By Di Freeze
Lee Lauderback, the owner of Stallion 51, the world’s premier P-51 Mustang flight operation, says his father was responsible for his early fascination with aviation.
“He was a Navy pilot,” he said. “He flew TBMs and big seaplanes. He always supported aviation. I’m one of five boys, and we always had the exposure. Four of us were involved in aviation.”
Lauderback was born in Toledo, Ohio, but grew up in Pompano Beach, Fla. The family moved to Orlando when he was about 10, and he began flying gliders four years later. “Soaring was a major part of my life,” he said. “Starting at 14, I never really got away from sailplanes.”
As soon as he could, he became an instructor. “Every weekend I’d instruct at a soaring operation,” he said. “That was back in high school and college days. I always had this intensity. When I got on the instructing side, I ended up buying a fiberglass sailplane called an Open Cirrus. I had that airplane for about six years and flew it maybe 600 hours.”
He remembers selling it for substantially more than he bought it. “I thought that was really cool,” he said. “Then I bought another one, an ASW20. It was a Schleicher.”
He bought the 15-meter racing airplane from Karl Striedieck, a multi-time national champion sailplane pilot. “I kept that airplane for six or seven years,” Lauderback said. “I spent probably another 700 hours flying that airplane.”
He also progressed to powered aircraft, soloing on his 16th birthday. By then, his goal was to fly fighters in the military.
“I didn’t have 20/20 vision, but I thought I’d figure out some way of working around that problem,” he said.
He attended Louisiana State University on an athletic scholarship, majoring in aeronautical engineering.
“At that time, I was playing baseball,” he said. “It took me out of the aviation field, which actually rekindled my interest.”
A member of Air Force ROTC, Lauderback took all the tests and scored high, but as he had fear, he couldn’t get around his vision problem.
“That’s when they had the draft lottery,” he said. “I had this big, long, high number, so I didn’t have to sign to go to the military. My deal was, ‘Just tell me I can fly, and I’ll sign as many years as you want.’ They were very stringent that there were no exceptions, no exemptions, no waivers for vision, and that I would not fly.'”
Lauderback didn’t enter the military. Instead, after graduating from college, he began flying corporate aircraft and did some charter work. In early 1973, the 23-year-old pilot was flying a Baron for Lease a Plane, based in Denver, when he met Charlie Johnson, the chief pilot for golfing legend Arnold Palmer, who was also a pilot. Johnson was looking for a copilot to take Palmer’s Lear 24 from Orlando Airport back to Latrobe, Penn.
“Charlie was an F-105 Air Force pilot,” Lauderback said. “We really hit it off. On the way up there, we had a great time; it wasn’t long before he said, ‘Can you do it again?’
That became a part-time job. “They were using me more and more, until it became a fulltime position, probably in about six months,” he said. “It wasn’t very long from then that Charlie got me typed in a Learjet. He was my instructor at that time; he was a very talented pilot.”
He said they did a lot of charter work at that time.
“There was more than just moving Arnold Palmer around,” he said. “When he was in the airplane, he was in the left seat, Charlie was in the right, and I was on the jump seat. When the boss wasn’t onboard, we swapped seats.”
Looking back, Lauderback said that men like Palmer and Johnson have been key to his life and the things he’s accomplished.
“There have been some special friends,” he said. “You form bonds and friendships and they become some of the most special things in your life.”
In the mid-1970s, due to the demands of keeping up with Palmer, and family pressures, Johnson, married with two children, left Palmer’s employ to work for Gates Learjet as chief of production flight test. He would eventually serve as president and chief operating officer for Cessna Aircraft Company. Lauderback took over the position of chief pilot.
Lauderback recalls days when his mentor was tough on him, but thanks Johnson for bringing him to a higher standard.
“He’s never deviated from it. I don’t care if it’s cars, or as the president of Cessna, or flying Learjets,” he said. “Good wasn’t good enough: ‘If you can’t be the best at what you’re going to do, find something else to do.’ He passed that baton on to me, with the abilities and skills to do the job for Arnold Palmer.”
