It is said the best feelings are the ones unable to be described with words. I agree with that statement, not just because its truth resonates somewhere deep within me, but because I’ve seen it manifest in my life — especially as a pilot. I think about how blessed I am to have visited the places I have, met some of the most incredible people walking the planet Earth, and been able to fly some of the world’s most amazing aircraft. People, places, and planes.
This particular day was no exception, finding myself in the rear seat of a North American TF-51 Mustang named Crazy Horse2, cruising at two hundred knots indicated above a milky-white cloud deck over central Florida.
It was a gorgeous morning after bands of moisture from Hurricane Sandy drifted through the area the night before, soaking everything with a steady rain that threatened to drown out today’s adventure.
Good fortune saw fit to not allow any setbacks with our plan, and there wasn’t a moment where I didn’t feel grateful for a break in the clouds, the sun on our faces, and meeting our weather minimums to get airborne.
“Looks like a good day to fly a P-51, eh?” said the pilot up front.
“I think any day would be a good day to fly a P-51, sir.”
“There you go!” was the response. “No argument from me.”
I look up front and see a big smile in the rearview mirror, and I can’t help but return it with one of my own. Here I am, my hands on the stick and throttle and my feet on the pedals of a dual-control variant of the world’s most recognized World War II fighter. My first flying experience with the Mustang came in the jump seat of my friend Joe Richardson’s P-51D, Hurry Home Honey, in northern Kentucky two years ago, and like most pilots who’ve ever experienced a ride in a Mustang, it is instantly followed by the desire to actually fly it.
Dreams do come true, ladies and gentlemen. Not only was I actually in control of this magnificent aircraft, but my instructor pilot is none other than Lee Lauderback, President and Chief Pilot at Stallion 51 Corporation in Kissimmee, Florida.
Originally from Toledo, Ohio and the son of a Navy pilot, Lauderback grew up around airplanes. The family relocated to Pompano Beach, Florida when he was very young, and then settled in the Orlando area when he was about ten. He built model airplanes as a kid, made paper airplanes, and had birds as pets. If it had to do with flying, he did it, and even admitted to jumping off a barn during a hurricane with cardboard wings firmly affixed to his arms.
Some would say Lauderback is part bird, and in the greatest sense they would be right. Lauderback is a master-class falconer, having owned and flown several hawks, falcons, and even a Golden Eagle. To this day, he spends a great deal of time, and pours a significant amount of himself into flying and hunting with birds of prey. Amazing.
Lauderback started flying in the mid-1960s when he was just fourteen years old, beginning in sailplanes. Powered flight naturally followed on at age sixteen, and by the time he left for Louisiana State University on a baseball scholarship, Lauderback had already attained a commercial certificate for both single- and multi- engine aircraft, and was a CFI.
As he progressed through college, Lauderback found the demands placed on his time by NCAA Division-I athletics were taking him too far away from his passion for aviation.
“It was awful from that aspect,” Lauderback later recalled. “I wasn’t flying or doing anything aviation related, and it was killing me.”
As a result, he made the decision to give up playing baseball and left LSU, transferring to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University back in Florida, where he finished up his degree in Aeronautical Science and Business Management. He flew for the Forest Service as a fire spotter in the afternoons and evenings after school, in addition to all the flying he was doing during the day as a CFI for other ERAU students. In his mind, the next step was enlistment in the military to fly fighters, but poor vision in the days before waivers kept that from happening.
Determined to make a living flying airplanes, Lauderback got a job out of school as a pilot for a charter company in Orlando. He crossed paths one day with a gentleman by the name of Charlie Johnson, a former USAF fighter pilot who at the time was the chief pilot for world-renowned businessman and golfing professional, Arnold Palmer. Lauderback and Johnson hit it off right away, and before too long, Lauderback was hired part-time as a co-pilot for Palmer.
