By Mike Ullery
The last weekend in September saw Rickenbacker Air National Guard Base transformed back to its glory days. It took on the aura of Lockborne Air Base, the name originally given the base located just south of Columbus, Ohio, in the 1940s, when it was home to the Tuskegee Airmen. The historic base hosted the Gathering of Mustangs & Legends, the culmination of years of dreaming and planning for event chairman Lee Lauderback and his staff at Stallion 51, located in Kissimmee, Fla.
More than 150,000 spectators participated in GML 2007, held Sept. 27-30, in conjunction with Air Force Heritage Week. Billed as the largest gathering of P-51 Mustangs since World War II, the event also recognized that an airplane is only as great as its designers, builders, crew, and, of course, pilots. The 1999 Gathering of Mustangs & Legends, held at Stallion 51, amassed 65 Mustangs and 12 legends. This year’s event drew 80 Mustangs and 49 of the 51 invited legends.
These legends of America’s “Greatest Generation” arrived at Rickenbacker looking like the grandfathers and retirees they are. Men, some in wheelchairs and walkers, were transformed as they once again saw the machines of their youth. Eyes began to twinkle as they saw themselves again as young fighter pilots, standing beside the world’s greatest fighters. Many talked about their experiences. Rarely did anyone mention how great he was as a pilot, but all unanimously agreed that their exploits were made possible, in large part, due to the extraordinary ability of the P-51 Mustang.
The Air Force designated GML 2007 an official 60th anniversary event. The Air Force’s premier jet team, the Thunderbirds, performed before large crowds Friday through Sunday. After demonstrations, the F-15, F-16 and F-22 Raptor joined up with the star of the show, a P-51 Mustang, and performed the moving Heritage Flight. Heritage Flight is celebrating its 10th anniversary, and the opportunity to perform multiple exhibitions during the weekend was a fitting way to pay tribute to everything the Gathering of Mustangs & Legends stands for: paying tribute to the men and machines that protect American freedom.
Nearly half of the remaining Mustangs in the world made the pilgrimage to Rickenbacker to play their part in the historic event. One couldn’t look at the ramp lined with rows of Mustangs without thinking, “This must be what it looked like” during the days in the mid-1940s when airfields all over England were filled with thousands of Mustangs, making daily trips into the skies over France and Germany, where they earned their reputation.
GML 2007 featured many other attractions, including WWII reenactors who bivouacked with tents, accessories and vehicles, including jeeps, half-tracks and a Sherman tank. The National Aviation Hall of Fame hosted poster signings by the legends and other exhibits displayed the history of the base and the Tuskegee Airmen, one group who made the Mustang famous. Surviving Tuskegee Airmen including Lee Archer, Roscoe Brown, Charles McGee and Harry Stewart Jr., were recognized for accomplishments made at a time when many thought African-American flyers were less qualified than their white counterparts.
Joining the P-51s on the ramp were other WWII-era aircraft, such as B-17s and B-25s. Also on hand was a British Lancaster bomber, one of only two still in existence. These aircraft joined P-47s, P-38s, P-40s and the P-51s in the sky over Rickenbacker, in a show of WWII airpower that included pyrotechnics that rattled windows.
Each day, the show’s grand finale was a large formation flight of more than 20 Mustangs, filling the air with the sounds of Rolls-Royce Merlin engines. Air show emcee Rob Reider brought the crowd to silence as they waited for the final group pass, encouraging spectators to look in the distance for small specs, barely noticeable to the naked eye. Once spotted, these tiny dots transformed into a living, breathing formation of Mustang fighters as they approached the show line. Once again, one couldn’t help but think, “This must be what it was like.”