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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 IV

Ladd: "It felt great! The takeoff.. you get the windows rolled up and sealed up and you’re watching the coolant temperatures and you’re watching oil temperatures, you’re making sure everything is in line. You’re trying to do everything perfectly, because you’re not comfortable yet, no way to be comfortable until you get up into the air and relax, so you’re almost trying to be overly safe. You’re watching everything, maybe even a little bit more than you need to. So you’re making yourself a little bit nervous and that’s normal in a new airplane.

So I finally said, ‘OK, let’s go’ I pushed the throttles up to about forty-forty five inches.. Right away, [chuckles] right about the time the engines started coming up to power, the right propeller started to run away a little bit from the left one. That was a common deal, it always did that, I knew it was going to do that, my dad warned me it was going to do that. But never dealing with it first hand myself, on take off, I got caught up in getting that thing set just right. That airplane will accelerate a whole lot faster than you’d think, my dad had told me, ‘this thing is going to get up and go, you gotta watch it because it will accelerate fast’, there’s no way to know what he really means until you deal with it first hand. This is another reason why you want to have a good long runway so you’ve got room for that kind of thing. Sure enough, I got that thing set just right and I looked down at the airspeed indicator and there I was at one hundred twenty miles an hour, I was supposed to pull the nose off at about seventy!

Just like a flip of a switch, it went right up through seventy-eighty-ninety-one hundred-one ten and there I was at one hundred twenty moving on down the runway…

That’s something that almost every guy that I’ve ever talked to who had flown a -38, on their first takeoff, it happened to every one of them. Not so much the prop thing but they’d get the power set and start looking at everything else to make sure it was good and by the time they got back to the airspeed indicator, they were well above one hundred miles an hour.

So I thought ‘I’m plenty fast now’ and I pulled back and of course, it leaped into the air, I pulled the gear up and off it went and everything was great from that point on. Except about four or five landings later, that canopy thing happened…"

AAFO: How long after this first flight did you have the engine fire that led to the off field landing?

Ladd: "Well I flew the airplane for the first time in the spring of 2001. I flew it quite a bit between April and May and June. Probably every other weekend, if not every weekend, I would fly the airplane. Or washing it or just hanging around doing whatever I could, tinkering with it, just being around it because I was so excited about what was going on.

Phil Makanna came down in May and we did a photo shoot with my dad flying the P-38. I flew the Stearman with Phil doing the photo shoot, which was a real neat deal. That was another dream come true to get to work with somebody like that.

(editor’s note: Philip Makanna is probably the most noted aviation photographer of our time. Phil is the artist responsible for the ever popular "Ghosts" aviation calendar series his work can be seen at )

Then in June we went to Tullahoma for the air show there. My dad didn’t have any interest in going but I really wanted to do this thing. It was a really special show because the Thunderbirds were there and Frank Borman was there with "Su Su II." I forget which group it was but there was a group that brought over a B-25 and another CAF group brought over a TBM. I got to go around flying racetrack behind Frank Borman in his Mustang.

Everything was awesome! I had one little snag going over there, I had a coolant problem. I’d made two fuel stops going over there and had a coolant leak but it had gotten progressively worse. By the time I got to Tullahoma, it was dripping pretty bad. We pulled the cowling and found a coolant hose that was in pretty bad shape. That took us several hours into the night to get it changed but after that, it was smooth sailing.

I flew it three times on Saturday and three times on Sunday and after that, we headed home on Monday morning.

That’s when the accident happened, Monday morning."

AAFO: We’ve talked a bit in the past about the accident. Everything is going so smoothly, you’re basically sitting on top of the world flying "White Lightnin’," you’ve got an airshow in the -38 under your belt and things are going great. The events of Monday morning had to be not only heart breaking, they had to be heart stopping!

Ladd: "It was, kind of, right up to the accident it — was beginning to be a perfect closing to an unbelievable last couple of months. On top of an even more unbelievable last couple of years.

In the thirty minutes leading up to the accident, I was sitting up there at eight thousand feet, cruising home, just sitting there I was comfortable enough at this point that I was really just kind of sitting there and I was thinking ‘geez, we’ve done it, we’ve pulled it off without a hitch. We’ve had a couple of snags but we worked it out and it worked out great’. I was kind of just reminding myself just how lucky I was, I was even thanking God for blessing me with such a unique opportunity, like no other. I was really just sitting there looking around. It was beautiful, scattered clouds, sitting at eight thousand feet, it was cool, the airplane was running great. Man I was just looking around and… it’s hard to explain the kind of memories but spending so much time in the back of that airplane, I used to ride in the back of the airplane and I’d always lay on my side and I’d look back and there’s nothing quite like looking back and looking at those two booms back there and looking down between the booms and the tail… it’s something that you just can’t explain.

I did the same thing then when I was flying it, I was looking back over my shoulder having memories of riding back there behind my dad and I’d have my hand on the yoke around his shoulders, I was thinking, ‘it doesn’t get any better than this’.

That’s what I was thinking..

I even thought to myself, ‘I don’t deserve this’ I wouldn’t say I was in awe, but it was pretty close to that. It was just a feeling of a lifetime achievement.

The flip side of it was, I didn’t feel like I’d worked that hard to achieve it. It wasn’t like with my dad, who went to war and came back, saved every nickel he could and came back over here and worked his tail off to acquire this stuff. I was just lucky enough to be born into a family and be able to take advantage of all l his hard work."

AAFO: Ladd, from what I am hearing, you worked very hard for what you achieved. It’s never as hard for anyone in our generation as it was for your father’s, or my father’s generation. All of us born after the war have been lucky to live in this country with all of our opportunities.

Ladd: "Well I guess that’s true. Anyway, I was sitting there thinking ‘it just doesn’t get any better than this’.. watching the GPS and there comes Greenwood, that was my fuel stop and I started letting down. I got down to about the two thousand to one thousand foot range and the left engine started backfiring. I was zipping along pretty good, I radioed the airport and said I’d be there in a couple minutes, I checked the traffic and that sort of thing."

AAFO: Is the backfiring something normal as you bring the power back letting down?

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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