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April 20, 2003

Ladd Gardner Interview
by: Wayne Sagar
Images used in the presentation of this interview are the property of the photographers noted on image, and or, "the Lefty Gardner collection" and are used with the permission of either the photographer, or the Gardner collection or both.

An interview with Ladd Gardner - Part II

AAFO: With all that exposure to so many cool airplanes from such a young age, when did you finally get to lay your hands on a stick and actually fly one?

Ladd: "I’ve got pictures of me riding around in the Stearman sprayer, they used to be ‘two holers’, obviously when they are converted to sprayers, they took that front cockpit out; everything from the back cockpit forward, they made into a hopper for spraying. But then you couldn’t take anybody for rides, so he [dad] had a fiberglass turtledeck from the back cockpit back to the tail and he made some seats back there and he had fiberglass caps with Zeus fasteners. There was one right behind his seat, pretty good sized, not quite as big as the his cockpit, then there was another one behind that one, a little smaller. So he made a three-holer and just moved the weight back. I’ve got memories of riding around in the back behind him. Obviously there were no controls back there.

Then he bought a ‘77 or ‘78 model [Cessna] 310-R, we’ve got pictures of me flying that, at two, maybe one and a half years old, just standing in the seat holding the yoke. I don’t know if I was actually flying but I got to play with that one.

We’ve also got pictures of me in the Stearman, I remember riding in his lap in the back seat of the Stearman."

AAFO: When did you start formal pilot training to get your ticket?

Ladd: "Actually when I was in high school, I don’t remember if there was ever an initial conversation with my dad like ‘hey are you ready to learn to fly?’ or not. He always knew I wanted to fly, and I was chomping at the bit to do it whenever I could. We eventually moved to the Austin [TX] area in ’89, out by Lakeway, and we built a house right on the runway there.

When I was in high school there at Lake Travis, just west of Austin, we decided it was time for me to learn to fly. We didn’t have anything for me to learn in. The Brunet wing of the CAF, which is about an hour northwest of Lakeway where we lived, that was also where we were keeping the P-38 and the Mustang at that time. One of the members there had a 220 Stearman my dad ‘hit him up’ and he said sure, take it and teach him to fly. He just loaned it to us!

I started learning to fly out west of Lake Travis, and he [my dad] taught me to fly from day one in that old Stearman. After that, I soloed.

Somewhere around that time frame, we had two old Stearman fuselages from his spraying days, we picked the better of those two and started restoring it. He had rebuilt a set of wings about ten years prior to that and had them in storage all those years. We did the restoration project and ended up, actually my dad, my brother, myself and some other good friends all started working, and in about a year we had a complete Stearman restored.

I got it about the time I was graduating from High School. I took it to college, in Waco. [TX] They had an aviation training program at Texas State Tech, a two year flight training program; I got all my extra ratings there, my commercial and instrument.

I flew the Stearman for a couple hundred hours over those two years and then sold it. We bought an old [Cessna] 310 so I could start building my multi time for the airlines.

When I finished up school in Waco, I transferred to Caleen, the University of Central Texas, for a bachelors in aviation science. While there, I was building my multi time and I graduated in 1999.

I did some flight instructing at about that time, and then I got a deal demo-ing the Harmon Rocket for Mark Frederick. After that I got a job flying Metroliners for a charter company called Berry Aviation. I did that for about eight months, racked up a little over three hundred hours and then I got hired by Continental Express. All of this led up to where I started flying the P-38."

AAFO: How did it come about that you got into "White Lightnin," I mean flying it in place of your dad?

Ladd: "Once I felt like I’d mastered the Stearman and he [my dad] was real confident in my flying, I started hitting him up asking what I would have to do to advance? I wanted to start flying other stuff. By this time, we’d sold our P-51. Stan Muzic, a good friend of ours, had a T-6 up in Waco and he said ‘why don’t you come up and learn how to fly this?’ He taught me to fly that thing, free of charge. When we were all done, he let me bring it down to Austin, then I got to fly it in a show. He’s a real nice guy, he just said, ‘here’s my T-6, I’ll come back and get it in a few weeks’ he put me on his insurance and I flew it as much as I could! He just said ‘make sure it has a full tank of gas when I come back for it’.