Johnson was pretty hard on him at times, but the forging served its purpose. When Johnson was hired by Learjet to become a production test pilot a year later, Lauderback stepped up and spent the next sixteen years as Palmer’s chief pilot and director of flight operations. He continued flying the Learjet, as well as Cessna Citation -I, -II, and –III series private jets, and the McDonnell-Douglas MD-500E helicopter.
But the thing that makes Lee Lauderback special is his relationship with this icon of American ingenuity, the P-51. No one in history has his experience with the North American Aviation design. Not Hoover. Not Anderson. Not Yeager. No one has more hours in the type. The current count of Mustang hours he has logged? Just shy of nine thousand hours…and still climbing.
Thirty-seven inches of manifold pressure and the Merlin engine up front is just purring along, without so much as a cough, sputter, or hiccup. The airplane is perfect — spotless in its appearance, impeccably maintained, flawless in her performance, and you can somehow sense the only thing you really need to do is to just let this beautiful pony rear back…and run.
“Pretty stable for a fighter, isn’t it?” Lauderback asked as I carved a standard-rate turn to the right over the Avon Park MOA.
“Very,” I replied. “I love this.”
The airplane is amazing. Rock solid; no free play in the controls. No mush. A hint of input and the aircraft responds. As the airspeed increases, the more stable it becomes. At stall speed, there are no bells or horns. It’s just a little groan here and a bit of a buffeting there. It’s like your wife or girlfriend just whispering subtle direction into your ear. No muss, no fuss, but if you’re not paying attention, watch out.
“Okay, ease the nose down a little bit. We’re looking for about two hundred and sixty knots for entry into the next maneuver.”
“Copy,” I responded. “Nose is coming down. Here we go!”
“So, Lee, I’ve never heard the story about how all of this got started.”
We were sitting in the upstairs briefing room at Stallion 51, preparing to dig into lunch. The two Mustangs were out flying and things were relatively quiet, allowing us the opportunity to relax and chat.
I’ve known Lauderback for a few years because of my work in the airshow industry. He flies aerobatic demonstrations in the Mustang at airshows all over the country, and flies as one of the original civilian pilots in the U.S. Air Force’s Heritage Flight program, where he pilots the Mustang alongside modern Air Force fighters.
He’s the kind of guy many love to hate, simply because he’s gotten to do things way cooler than anything many people ever have.
Lauderback smiled as he opened the bag of potato chips accompanying lunch. I somehow knew what the response was going to be, but waited for it nonetheless.
“Let me give you my comic line first,” said Lauderback. “A moment of insanity.”
I laughed because it seemed to be a fairly standard response amongst those whose lives revolved around flying warbirds, especially Mustangs.
“It actually goes way, way back. I’ve always had the desire to fly a P-51 Mustang. In the mid-1970s, there was a gentleman named Gordon Plaskett who had a TF and was doing some training with it out in California. I was working for Arnold Palmer at the time and had a couple of days out there, so I went to see him. I’d already been studying and flying a lot of tailwheel airplanes at that point. I got in the front of the airplane with him in the back, and although he wasn’t…thoroughly comfortable with the full envelope of the airplane, I just had a blast flying it. When we got back, I thought to myself, ‘I have GOT to do this more!’”
Segue to a flight with Arnold later on, a trip in the Lear to Ft. Lauderdale. There was a D-model P-51 at the airport they flew into that had been repossessed by a bank. The asking price for the airplane was $65,000. It had flat tires and a grazed canopy, and was in need of some other work.
“I said to the boss, ‘Hey, we should buy it and fix it up,’” said Lauderback with a wry chuckle, noting my expression as I ate my sandwich.
“What would we use it for, right?” I said with a partial mouthful of sandwich.
“Well…pilot morale? Pilot proficiency?”
Best. Answer. Ever.
