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The Gunfighter

Larry Lumpkin, a P-51 Mustang pilot, keeps an eye on the changing weather overhead as he walks away from the aircraft he just rolled out of the hangar at the Council Bluffs Municipal Airport, Iowa, on June 27. Lumpkin has been the pilot of the P-51 for the past eight Defenders of Freedom Open House and Air Shows at Offutt.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Josh Plueger/Released)

Larry Lumpkin, a P-51 Mustang pilot, keeps an eye on the changing weather overhead as he walks away from the aircraft he just rolled out of the hangar at the Council Bluffs Municipal Airport, Iowa, on June 27. Lumpkin has been the pilot of the P-51 for the past eight Defenders of Freedom Open House and Air Shows at Offutt. (U.S. Air Force photo by Josh Plueger/Released)

Larry Lumpkin, the current caretaker and pilot of the P-51 Mustang, sits down for an interview about his aviation career inside of the Commemorative Air Force hangar at the Council Bluffs Municipal Airport, Iowa, on June 27. Lumpkin adopted the role of pilot and caretaker of the Mustang from retried Brig. Gen. Regis Urschler, former 55th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing commander.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Josh Plueger/Released)

Larry Lumpkin, the current caretaker and pilot of the P-51 Mustang, sits down for an interview about his aviation career inside of the Commemorative Air Force hangar at the Council Bluffs Municipal Airport, Iowa, on June 27. Lumpkin adopted the role of pilot and caretaker of the Mustang from retried Brig. Gen. Regis Urschler, former 55th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing commander. (U.S. Air Force photo by Josh Plueger/Released)

OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. -- Now retired U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Regis F.A. Urschler, former 55th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing commander, stands in front of his newly acquired P-51 Mustang in 1978. Urschler had the Mustang repainted in the 343d Fighter Squadron colors, which has evolved into the 343d Reconnaissance Squadron located here. (Courtesy Photo)

Now retired U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Regis F.A. Urschler, former 55th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing commander, stands in front of his newly acquired P-51 Mustang in 1978 at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb. Urschler had the Mustang repainted in the 343d Fighter Squadron colors, which has evolved into the 343d Reconnaissance Squadron located here. (Courtesy Photo)

Larry Lumpkin, P-51 Gunfighter Mustang pilot, stands on the wing of the aircraft as he prepares to pull it from a hangar located at the Council Bluffs Municipal Airport, Iowa, on June 27. Lumpkin has amassed more than 700 hours in the in the Mustang cockpit performing an average of eight-to-ten air shows annually.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Josh Plueger/Released)

Larry Lumpkin, P-51 Gunfighter Mustang pilot, stands on the wing of the aircraft as he prepares to pull it from a hangar located at the Council Bluffs Municipal Airport, Iowa, on June 27. Lumpkin has amassed more than 700 hours in the in the Mustang cockpit performing an average of eight-to-ten air shows annually. (U.S. Air Force photo by Josh Plueger/Released)

Larry Lumpkin, P-51 Gunfighter Mustang pilot, props up the American flag as he prepares the plane for a media photo shoot at the Council Bluffs Municipal Airport, Iowa on June 27. A commercial pilot for United Airlines, Lumpkin spends his free time chasing a Tora 101 replica Zero at air shows across the nation.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Josh Plueger/Released)

Larry Lumpkin, P-51 Gunfighter Mustang pilot, props up the American flag as he prepares the plane for a media photo shoot at the Council Bluffs Municipal Airport, Iowa on June 27. A commercial pilot for United Airlines, Lumpkin spends his free time chasing a Tora 101 replica Zero at air shows across the nation. (U.S. Air Force photo by Josh Plueger/Released)

Larry Lumpkin, P-51 Gunfighter Mustang pilot, poses in front of the aircraft for a media photo shoot just outside of the Commemorative Air Force hangar at the Council Bluffs Municipal Airport, Iowa on June 27. Lumpkin along with his co-pilot Jeff Linebaugh and maintainer Jerry Mason have kept the vintage Mustang soaring over air show attendees for the past eight years. Mason has been the sole maintainer of the P-51 Mustang for more than 30 years.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Josh Plueger/Released)

Larry Lumpkin, P-51 Gunfighter Mustang pilot, poses in front of the aircraft for a media photo shoot just outside of the Commemorative Air Force hangar at the Council Bluffs Municipal Airport, Iowa on June 27. Lumpkin along with his co-pilot Jeff Linebaugh and maintainer Jerry Mason have kept the vintage Mustang soaring over air show attendees for the past eight years. Mason has been the sole maintainer of the P-51 Mustang for more than 30 years. (U.S. Air Force photo by Josh Plueger/Released)

Larry Lumpkin, pilot of the P-51 Mustang, dons his helmet and flight suit for a media photo shoot at the Council Bluffs Municipal Airport, Iowa, on June 27.  The municipal airport is home to one of the many Commemorative Air Force hangars across the country that house vintage aircraft.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Josh Plueger/Released)

Larry Lumpkin, pilot of the P-51 Mustang, dons his helmet and flight suit for a media photo shoot at the Council Bluffs Municipal Airport, Iowa, on June 27. The municipal airport is home to one of the many Commemorative Air Force hangars across the country that house vintage aircraft. (U.S. Air Force photo by Josh Plueger/Released)

