. This is a very important safety feature. When I said 290 mph above, that was Indicated Air Speed. The rule of thumb is that the error is 2% per thousand feet. So I was doing the attacking at 290 mph IAS at 10,000 feet, the plane was really doing 290 +20% or about 358 mph. Probably the only time a pilot gets concerned with true airspeed is when planning a cross country.
I called the pilot and asked him to slow down. I would attack on a pursuit curve which was at an angle to the flight path of the B-29 which is why I needed the extra speed. He did and we were able to continue.
I think this flight is the one that turned me against making being a fighter pilot a profession. I attacked the B-29 from the right side. I would come underneath, back towards the tail, usually very close, maybe twenty feet away and go out on the other side. With a B-17, when I went underneath, the top turrent gunner would be aiming right at me. But when I went out the other side I could seem in hand-cranking the turret to get it around and get another shot. But by the time he got it around, I would usually be out of effective range.
But when I went under the B-29, the guns were pointed at me. When I came out the other side and looked up, the guns were pointing right down my throat. It almost scared me. They had made the turret hydraulically operated. All the gunner had was a pistol grip and where he pointed it, the turret went, right now!
One day, I landed and parked. As I was walking in to the ready room I noticed two men standing by one of the other P-51's. I had my parachute over my shoulder as I walked up to them. It was the Base Maintenance Officer, Major Etheridge and a tall Colonel who I later found out was the Base Commander. I stopped and he started to ask me questions about the P-51. As I remember I fielded all of them with satisfactory answers and when they were done with me I walked away. As I have said elsewhere in this I never looked my age. At that time I was 23 but probably looked about 18, 20 at the most. Major Etheridge told me later that as I walked away, the Colonel said in a rather surprised voice, "Who was that?". Major Etheridge said, "That's Captain Dills, he's the Engineering Officer too."