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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 III

Ladd: "Yea. Riding around in the airplane, even before I was ten, maybe even five, and from there. And then in my teens and late teens, when I had a better understanding of airplanes and how they worked in emergencies and different circumstances you would get yourself into; when I was riding around and actually experienced those situations first hand and afterward, we would talk about it and discuss how you would react and what could be done to solve problems.

He knew all that stuff, he’s very aware of what’s going on and he knew all that stuff was playing a role in my future with the airplane. All that has played a major role in knowing about the airplane. I mean, I didn’t just go and get in it and fly it, I spent two or three years before I flew it. I started off, he’d let me sit in it and he’d sit there and watch me and he’d let me start it. That’s it, I wouldn’t taxi it or anything. So I got the starting process down over probably a year or so, because the airplane is a pretty cantankerous airplane on startup and you can run into problems with catching an engine on fire, or other things.

Once I felt comfortable starting it, he said, ‘why don’t we taxi it’.. The -38 [laughing] is a tough airplane to taxi! That nose wheel is free castering, unlike a 152 or a 172; a 310 or a Baron, it doesn’t have any connection between the rudder pedals and the nose wheel for steering control on it.

It’s all done with differential power and braking, and you don’t want to use much braking, because they are hard to come by. They’re expensive and there are a limited amount of them available. You really have to get used to using the rudder and differential power, it was almost like taxiing a big heavy taildragger. You’d get it going one way, then you’d have to jump on the other throttle to get it back the other way and you’d end up chasing it. The problem is, every time you come into that opposite engine to get it straightened out, you’ve increased your speed a little bit, next thing you know, you’re hauling ass down the taxiway and you’ve got to get on the brakes to slow it down. That airplane really took some practicing to taxi and be confident with it.

We had a mechanic who was working on it a lot over the last couple years with the airplane, there was a time when my dad and I had to leave a show and the airplane had to be moved. He’d seen us, my dad and I, taxi it a lot… he thought, ‘well I’ll just taxi it’. Well, he got in it and ended up out in the grass between the runway and the taxiway. It humbled him, because he didn’t think it was any big deal. We’d always told him that thing’s a handful to taxi until you get used to it.

Once you get good at it, it’s like anything, like your first time riding a bike, you’re not going to pick it up the first time but if you practice it, you pick it up."

AAFO: It would be a matter then, of training your muscles to react correctly automatically…

Ladd: "Exactly, and to be able to know what’s coming. I mean, once you know the airplane, you know what it’s about to do before it does it. Staying ahead of it, that’s the key, that’s the secret. Stay ahead of it, keep your mind ahead of it."

AAFO: Your flying the "White Lightnin’" doesn’t sound like an overnight process Ladd, you literally had a lifetime of training to get ready for it.

Ladd: "Exactly, I think I did, but the real in depth, hands on practical training, was in the three years leading up to actually flying it.

But even then, before I really flew it, we’d talked about it and were getting geared up to it. I was studying the manual for several months, we were trying to get everything to work out just right. So many things come into play, it isn’t insured, because we can’t afford to insure it, I’d never flown it before and my dad wasn’t going to sit there and watch over my shoulder.

The -38 can chew up a lot of runway in short order if you let it, and it can really get nasty if you have an engine quit at the wrong time. So we wanted it to be at a really good airport, with really long runways and lots of flat land around it. So it happened to work out at the Midland CAF Airshow, at the new headquarters of the CAF. That Airshow was in October of 2000. My dad took it ["White Lightnin’"] out there, the plan was, at that show, after the show was over, late in the afternoon, I was going to fly the airplane. That’s where my brother flew it for the first time, it’s a great airport, it’s got really long runways and lots of open space, and always clear skies. So we thought, man this is the perfect place.

Lo and behold, the weather got nasty before the show was even over, it got really cold and really windy. The weather was so bad that we left the airplane there, we didn’t even bring it home. It was there from October of 2000, till the spring of 2001.

We finally made it back out there in early 2001 in the spring and we said ‘alright, I’m going to do it’. We went out there and we probably spent four or five days getting ready, I hadn’t been in the airplane since the fall of 2000 and I wanted to get back in and get reacquainted with it. Any time you let a warbird or any airplane sit that long you’ll have problems with it. You’ll have carbs that get gummed up, you’ll have O-Rings that get cracked, you’ll have hydraulic leaks, propellers that don’t work just right. We don’t have the money to keep the airplane in top condition like some museums do, so we’re always a little behind the power curve in some ways. So it took us a couple of days to get the airplane back into reliable shape.

