The day was April 14, 1985. My younger brother Garry and I were heading east on Interstate 580 through the Livermore Valley under a warm spring sky. Our destination was the Livermore Municipal Airport and although my brother didn't know it at the time each of us would soon be flying through the skies in the backseat of a P-51D Mustang.
One of the pilots that would be flying us that day was Bob Love. Bob was a well known fighter, warbird, and air race pilot who hangared his white P-51D Mustang at the Livermore airport. The other pilot was renowned Merlin builder Jack Hovey whose brown camouflaged P-51D was also based out of Livermore.
The first time that I met Bob Love was at his hangar in Livermore, California. I had seen the airplane and recognized it as one that I had seen on the ramp and in the pit area during the 1984 Reno Air Races a few months earlier. When I asked him if he had flown at Reno he responded with 'been there a few times.' It wasn't until later that I found out that he had finished first in the ‘64 Reno Air Races finals, only to lose the championship on points to Miro Slovak.
Whenever I was in the area I would take the opportunity to stop by Bob’s hangar and talk with him about numerous topics. I listened intently to stories about each one of the 6 red stars on the port side of the Mustang’s canopy that represented the 6 Migs that he shot down in Korea. The 7 stars on the right represented those shot down by his close friend Cliff Jolley who inspired the Jolley Roger paint scheme on the starboard side of the fuselage.
When my brother found out in the spring of '85 that he had been accepted into the Air Force Academy I was searching for a way to show how proud I was of his achievement. One afternoon, during a visit to Bob's hangar, I mentioned my brother's future direction and inquired about getting him up for a ride before he left for the Academy. Bob, a retired Captain in the Air Force, said "sure, and while were at it why don't I make arrangements for you to go up at the same time in Jack's plane." The plans were set and Garry would ride in Bob’s plane while I would be riding in the jumpseat of Jack Hovey's unlimited Mustang racer.
A few days before the flight I told Garry to keep Sunday afternoon open. The story I gave him was that Bob had mentioned to me that he had a passenger lined up and would be taking his Mustang out for a flight. I didn't mention who the passenger was. We arrived at the hangar and said hello to Bob. Casually putting my hand on the wing of Bob's P-51 I said, "oh, by the way, you'll be riding in this one here and I'll be in the one in the hangar around the corner." Bob's crew chief then prepared Garry for his flight as I went over the Jack's plane and prepared for mine.
As I squeezed myself
into the backseat I heard Bob talking to a group of bystanders explaining
that he was taking up an Air Force cadet for his first fighter ride. Even
though he didn't know my brother very well the tone and pride in his voice
made you think that he might have been talking about his own son.
To say I had to “squeeze”
my 6’2” frame behind the pilot’s seat is an understatement.
I had to go in facing the rear of the plane, squat on the jumpseat, scoot
my feet around and somehow get them onto the floor. It was a tight squeeze
but I was prepared to fly the entire flight in a squatting position if
I had to. Jack's plane was in relatively stock condition. Some of the
air openings had been sealed to add some speed to the racer, and a jump
seat had been added, but other than that the cockpit looked right out
of 1945. The plane still had the mounting bracket for the armor plating
installed which was causing great pains on my knees as I tried to work
my lower leg between it and the floorboards.
Jack strapped himself in, turned over the Merlin, and began to taxi. Bob was finishing his preparations in front of his hangar and soon his exhaust stacks belched smoke and his propeller was turning. As both planes neared the end of the runway they turned, and with the brakes set, ran up the throttle.
With the sensation
of the engine torque trying to roll the plane on its side, and the acceleration
pushing me back in my seat, we headed down runway 25. The tail came up,
wheels left the runway, and we were quickly airborne. As we climbed away
from the airfield we turned south over the Livermore hills. Straining
as I looked over my shoulder I could see Bob and my brother heading down
the runway and then climbing to reach us. For a moment I lost sight of
the white Mustang as it was directly below and behind us. Seemingly out
of nowhere it popped up on our right wing and together both planes flew
in formation with both my brother and I snapping pictures of each other.