Lauderback worked fulltime for Palmer, whom he described as an “outstanding and natural” pilot, until 1990.
“I started out young and single, flying the Learjet around,” he said. “I really thought I was hot stuff. As time goes on, you get more humble. Being around Arnold Palmer, who is one of the most class acts I’ve ever been around, you look and you watch and you learn. He’s such a terrific person.”
After the Learjet, Palmer went from a Citation I to the II, III and then VII.
“He was in the left seat 99 percent of the time, and I was in the right,” he said. “We traveled all around the world and met his objectives of aviation and had a lot of fun in between. For me, the job wasn’t just aviation. It was the total experience of watching Arnold Palmer do his business, and in a sense, sharing in some of those actions.”
Palmer, who bought an MD 500E in the mid-1980s, subsidized Lauderback’s helicopter training.
“I went all the way through to instructor status in helicopters,” Lauderback said. “Then, I trained him in the helicopter. We could get him around the country quickly, golf course to golf course.”
After almost 17 years as Palmer’s chief pilot, Lauderback eventually made the decision to move on.
“I got married in 1977,” he explained. “I ran into the same issues that Charlie Johnson was running into, except I stayed and ended up in a divorce situation. Then, when my son Brad was about 7 years old, he called me one day and said, ‘Dad, I have to live with you.’ I had to change; I couldn’t do both. I had a commitment to my son.”
Lauderback recalls telling Palmer he needed eight years off to raise his son.
“His comeback was, ‘Yeah, I suppose you want pay, too.’ I said, ‘Yeah, that would be great.’ Then he realized how serious I was,” Lauderback recalled. “Neither of us found much humor in it, but it was something I had to do. We’re still close, but I started into a different dimension of aviation, which I’ve enjoyed very much.”
Lauderback said it’s difficult to explain Stallion 51’s daily operation “with the passion and intensity you see when you get here.”
“It’s really a special place,” he said. “We have a lot of fun.”
He traces his love for the P-51 Mustang back to the mid-seventies.
“Two of my brothers, who are identical twins, had gone to the Air Force,” he recalled. “After four years in the Air Force, they started working corporate jobs. On one of the jobs, the guy had a P-51 he was restoring, so I was around the P-51 Mustang community. I truly fell in love with the airplane, its history and the ability to fly it.”
On several occasions, he tried to persuade Palmer to acquire a Mustang. Palmer agreed it would be a good investment.
“He’d say, ‘We ought to do that,’ but it never happened,” Lauderback recalled. “I had more of a burning desire to fly the airplane.”
In 1987, Lauderback met Doug Schultz, “an aviation visionary” who was thinking about buying a dual-cockpit/dual-control TF-51 Mustang.
“It was the one we have today, which is now called ‘Crazy Horse,'” Lauderback said. “Nobody really wanted a dual-cockpit/dual-control airplane because it wasn’t a true fighter, but Doug committed to the airplane.”
Primarily, the first contract for the airplane was the Navy Test Pilot School.
“They had a qualification requirement for that kind of airplane for their students to get educated more on propeller phenomena, torque effects, gyroscopics and things like that,” Lauderback said. “There was nothing in the inventory they had that would really allow the students to see this, yet it was very, very heavy in their academics.”
The Mustang ended up at Patuxent River in 1987, for military test pilot work for the students.
“That was right in the area I wanted to go,” said Lauderback. “Doug was a former Navy pilot, like Charlie Johnson in a lot of ways—the fighter pilot kind of guy. We hit it off really well. We ended up going into partnership on this airplane. I was fulltime in 1988.”
In 1987, Lauderback sold his ASW20 sailplane and put that money into Stallion 51. At that time, he continued to work for Palmer, and flew the Mustang, when he had time.