For Palmer, an aircraft was a means to get from Point A to Point B and back again, so there was no draw for him to buy the disheveled Mustang sitting on the ramp at the airport in Ft. Lauderdale. In the meantime, Peter and Richard, two of Lauderback’s four brothers, had gotten out of the Air Force and were working as A&Ps in a corporate aviation capacity. Their boss had purchased a P-40 and they restored the aircraft completely, from literally a bucket of parts. It came out of the Aleutian Islands and was a mess; anyone else probably would have taken what was left of it to a junkyard. After experiencing the thrill of victory in seeing the Warhawk returned to an airworthy condition, the twin brothers went into business for themselves, rebuilding World War II-era aircraft.
Even though his brothers were fully involved with warbirds, Lauderback found himself still tap-dancing around the Mustang for some time, and it wasn’t until 1987 when things finally broke loose. The US Navy Test Pilot School put out an RFP for a “Qualitative Evaluation” contract and the scope was to allow the students at the school to experience performance deficiencies in high performance tailwheel aircraft. Doug Schultz, a former Navy fighter pilot, who would soon become Lee’s partner, procured the contract. They told the Navy they had a Mustang, and told the bank they had a military contract. The two parts of the story passed in the night, falling into place when they acquired a TF-51, which they eventually named “Crazy Horse.”
After being awarded the contract with the Navy, Stallion 51 Corporation was formed. Since then, hundreds of Navy Test Pilot School candidates have flown with Lauderback. The experience really allowed him to learn the airplane through the eyes of a test pilot, which opened up the entirety of its performance envelope. The more he flew it, the more he wanted to fly it, and the hungrier he became to learn all of her secrets, quirks, strengths, and limitations. From that experience grew a formal orientation flight program, a checkout training program, a recurrent training program, and air show flight demonstrations, all being done under the Stallion 51 umbrella.
By 1990, Lauderback recognized the need to devote more time to the Mustang operation and resigned from his position with Palmer. It was a critical time for Stallion 51, and it needed more of him than before. Even though he’d ventured off on his own, his and Palmer’s friendship remains strong to this day.
“Flying with Palmer was an absolutely incredible experience,” Lauderback would reflect later. “But above all, outside of our lasting friendship, I miss the helicopter!”
Upon Doug Schulz’s departure from the organization in 1998, Lauderback became the sole proprietor of Stallion 51 and has seen the company grow into a multi-faceted aviation company. In addition to the orientation flights, checkout and recurrent training in the P-51, it also has similar programs for the North American T-6 Texan. Group51, which is run by John Lauderback, one of Lee’s other brothers, specializes in the sale and reselling of warbirds. AvDoc 51, run by Dr. William Busch, a former U.S. Navy flight surgeon who is also a pilot and CFI, specializes in Aviation Medicine and Ophthalmology.
There is a merchandising aspect to Stallion 51, specializing in P-51 history and memorabilia. The Gathering Foundation, run by Lee’s fiancée Angela West, is the organization responsible for putting on the world-class “Gathering of Mustangs and Legends” event back in 2007, which brought P-51s and aviation lovers from all over the world together in spectacular fashion. The twin brothers, Peter and Richard, own and run Stallion 51 Maintenance, and although independent of brother Lee’s operation, they are on site and continue to perform all manner of warbird maintenance and restoration. They are masters of their craft, the best in the world.
The latest addition to the Stallion 51 family is UAT, or Unusual Attitude Training. The primary aircraft for this program is the L-39 TurboJet, outfitted with state-of-the-art EFIS (Electronic Flight Instrument System) and the design capability to withstand extreme flight attitudes. This equipment closely simulates current corporate and executive aircraft cockpit layouts. The L-39 is also equipped with specially-designed onboard cameras, allowing for accurate visual and audio debriefs of the unusual attitude training from both inside the cockpit and outside the airplane.
UAT’s purpose is to train corporate or ATP-level pilots to recognize and respond accurately and quickly to unusual attitudes before an emergent situation progresses into one from which they may be unable to recover. This type of comprehensive aerodynamic training, combined with aero-medical training, has not been readily available to civilian pilots until this program launched at the NBAA conference in 2012. Already, the client list is filling up and graduates are pilots in the aviation departments of Fortune-500 corporations.
