Our Stories: Bringing History to Life

By John Perkinson, Senior Staff Writer
Capts. Larry Lumpkin (United), right, and Jeff Linebaugh (FedEx Express) take turns flying Gunfighter for the Commemorative Air Force.

There’s no denying that the iconic P-51 Mustang aided the Allied Forces of World War II in establishing air supremacy. The long-range fighter’s speed and versatility led the Truman Senate War Investigating Committee in 1944 to deem it “the most aerodynamically perfect pursuit plane in existence.” Capt. Larry Lumpkin (United) helps keep this celebrated warbird’s legacy alive, 70 years later, flying Gunfighter for the Commemorative Air Force (CAF).

“It’s my job beyond my job,” says Lumpkin, who’s a member of the CAF’s Great Plains Wing, near his home in Elkhorn, Neb. His “job” encompasses flying aerobatics and formation demonstrations and providing rides at air shows. For the latter charge, Gunfighter was reconfigured years ago with a second seat behind the pilot, where the aircraft’s original radio gear and fuselage fuel tank were positioned. Lumpkin notes that it’s a popular attraction, adding, “A lot of people like to ride in the P-51 and consider it a bucket-list item.”

Lumpkin conducts aerobatic maneuvers in the World War II vintage P-51D Mustang for a recent airshow.

Chance encounter

By a simple twist of fate, Lumpkin joined the CAF in 1995. “A group of friends and I had just purchased an Aeronca L-3 and decided to park it at the Council Bluffs Municipal Airport. I was the only one with an instructor rating, so they all wanted me to check them out on it,” he recalls.

Those familiar with the Aeronca know that, like the Mustang, it also made a name for itself during World War II.

By chance, the group parked its airplane in the same hangar as Gunfighter, leading Lumpkin to get to know the members of the Great Plains Wing. They convinced the United captain to join their unit, and, by 2003, he became the alternate pilot for Gunfighter.

The Mustang bears the livery of the 55th Fighter Group of the “Mighty Eighth” U.S. Air Force. Retired U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Regis Urschler, the airplane’s primary pilot before Lumpkin, coincidentally served as commander of the 55th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing at Offutt Air Force Base. In 1977, Urschler helped secure the P-51 for the CAF, where he flew it exclusively for 27 years.

Learning to fly Gunfighter was no small undertaking for Lumpkin, who notes, “It required three years of exhaustive training. I spent 200 hours flying a T6 Texan before I ever sat in the Mustang’s cockpit.

“Once you’re strapped into the P-51, everything’s stick and rudder from the old days. It’s a very high performance airplane, and, from a personal perspective, it’s an honor and a privilege to fly it,” he adds.

By 2007, Urschler decided to call it quits. Lumpkin took command of the aircraft, and later that year brought on Capt. Jeff Linebaugh (FedEx Express), a former U.S. Air Force pilot and Japan Airlines flight instructor, to share the flying.

An original

Gunfighter is not from some home-built aircraft kit. The armor-plated thoroughbred is a P-51D, Serial No. 44-73264, assembled at North American Aviation’s Inglewood, Calif., plant and delivered to the Mighty Eighth in March 1945. However, the war in Europe ended several months later, and the airplane was reassigned to a series of National Guard units before being sold as surplus in 1957.

A Rolls-Royce Merlin V-1650-7 engine powers this Mustang, which has a top speed of 437 miles per hour, a maximum ceiling of 41,900 feet, and a range of 1,300 miles. More than 15,000 Mustangs were manufactured, but only about 150 are still in existence.

Flying legend

Approximately 3,000 history buffs and aviation enthusiasts attended the Commemorative Air Force Air Power History Tour at Branson Airport in Branson, Mo., this past Labor Day weekend. The event was the 14th stop on the CAF tour, and Gunfighter was a main attraction.

Lumpkin says air shows typically feature a variety of aerial performances from the CAF’s varied fleet. “We average between 8 to 10 shows a year in addition to many ride event weekends,” he adds, remarking that, “I’m senior enough I can hold my weekends off.”

In some of the routines, the P-51 engages in a mock dogfight with a North American AT-6 Texan modified to look like a Mitsubishi A6M Zero, known as Tora 101. But what Lumpkin enjoys most is taking people up for rides. He says that flying with former World War II pilots and surviving members of their families has been particularly memorable. “On occasion, before I even crank the engine, I’ll look in my mirror and see tears rolling down from their eyes. It gets emotional for me as well,” he acknowledges.

Lumpkin also participated in the Arsenal of Democracy flyover, which took place on May 8, 2015, commemorating the 70th anniversary of VE (Victory in Europe) Day (see “Our Stories,” August 2015, page 35). In one of the most diverse displays of aircraft every assembled, 56 World War II-era aircraft flew over Washington, D.C., in 15 historically sequenced warbird formations.

Lumpkin spends his weekdays flying as an A320 captain based in Denver, Colo., and has been employed with United Airlines for 30 years. He previously served as an electronic technician for the U.S. Air Force, assigned to the R&D branch that handles missile-guidance systems. He used the G.I. bill to continue his college education and learn to fly. He instructed for three years and went to work as a corporate pilot before joining United in 1986.

Looking at his future with the CAF, Lumpkin says, “I hope I’m good till 70. The Mustang is a challenge, and you don’t fly it unless you’re on top of your game.” Lumpkin turns 63 this November.

The Largest Flying Museum in the World

The Commemorative Air Force (CAF) maintains 160 aircraft and has more than 9,000 members. Collecting, restoring, and flying historic airplanes for more than half a century, the CAF is dedicated to honoring American military aviation through flight, exhibition, and remembrance. For more information, visit www.commemorativeairforce.org. To see where Gunfighter performs next, visit www.p51gunfighter.com.

This article was originally published in the October 2016 issue of Air Line Pilot.

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