Inside the cockpit, eagerly awaiting takeoff, Leroy Steiger heard the familiar grind, pop, sputter and roar of the P-51 Mustang’s Rolls-Royce "Merlin" engine — sounds he hadn’t heard in 58 years.
For his 80th birthday, Steiger flew one more mission Sunday in a fighter plane identical to the one he piloted over Germany during World War II. This time Steiger was merely a passenger receiving a joyride in the skies above Mesa’s Falcon Field Municipal Airport, but that didn’t diminish the Army Air Forces veteran’s excitement.
"I never thought I would be able to do this again," he said before the 25-minute flight. "This is the most fun I’m going to have in 58 years."
In a gesture befitting of Memorial Day, the Mesa resident dedicated his flight — a birthday gift from his family — to two former wing men, Tom Marvel and Jack Rice. Both survived the war, but died soon after.
"I know they’re going to be flying low today with me, in spirit," Steiger said.
As the propeller-driven war bird soared above the desert horizon, Steiger was transported back through space and time to Europe in the late days of the war. Memories flashed by like tracer fire.
He recalled engaging two German Messerschmitt 262 jet fighters that darted out of the clouds and then quickly descended toward the Earth. Steiger chased down one of the Stormbirds and scored a direct hit, but he couldn’t pull up fast enough to avoid the flame and debris hurtling toward him.
One hunk of metal ripped a hole in Steiger’s bubble canopy the size of a basketball.
"It took my goggles off, and yet it didn’t hit me," he said.
Although he never piloted a plane again after the war — at the request of his wife — Steiger never lost his love of flight.
"He thinks it’s a thrill to take Continental (Airlines)," daughter-in-law Valerie Steiger said.
The P-51 entered World War II in 1943 at a crucial point. As an escort for B-17 and B-24 bombers, many believe its long range and high-altitude capabilities significantly shortened the war and saved many lives.
Steiger, who flew 20 missions over Europe, said the P-51 is a joy to fly despite its tricky controls.
"It can sting you if you let it, but it’s very stable once you get it going," he said.
The fighter he flew in on Saturday is an original P-51 owned by pilot Bill Hane, who charges about $500 to take passengers up for a flight filled with attack maneuvers and aerobatics.
Both Steiger and the plane are still in excellent condition. The P-51 barely has a scratch on it, and Steiger still fits into his old flight suit, which he wore for the occasion.
"I’ve got to suck it in a little," he said.
The P-51 flight was one of the last to take place outside Falcon Field’s Champlin Fighter Aircraft Museum, which will close its doors for good today.
In late 2000, the Museum of Flight in Seattle bought the Champlin fighter collection, containing 25 historic aircraft. The collection will be moved into the Seattle museum’s expansion wing shortly after the closure.
Steiger was relieved to know that the P-51 is not part of the collection, and it will remain at Falcon Field in case he gets the urge to fly again.
"You can’t beat that plane," he said. "You can’t beat that Rolls-Royce ‘Merlin’ engine."