The Gunfighter

  • Published
  • By Josh Plueger
  • 55th Wing Public Affairs
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.