Well if somebody gives you a T-6 to fly, you hit up everybody you know for gas money and you go fly! Everybody around wanted to go fly, so that’s what I did.

It’s funny, I actually got to solo a Mustang before I soloed the T-6. This all leads up to the P-38, as a means of proving myself to my dad. We were rebuilding a friend of the family’s Mustang. This was in about April, I was still in college, I had not quite graduated yet, so about April of ’99. Dad was having really bad knee problems and was about to go in for a complete reconstructive surgery. His knees were so bad that he couldn’t test fly the Mustang to test the new engine on it. So he said why don’t you and Darin, my brother and I, do the test flying on it. So we jumped at the chance. I’d flown the T-6 with my dad at that time, my dad was comfortable with me enough, he’d seen me fly the T-6, and that [Harmon] Rocket enough, that he felt comfortable with me flying the Mustang.

So I studied the manual for a few weeks, I went through a couple of blindfolded sessions where he’d give me different emergency situations. I’d have to show him where my hand would go and what I’d do in that situation. I did that with him on the ground in the mustang, he was satisfied and off I went. I got to fly the Mustang for about ten or twelve hours. It was actually at the Brunet Airshow where I was flying this mustang. Stan came down with his T-6 and he’d never let me solo the T-6 to that point but he saw me up cruising around in the Mustang and after seeing that, he said ‘I guess you’re cool to fly the T-6, come get it for me later on and bring it down here’…

Getting to fly the Mustang first did not take anything away from flying the T-6! To me, it’s [the T-6] quite a bit more of a handful on the ground, more of a challenge, really, in a lot of ways.

In my mind, out of the T-6, the Mustang and the Stearman, the T-6 was the hardest to handle on the ground. The T-6 is more of a challenge in a lot of ways. The T-6 was a step up trainer, the way it was designed, from the Stearman to the T-6 and the BT in-between, the T-6 in my mind was the hardest to handle of all of them. I had a lot more trouble in it than I did in the Stearman. I’ve always heard, ‘if you can handle a Stearman, you can handle anything’, that is the mind-set. After flying the T-6, it takes everything you’ve learned in the Stearman and gives you some new things that you need to know flying heavier stuff. It’s a little more complicated, it doesn’t recover quite as quickly as the Stearman does, because it’s heavier. It has a tendency, once you start to lose control, you have torque or have a ground loop or something like that, it’s harder to recover, because of the weight.

I really felt comfortable in the Mustang after flying the T-6 because it just really gave you a mental preparedness for what you were getting into. It was neat to get to fly it!

Doing that over the period of a couple of years kind of led up to my dad finally deciding it was time that he kind of hand over the reigns to my brother and I. He knew I’d been flying that Metroliner for almost a year, built three hundred hours in the right seat having a throttle quadrant on my left hand side. Operating a similar type of aircraft [as the P-38] as far as speed and weight. Depending on which model you were flying, it was twelve or fourteen thousand pounds, with a similar power to weight ratio. On the Metro III, it was eleven hundred horsepower on a side, fourteen five weight on the airplane. So you’re talking twenty two hundred horsepower, and fourteen thousand pounds. The P-38 is three thousand horsepower and twelve thousand pounds, so it was similar performance. I felt it was a good airplane to prepare me for the P-38.

My dad felt the same way.

Watching me fly the Stearman, the T-6, the Mustang, the 310 and the Metro, he felt like I was prepared for the P-38. Growing up around it, riding around with him in the back of it for so long, he felt like he’d taught me a lot over the years as far as handling emergencies. We’d had numerous emergencies while I was riding in the back with him. Between engine failures; to coolant radiators blowing up and having to shut down engines; weather problems; all kind of things we ran into riding around the west coast and the air show circuit with him. He knew I was around for all that. He knew I soaked it up and we would always talk about it afterwards, kind of review what happened. He’d kind of get a taste of what I thought in some of those situations…."

AAFO: And all of this is being engrained in you from a very young age….

part-I | part-II | part-III | part-IV | part-V | part VI | part-VII | part-VIII

You can help return one of America's great aviation treasures to flight status. Log into your tax-deductible contribution will be entered into the "Lefty Gardner White Lightnin' Aviation Museum" fund to restore "White Lightnin'" to flying condition. With the help of the fans of this airplane, the Gardner family will, once again, be seen flying this great airplane!


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