Andrew McKenna

Prose and Transcription: Nicholas Pascarella
Interview & Photography: James Woodard, Nicholas Pascarella, Ryan Kelly, Ryan Tykosh

[Editor's Note:] Everyone loves a Mustang. It is argued that this machine turned the tide of WWII. It is also said that the RAF's suggestion to switch from the Allison engine to the Rolls Royce powerplant was one of the more significant aviation events of the entire war. The Mustangs, fitted with drop tanks that extended their range, could escort the bombers all the way to Berlin and back. That, coupled with Doolittle's directive to free up fighters on combat sweeps ahead of bomber groups and low level strafing on the way home, saw P-51s prowling all over Europe (and the Pacific as well) in ever-growing numbers from around early 1944 until the end of the war. Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering famously said, "The day I saw Mustangs over Berlin, I knew the jig was up."

When I first started traveling the airshow circuit, there was one Mustang that made my heart flutter. Andrew McKenna's bare metal P-51 seemed to always catch the sun just right, looking like some sort of lighthouse amongst the clouds. I first saw him perform in 2017 at the NEPA Airshow, and I've never been so smitten by a Mustang diving into the show box. When we finally did catch up with Andrew a year later in 2018 just before Oshkosh, he was more than generous to us and asked us to come back to the hangar to chat where his Mustang was parked. His friend, Willy Hackett, was preparing to fly the Mustang back to Andrew's home airport, so we had a few minutes to burn before Willy strapped in and turned over the Merlin. Ryguy, RyTy, James and I strolled into the hangar, dropped our gear, and peppered Andrew with questions for half an hour, and as credit to his infinite patience, he respectfully answered every single one of our questions.

At the end of our conversation, he had James sit in the cockpit (!!) and ran through startup procedures with him. Shortly after, Willy arrived and ran through the same procedures for real this time, and we stood back with Andrew as Willy fired up the Merlin and taxied the gorgeous aircraft to the end of the runway. We all watched in revered silence as the Mustang roared down the runway and lifted off right in front of us, flying through a rainbow as Willy climbed out. We sincerely thank Andrew for giving us some of his incredibly valuable time, and for everything he does for airshows and the Air Force, keeping history alive in that shining lifehouse of a Mustang. [-np]


*edited for content and clarity



FDA: So, Jim Beasely was the one that helped you get your rating [in the Mustang]?
Andrew McKenna: Yeah, I had a confluence, it was really Jim Beasely, little bit of Ed Shipley, Lee Lauderback...

And you got it there in Coatesville [PA] in Beasely's Mustang? Is that what you used to get your rating?
I got about 20 hours with Jimmy Beasely in "Bald Eagle" (Jim Beasely's P-51) and then I went down to Stallion [51] and did my full checkout training...that's when I got really scared, I realized how much I didn't know about a Mustang.

How many hours do you have? [reminder: this is July, 2018..this number is higher now]
I’m north of 800 now in a little less than 6 years.

Most in this [Mustang]?
Yeah, I've got 773 on it right now, and it had 50-something when I bought it in 2013. Now it's got 773.4.

How long after you got rated did you go out and purchase this?
Jimmy let me fly his Mustang in June of 2012, and then in August of 2013 I bought this airplane.

How long did it take to find it?
We had been looking for a couple years... for a really good, high quality Mustang with a good prominence, a great pedigree...just a solid airplane.

Was there anything else you were looking at besides a Mustang?
No. I wanted a P-51, and wanted one that jumped at me...when this one came up, I couldn't believe it was for sale.

 
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Where'd it come from?
This one came from Chino, in California, from Allied Fighters. Jeff Harris did a lot of the work, working for Jack Craul and Allied Fighters. He just did a spectacular job on it. Unfortunately, he has since passed away... I'm always trying to give him a shoutout for the great work and the love and affection he put into this airplane.

What made you consider buying a Mustang and flying in airshows?
Being at Oshkosh, being around Shipley and Beasley and Lee and watching the Horsemen doing their demo routines [in 2007], I thought, what do I need to do? What's the effort I need to take to get into this? The Heritage Flight was something I put at the top of the pyramid.

That's something you wanted to do right away?
Absolutely.

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What did you have to do?
It's a culmination of a lot of things...there's a lot of qualities that the Heritage Flight has; the guys are all there for the right reasons, they're all there to support... and they love the United States Air Force, they all want to be a part of something that's bigger than themselves. My biggest honor is when I go into a briefing and they don't even have my name up on the wall, it just says "Heritage Flight" and that's all it needs to say, because I'm part of the Heritage Flight. I don't have my name on the airplane either. We traditionally always promote and push the Air Force and the demo teams, and when they're done interviewing the crew and the pilots, if they don't have their story done after that, I'm happy to talk, but we want to make sure that the Air Force is highlighted, and I think the ethos of that inside of the team is really one of the neat ingredients.

