I finally decided to write about the Mustang. I was holding off for a long time because it’s a plane with such a well known history and such a glorified history that there really wasn’t anything more I could say about it but since it is important with what I’m trying to accomplish here so it seemed appropriate to add. Please note that this will be a post that I can’t possibly be able to talk about everything with this plane, there will most definitely be another post later on.
Well where to start. The P-51 Mustang is said to be one of the best fighter aircraft to have rolled off of production lines during WWII. I think anyone that flew a Mustang then or flies one now would argue that it is an amazing aircraft. The P-51 was built by North American Aviation in response to a request by the British Purchasing Commission. In 1938 British Government setup a purchasing commission in the United States under Sir Henry Self. One of his primary purposes was the design, development, and delivery of American aircraft to the Royal Air Force. At the time there was no American plane that met European standards except the P-40 Tomahawk but even that was lacking. NAA President “Dutch” Kindelberger approached Self to sell the B-25 Bomber but instead was asked to produce the P-40 under contract from Curtiss. Kindelberger said that he could build a better, more cost effective and sooner available aircraft using the same Allison V-1710 liquid-cooled engine. The delivery date was set to January 1941 and in March of 1940 320 aircraft were purchased.
Edgar Schmued led the development team of NA-73X which had the same Allison V-1710 liquid-cooled engine, four .30 in (7.62 mm) M1919 Browning machine guns, two in the wings and two beneath the engine firing through the prop arc, laminar flow airfoils, a new radiator that used the “Meredith Effect” of expelling heat adding a jet thrust effect and a fuselage made of conic sections. All of these new features were accomplished after 102 days. It was one of the fastest built aircraft given the war circumstances. In September of 1940 the prototype rolled off of the assembly line and on October 26th 1940 it was test flown by Vance Breese who said it handled well. In September of 1940, 300 more planes were ordered two of which went to the United States Army Air Corps.
Pre War doctrine stated that heavy bombers would get through. Their defenses were too strong, they fly too high and enemy fighters would not be able to knock them down. Up into 1942 the USAAC still believed in this doctrine and refused, despite RAF and Luftwaffe results, that the need for a long range escort fighter was not needed. During the early years of fighting, Spitifre from the Royal Air Force and P-40’s would guard bomber formations until they reached the European coastline. Due to fuel consumption and the constant battle of flying further and further away from home bases something had to give.
Throughout 1942 the evidance was inconclusive that there was any problem with daylight bombing. Then in 1943 at the Casablanca Conference the Combined Bomber Offensive was conceived. Round the clock bombing would be done by daylight runs of the 8th Air Force out of England and nighttime runs done by RAF units. the goal was to destroy key industrial targets, specifically aircraft manufactoring and supply, in order to gain air supremacy before the invasion. Deep penetrations raids were at a first a success but by the end of 1943 losses were mounting. The August raid against Schweinfurt–Regensburg resulted in a loss of 60 B-27’s and on October 14th 77 more were lost. The need for an escort fighter was needed. Many were thought up but the one that had the most promise was the P-51B.
Seen here is the P-51A Miss Virginia. This is the only authentic flying example of a P-51A in the world and is operated by Plane of Fame Air Museum out of Chino, CA. One thing that makes this plane very unique is it’s 1,120hp Allison V-171 0-39 engine. The Allison engine was believed to be one of the best engines for low altitudes under 15,000 and the P-51A and earlier designs utilized this ability with great effectiveness. However after the need for an escort fighter was made Mustangs were modified to carry the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine in B’s and C’s models.
The P-51C seen here is set in the almost classic English air base scenario with the hangar in the background and the clouds rolling in over the channel. The P-51B/P-51C were equipped with the Packard V-1650-3 Packard Merlin engine which was heavier the Allsion. The P-51B was built in Inlgewood, CA and the P-51C was built in Dallas, TX. Production started in early 1943 and was in operation by the summer of 1943.
The P-51 was choosen for the use of an escort fighter because of it’s ability to carry 184 gallons internally and then another 85 gallons externally. This gave the plane the ability to travel four hours forty five minutes. While the internal tanks created loss of performance when full it was concieved that they would be used up first while crossing the channel.