“We started to build that business,” he said. “During the summers, the airplane would be up at Latrobe, Penn., so when we weren’t gone or flying somewhere, I was flying the Mustang. I really enjoyed it. Seeing what was going on family wise, I was looking for some other way of supporting myself. That kept on as a piecemeal type thing when I could until I retired from Arnold Palmer.”
Stallion 51 began at Orlando Executive Airport and moved to Kissimmee Airport, where it is today, in 1992.
“We were in a warehouse and kept the airplane in a hangar here,” he said. “Today, we have two full size hangars and we’re building a third. I think there are eight Mustangs in the hangar right now, plus a P-40 and a Spitfire that either I’m responsible to operate or that I own.”
About six years ago, Lauderback ended up buying Stallion 51 from Schultz.
“Doug was a hard-charging fighter pilot and he wanted to do more jets,” Lauderback said. “I didn’t see a future in that. I wanted to do the Mustang. Doug started doing more and more things.”
Tragically, Schultz died in a fatal incident about four years ago.
“He was flying a MiG-21 for a military contract for the Canadians, and he had an in-flight breakup for some reason,” he said.
Presently, Lauderback has one partner in Stallion 51, Tom Blair.
“He started out as one of my management guys,” Lauderback said, adding that Blair owns a Mustang named “Slender, Tender and Tall,” a P-40 and a Spitfire.
Stallion 51 utilizes “Crazy Horse,” the primary working aircraft, in several capacities, including orientation flights. That aircraft is supplemented with two other immaculate Mustangs, “Mad Max” and “Diamondback.” All three are full dual cockpit /dual controlled TF-51 Mustangs.
“We’re certified to take people on a one-hour they-can-fly-the-Mustang experience,” Lauderback said. “That’s been a very successful program for us over the years. People come from all over the world to fly the Mustang. They fly from the rear cockpit, but they get to fly the airplane as aggressively as they’re having fun. It’s not a ride; it’s actually a chance to fly it.”
Stallion 51 also does most of the checkout training in the world for the Mustang.
“We have an FAA-approved program,” Lauderback said. “We’re the only ones in the country that have done it. That’s a full check-out program, which is about 15 hours for the doctor/lawyer/Indian chief. It really is a very comprehensive program that hopefully has made a big difference in the safety of the Mustang. It’s a chore, at times, but it’s a great thing to do.”
They’ve also secured a lot of military contracts over the years.
“The Navy Test Pilot School was a big thing,” Lauderback said. “Now, I’m deeply involved in the United States Air Force Heritage Program, where we present the old and the new. We’ll pair the P-51 Mustang with an F-15 Eagle and do fly-bys at air shows narrated to the history of the Air Force and of the aircraft. It allows people to see what has transpired in 60 years.
“People love it. I can go up and do my best aerobatic demonstration, and the F-15 Eagle can go up and do an awesome flight demonstration. When everybody comes down, the people want to talk about when we flew in close formation to each other. Normally, it brings tears to the eyes of the general audience.”
Lauderback said that in that last year he flew 17 different presentations. “It’s not always just with an F-15 Eagle,” he said. “It may be up to four airplanes. One of the last Heritage Flights I did, I had an A-10 off my left wing, an F-15 off the right wing and an F-86 Sabre in the slot. We were at Oceana Naval Air Station. Again, it was pretty much the hit of the show.”
The program is a recruiting effort. “It allows young kids to see the way the Air Force has progressed over the years,” he said. Lauderback also does a lot of “full-up aerobatic” flight demonstrations, both single and two-ship, around the country.
“We did a formation aerobatic routine at Oshkosh this year, which went over really well,” he said. One of the other businesses is management.
“This is what I picked up from Arnold Palmer, in watching the way he runs his business,” he said. “I took the same concept and moved it to the P-51 Mustang. At Stallion 51, management clients have their own locker. They have their own airplane down there that’s preflighted, cleaned up and ready to go. Over the years, I’ve had three primary clients. In that group alone, they must’ve owned 15 different airplanes, including eight Mustangs.”
