By Dan Catchpole Herald Writer
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.
Thursday’s flight was a practice run for one Friday 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.
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 will fly two sorties around Puget Sound Friday. The morning run is scheduled to start at Paine Field at 9 a.m. and include fly-overs of Everett, Stanwood, Whidbey Island, Bellingham, Port Angeles and Langley before returning to Paine Field around 11 a.m.
After refueling, the planes will take to the skies again, just before noon, and head south for visits to Seattle, Boeing Field, Newcastle, Bellevue, Issaquah, McChord Field, Olympia, Tacoma, Gig Harbor, Bainbridge Island and Kingston. The planes will return 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 Veteran’s Memorial Field in Issaquah, are only a few hundred feet across and look like a postage stamp from the air.
Ensuring that the trio is overhead at the right time is John Sessions’ problem. He founded the Historic Flight Foundation and is flying 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 main job of the other two pilots — Greg Anders of the Heritage Flight Museum and Carter Teeters of the Flying Heritage Collection — is to maintain formation.
They will each be flying 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.
Allegedly, the head of Nazi Germany’s air force, the Luftwaffe, Reichsmarshall Hermann Göring, 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, Friday’s flight is 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.
Dan Catchpole: 425-339-3454; email@example.com; Twitter: @dcatchpole.
Impatient Virgin and other World War II-vintage airplanes will be on display Saturday at the Historic Flight Foundation in Mukilteo. There also will be more than 100 re-enactors in authentic D-Day attire and representatives from Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
In the afternoon, aviation author Mike Lavelle will talk about “Allied Air Support, Operation Overlord.”
Details are available at historicflight.org/hf/.
Friday flight schedule
Paine Field 9 a.m. (TAKEOFF)
NAS Whidbey 9:34
Burlington/Skagit Field 9:40
Friday Harbor 10:04
Port Angeles 10:23
Port Townsend 10:34
Paine Field 11 a.m. (LANDING)
Paine Field 11:50 a.m. (TAKEOFF)
Lake Forest Park 11:56
Seattle waterfront 12 p.m.
Seattle downtown 12:05 p.m.
Seattle Boeing Field 12:15
McChord Field (KTCM): 12:50
Gray AAF (KGRF): 1 p.m.
Olympia (KOLM): 1:15
Tacoma Narrows (KTIW): 1:22
Gig Harbor: 1:32
Vashon Island: 1:37
Bainbridge Island: 1:44
North of Kingston: 2 p.m.
Paine Field 2:10 (LANDING)