The P-51 Bailout

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Another week, another warbird lost—this time, a P-51 involved in a mid-air at the Duxford Flying Legends show in the UK. Watching the video made me wonder if that Skyraider pilot is gonna get an earful about rolling into a turn and losing sight of the P-51. I'll let the warbird guys figure that one out—they've certainly got good video for the post-accident probable cause.

What I found most interesting was the video of the bail out sequence. I'm sure the pilot, Rob Davies, thought hard—but not long—before tossing the airplane and saving himself. In his post-accident interview, he didn't say what the P-51's control issues were and I'm not sure from the video what part came off the tail, but I'd guess the elevator or maybe control cables, so without pitch control, the airplane was headed downhill with no way to right it. His options were down to one.

Davies said he made the bailout decision at about 500 feet and got a good canopy at 200 feet. That sounds low and it is, but emergency parachutes are designed to open almost instantly, so it's no surprise he survived. But I give him a tip of the hat for exiting under duress and, at least according to the video, maybe getting perfect body position before deploying. "Perfect" means belly to earth and stable, not tumbling.

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At least I think it's perfect. Scroll to 0:47 in the video. (We've got it queued up for you at right.) Which end is his head? Is he on his back with legs to the right? Or is that his head on the right? I can interpret it either way. Back-to-earth deployments aren't ideal because the pilot chute snakes up either between your legs or from either side of your body. This increases the likelihood of a type of malfunction known as a horse shoe, with the canopy or lines snagged on your feet. That probably wouldn't be survivable. Unstable deployments with round canopies can also cause another type of malfunction: a line over or what's called a Mae West. Not good, but at least you'd have a mostly inflated canopy above your head. So in an emergency bailout, a pilot has to make a decision: Is waiting a beat or two to get stable and giving up some altitude worth the exchange for the higher chances of avoiding a malfunction? After all, you get only one chance at this. I suspect most pilots who aren't skydivers would be happy to just exit the airplane, find the handle and pull it.

When I was a neophyte skydiver some years ago, I was in a Cessna 182 with two others when the engine sputtered on takeoff at about 1000 feet. The door was open and the pilot didn't hesitate: he kicked us out of the airplane. From 1000 feet, the first three seconds are freebies—you have as much forward velocity as downward travel so you fall about 130 feet in that interval. That's enough time to think about getting stable and, in my case, decide whether to use the reserve—which is marginally more reliable—or the main. Also, falling through that first three seconds gives you another advantage: more airflow to pull a pilot chute clear of your back. At slow deployment speeds, it can get stuck in the burble on your back and stay there for many seconds. Decisions, decisions. I went for the main and once I was under it, I heard the airplane motoring back to the airport with a perfectly normal sounding engine. I walked back through a half mile of six-foot corn.

Davies said he was under canopy for about two seconds and had a high rate of descent. The video suggests closer to six seconds, in which case he had about all of the deceleration he was going to get. Round canopies have little forward movement so the descent is a pleasant float—until the last 20 feet. The ground comes up fast and the landing can be harsh. Not many skydivers pine for the days of round canopies. We survived them because we were young and stupid. (Yeah, I know, age hasn't fixed the stupid part. I've heard the joke.)

But this is distinction you wouldn't be making if you were trying to separate yourself from a doomed airplane.

Comments (23)


I think there are a few folks out the that will second guess Rob's decision... I am not one of them. I don't even care if he tried to do a controllability check. The P-51 was knocked more than 90 degrees of it's heading with a nose down pitching moment. A major hit, unusual attitude... VERY close to the ground. Rob made the decision to get out with seconds to spare. It was his life on the line and his decision to make... I think he made the right choice. People first, airplanes second. The object that departed the airplane after it got back straight was the canopy.

I used to teach egress from USAF fighters... and even was the air commander for an ejection/rescue. We used to teach awareness issues and landing and all that stuff... unfortunately in the civilian world this does not get done, or if it is addressed it is done so in a minimal fashion. As to the issue of Round versus Square canopies.... a round canopy does not require consciousness for a successful landing (it may be hard 8-10 ft/sec). This is the important distinction for using the round as an emergency chute.

I think Rob executed well, made a good decision... and survived to tell about it. Good on him!

Gunny Perdue

Posted by: Scott Perdue | July 18, 2011 6:54 AM    Report this comment

And did the pilot give you your money back after your 1,000 foot jump? We should be told, especially with fuel prices being what they are....

Posted by: Brian McCulloch | July 18, 2011 8:17 AM    Report this comment

"And did the pilot give you your money back after your 1,000 foot jump? We should be told, especially with fuel prices being what they are..."

