Local warbird owner makes history

Published 10:31 am Thursday, August 18, 2011

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Local pilot, World War II planes shown off at airport

Just outside Austin, there is a local man who shares an intimate history with one of America’s most iconic airplanes. At the Austin Municipal Airport Wednesday, many came to pay tribute to that man and his plane.

More than 120 people flocked by planes, cars and the warbirds of which those stories are about, to catch a glimpse of history.

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The man is Roger Christgau, and the airplane is the P-51 Mustang. The Mustang was one of World War II’s most iconic fighters; and even though Christgau wasn’t a World War II pilot, he is one of the Mustang’s most prolific pilots. His Mustang, named Sierra Sue II, was on display for a special occasion.

Warbird enthusiasts arrived in formations with their T-6 trainers, one other Mustang and a behemoth: a World War II B-25 bomber. All were honoring the history of Christgau’s Mustang and Christgau, a piece of work himself. All who knew Christgau had rattling stories of the former Korean War Air Force lieutenant and gunnery instructor who once taught at the famed Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.

Christgau joined the Air Force because he wanted to fly, he said. And he knew he could do it well.

“They didn’t pick just any yahoo to do that,” Christgau said about becoming a flight instructor. “You had to be reasonably efficient in flying the airplane, and I was.”

As with any iconic pilot, Christgau, now 80, can recall the exciting, funny, weird and chilling stories of his flights. He had always wanted F86 and F100 airplanes, but he acquired the Mustang and discovered its rich history instead. Though he prefers some of his past antics to be overlooked — like when he acquired the plane and flew it home — he openly recalled one of his other brushes with death.

Christgau was flying the Mustang when he went into a spin he couldn’t get out of and started descending rapidly. He couldn’t pull up for some time, but said, “By some miracle I got out of it.”

All of Christgau’s experiences were enough to fill a book, so in the early 90s, his brother, John Christgau, did just that. He published “Sierra Sue II: The Story of a P-51 Mustang.”

The book details many of the experiences Christgau wouldn’t share — good and bad. John wrote the book from plenty of personal experiences with his brother’s aerobatics, like the time Christgau swooped so low and so close to John and his daughter they thought he would hit them.

“He was about five feet over the corn tassles,” John said. “My daughter dove for cover.”

But John is most proud of his brother’s triumphs, and can sum up Christgau with one word: toughness.

John spoke briefly about his brother’s injury, which led Christgau to medicine. Like flying, Christgau took on medicine with enthusiasm, and he became a doctor, a career that lasted more than 30 years before he moved back to a farm southwest of Dexter that has been in his family since 1882.

John said perhaps the most amazing thing about his brother was “to have one career cut short — the Air Force — and then immediately make the transition to medicine.”

He added, “We all have to make adjustments in our lives, but nothing quite as dramatic as that.”

However, Christgau didn’t speak of any personal struggles, only the quirky ones with the airplane. For instance, he carried a rod with a rag and a hook on his flights. That was for popping out of the cockpit while flying and wiping residue off the window, which often happened. The hook was for releasing the brake, which often got stuck if hydraulic fluid got on it.

Perhaps the most comical of Christgau’s ventures was his landing technique. Christgau had to open the cockpit, prop himself up on the frame with his arms and get both feet on top of the brakes. To onlookers, it looked as if Christgau was showing off.

Christgau recalled those onlookers and joked about what they must have been thinking: “Who is this hot rod fool with his arms out the window like he’s driving a convertible?”

Today, Christgau still flies a piper plane, but he doesn’t take anybody up with him because he still has his fighter pilot mentality.

“My flying’s too aggressive for anybody to ride with me,” he joked with his brother.

“And I’m too frightened,” John added.

Though the event was a tribute to a rare Mustang that survived combat, one would be hard-pressed to say it wasn’t about Christgau. Fellow warbird enthusiast Paul Ehlen, along with the Aircorps Aviation of Bemidji, will restore the Sierra Sue II to an original fighter look. Ehlen will restore the plane out of respect for Mustangs, and more respect for Roger, who recently sold Ehlen the plane.

Eric Trueblood of Aircorps Aviation said Ehlen is a great person to carry on the history of the plane, as Christgau finally decided to pass on the tradition. And Aircorps Aviation realizes the scope of its task and aims to make everything perfect. The company is worthy of the task, as it received the 2011 Oshkosh grand champion award for restoration of a P-51.

But so is Ehlen, according to Trueblood.

“(Ehlen) just has a real passion for World War II aviation,” Trueblood said.

Because Christgau will inevitably miss the Mustang he has owned for 34 years and flown for 22, he’s becoming even closer to the people who will ensure its future prestige and respect its power.

While reminiscing about his respect for the Mustang, Christgau told Trueblood something everybody could agree with: “Look at all those smoking rivets — I’m the only guy who’s ever wore out a Mustang.”