As a kid, you got your license at 16, is that correct?
I soloed when I was 16, and we weren't able to afford anything really beyond that, so flying for me had a gap between the age of 16 and 30 years old. I did no flying, other than flying magazines and hanger fly-ins, eating at airport diners... I was cutting a lot of grass [laughter] and running a lot of weed eaters hoping that one day I'd be able to figure this all out.

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And here you are!
And here I am. I am very fortunate. A lot of hard work, of course, but very fortunate to get to be here.

Do you have a most memorable flight?
I've been part of some pretty incredible moments, where you just don't believe that you're getting to do this, and one was actually a couple weeks ago... I was able to lead an F-16 and an F-35 from Quonset, Rhode Island over to the Belmont horse race, and display Air Power for all those horse loving fans...

We were interviewing Rain (of the F-16 Demo Team) that weekend…
Yeah! I'm out over the water at 800 feet, I'm climbing up to 1500 to stay under the shelf of the Providence approach, I see an F-35 come up on my right, an F-16 on my left and they're giving me the 'Hey, you've got the lead' and I'm looking at them thinking  'Yeah, I know I do' [laughter] 'I'm lead...we briefed, right?' [more laughter] I had to pinch myself...and I was fortunate because it was non Heritage approved, we were able to have the spare safety officer for the F-35 ride in the back seat with me. He had never been in a warbird, never done anything like that and it was really special for him...and it was actually essential crew for helping me do math for the run-in because of the timing of everything. But it was really special; we're in the some of the busiest airspace in New York, we're raging around with an F-35 and we're getting to represent the US Air Force.

So, it was his first time in a warbird..if you could pick a modern day fighter, what would you want to fly?
A Raptor. [murmuring from the peanut gallery]

Understandable...I guess you don't have any preference with what types you fly with for the Heritage Flight, as it is more about the meaning?
That's right, I'd say anytime can you have a three-ship or a four-ship, that's where it gets really fun. And as cool as the airplanes and the flying is, maybe that's what got me into it, but I'll tell you what keeps me here; it's the crew, it's the pilots, it's the maintainers, it's being around the quality of the individuals that are part of this program, and I'm talking about the active duty and the civilian Heritage Flight pilots themselves, as people, they're just lights out. I work in a very different environment, and for 72 hours, when I get to wear a patch and be a part of this program...being around the people is awesome. It means a lot.

You go out west every year for training for that?
We do. We are required to go to David-Monthan Air Base for one week out of the year, it's traditionally in February. It's sent by Air Combat Command, we all take our warbirds out there and we do a very intensive training for about 4 or 5 days. It's a lot of work, it's also a lot of fun; we get to fly a lot of sorties and we do a lot of dissimilar formation, and that really helps prepare this team and the program for the season.

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What's the hairiest moment you've had in this Mustang?
I had to do an aborted takeoff on a very short runway at Chester County...I think it's 5400 feet, and I didn't notice the [magneto] was running rough on the run-up. I didn't get enough power in to notice that the A-1 and B-1 plugs up on the front of the engine... the harness wasn't on entirely, and it'd come off...when it got above 32 inches of manifold pressure and I started to go up to 46, it wasn't discoverable either, the engine was fine, and then as I started to go from 46 to 55 which is your full manifold pressure for the takeoff, it felt like the engine was literally shaking out of its skin, and I thought 'this airplane is not ready to go fly'... [that's when] the training kicks in, and that's where folks like Stallion 51 are just worth their weight in gold because it was secondary: throttle idle, mixture idle cutoff, and [I'm doing a no-flaps landing now]... And it's sporty... the airplane is moving around, still hoppin off the ground a little bit, and as the tailwheel came down we went all the way to the end of the runway…We had to actually physically pull the airplane away from the end of the runway because we didn't have enough room to get the tow arm in front of it. So, I had the sewing machine hand...if you go off the end of the runway, you're through the lights, you get into soft grass, you might end up on your back, so that was a little nervous moment...and then I've actually had a bunch of flat tires, unfortunately. We went through a spat of four main landing gear flat tires where the rubber was getting stuck. And a flat tire is a wake up call. It makes you think about what runway you want to land on...you don't want to be on a 50 foot or 75 foot wide, you want 150 feet because the airplane wants to go towards the flat tire. And it bites...it's pretty disconcerting, you've got [all of the flight controls] over to the other side, and you're still going [the other way]... that happened to me a couple times, and fortunately it all worked out, I was on very wide runways when all of it occured, but those are a couple moments that are good learning experiences. But yeah these airplanes, you have to be very conscientious around them; they wanna bite you.