He said it’s a full turnkey operation. “A guy can come in and get the training, acquire the airplane, have all the maintenance done, and have a place to come and work,” he said. “We have a VIP office right here. For instance, one of my clients will come down from D.C., spend three days here, and run his business out of the VIP office, which becomes a little sub-module of their flight operation. Then, when he wants, he can go strap on the airplane and fly for an hour or two. That’s been a very successful program and a very fun part of the job.”
The training side
Lauderback’s training program has seen 82 graduates to date. “Those are people that met the standard and went through the full syllabus,” he said. “There are quite a few others that I would term as ‘students’ of the program. In other words, for one reason or another, they didn’t complete it. There’s a standard that someone must meet, and it isn’t just coming in and paying money. If a guy doesn’t meet the standard, then he will not become a graduate of the program.”
Every pilot who graduates has a specially-numbered patch. “They take a lot of pride in it,” said Lauderback. “They certainly earn it; it’s not a cake walk.” One of his most well-known graduates is Gen. Bill Anders. Lauderback also trained the astronaut’s son.
“He’s an A-10 pilot,” he said. “I had a terrific time flying with both Bill and his son. I work with all kinds of different guys.” Unusual attitude is part of the training side.
“Over the years, I’ve trained a lot of people in unusual attitude recovery,” Lauderback said. “The Mustang is a very good unusual attitude type trainer, because you can allow a guy to make the mistake of pulling, rather than rolling, for example, where he ends out the bottom at 400 knots and maybe 5 G’s. It makes an everlasting impression. He thinks, ‘This may not be the way to do this.’ It’s that versus an airplane in which you couldn’t allow the guy to make a mistake, because it’s not strong enough or capable of attaining those speeds, or, for example, FlightSafety and a simulator, which is just not adequate.”
Lauderback said they’re building their third hangar to vastly expand that business into the corporate flight operation world.
“We’ll be using some jet equipment in lieu of the Mustang,” he said. Stallion 51 presently runs some jet operations as well as some T-6 operations.
“We found that more and more people coming in to fly the Mustang had little or no tailwheel experience,” he said. “The Air Force used the T-6 as the trainer for the Mustang. Even today it’s a good trainer, because it teaches them tailwheel skills—directional control on the runway, locking and unlocking the tailwheel. It’s totally different than the standard tricycle kind of aircraft.”
Lauderback said they contracted that business out for several years. “We were finding that the people coming back in weren’t adequately trained to the Mustang-type operation,” he said. “I saw an opportunity to work on that problem. I knew of a T-6 that it took me two years to finally acquire, but we now have our own pre-checkout for the Mustang. It’s a perfect supplement to our operation. I have a highly qualified 25-year-old instructor that’s doing a nice job. It really helps our whole program.”
Brad Lauderback is also a T-6 instructor—and is also
25. “They’re good buddies,” he said. “It’s a perfect new-generation approach. As I look back to my Arnold Palmer days, he trusted me in a Lear 24, at 23/24 years of age; I find that I extend that trust to other people that deserve it. People say, ‘He’s awfully young or awfully inexperienced.’ Well, we were all that age at one time. We all had the same amount of hours at one time. I really put a lot of credence in the new generation of pilot.”
Of course, Brad Lauderback has always been “totally immersed in aviation.”
“I have some classic pictures,” his father said. “In one of them, he’s three months old; he’s in the backseat of a P-51, with a headset on. In another one, Arnold Palmer was there. We put Brad in the left seat. We were at 31,000 feet, and the boss jumped in the back for a few minutes. Brad’s standing in the seat, hanging on to the control stick. In one hand, he has a microphone; obviously, the button is un-pushed. I’ve known Bob Hoover for over 30 years, and I have pictures of myself and him and my son. For Brad, aviation was just something a kid does every day.”
Brad Lauderback soloed on his 16th birthday; like his father, he wanted to fly military aircraft. “The difference is he didn’t want to do the ‘educational side,'” Lauderback says with a grin.