A P-51 Mustang patch designating more than 500 hours of flight time graces the shoulder of Larry Lumpkin’s flight suit. It takes a pilot 200 hours of flight time in the Mustang’s cockpit in order to finally solo the plane without the guidance of an instructor.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Josh Plueger/Released)

A P-51 Mustang patch designating more than 500 hours of flight time graces the shoulder of Larry Lumpkin’s flight suit. It takes a pilot 200 hours of flight time in the Mustang’s cockpit in order to finally solo the plane without the guidance of an instructor. (U.S. Air Force photo by Josh Plueger/Released)

The P-51 Mustang Gunfighter sits inside the Commemorative Air Force hangar at the Council Bluffs Municipal Airport, Iowa, on June 27. The P-51 has been a marquee act at several air shows around the country for decades.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Josh Plueger/Released)

The P-51 Mustang Gunfighter sits inside the Commemorative Air Force hangar at the Council Bluffs Municipal Airport, Iowa, on June 27. The P-51 has been a marquee act at several air shows around the country for decades. (U.S. Air Force photo by Josh Plueger/Released)

COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa -- Nestled in the rolling hills of Western Iowa, sits Council Bluffs Municipal Airport, a flat stretch of pavement contrasting its environment. As morning showers gradually make their way east, the small airport begins to come alive with activity. Cessna's emerge from privately owned hangars. Aircrew members leave the confines of the terminal to resume their daily duties on the runway and Larry Lumpkin arrives at the Commemorative Air Force hangar.

With a push of a button, the hangar door buzzes to life as it makes a vertical ascent, exposing its contents, a P-51 Mustang. Numerous photos, banners and painted murals depicting World War II dog fights adorn the hangar walls. A P-51 Mustang sits as the center piece on top of a faded Air Force insignia stretching across much of the hangar's floor.

Lumpkin has piloted the Mustang for the past eight Defenders of Freedom Open House and Air Shows Offutt Air Force Base has hosted. The air show typically boasts numerous aerial performances from a wide array of aircraft with acrobatic solo acts and high octane flybys filling the airspace over show center. With all the aeronautical pageantry, one act stands apart - the moment when the P-51 Mustang guns down a Japanese "Zero" in the air show's lone dog fight.

Lumpkin, a commercial pilot for United Airlines with more than 24,500 hours flying, including 700 in the P-51 alone, spends his free time piloting the Mustang at 8-to-10 air shows across the nation every year. He served in the Air Force for four years, not as a pilot, but as an electronic technician working in research and development of missile guidance systems. With a burning desire to fly, Lumpkin obtained his pilot's license at Epply Airfield in 1978.

"I instructed and flew charter flights until I was hired as a corporate pilot," Lumpkin said. "I flew corporate until I was hired by United Airlines in the fall of 1986."

Lumpkin joined the Commemorative Air Force in 1995 which would ultimately lead to a chance meeting with retired U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Regis F.A. Urschler, former 55th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing commander and a staple of the Team Offutt community. Urschler was instrumental in the donation of the P-51 Mustang to the Commemorative Air Force. He solely piloted the Mustang for 27 years, and trained with Lumpkin for an additional three. As the general realized his time in the warbird, soaring through the air, was coming to an end, he started to search for a successor to adopt his Gunfighter.

"As with everything in life, everything is finite and has an ending. Acceptance of reality gives one an opportunity to prepare for the inevitable," Urschler said. "It was my responsibility to try and find the right guy to fly. Someone who understood completely and without doubt or question what the airplane represented."

And that someone was Lumpkin.

"I was incredibly humbled and excited when approached to be the next to pilot the Mustang," Lumpkin said.

Adopting the P-51 from Urschler and the Commemorative Air Force was no small undertaking. It required three years of exhaustive training, achieving 200 hours of flying time in a T6 Texan, before he sat in the Mustang's cockpit. With the prerequisites covered, Lumpkin finally took to the skies in the legendary bird, adding additional hours of flight with Urschler, before solely piloting the plane.

"I had several hoops to jump through to get qualified with the Mustang and in May of 2003, I soloed the airplane for the first time," Lumpkin said.

Maintaining the plane comes as a challenge as well. Though replica "kit" P-51 Mustangs are available, the Gunfighter is a thoroughbred Mustang from the 1940s. It had only just arrived at Wormingford Airfield, England as World War II came to a close. There are manufacturers who invest their resources into making authentic replacement parts, but must charge for them accordingly, Lumpkin said. Finding a maintainer to wrench on the plane is but another challenge. Luckily, the Gunfighter has such a maintainer in Jerry Mason. Mason has kept the P-51 in the skies for the past 30 years.

"We simply could not do as much as we do without him," Lumpkin stresses, "It would be cost prohibitive."

With approximately 150 flying Mustangs left in the world, Lumpkin is well aware of the unique aviation opportunity he has.

"I very much enjoy the aerobatic display," Lumpkin said. "My second favorite part is the dog fight with the Tora 101 replica Zero, which we also do at Offutt. It goes without saying, having World War II veterans experience the airplane is very special. Sadly they are fewer and far between these days."

From its ancestral roots connected locally to the 343d Reconnaissance Squadron at Offutt Air Force Base to being the weapon of choice for the Tuskegee Airman's Red Tails and countless Air Force aces, the P-51 Mustang is an American icon. The booming of pyrotechnics is the queue to turn toward the sky as the Gunfighter soars over the Defenders of Freedom crowds in hot pursuit of the Tora 101 Zero.