No. And ^%$&^ laughed at us after we got back to DZ. This was in about...1973, I think.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | July 18, 2011 8:57 AM    Report this comment

I read somewhere that the Skyraider's wingtip sliced through the lower fuselage of Mustang, just behind where the inlet blends into the belly. If you look at the video closely, that piece that flies off may very well be that section of the fuselage, not the elevator.

The lower fuselage also doesn't look quite right, so maybe that's what happened. If so, maybe the control cables or links were severed.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | July 18, 2011 9:03 AM    Report this comment

Maybe it's time for ballistic chutes for warbirds.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | July 18, 2011 9:06 AM    Report this comment

Thanks good articles you can find in the net explaining everything in detail regarding the topic. I thank you for taking your time sharing your thoughts and ideas to a lot

Posted by: alat kesehatan | July 18, 2011 9:42 AM    Report this comment

This P-51 was seconds away from running out of altitude and airspeed at the same time. The pilot used good judgement by getting out of it as soon as possible.

Posted by: Jere Joiner | July 18, 2011 10:49 AM    Report this comment

If you pause the video @ 0:45 - at the the still shot of just after the pilot exits - you will see the chunk of the fuselage missing.

Posted by: Bill Polits | July 18, 2011 10:59 AM    Report this comment

Speaking of a good earful, what was briefed? What was the maneuver supposed to be? I am curious as to what Rob's exit strategy was. Did he try to head a certain way, such as jump toward the wing trailing edge or did he just take what he could get.

Posted by: GENNARO AVOLIO | July 18, 2011 11:36 AM    Report this comment

Someone correct me, but that airplane looked controllable. Ailerons shoulnt have been affected, elevator and trim had to work quite well for that exit. Rudder in question, but who needs a rudder? Landing could have been a mess in a P-51 with no rudder...

Who knows what it was like in there, there could have been all kinds of problems waiting to kill a person. I dont fault the pilot at all just wondering what the monday morning quarterback crowd would forcast for a belly up landing on grass with no rudder...

Posted by: Brad Vaught | July 18, 2011 12:08 PM    Report this comment

The control runs for the P-51's elevator and rudder cables are all in the lower fuselage where it was hit, Davies related he had no pitch control in a different sound bite. The break was briefed as flown, the Skyraider pilot could've lost sight during his pull and bank, the cowling hid the Mustang and the Skyraider pilot may have picked up another Mustang on the downwind thinking it was Davies. Too bad, good outcome. Civilian pilots that operate these types as well as aerobatic types are well briefed and educated in escape from airplanes. Military operators act as if they are the only ones so educated, but it is not the case. It is not because all well educated and briefed civilian pilots are ex-military, it is because they even civilian pilots seek to operate in a safe manner where survival is top priority.

Posted by: chris mcmillin | July 18, 2011 12:15 PM    Report this comment

"Someone correct me, but that airplane looked controllable"

I don't think so, Brad. He had a pretty good pitch down there at the end and later said he had no pitch control.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | July 18, 2011 12:26 PM    Report this comment

My thought when I saw this, what would be the first thing that went through my head once under canopy, I just jumped out of a non replaceable plane. But I think the decision was made correctly, I would hate to be the underwriter on the insurance policy. You don't see as much emotion when something like a DC-3 or Piper Cub is destroyed, but they are non-replaceable also. The WW2 planes just hold a romance for pilots that no other planes do.

Posted by: Joseph Chambers | July 18, 2011 1:17 PM    Report this comment

The large object that flies away at the moment of collision is, I believe, the Skyraider's wingtip.

Posted by: Thomas Boyle | July 19, 2011 7:25 AM    Report this comment

I want to make it clear Im not attacking the decision to bail. However, I would like to know how the airplane pitched down all of a sudden. What makes this especially interesting for me is that the scenario is exactly how my grandfather described bailing out of his fighter in 1943 over Tunis, Tunisia.

After getting hit low and fast he pitched up, pulled the canopy back, undid his seat belt, then pitched forward real hard in order to throw himself out of the cockpit. He didnt even have time to stop the chute from swinging back and forth before he hit the ground.

Using this story I assume that everyone pitches down in warbirds with no time to climb out in order to fling their bodies out of the cockpit. True, False...comments appreciated.

Also, how else would the airplane pitch down so violently barring some unexplained event that happend seconds after impact and not upon impact. I guess you could retard throttle....but man than think dives like it meant to.