But one thing Lauderback is very clear about is this: it’s not his empire.
“It’s about all of us. I’m just a small part of a complex operation, and I absolutely could not do this without Angela, without my brothers, and without the amazing instructors and support staff I have here. We are a team and we succeed because we’re a team. If you were to remove any part of it, the others would fail. Plain and simple.”
Lauderback by nature is a very quiet, conservative man. Others in the community have called him intense and stand-offish, a task-master of epic proportion. But when men like Robin Olds, Bob Hoover, and Bud Anderson, all of whom Lauderback has flown with, are singing your praises in unabashed fashion, the words of detractors just fade away.
He is humble and professional, with a way to make anyone feel at ease in the aircraft, regardless of their level of experience. You would be hard-pressed to find a warbird pilot who combines smoothness with aggressiveness and safety with maximum performance the way he does. He’s extremely careful with his airplanes and certainly risk averse, but a big part of adventure is the element of peril. He combines all of them beautifully.
“It is such a privilege to be able to do this,” Lauderback said at the conclusion of our meal. “Taking a Mustang flying is like taking a national monument out for a test drive. It puts a whole new perspective on it, and really demonstrates the need to have professionally-trained pilots flying these aircraft.”
It is a sobering reality. In the early 80s, roughly ten percent of the flyable P-51s were involved in incidents or accidents, a lot of them fatal, because there was no well-defined training program for pilots to get checked out. Accidents were more often the result of too much performance combined with too little training, and Lauderback’s passion has been to turn that trend around. Because he has done so with such a high standard and degree of success, most insurance companies won’t touch a P-51 pilot until they can produce a graduation certificate from the Stallion 51 program.
If Lauderback’s legacy were to be anything other than sharing his passion and love for the airplane with other people, it is his work to help the warbird industry become the collection of safe, proficient, professional aviators it is today.
“I don’t really own these airplanes, per se. I’m just the keeper of the keys. I’m a steward. I have a responsibility to guard these treasures. I’m fortunate to get to do it.”
Roaring downhill toward the entry point of our loop, I was reminded of something Lauderback had told me in the preflight briefing.
“You don’t fly the airplane, you wear this airplane. You become one with it.”
On the controls, you can still feel the angry horse, the wild energy churning and bucking in front of you. It’s much more elegant than a current fighter. While the Mustang doesn’t have the snappy roll-rate and isn’t capable of the performance of today’s fighters, it is an incredibly breath-taking aircraft to fly.
The history and the legacy, the responsibility for maintaining a national treasure, all of the things that come with this aircraft, you can feel them just by touching it. By itself, it’s an inanimate object. A machine. It’s metal, plastic, leather, and all sorts of different kinds of hardware. When it’s put together as a finished piece, it’s beautiful. It’s not an airplane anymore; it’s a work of art, designed by engineers with slide-rules and drafting tables.
Up into the vertical we go with three times the force of gravity pressing us into our seats, carving our way into a big airshow-style loop.
“Okay, ease off the back-pressure now,” came the direction from up front. “That’s it…good!”
And so we raged around the airspace for an hour. We joined up with the other Mustang to do some close formation work, even formation aerobatics. The entire time I was reminded of young men in their late teens and early twenties who went to war in this airplane, and there were moments when I had to stop and just look around, take a few deep breaths, and let it sink in.
Lee Lauderback’s story is about honoring this magnificent aircraft and the pilots that flew them for real. Most people who go to an airshow know what a P-51 is. Many people go to an airshow because of the P-51. It has a very unique sound. It has a very unique appearance. The amount of history the aircraft holds is significant on a scale most can’t fathom. Especially to fighter pilots, the P-51 is a symbol of all things right in the world. God, country, mom’s apple pie…and Mustangs.
It really doesn’t get any better than that.