The Mustang was the clear answer to the problem. During the winter of 1943-1944 enough Mustangs had arrived to the 8th and 9th Air Force to resume operation Pointblank in early 1944. Cover of the bomber stream consisted of P-38 Lightning and P-47 Thunderbolt cover during early stages then handed over to the P-51’s for the long stretch into occupied territory. The Mustang had proven superior so well and so quickly the the 8th Air Force started to switch over it’s fifteen fighter groups to Mustangs. By the end of 1944 fourteen groups were flying Mustangs. At the high altitude that the bombers were flying, initial Luftwaffe tactics and fighters were unable to be effective against the new fighter. The twin engine fighters BF 110, Focke Wulfe 190, and BF 109 all were at a disadvantage at the higher altitude in part due to the heavy armament they were carrying to destroy the heavy bombers. New tactics were created for the new escorts and bombers.
In 1944 General James “Jimmy” Doolittle took command of the 8th Air Force and one of the first measures he took was to take the fighters off of defense measures of the bomber stream and assign them to attack enemy fighters whenever they were found. The goal was to gain air supremacy and while this decision was not as poplar with bomber crews the end result was a much faster destruction of Luftwaffe fighters. P-51’s would go on “fighter sweeps in front of the bomber stream to clear out enemy fighters first. In response to this the Luftwaffe developed new tactics one of which was combining heavily armored FW 190A’s out front and followed by lighter fighters, BF 109’s in mass. The idea was for the FW 190A’s to attack the bombers while the BF 109’s would keep the P-51’s busy. While difficult to accomplish, when it did work the affects were devastating.
After mid 1944 fighter sweeps weren’t enough so the systematic strafing of enemy air fields was started by returning escorting fighters and later strafing missions were started with P-51’s going specifically to hit Luftwaffe air fields. One of the most successful strikes was when P-51’s would strafe enemy fields that were recovering the German Jet fighter ME 262 which was extremely vulnerable during recovery. This of course didn’t happen until 1945.
Starting in late 1944, P-51D Mustangs started arriving in England with an upgraded wing root design which made it more capable of carrying heavier loads for the additional strafing and bombing runs that were now in practice. Also the P-51D had a bubble canopy, one long piece of plastic instead of the standard birdcage canopy which had limited visibility due to the metal used to hold the glass together. The same Roll Royce Merlin Packard V-1650-7 engine was used.
In 1943 P-51B’s started arriving with the American Volunteer Group in China and in 1945 P-51B’s and C’s started going to the Chinese Nationalist Air Force. In late 1943 P-51B’s started arriving in Italy for the 12th and 15t Air Force. These Mediterranean based fighter groups consisted of the same rolls as those based out of England with protection of bomber streams over Northern Italy, France, Romania, and other occupied territories. The fighting in that region was a bit different with the goal set to destroy the German oil reserves and refineries. Enemy fighters consisted of more then just the Luftwaffe but also the Italian Air Force and Romanian pilots. It was in the Mediterranean Theater that the famous group known as the Red Tails, the all African American Group, would make their name.
While a late comer to the Pacific Theater the P-51 did serve on escort missions for B-29 Superfortress’s and ground strafing mission during the island hoping campaign. Jerry Yellin a Mustang pilot who flew 19 missions including escort and strafing, remembered the sights, smells and feelings of flying over the islands. Jerry flew the last mission of WWII in which his wingman was shot down. The war had ended just hours beforehand but news had not reached them yet.
Over 15,000 P-51’s were built during the war and stayed in service until 1984. The P-51 served in Air Force’s all over the world and remained in operation for the US Air Force until 1980. As such an iconic plane many were bought for museums and for flying memorials to the brave pilots that flew them. Due to the planes speed and performance characteristics many were purchased for airshows and aerobatic displays. One of the most profound uses was for air racing. The P-51 Mustang was flown at the Cleveland Air Races before they were shut down in 1949 and then the Mustang has been flown for decades at the Reno National Championship Air Races where for over a decade the winner has been a Mustang model. Seen her are two of just that. The one on the left is Bob Hoover’s Old Yeller P-51D Mustang that he used for decades as a performance piece for airshows and aviation events all over the country. The one on the right is Strega, twelve time National Air Races champion.
The P-51 is one of the most iconic and recognized aircraft of WWII. In part it was due to the overwhelming amount of planes that were built. But it was also because so many men wanted to be fighter pilots. As a result of both and because the P-51 was so well built many of the men that flew it were able to return home and thus their stories live on.
Images Captured with Nikon, D3, D4, 24-70 AF-S, 70-200 VRII, on Lexar UDMA Digital Film