I got back reacquainted with it, got in it and taxied it. I wanted to get that comfortable feeling with it again, to feel at home before I flew it for the first time. Everything worked out, so actually we did the first flight there in midland. I Flew around the airport there, did three or four landings and just loved every minute of it.

I kind of made a bonehead move, I guess, on the last landing —it ended up being the last landing anyway— I didn’t want it to be. I came in and landed and I was hot, you know, you get so worked up doing that stuff for the first time in an airplane like that, you really sweat a lot. I was hot and you’ve got two roll up windows and the canopy on top, you’ve got one handle you can pull that pops the canopy open. If you’re going slow, no big deal, you pop that handle and it releases locking mechanisms on each corner of the canopy and it’ll pop up. Well, I was so caught up in what was going on, my mind was still going at a hundred and twenty miles an hour, it hadn’t slowed down. I let it get away from me and I popped that handle going just a little bit too fast. There was just enough forward speed that the wind caught that canopy and snapped it back, it didn’t break it off but it went past its limits and it bent where it bolts onto the frame and cracked the Plexiglas.. So we were shut down. That shut us down for a good month.

We had to take the canopy off, we threw it in the back of the 310. We left the airplane ["White Lightnin’"] there and went back to Austin. We spent about a month remaking that canopy by hand, which was a job in itself when you’ve never done one! It worked out really well, turned into a beautiful piece. David, our mechanic, did most of the work on the frame. He split up the Plexiglas work, found somebody that could do the work under a rock someplace [laughs] you’d be surprised where you find guys who can do that type of work."

AAFO: I’d like to take you back to the beginning of that first flight Ladd. You’ve gone through all the years of training and preparation getting ready, the first flight in the fall didn’t work out due to the weather and now you’re sitting in your dad’s airplane, getting ready to push the throttles forward for that first roll down the runway towards your first takeoff.. what’s running through your mind?

Ladd: "There was a lot of things running through my mind. I was, obviously nervous, I was nervous like no other nervous. When you grow up around airplanes, you always have, kind of like armchair quarterbacks for football, you have armchair pilots. You know, the guys you hear all these horror stories from, about every airplane, there’s horror stories about every airplane. Usually I could ask my dad about other airplanes and he’d say ‘oh, don’t listen to those guys’ but the -38 was the one airplane that he said ‘this is a very safe airplane if you handle it right but it can also be a really nasty airplane if it decides to act up on you at the wrong time’.

So those kind of things were running through my mind. Things like losing an engine on takeoff at just the wrong time, or a fire, or a hydraulic problem. These are normal problems that you can run into but when I first flew it, it was 2001, so I guess I was twenty four. Compared to World War II days, that’s plenty old for a P-38 but these days, that seems pretty young. I’d flown the Metro but it wasn’t the same, there’s nobody to watch over me. It’s really hard to explain, I’d had a lot of time to prepare but.. I’d gone from the Stearman to the Mustang and the T-6 but to me, the P-38 is a lot more intimidating airplane, because it’s a big airplane, it’s a little bit blind where you sit, it really has to be muscled around on the ground until you get used to it. You’ve got those two big engines there rattling and shaking but at the same time purring and it’s music to your ears but you know you’ve got a killing machine under you. That’s what they were designed to do.. None of those airplanes were designed to be ‘user friendly’ ‘creature comfort’ or were designed to baby-sit you. They were designed to go kill people and they were built like that. Take that stuff away and it adds a level of nervousness that you don’t have in a normal GA [general aviation] airplane…. It’s a lot of airplane to turn somebody lose with.

I know I had the best training I could have gotten for the airplane, I don’t think there’s a better person to teach me than my dad. I had him, and he’s the kind of guy who can really build you up. He’s the kind of guy who would tell you ‘I’ve seen you fly, I taught you to fly, I know what you can do and can’t do, you can handle it’ but with that, there’s still a lot of nervousness and pressure, I can’t really explain it…

But on top of all that, I was excited! I was excited that I was finally doing it! I’d finally gotten to the point that I could realize, I mean, I grew up around all this stuff and it was all just like second nature to me but I know just how lucky I am. I know what a rare and once-in-a-lifetime opportunity I was presented with at that point. Not many people, you could probably count them on one or two hands, that get to go fly a P-38 in their lifetime in this day and age.

I knew I’d been blessed with that, so I was excited to be one of the few people who got to do something like that. It was another unexplainable feeling but definitely very cool!"

AAFO: Now you’re on the runway, ready to run it up for your first takeoff.. this had to feel wonderful, take us there with you… continue>>

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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