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Mustangs offer ride into past

Tech. Sgt. Mark Hipp of the 149th Fighter Wing straps into the back seat of a P-51D Mustang with the help of pilot Ed Shipley. Sergeant Hipp was one of five members of the wing to receive a ride in the vintage aircraft out of San Antonio's historic Kelly Field June 6. (Texas Military Forces photo by Staff Sgt. Eric Wilson)

Tech. Sgt. Mark Hipp of the 149th Fighter Wing straps into the back seat of a P-51D Mustang with the help of pilot Ed Shipley. Sergeant Hipp was one of five members of the wing to receive a ride in the vintage aircraft out of San Antonio's historic Kelly Field June 6. (Texas Military Forces photo by Staff Sgt. Eric Wilson)

A P-51D (top) and a P-51C belonging to The Horsemen aerobatic demonstration team fly over Kelly Field June 6. The two-seat Mustang offered rides to five enlisted Guardsmen of the 149th Fighter Wing.
(Texas Military Forces photo by Staff Sgt. Eric Wilson)

A P-51D (top) and a P-51C belonging to The Horsemen aerobatic demonstration team fly over Kelly Field June 6. The two-seat Mustang offered rides to five enlisted Guardsmen of the 149th Fighter Wing. (Texas Military Forces photo by Staff Sgt. Eric Wilson)

SAN ANTONIO, Texas -- A small group of men stood together in the morning sun near the Kelly Field runway, scanning the clear sky for two fighter aircraft. Soon they could see two P-51 Mustangs approaching the field, the distinct hum of their Merlin engines announcing their approach. Their colorful markings identified them as belonging to distinct U.S. Army Air Forces units that had helped carry the air war from the skies of Great Britain to the blue over German-occupied Europe. 
      But wait! This wasn't 1944, but June 6, 2009. And the pilots, despite flight suits reflecting an earlier era, were civilians. Members of The Horsemen, a P-51 formation aerobatic demonstration team, the Mustang jockeys had come to provide rides for a handful of lucky enlisted members of the 149th Fighter Wing. 
      "We're glad to do something for you guys," said Dan Friedkin, who flew a blue-nosed P-51C named "Princess Elizabeth." Speaking of the military in a broader sense, he continued, "You do so much for us." 
      The Texas Air National Guard unit shares Kelly Field with Port San Antonio, and the Airmen shuttled to the civilian side of the runway, where the veteran aircraft and their pilots were cheerfully welcomed by Patrick Plott, director of operations for Atlantic Aviation Services, which frequently handles Transient Alert aircraft on weekends. 
      Six Airmen were chosen to take a ride by random drawing. It was literally a gift "out of the blue," and to mix metaphors, none of them looked the gift horse - a Mustang - in the mouth. Or maybe they did, in another sense, because they all seemed fascinated in different aspects of the 1940s aircraft. Their wing's own flying unit, the 182nd Fighter Squadron, flew versions of the P-51 (by then redesignated the F-51) in the late 1940s and the early 1950s, both before and after the squadron's deployment during the Korean War. 
      Now Senior Airman Jessica Harvey, 149th Medical Group; Tech. Sgt. Mark Hipp, 182nd Fighter Squadron; Master Sgt. Keith Thomas, 149th Mission Support Flight; Master Sgt. Ed Wertke, 149th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron; Staff Sgt. Eric Wilson, 149th Fighter Wing Public Affairs Office; and Staff Sgt. Jason Wyatt, 149th Maintenance Squadron, had their chance to fly inside a P-51. 
      Each ride took place in the back seat of the D-model, piloted by Ed Shipley. A five-year member of the demonstration team, Shipley has chalked up a total of 2,500 flying hours with about 100 in the aircraft with the black and white checker board patterned nose scheme he flew this day. Flying south and east of Kelly Field, and refueling once on a civilian airfield near Castroville, Texas, he provided his passengers with a range of maneuvers including a barrel role and a loop. 
      "That was awesome," said Sergeant Hipp, a flight safety and egress specialist. "That was so cool." He wouldn't compare it with a ride in one of the wing's F-16s except to say the modern fighter aircraft was "way louder." 
      Sergeant Wertke described his ride as a person who knows vintage warbirds. A flightline expediter in the Air Guard, he has worked many years helping to restore and maintain World War II aircraft in the Commemorative Air Force. 
      "[The P-51D] is rock solid and tracks great," said Sergeant Wertke. "It was a fast, smooth ride." 
      Mr. Friedkin said the checker-nosed P51D had been restored 15 years ago and "Princess Elizabeth" seven years ago, although his group acquired that latter aircraft only about a year ago. He noted that both aircraft keep as many of the original parts as safety factors allowed and that they both sported authentic color schemes. When not engaged in air shows or Air Force Heritage Flights, the two P-51s are kept with others on a ranch near Eagle Pass, Texas. Obviously enthusiastic about the P-51 Mustang, he encourages anyone interested to check his group's Web site at www.asb.tv. 
      "Flying P-51s is a hobby and a passion," said Mr. Friedkin. "I use any excuse I can to go fly." 
      Fortunately, Guardsmen of the 149th Fighter Wing were available this time.