SANTA ANA, Calif., September 3, 2010—Walter Drake, 87, a veteran U.S. Army Air Forces pilot who flew 34 combat missions in the P-51 Mustang fighter aircraft during WW II, and Robert J. Goebel, 87, author of the book “Mustang Ace: Memoirs of a P-51 Fighter Pilot,” were on hand to share their experiences with visitors when Lyon Air Museum (LAM), a premier Southern California showcase for vintage WW II-era aircraft and automobiles, played host to a visiting P-51D fighter early Labor Day Weekend.

“This visit by the P-51D Mustang and the participation of Walt Drake and Bob Goebel in the event provided an excellent opportunity for people in Southern California to learn more about this remarkable aircraft and the men who flew them,” said LAM president Mark Foster.

Robert J. Goebel is the author of the book “Mustang Ace: Memoirs of a P-51 Fighter Pilot.” As a fighter pilot based in Italy during WWII, he shot down 11 German aircraft in 61 combat missions.

When Bob Goebel left home to join the Army Air Corps in 1942, he was 19-years-old and a high school graduate. After graduation from flight school with his new wings and new commission as a 2nd Lieutenant, he and his classmates were posted to a fighter squadron defending the Panama Canal. By the spring of 1944, he was on his way to Italy as a member of the 308th Fighter Squadron, 31st Fighter Group, Twelfth Air Force. The 31st Fighter Group was one of the top fighter units of WW II. Goebel was also headed for a new aircraft, the legendary P-51 Mustang. After 61 combat missions, Goebel had achieved the rank of captain and was officially credited with 11 victories in his Mustang. When he returned home in September 1944, he was not yet 21 years old.

Goebel’s memoir is a classic of combat aviation, giving the reader a true sense of what it was like to fly and fight as a World War II fighter pilot. The book covers stories about the often overlooked 12th AF in Italy, complete with tales of flying the classic P-51D, America’s ultimate piston-engined fighter.

Following the war, Goebel attended college on the G.I. Bill, earning a degree in physics from the University of Wisconsin. Returning to the air force, he served on active duty for almost thirty years and retired as a Lieutenant Colonel in 1966 after working on the Gemini launch vehicle for NASA. He then worked in the aerospace industry, including a stint with the Skylab project. Now fully retired, he lives in Torrance, California.

Drake was part of the 434th Fighter Squadron, which was activated in October 1943 during a buildup of Army Air Forces and flew cover for Allied troops during the June 6, 1944, D-Day invasion of Normandy along the English Channel coast of Northern France.

For his first 34 combat missions, Drake flew Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighter aircraft (named the “fork-tailed devil” by the Luftwaffe). In aerial combat in his P-38, Drake shot down a Messerschmitt Bf 109 German fighter aircraft, the backbone of the Luftwaffe’s fighter force. He also destroyed three of the Bf 109 aircraft on the ground.

By mid-summer 1944, Drake’s squadron had switched to the P-51, an American-made long-range single-seat fighter aircraft that was able to reach Berlin from the French coast. In their P-51s, the 434th pilots did high altitude work escorting Allied bombers, along with doing dive bombing and strafing activity on the Rhine River in Germany.

The pilots liked the P-51s. “They were more maneuverable than the P-38s and had a longer range — eight hours,” Drake recalls. “Everything was smaller, more close at hand. When you got in one you felt like you were part of it.”

Danger was, of course, always lurking. During a mission that took place on Oct. 30, 1944, three of the four planes in Drake’s flight went down in a storm.

“I was the only one who got back,” he says. One of the downed pilots survived and was taken prisoner of war by the Germans.

Drake returned to the U.S. in December 1944. He left active duty with the rank of First Lieutenant but remained in the Air Force reserves for 25 years before retiring at the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

North American P-51D Mustang display Orange County John Wayne SNA
Photo: Planes of Fame Museum

The P-51D Mustang has a colorful background that LAM’s docents will discuss with visitors. The docents are knowledgeable guides who conduct visitors through the museum and share information on the exhibitions.

The P-51 Mustang is an American-made long-range single-seat WW II fighter aircraft. When North American Aviation first built the P-51, the company (now a part of the Boeing Company) was a major U.S. manufacturer responsible for a number of historic aircraft.

As well as being economical to produce, the Mustang was a fast, well-made fighting machine. The definitive P-51, the model P-51D is powered by a Packard V-1650 engine, a two-stage two-speed supercharged version of the legendary Rolls-Royce Merlin engine. During combat, the plane was armed with six .50 caliber M2 Browning machine guns.

Designed and built in just 117 days, the Mustang first flew in England’s Royal Air Force (RAF) service as a fighter-bomber and reconnaissance aircraft. It was later converted to a bomber escort, employed from early 1944 in raids over Germany to help ensure Allied air superiority. The P-51 also saw limited service against the Japanese in the Pacific War. The Mustang began the Korean War as the United Nations’ main fighter aircraft, but was relegated to a ground attack role when superseded by jet fighters early in the conflict.

After WW II and the Korean War, many Mustangs were converted for civilian use, especially air racing. Nevertheless, the plane remained in military service with some national air forces until the early 1980s. Nearly 150 of the original P-51 Mustang fighter aircraft currently remain flying.

The P-51D Mustang that will be on display at LAM in Orange County Sept. 3-4, 2010, has belonged to Planes of Fame Air Museum since 1957. The museum was founded by Edward T. Maloney as The Air Museum in Claremont, Calif. in January 1957. The first aviation museum on the U.S. West Coast, it was moved to Chino, Calif. in 1973.