DANIEL CLIFTON • PICAYUNE EDITOR
BURNET — Conway Laxson can’t recall the exact date he first laid eyes on a P-51 Mustang, but he knew he was in love with the plane as several streamed into sight across the Italian skies about 70 years ago.
“Oh, they would come in and protect us when we were out flying missions,” the World War II veteran recalled. At the time, Laxson served as gunner on a B-17 bomber attached to the U.S. Army Air Corps. Though the B-17 boasted some worthy defenses, a squadron of P-51s definitely offered protection from German fighters welcomed by the bomber crews.
“It made you feel better knowing they were around,” he said.
When Laxson left the U.S. Army Air Corps after the war, the one thing he wanted more than anything else was to fly in a P-51 Mustang.
The flight would come — though it would take seven decades.
On Feb. 19, with his wife, Fran, and a group of friends watching, Laxson settled into the back seat of Cowden Ward Jr.’s P-51 Mustang “Pecos Bill” at the Freedom Flyers hangar in Burnet.
“He’s been waiting so long for this,” Fran said. “He’s so excited.”
Ward and the Freedom Flyers offer flights to World War II veterans at no cost. Donations and fundraisers allow the organization to offer this unique opportunity. Recently, Ward connected with Fort Hood in Killeen to provide flights to soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome. A flight in the P-51 has lifted the spirits of several Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, Ward told the group gathered in the hangar.
But today was Conway’s day.
After a few sputters, the Mustang’s 1,600-horse-power Merlin engine caught and roared to life. During a birthday party Feb. 4 in Spicewood, Conway remarked how, even if he was blind, if a P-51 flew overhead, he could tell what it was from the sound alone.
On this day, as he rolled out to the runway, there was no doubt what type of plane was carrying him down the pavement.
From the north end of the runway, Ward pushed the throttle forward and the P-51 began rolling forward as it built speed for takeoff.
Smiling on the ground, Fran watched and clutched the arm of a friend.
The P-51 climbed into the sky, and after turning back over the hangar for a pass, it headed southeast for Spicewood, where the Laxsons live.
The target wasn’t a German fighter or an enemy enclave. No, it was David and Nita Naumann’s Spicewood Feed & Supply on CR 404, where Laxson and others congregate just about every morning for a cup of coffee and to talk. During that talk Feb. 4 at his birthday celebration, Laxson shared his dream of flying in a P-51 Mustang. Soon, word made its way back to Freedom Flyers board member Jim Wreyford and eventually to Ward.
The men set up a time to get Laxson in the Mustang.
After a couple of buzzes of the Spicewood store, Ward pointed the World War II plane and veteran passenger back to Burnet.
When he climbed out of the cockpit, Laxson grinned. After 70 years from seeing his first P-51 Mustang over the skies of Italy, he finally flew in one.
“I’ve been looking forward to this ever since I got out of the service in 1945. I finally got to fly in a P-51,” he said. “There’s no way to describe it, really, but thrilling.”
While Freedom Flyers offers World War II veterans complimentary rides on the P-51, it takes donations and community support to cover the costs of the rides. Freedom Flyers officials ask people interested in supporting the flights as well as the organization’s youth programs to make a donation at www.freedom-flyers.org. Call (512) 756-6163 for more information.