Posted by: Brad Vaught | July 19, 2011 2:10 PM    Report this comment

Well, break it down a little. When the P-51 was struck, it was in a climb and maybe already trimmed or trimming for that. Suddenly both the elevator and trim cables are severed. If you're in the pilot seat, do you keep the power in and continue the climb?

What if, without pitch control, the nose keeps coming up? You'd probably yank the power and down goes the nose, pretty steeply, since the thrust vector is what was holding it up. Below 1000 feet, I wouldn't be inclined to play with alternate control strategies, no matter how irreplaceable the airplane is.

I'd throw it away in an O'Hare minute, which is 30 seconds shorter than a New York minute. Anyone who wants to anguish about another lost warbird--and I realize you aren't--is welcome to wring their hands. You'd find me in the bar seeking a stiff drink.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | July 19, 2011 2:53 PM    Report this comment

From my seat, the peice coming off at impact was the section of wing from the Skyraider. After recovering the airplane, the mustang pilot released the canopy and started undoing his harnesses [educated guess]. In my opinion, he made the call to leave the very moment he took that hit, and started the process of getting out before the nose even pitched over. Exactly what should have been done after an impact that low and that hard, in my opinion.

Posted by: FRANK DORRIN | July 20, 2011 6:51 AM    Report this comment

May I publically disagree with Gunny Perdue?

I made my first skydive with a 28 foot diameter, military-surplus C-8 canopy back in 1977.
My last - of seventy - jumps on a round parachute was in 1986.
Since then I have made another 6,000 jumps with square parachutes.

Modern square parachutes - of the sort (200 to 300 square feet) recommended for students and pilot emergency parachutes - are docile and can easily be landed hands-off. The primary advantage of square parachutes is that they strike the planet with a glancing blow, vastly reducing leg injury rates.
Back in 1992, I packed the first of many square parachutes into pilot emergency parachutes made by Butler. They were huge (340 sqaure foot), military-surplus squares designed for military free-fallers who belive than only sillies jump 100 pound rucksacks!
My next job (1994) had me packing, drop-testing and even doing live jumps on another PEP system containing 290 square foot, ram-air canopies. After three jumps, I got bored and started deliberately landing them down-wind, hands-off in the shrubbery surrounding Lake Elsinore. All those landings were softer than any I experienced underround canopies.
I also packed a few squares when I worked for the leading manufacturer of PEPs in the State of Washington.

Blue skies,

Rob Warner
FAA Master Rigger

Posted by: Robert Warner | July 20, 2011 2:16 PM    Report this comment

I've never gone through a million dollars, that fast!

Posted by: Ron Brown | July 20, 2011 2:58 PM    Report this comment

I think it's pretty clear that the piece that flew off after the collision was the Skyraider's wingtip. The Mustang's canopy can be seen being jettisoned immediately after the aircraft straightens out following the vicious yaw caused by the impact. Since the Mustang nosed over as soon as the pilot left, that suggests he had kept it level and that releasing the stick as he departed caused it to drop its nose.

Too many warbird pilots have tried to stay with an expensive aircraft and have been lost with it. I think this pilot made the decision to get out in an emergency long before he ever strapped into the aircraft that day.

Posted by: Jeff Rankin-Lowe | July 21, 2011 12:28 AM    Report this comment

Leaving the plane while in the air is discussed at many warbird/formation clinics. As a community it is discussed frequently and I would say most practice egress frequently. One of the key discussion points is know when you are leaving and to not wait until the situation comes up to think through the process. Uncontrollable airplane below "X" thousand would be an immediate reason to leave; eject the canopy, disconnect from the plane (harness, headset cord, 02, etc); claw your way out; pull the ring.

Once you land you can call the insurance company and tell them what happened to "THEIR" airplane. But be able to make the phone call.

We talk about how to get out and where to jump. When leaving the plane, Mr. Horizontal Stab is no longer your friend and you don't want to have him hit you as you go by. That said, sometimes you have to make due with the situation you have.

The warbird pilot community is lucky and has a lot of great chutes (Butler,etc.) compared to the military back in WWII. I personally hope I don't have to find out how good.

Posted by: Randy DeVere | July 21, 2011 8:53 AM    Report this comment

Jeff, from the pilots comments stating that he had no elevator controls I would say he wasn't keeping it level. The engine power was keeping it level because that is how he had it trimmed. As he was getting out, he pulled the power and that is why it nosed over.

Posted by: Randy DeVere | July 21, 2011 8:57 AM    Report this comment

Either way the pilot avoided the most serious of flying dileminas - running out of altitude and options at the same time. I would have been in the bar with paul.
Mac D9134

Posted by: John McCarthy | July 21, 2011 6:35 PM    Report this comment

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