Lauderback said his son, who’s a commercial pilot with instructor rating, attended Embry-Riddle temporarily, but “decided to party more than study.” However, he later “reengaged in the education process,” and finished his second degree in December.
“He’s up in Washington D.C., working for a company up there part-time,” he said. “He’s been virtually engaged fulltime in securing his degrees. He got one in psychology and decided to get a second in aeronautical science. With his education, he has the ability to try to get a Guard slot; that’s one of his desires. The other one is that he really enjoys business. I promote him getting experience in business. That’s what Arnold Palmer did for me in a lot of ways. He allowed me to see the way a business runs. I think it’s invaluable for a young person today. I’m advocating getting experience in business and then getting into the aviation side.
“He flies aerobatics and he’s a really good stick. That’s not just my opinion; a lot of people have said that. He has the ability. If he were to jump into aviation right now, he’d be in aviation the rest of his life, and would potentially miss some opportunities. He’ll spin back into some aviation things. He’ll probably do some work for me. It’s his decision. I just give him options and he creates options for himself.”
Lauderback said it would definitely be a highlight of his life for him to fly Mustangs with his son. “I always held that as the carrot on the string, until he got his education,” he said. “I wasn’t going to give into that one. One day, to go up and fly two Mustangs together would be a really neat deal.”
The team at Stallion 51
At Stallion 51, Lauderback has worked closely with mainly three pilots, Eliot Cross, Robert J. “Zak” Tomczak and Dr William T. Busch.
“Eliot Cross still does a lot of work for me,” Lauderback said. “When I have flying that I can’t do, he comes in. He’s one of the last of the barnstormers, one of the most natural pilots. He’s worked for me for eight years now. He does a terrific job as an instructor and demonstration pilot in the P-51.”
Lauderback met Tomczak through Arnold Palmer. “He was supposed to go down to Homestead Air Force Base and play golf with the general and get a chance to fly the F-16,” he recalled. “The pilot of the F-16 was Zak Tomczak. We got to know each other while we were down there, and stayed in contact over the years. He came out of the Air Force as a safety officer with great credentials. He’s now working for Lockheed Martin, and he works for us as an independent safety consultant. He manages our safety program.”
Dr. William Busch is a Navy captain who is a dual designated flight surgeon. “He’s been a medical consultant for us,” he said. “He’s retiring at the end of this year. Hopefully, he’ll go to work for us as a pilot and a medical man, which really helps expand the scope of our operations.”
Another important team member is Angela West, who handles special events/marketing, and is also Lauderback’s fiancée. The two began working together in the fall of 1998, when West left Fantasy of Flight, where she served as corporate event manager, to coordinate the 1999 Gathering of Mustangs & Legends. At that time, the couple had been dating for about two and a half years. After the event, West became more and more involved in Stallion 51. These days, besides corporate/special events, she also oversees the merchandise shop.
In late 2004, Lauderback was also expecting a new team player. “Ed Shipley flew formation with me at Oshkosh and some other places,” he said. “He’s a very talented formation pilot and Mustang pilot. He owns an F-86 and is part of the Heritage program. He’s come in and done some orientation flying for me in the past year.”
Where staff is concerned, Lauderback said they try not to get too top heavy.
“I have had some other guys, like John York,” he said. “He’s an Air National Guard pilot in the F-15. I met him flying F-15s in the Heritage program. He did some work for me for a couple of years. His job demands with flying the F-15 in the Guard and the airline got to where he just didn’t have much time.”
When talking about his own experience, Lauderback admits to having over 17,000 hours, and says he still flies the Mustang almost 500 hours a year and that every hour he gets to fly it is special.
“I just passed my 6,000th hour in the P-51 Mustang,” he said. “That’s such a highlight. Not that 6,000 is ‘the’ number; I’d like to have 10,000 hours in the Mustang. Hopefully I will one day.”
He laughs and says that his hours are “all” logged. “As you well realize, hours can get inflated quickly,” he grins. “I’ll train a guy, and soon, he has ‘a thousand hours’ in the Mustang. You think, ‘Wait a minute!'”
