Aviation dreams: the P-51 Mustang comes alive

The other week the pilot of a P-51 Mustang fired up its Rolls Royce Merlin – all 27 litres of classic engine – right next to me. Moments like these don’t come around very often.

P-51 Mustang at Napier airport, February 2015.
P-51 Mustang at Napier airport, February 2015. Note the blade motion.

That sound is one of the classics of the piston-engined world. And it has to be experienced, up close and personal, to be really understood.

This particular Mustang is owned by Jetfighter Ltd, based in Auckland, and I photographed it at Napier airport. The Royal New Zealand Air Force received 30 just after the end of the Second World War, part of a batch of 370. The order never eventuated and in 1951 the 30 P-51’s were deployed instead with the Territorial Air Force, where they remained in service until the middle of the decade.

And if you want to learn more about the RNZAF and its Mustangs – well, the story’s in my book Kiwi Air Power, available from Amazon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

18 thoughts on “Aviation dreams: the P-51 Mustang comes alive

  1. The Packard Merlin on the P-51 is pretty awesome. For me, though, I love the rumble of an R-2800 engine, especially when a P-47 Thunderbolt is wrapped around it! And there’s something pretty special about a B-17 or a B-24 starting up.

    OK, I’m a sucker for the aircraft of that era. Like you say, to get it, you really have to get up close and personal with the airplane — out of the propeller arc, of course!


    1. I’m also a sucker for same! Yes, this Mustang would have had the license-built Packard Merlin (curious that Packard did it, in that to my mind, Packard motor cars were always to the US what Rolls Royce is to Britain). I can’t get over just how ubiquitous that Merlin design was, actually; not just “the” inline powerplant for aircraft, but its detuned edition drove tanks. I know someone who runs a car museum in my home district. They had a Merlin, brand new, in its original crate. Sold it to a US buyer. I’ve never asked the price they got for it.


  2. The difference between sound of a jet and the sound of any kind of prop plane, let alone the differences between various kinds of prop planes, is striking. It dawned on me at some point that the world we live in now has completely different sound effects than the worlds of the past. To take a trivial example, the cash registers of the past had a very distinctive “ka-ching!” when the transaction had been punched in and the cash drawer shot out. A lot of this difference in sounds has to do with the change from mechanical to electronic. Mechanisms gave us the distinctive rhythms and pulses of objects made of metal moving in some fashion. Even where the item in question remains essentially mechanical—say the diesel locomotive that replaced the steam locomotive—the sounds are different. The sounds of steam—that is a whole other story.


    1. It does – and I think the transition is often insidious or subtle. When we hear those older sounds, be it the roar of a Merlin or a Wright radial, or the whistle and chuffing of a steam locomotive (both of which I was listening to the weekend I took the photo here), I think we can be transported back, in our minds. I find it curiously meaningful that, having dumped the ‘ringing bell’ sound of a telephone decades ago, we now frantically scrabble to find just that sound to play digitally when the phone rings. It is as if the older sound, really, was definitive for all time.


      1. Indeed, from time to time when classic aircraft have flown over town on the way to the airport, they’ve tended to take a route that goes right over my office. During the summer, we’ll frequently have the windows open, so the sounds are quite prominent. I’ve experienced B-17s, B-24s and P-51s that way, and it always has the effect of taking a person back in a way that’s hard to describe.

        Likewise, I recall one of my uncles, a Canadian army veteran who was in the UK during the Blitz, describe how the sound of the Rolls engine would take him back. At the time he told me that, he must have been in his 70s living in Montreal when some sort of old fighter had gone over town, and it caused him to instantly recall watching fighters over England during the war.

        In a less significant way, I’ve occasionally noticed the same thing with certain older vehicles. I owned a 1946 vintage Jeep at one time, for example, and even now if I hear the sound of that Willys 4cyl engine I instantly know what the vehicle is, and sort of experience having driven it in a way.

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    2. Fascinating observation about sounds!

      Awhile back there was some project going on to preserve sounds that are more or less going extinct. i can’t recall who was doing it, but I dimly recall the Library of Congress being involved. I recall hearing one of the sounds on an NPR broadcast on the topic, that being of a single piston marine diesel engine, something that simply doesn’t exist anymore and which did have a very distinct sound, based on the recording.


      1. Intriguing! I’d like to know more about that one. Historically, an audio archive – including sounds – is just as important as a written one. Though I have a vague idea that such things might end up as ringtones, somehow… 🙂


  3. We used to have an annual, or nearly annual, air show here that always featured one or more P-51s. Quite the plane, to say the least.

    Indeed, when I was a kid, a fellow at the air port had a P-51, a Corsair, and a P-38 (being rebuilt). He crashed the P-51, unfortunately. And, also unfortunately, we no longer have the air show.

    Here’s a P-51C at the last one:


    And a P-51D with some newer fighters:



  4. A couple of additional examples of the WWII warbirds and other classics that have come in at our local airport from time to time:


    Riding in a B-17, which my son and I were able to do several years ago:

    Osa’s Ark:

    P-51C again:

    Mig 15s, that are owned by a fellow out there:

    ME109 and a Corsair, from the glory days of local airshows.


  5. Its really neat, from my prospective to see a P51D in RNZAF colors. I’ve never seen that.

    We see quite a few RCAF aircraft here at our local airport for some reason, which is also a bit of a treat.


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