Are there any other warbirds out there that you'd want to get if you had the opportunity?
I think the Spitfire is iconic and I see that maybe on the horizon here, and probably a Bearcat and an F-86...if you have that kind of a lineup, I think you're done. The twin engine Tigercat, I like it, but I think that's a little exotic for me.

Have you flown in Beasley's Spitfire? How does it compare to the Mustang?
I will tell you the Spitfire is absolutely a much better airplane than the Mustang for what it does. If I could only own one, and have one all-around airplane, I'd want the Mustang. But if you're talking just pure adrenaline and joy of flying, the Spitfire is just magical...that elliptical wing...it flies like a Cub. And I flew a Griffon [powered Spitfire]...it's just a magical airplane. It's got almost a thousand more horsepower than the Mustang, and I think it's almost 2000lbs lighter. So, flying that was a real treat. I've never been in an airplane that's got that much power, never flown jets extensively, other than occasionally being in the left seat or a Heritage Flight in the F-16 and that was really cool, but to fly the Spitfire...you can G-LOC immediately. [laughter] It's a really neat airplane.

You said you were in an F-16 for the Heritage Flight, did they put you through anything strenuous with that?
I don't think I was mentally prepared for the beating that I took, from [call sign] Rocket two years ago [laughter]... I flew again this year with Rain, and actually got to go two-ship and do a real BFM (Basic Fighter Maneuvers, also called Air Combat Maneuvering or ACM..basically, dogfighting)...and I actually didn't wanna go, because Rocket went through his full stand-up demo [with me], and ...people have heard this analogy before but it's very accurate: it's like someone holding your head in a toilet bowl, and then pulling your head up, telling you to breathe, and then dunking you back down, and pulling your head up...it sounds fun, but it is a beating.

That doesn't sound like fun. [laughter]
I made it through...barely...I got about halfway through the demo and I couldn't get enough oxygen in my lungs. I wasn't sick, I wasn't greying out, I just couldn't get my breathing down, and I really had to struggle with it. But when I went back in this year and we did the BFM, I think seeing the other airplane, the fangs come out. You stop worrying about yourself and you start thinking, hey, I wanna 'kill' that guy... that was pretty cool. I was proud of myself, but it gives me a newfound respect for the pilots...and the reason we get to do that is not to burn gas and go for rides, it's to very clearly understand when ShIV comes off the demo in the A-10, when Rain comes off in the F-16, he's just finished pulling 9Gs for 7, 8 minutes, and he comes right back in and has to join up. And he's soaked, and now he's in a low setting, low environment, but he's just been through a really rough 10-12 minutes, so, it's really important that you look over the airplane, make sure a panel's not off… It's my responsibility as lead, when he comes up beside me, to look and see if anything's leaking on the jet, if any panels, doors opened up, because at that point, we're a team.

Is there a routine? Does he pull in front of you or do you work around him?
He'll just come up alongside, and we'll just give one another a once-over, and just give the nod.. It's a pretty interesting bond that you have because he has a very different lifestyle than I do, but when we're here for 72 hours or 100 hours, we're a team and I'm trusting him emphatically that...we're going to do it right and follow the book. Today was a great example of that; I wanted to go fly; couldn't get the ceilings. I'm lead, I had to make the call, I told ShIV I can't do it, don't have the numbers, [and we had to] call it off.

What's the torque like on the takeoff roll? Is it a gradual push and power?
After 700, 800 hours, you start to get a little numb to it, just instinct. Your right foot is in there, and it just stays there, but it's a lot... it's a kick in the pants. It flies just like it looks: this big block motor in front of you and when you go from 30-46 [inches of manifold pressure] and that supercharger kicks in, it's like the front row at a rock concert, you can't beat it. It's very addictive. You get the tailwheel up at 46 [inches of pressure], get it in to 55 [inches] and as soon as you see 110mph, those wheels are coming up, gear handle left, and then by the end of the runway I'm at cornering speed over 250mph, and now I've got a 6-7G airplane...I don't think I would ever do that, but you've got 6[Gs] available to you.

So when it's trimmed for takeoff, it naturally wants to come off the ground at 110?
I wouldn't say that, I think that's really where it likes to fly in miles per hour, 100-110 for this airplane in particular… If it's a cool, crisp day, like tonight, right now, this thing wants to go. It's just a lot of fun. 19 year old kids were flying these things, so, there's really nothing special to me [about flying it], it's just [the fact that] I get to do it...that's cool. I'm very fortunate, but it's a lot of hours, sitting at your desk when you see the bills...I always make jokes with people, they say, hey, what's it like having a Mustang? I usually say, imagine you bought a dragon. [laughter] And you wake up the next day and you ask, ok, what do you eat?' Dragon says, I eat 300 pounds of kobe beef..you're thinking what?! Dragon says, that's just for breakfast! ...[I've been] very fortunate to have Rich, Paul Draper, the Lauderback brothers, they put a lot of love and attention into this airplane.

