Joel Zimmer makes his living in the air but the veteran pilot was still blown away by his experience soaring above Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor in the back seat of a vintage warbird.
His ride was a Second World War-era P-51 Mustang, modified to carry two, flown by Edmonton’s Drew Watson who, with brother David Watson, fly for the Yellow Thunder Formation Aerobatic Team based out of Ponoka’s airport.
“It’s some kind of airplane,” said Zimmer, who flies cloud seeding hail suppression planes out of Modesto, California.
“The faster we got going it just freed up the controls for (Drew). He was having a great time flying. You could just see the faster we went the more excited we got.”
Seated behind him, Zimmer was just as thrilled by the experience of soaring through the sky in 80-year-old technology that was built for speed and designed as a killer. The Mustang is an aviation legend, establishing its reputation protecting the 1,000-bomber raids that pounded Germany during the last years of the war.
“That is the fastest I’ve ever been in an aircraft during my 22 years as a commercial pilot,” said Zimmer, who grew up in Red Deer and learned to fly in the 1990s through an aviation program that was offered then at Lindsay Thurber Comprehensive High School.
“That airplane is so powerful the noise reduction on my headset couldn’t keep up. My ears were definitely ringing after.
“The power of that plane is just incredible. Just a tap on the throttle and you would fly another 30 mph,” enthuses Zimmer. “We flew through Jurassic Canyon at 350 mph. We were through there in like two seconds. One, two and then we were out over the ocean. It was that fast,” he says of the picturesque canyon on the island of Kauai.
“It exceeded my expectations. It was just incredible. We had to overshoot the landing the first time because the plane was so fast the air traffic control couldn’t keep up with us. So, we had to do a go around and come in a second time. That’s the kind of speed of that airplane.”
The locale only added to the amazing experience. Flying from the island of Oahu, they did a loop that took them over Wheeler Field and the resting places of the battleships USS Arizona and USS Utah, which were sunk along with two others and another four battleships were damaged in the Dec. 7, 1941 surprise attack by the Japanese. The USS Missouri is also there as a floating memorial open for tours.
“It’s a little bit of a chilling factor when you fly over the Arizona,” he said. The outline of the sunken ship, which is the final resting place for 1,102 sailors and Marines, can be clearly seen from the air. “I just think if there were any old souls down in that ship who heard that P-51 airplane fly over them it would make them feel pretty good.”
A number of memorial events are taking place to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, including wreath laying ceremonies and a parade.
As they flew, they were joined in the skies by the modern-day equivalents of the Mustang, F-22 raptor jet fighters.
“We taxied out after them. They took off and they go straight up and were gone,” he said. “There are F-22s taking off every two hours. It’s really busy there.”
Wheeler is now a base for military helicopters and nearby Turtle Island is a Marine Base.
While the Mustang’s technology was impressive for the day, the planes must be handled carefully and treated with respect. The powerful engine heats up so quickly that whenever it stopped on the taxiway waiting its turn to take off, the pilot had to turn into the wind so the airflow could cool the engine.
Will piloting his cloud seeding twin-propeller Beechcraft King Air 90 seem a little anti-climactic now after his Mustang experience?
“Yes,” he laughs.
Now that he’s scratched a Mustang ride off his bucket list, at least one other historical aviation goal remains.
“The B-25 Mitchell,” he says of the two-engine medium bomber, which was another Second World War mainstay.