As our circle pattern
brought us east of the airfield I could hear Jack talking to the tower
about an approach into the pattern. My headphone had a lot of static,
in addition to shocking my neck every time my head turned, and I wasn't
able to quite make out what was being said. It sounded like we were heading
back. Not yet, it couldn't have been over that quick, and it wasn't. With
Bernie's Bo still on our wing we headed into the traffic pattern and made
a pass down the length of the runway.
Our pull-up at the
end of the runway pushed me down in my seat and I struggled to keep my
camera pointed at my brother and above the canopy edge. Both planes then
leveled off and turned north. After another minute or so of formation
flying Bob did a short wing waggle and peeled away, just like in the movies.
Bob was taking Garry east towards the delta to do some aerobatics while
Jack and I did a cruise around Mt. Diablo.
I couldn't help thinking
how symbolic Bob's peel away was. In the backseat of that airplane was
my brother heading off to great challenges and a life of flying. His life
was about to head off in a different direction than mine was and it was
at that exact moment that I realized it.
At about the same
moment I realized that Jack's plane had very little ventilation and it
was beginning to feel like I was sitting in a greenhouse. With the sun
beating down on the canopy, and the air vents sealed for racing, the sweat
was pouring off of me in buckets. I was also beginning to feel a bit airsick.
I took my camera gear out of my bag, stuffing it between my legs, and
prepared to catch my lunch with my bag if necessary. Fortunately it never
came to that.
As we reached the
north side of Mt. Diablo, Jack suddenly turned the plane on its starboard
side and looked down at the ground 5,000 feet below. He then did the same
on the port side. After leveling back out he pushed the plane into a dive
and headed for an area on the backside of the mountain. We cut through
a canyon below the tops of the hill zigzagging for a few seconds, with
nothing but hillsides above us, before we came across a stream of cars
heading south on Vasco Road. If the 50 calibers had been installed we
could have easily wiped out the whole line of unsuspecting automobiles.
It was easy to imagine how the Mustang could provide the element of surprise
and give a distinct advantage to the allied pilots during WWII. Pulling
back up to a safer altitude we headed out over the windmills on the Altamont
Pass and began preparations for landing.
Thirty five minutes
after the flight started the plane touched down and slowed at the end
of the runway. Jack cracked the canopy open while we taxied back to the
hangar and any feeling of nausea immediately evaporated with the fresh
air and total exhilaration took over. I was realizing that I had just
flown in the back of a World War II fighter, not just any fighter, but
a P-51 and an Unlimited Racer to boot. Bob Love and Garry touched down
while we were in our taxi and followed us back. I crawled out of the back
seat, totally drenched in sweat and grinning ear to ear. What a ride.
A few months later
my brother went off the start his four years at the Air Force Academy.
He graduated in 1989 and then spent a few years active duty flying C-130's
based out of Arizona and Panama. He has since left the Air Force and now
flies an MD-11 for Fed-Ex as well as the C-130J as part of his National
Guard duty at Channel Islands Air National Guard.
Sadly, Bob Love passed
away in the fall of 1986. He didn't have a funeral per se but rather one
large fly-in at the Livermore Airport with California's warbird community
showing up in full force to pay their respects. Russ Francis and Lloyd
Hamilton in their Hawker Sea Furies formed up with Dan Martin in his P-51
“Ridge Runner” and Jack Hovey in his Mustang for a missing
man formation. Other well known warbird pilots flew their planes into
Livermore for the ceremony including Art Vance and his Mustang “Million
Dollar Baby” and Skip Holm with his P-51 “The Healer.”
was sold to ex-San Francisco 49’er tight end Russ Francis who flew
it to air shows for a few years in it's white Jolly Roger paint scheme.
It is now owned by Bill Dause and based in Lodi, California painted in
a gloss black paint scheme.
Jack Hovey has since
moved his plane from Livermore to Ione California where he is still one
of the premier Merlin builders. I had the opportunity to say hello to
him in the Voodoo pit at the 2002 Reno Air Races and thanked him once
again for that ride of a lifetime.
I once asked Bob what the Latin saying on the cowl of his plane 'illegitimatus non carborundum' meant and he told me that it was Latin for 'don't let the bastards grind you down.' Words to live by.
Images presented for display purposes only. All photos Copyright Rick Pisio. All rights reserved. Unauthorized duplication prohibited. If you want to use any of these images in any way, please contact the photographer to discuss terms prior to usage.
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