The Gathering of Mustangs & Legends
The Gathering of Mustangs & Legends, which took place at Kissimmee Municipal Airport, April 7-10, 1999, was the largest gathering of P-51 mustangs and pilots since World War II and the Korean conflict. The event was presented by the Mustang Operations and Preservation Society and hosted by Stallion 51.
“That started out as a one-time deal,” Lauderback said. “We did it originally because of some of the real historic guys that were around the Mustang in the early days. We wanted to pay tribute to them.”
Twelve “Legends” attended the event. They were Gen. Bill Anders, Maj. Ken Dahlberg, Maj. Gen. C.A. “Bill” Pattillo, Col. C.E. “Bud” Anderson, Lt. Col. Bob Goebel, Lt. Gen. Charles “Buck” Pattillo, Lt. Col. Lee Archer, Robert A. “Bob” Hoover, Maj. Richard “Pete” Peterson, Col. Frank Borman, Brig. Gen. Robin Olds (Lauderback re-qualified him in the Mustang) and Brig. Gen. Chuck Yeager.
“These guys are national treasures,” Lauderback said. He said they put together what was originally going to be a private gathering, but it became obvious that the public was going to be there if they wanted them or not.
“I started getting threats that if the public weren’t invited, they’d jump the fence,” he recalled. “So we opened it up to the public for one day.”
To try to have some control, they decided to charge “an unprecedented $25 a person.” Still, about 5,000 people showed up.
“It was more than we anticipated,” he said. “We tried to work in safety seminars and things like that. I never even had time to walk down the ramp. There were Mustangs and people everywhere I looked. We ended up having 64 Mustangs. The only disappointment was that we didn’t fly the airplanes more, but it was never supposed to be anything but a static.”
He said when people hear “Mustangs,” they always think flying.
“Everyone flew in, but we couldn’t waiver the airspace or patrol the airport for safety reasons, so it wasn’t actually a flying event,” he said. “Initially, it was going to be an educational seminar. When we got the public involved, it started getting out of hand. We weren’t set up to have a large number of people there. It creates its own problems, such as permits and facilities and all kinds of things.”
The money collected for admission at the first event was donated to the Young Eagles program and the American Fighter Aces. The success of that event led to the planning of a second and final gathering for June 2006, at Reno Stead Airport.
“It won’t be in conjunction with the race,” Lauderback said. “It will be totally separate and open to the public. We anticipate having 100 P-51s. That’s our target; it seems to be a very obtainable number. There are about 120 Mustangs in the U.S., and about 30 overseas. We’ve even had some interest in the overseas guys bringing their airplanes in for that event. They’d disassemble and ship them in.”
Unlike the last event, this one is planned as a “flying” event.
“There will be extensive flight operations every day,” he said. “We’ll have a lot of opportunities to put all the blue-nose airplanes together—all the 352nd aircraft, 8th Air Force airplanes, whatever—into photo opportunities. This is so we can pay tribute to these guys and collect this on film and have the opportunity to say thanks once again, plus allow the general public to come and share the experience. For about four days, we’ll have the opportunity to totally immerse ourselves in Mustangs. The demands we’ve had of doing it once again have been very positive. We’re going to be teamed up with the Reno Air Race Foundation people, who know how to put on a terrific event.”
One of Lauderback’s goals is to have a flight of 51 P-51s. “Again, that would be totally unprecedented,” he said. “We’ll hopefully have a lot of support from the Air Force, with the Heritage program.”
Lauderback recalls that Arnold Palmer used to say, “You give back as much as you try to get.”
“Certainly the Mustang has given me a lot,” he said. “I’d like to just give back to the Mustang community and the guys that flew the Mustang in combat.”
Beyond Stallion 51
Lauderback said he didn’t have much time for soaring while he worked for Palmer, and that didn’t change when he became involved in Stallion 51.
