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P-51 Mustang: John Landers and “Big Beautiful Doll”

P-51 Mustang: John Landers and “Big Beautiful Doll”

One thing we often forget is that war is always fought by kids and, in the case of WW II aviators, that meant they were also extremely inexperienced. When I flew my first fighter, which happened to be the Mustang, I was 29 years old and had nearly 2,500 hours of flight time in a wide variety of airplanes. When John Landers, the original pilot of Big Beautiful Doll, flew his first fighter, a P-40, which is much more difficult than a Mustang to fly, he barely had 200 hours. By today’s standards, that’s not even enough flight time to dry him out behind the ears.

Of course, there’s flight time and there’s flight time. Not one airplane in Landerís logbook was as easy to fly as something like a Cherokee or Cessna. Conversely, few airplanes I had flown prior to strapping on a T-6 to get ready for the Mustang were as difficult as the Stearman Landers probably learned to fly in. The 208 hours he had by the time he was flying combat in P-40s in the Pacific was a very serious 208 hours. When he was shot down and wounded by a Zero December of 1943, he was already an ace with six kills and probably hadn’t cracked the 400-hour mark yet. At 400 hours I was no more ready to fly something like a P-40 than the man in the moon.

There was a fatalistic, Darwinian aspect to WW II flight training and combat. Those with the talent flourished quickly, others barely held on, while so many others were simply eliminated leaving the strong to fight on. It’s impossible for someone like me, a wannabe fighter pilot, not to wonder where I would have fallen in the Darwin spectrum of fighter pilots.

When I finally got my chance to start flying Mustangs it was one of the high points of my life and all I was going to do was takeoff, fly around and land. It’s a big deal to be one of the few who have been given that kind of opportunity. Not so in WW II. It was a given that someone like Landers, who may have been low time by our standards, could fly the airplane. That wasn’t what counted. What mattered was his ability to use the Mustang as a weapon. When he took off he was going to pit his skill in the airplane against the best that Germany had to offer. It wasn’t an ego thing. It was a survival thing.

When Landers started flying the Mustang, he was a 24-year-old Lt. Colonel and Group Exec for the 357th Fighter Group in the ETO. Earlier, while flying P-38s, he had already added four German planes on top of his Japanese victories making him a double ace. Then he moved over and became CO for the 78th fighter group and continued racking up the victories. When the war was over he had 4.5 kills in the Mustang with the .5 being a shared Me-262.

I’ve looked over that long skinny nose and shoved that barrel-shaped throttle forward to feel the seat back urging me forward. I’ve looped and rolled and, on occasion, even challenged another Mustang or Corsair to a fight. I’ve felt the Gs and basked in that delicious sound track, but I always knew I’d come home. And that’s the difference.

Most fighter pilots who were trained and fought during WW II didn’t hit 1000 hours by war’s end. Combat, however, makes you get very good, very quickly. If you don’t, then adding time to your logbook will be the least of your worries. –Budd Davisson

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