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Down at Stallion 51 [in Florida]?
Yeah, they put in this new door over here, did an absolutely incredible job...I really wanted to maintain the look and the feel of an aircraft that just came off the assembly line and still be able to do the Arlington flyovers and put nose art on as appropriate, so that's why I haven't yet painted it. Not saying I won't someday, but I just like the clean stars and bars…

It stands out..it really pops.
It never saw any combat originally, so, other than the shininess, it looked like this when it was delivered to the US Army Air Corps when it was made...that's the look I was going for.

I think I speak for the four of us [James, Nick, Ryguy and RyTy] when I say this is our favorite Mustang out there. [murmurs of agreement]
That's cool, I appreciate that.

Is there one out there that you look at and say 'wow, that's nice'?
I think "Happy Jack's Go Buggy" is an absolutely beautiful airplane...I think "Toulouse Nuts" that just got done is an absolutely beautiful airplane...I think a lot of the work that AirCorps [Aviation] does is awesome...I think the airplane...THE airplane I would get, hands down, is "Lope's Hope." [murmurs of agreement] ...They did a fabulous job on it, it's got a great story, it's a great airplane, the guys that did the restoration work on it, the quality, the classiness of what Bruce and Warren did, hats off to those guys.

Would you want to fly in formation with that at some point?
You know, I would love to. Bruce has talked about one of these days, maybe I'll go use it for a Heritage [Flight] or maybe Steve Hinton will do it, I think that would be pretty special. I just like the whole look, the drop tanks...I think what I'd like to do at some point is have another Mustang, and have it look like it came right out of 1944 active duty, just covered in grease and have the ammo bag and the guns and the drop tanks and just make it a Heritage kind of airplane. I think that'd be pretty cool to do that.

So she didn't see combat...when was she delivered? What was her role?
I'm kinda going back on my memory...in '43...it went out of Inglewood, California...went to Trenton, New Jersey...it has an "R" up by its data card, which means "replacement." That means this aircraft was purpose-built to replace another aircraft later in the war. It was late '44 by the time it got to Trenton, and then the war ended...it never got taken out of the box after it went over to the 8th Air Force in…[either Italy or Duxford]. It got shipped home and then served in various Air National Guard units...it's had a handful of civilian owners, and I was able to get it in 2015. I like it because also it's a 'go-place' airplane; it's full IFR capable; got a GTN750 in it. I live in the Washington, D.C. area, so it's really not practical [without the equipment] to know where you are and what you're doing and be squawking and talking... [it's got] ADS-B in and out; we just took care of all of that. About 85% of the panel is stock, and about 15% is the Gucci panel stuff to know where you are...and it's nice to not need an iPhone...it's all digital, I've got all the charts...and it's all embedded, I don't have any wires, I don't have a portable mount in there..I think that's really cool, too. All the oxygen works, so I can wear the mask when I need to. I don't wear the mask because I need it, I wear the mask so I can communicate with [everyone else] and it keeps the noise level down. It's really important to have good comms with these ACC airplanes...something goes wrong, you can talk to somebody. I try to really buckle in to the Heritage Flights.

What's the future for you?
I'm living the dream right now. I think the big thing is to be consistent, and be safe...be a good teammate, represent the Air Force with style and grace, I think that's the most important thing. Inspire people to come out and support... I want to fly it and share it. I get to fly the Washington Monument around. They called us a week before Quonset and asked if we wanted to do the Belmont and I said absolutely. Rain said he was in, and everyone was scrambling and really came together and it got enormous coverage for the Air Force and that's why we're here. We're here to tell a little bit of the story, honor the veterans, maybe inspire a little girl or little boy to come out and join the Air Force, seeing this old airplane flying with...this older airplane; [laughter] the F-16 is 40 years old... But just be safe and enjoy the ride, that's my goal for as long as they let me keep doing this...I don't want to tell too many people because I'm afraid they'll think we're having too much fun [laughter]... I get to be the Heritage [Flight] pilot at Oshkosh...that's crazy train. That's a really special treat to be able to represent the Air Force there. I'll be doing it with Rain and hopefully Stuart Millson will be able to join me so we'll have a 3 ship there, that'll be really special.

That's awesome!
[McKenna to James] ...wanna get in it?

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