“The interesting part is that the Mustang has been such a fulltime task and so enjoyable that I’ve really not had time to miss the sailplanes,” he said.
He laughs and says that whenever anyone asks him if he owns “Crazy Horse,” he sets them straight. “Our standard saying is, ‘Nobody owns “Crazy Horse.” It owns us,” he said. Still, Lauderback does plan on one day getting back to his first aviation love.
“My goal is to get back into soaring, as I slow this down,” he said. “I bought property in Idaho, out by Driggs, which will allow me to actively get back into soaring in the summertime. Karl Striedieck has invited me now for a number of years to fly in the Senior Soaring Championship. I normally will take one or two days every year and go fly sailplanes with him. He’s been a falconer for a number of years, which I’m very passionate about.”
Lauderback has been involved in falconry for several years. “It’s a really interesting sport,” he said. “It has a heritage of 4,000 years. The pure definition of falconry is utilizing birds of prey for hunting, or sharing in their hunting activities. Early on, people used birds of prey to actually put food on the table. Then when the gun was invented, that became an obsolete way of doing that, but the sport continued.”
Lauderback says he’s always been fascinated with “anything that flies.” “From rehabbing small birds, sparrows and starlings and things like that, and then into birds of prey,” he said. He explains that falconry is controlled from a federal and state level.
“To get into falconry you need a sponsor who is an accomplished falconer with certain credentials,” he said. “You get a sponsor and you have to take a written test that has a very high standard of passing. You’re sponsored for two years. Then you have to build facilities that will meet federal and state standards; that’s even before they will allow you to have a bird. I always kidded, ‘It’s easier to own a machine gun than it is a bird of prey.’ There’s a long-term dedication to it.”
Al Kordowski, one of the head animal trainers at Sea World and an avid falconer, became Lauderback’s sponsor.
“My first raptor was a red-tail hawk,” he said. “I had that bird for a year and released it back into the wild.”
Then, Lauderback began doing work for the Center for Birds of Prey, an organization in Maitland, Fla., which is part of Audubon.
“I started rehabbing birds for them,” he said. “I would take an injured bird that maybe wasn’t fit to survive on its own and use it as a falconry bird, until it got its strength back and honed its hunting skills. Then, we’d release the bird back to the wild. I still do a lot of work for them. I’ve raised probably 15 kestrels, which are the smallest falcons. They become my buddies and we go out and hunt, and then I return them back to the wild.”
Lauderback recently had one red-tail hawk, which he named “Mohawk,” for three years.
“We were best buddies,” he said. “Everyday, I would come in to work with the bird, and release her in the morning. She would go out soaring, doing everything that red-tail hawks do, and then in the evening, I’d go back out and whistle, and she’d come back in. I would go home, put her in her facility, and we’d do the same thing the next day. That bird was very special.”
Still, he released her back to the wild, because it was “the responsibility that comes with the commitment.”
“On my first attempt of doing that, I took the bird 40 miles away into a great habitat, and released her, wishing her luck and success, a happy flight, tailwinds, all that,” he said. “She was back on her perch a week later.”
The next time, Lauderback took “Mohawk” substantially further away. “When I released her, she joined up with a little male red-tail hawk and went soaring,” he said. “I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to see her show back up.”
Lauderback says if he goes outside, around the hangars, it’s not uncommon to run across one of “his birds” and have a chance to visit with it.
“It’ll allow me to walk fairly close,” he said. “I can recognize it, whether it’s a kestrel or red-tail. I work with birds of prey every single day. It’s a big part of my life.”
He said the bird he now has is “captive bred.” “This bird was raised as a falconry bird,” he said. “He’s a southwestern bird called a Harris hawk. I don’t have to release him. He’s never known the wild, other than going hunting with me as a team. Then I have a kestrel that is un-releasable.”
Lauderback thoughtfully says pilots “think” they know a lot about aviation.
“The truth is we know very little,” he said. “These guys are truly great aviators. It’s just phenomenal to watch what they do. To be able to share in that is a very special privilege.”