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A time to ‘reflect on what those guys did in these planes in World War II’
By DAN CATCHPOLE
(Everett) Daily Herald
MUKILTEO — The powerful engine coughed, hesitated, then jumped to life. A puff of smoke kicked out of the fighter plane's exhaust pipes. The sleek airplane's chrome skin glinted in the sun.
The P-51 Mustang's bright-yellow nose whirred, the propeller was a blur. It began taxiing to the runway. Two more Mustangs joined it.
The three World War II-vintage airplanes lifted off and banked to the west from Paine Field. Out of sight from the ground, the trio got into a V-formation, with the yellow-nosed plane in the lead and the other two slightly behind it, one on each side.
A moment later, the three roared over the airport a couple of times before heading north for Bellingham.
The June 5 flight was a practice run for one the next day to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion by Allied forces in Normandy, France.
The lead plane, Impatient Virgin, flew four combat sorties on June 6, 1944, supporting the invasion. Today it is part of the Historic Flight Foundation collection at Paine Field. It is painted with “invasion stripes” — alternating black and white bands on the fuselage and each wing that Allies used to identify friendly from enemy aircraft on D-Day.
One of the other Mustangs, a P-51D called “Upupa Epops” belonging to the Flying Heritage Collection at Paine Field, flew combat missions over Western Europe during the last few months of the war.
The third airplane, dubbed “Val-Halla,” was built during World War II and was flown by the Texas Air National Guard and Indonesian Air Force. Today it is part of the collection at the Heritage Flight Museum in Burlington.
The three planes flew two sorties around Puget Sound on June 6, flying first over Everett, Stanwood, Whidbey Island, Bellingham, Port Angeles and Langley before returning to Paine Field around 11 a.m. After refueling, the planes took to the skies again, just before noon, and headed south for visits to Seattle, Boeing Field, Newcastle, Bellevue, Issaquah, McChord Field, Olympia, Tacoma, Gig Harbor, Bainbridge Island, Poulsbo and Kingston. The planes returned to Paine Field at around 2:10 p.m.
Flying a precise route in tight formation is no small feat. Some of the waypoints are big and hard to miss from the air, such as Boeing Field. But some, such as Veterans Memorial Field in Issaquah, are only a few hundred feet across and look like a postage stamp from the air.
John Sessions founded the Historic Flight Foundation and flew lead in the formation.
“The role of the lead in any flight is to find destinations, take into account your formation mates, maintain collision avoidance, call ahead for air clearance, and to navigate,” he said.
The other two pilots — Greg Anders of the Heritage Flight Museum and Carter Teeters of the Flying Heritage Collection — flew about 10 feet behind Sessions' lead Mustang, with three feet between each aircraft.
“If the lead does a good job, we fly three as one,” Sessions said.
Stepping into the cockpit of a P-51 is like stepping back into history. Many World War II pilots and military aviation historians say the plane was the best propeller fighter ever built.
Incredibly, it took little more than 100 days for designers to get from a clean sheet of paper to the first test flight. The design process included using a wind tunnel at the University of Washington.
The plane was at first underpowered and unimpressive. Then the British coupled the airframe with the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine of their famous Spitfire fighter, and the Mustang was born. It was fast and maneuverable, packed a heavy punch and could fly from England to Berlin and back — farther than any other Allied fighter.
“The Mustang came along in World War II and really saved our bombers,” Sessions said.
The P-51 helped the Allies dominate the skies over Western Europe before and after D-Day. Reichsmarshall Hermann Göring, the head of Nazi Germany's air force, the Luftwaffe, allegedly said, “When I saw Mustangs over Berlin, I knew the jig was up.”
In the sky in a P-51, Anders said, he takes time to “reflect on what those guys did in these planes in World War II.” A longtime U.S. Air Force veteran, Anders flew 27 combat missions over Iraq in 2003.
For Sessions, the flight was a way to remember his father, Myron Sessions, who parachuted behind the invasion beaches as a member of the U.S. 101st Airborne Division.
“It's a way to honor him,” he said.
Above: Historic Flight Foundation founder John Sessions prepares to take off on a practice aerial tour over the Puget Sound area by three P-51 Mustangs, in advance of the D-Day 70th anniversary tour on June 6. Sessions flew the 'Impatient Virgin,' a plane that flew four sorties on D-Day. Genna Martin / (Everett) Daily Herald