The Mustang was the most powerful fighter plane of the U.S. Air Force in the war. Its main mission was defending bomber formations over Germany. It outperformed and largely destroyed the Luftwaffe, the German air force. The fastest of all piston-planes, the P-51 also served as a light bomber, and reconnaissance aircraft.
The P-51 was the first fighter plane flown by the Allies that had the range to escort bombers to any target in Europe. This dramatically reduced bomber losses, increased losses of German Luftwaffe planes, and made bombing missions much more effective. It had a Rolls Royce engine and six heavy machine guns. Over 15,000 P-51s were produced during the war. The most numerous (and well-known) version of this fighter was the P-51D, with a distinctive bubble canopy and large fuel capacity.
In spring 1940, the British Royal Air Force (RAF), eager to take up President Franklin D. Roosevelt's invitation to use American factories and aeronautical expertise, challenged North American Aviation to build a model in 120 days if it wanted a contract. 117 frantic days later, the design team led by Edgar Schmued rolled out the first prototype. France had just fallen. Britain, standing alone against Hitler, hurriedly ordered 620 planes. After Lend-Lease passed Congress in 1941, the US purchased the planes and gave them to Britain.
The Mustang was a strikingly handsome plane. It boasted a revolutionary new smoothly polished laminar-flow wing that reduced turbulence. It was aerodynamically highly efficient, as demonstrated in wind-tunnel tests at the University of Washington. Fast-acting ailerons gave it a high rate of turn. The self-sealing nonmetallic fuel tank held 184 gallons of high- octane gasoline, giving a radius of action of 300 miles, twice that of other single-engine fighters like the British Hurricanes and Spitfires. (The radius of action is the practical round trip distance, making allowance for takeoff and landing, and time over target.) At low altitude Mustangs handled perfectly. The problem was that the original General Motors Allison V-1700 V-12 cylinder air-cooled engine, at 1550 horsepower, was not powerful enough at high altitudes, where it was outmatched by the Messerschmitt ME- 109. The Mustang was therefore restricted close to the ground. The RAF used them for photographic reconnaissance in 1942. Six or eight machine guns were provided in case some likely ground target appeared. By 1943 the AAF was using 150 Mustangs for reconnaissance, and several hundred as dive bombers in the Mediterranean.
In 1942 the British experimented by replacing the Allison with their own more powerful liquid-cooled Rolls-Royce Merlin supercharged engine; the P-51 suddenly became the fastest single-engined fighter of the time. While it took a great deal of training to handle this "hot" plane properly, it could outperform anything but a jet. The new P-51B and P-51C models could fly 453 mph at 28,800 feet (versus 250 mph that high with the old Allison engines) and could climb to 20,000 feet in 6 minutes instead of 11. Washington now ordered all-out production. With Packard Corporation making the Merlin engine under license, the P-51B started rolling off North American's assembly lines in Los Angeles and Dallas in June, 1943.
Equipped with auxiliary fuel tanks that were jettisoned when empty, the combat radius widened to 850 miles. Mustangs in March, 1944, began escorting B-17 heavy bombers at high altitude to all European targets and back, repelling any Luftwaffe fighters that dared to challenge. Actually shooting down an enemy fighter required rare skills that even the best pilots seldom had. Of the 5,100 fighter pilots who escorted the bombers of the 8th Air Force, only 300 shot down 5 or more planes and became "aces"; however, these 300 aces accounted for half of the 5,300 kills made by escorts.
Some 15,600 P-51s were produced at an average cost of $50,000—versus $80,000 for the bigger Thunderbolt and $150,000 for the B-17. The slower, shorter-range P-47 was already escorting bombers part of the way into Germany; in a reversal of roles, that mission in January 1944 went to the P-51 while the P-47 was assigned to tactical targets on the ground. The Thunderbolt's air-cooled engine was less vulnerable to ground flak; one bullet hole in the plumbing of a water-cooled Merlin engine would drain off the coolant and crash the Mustang. In early 1944 the Mustangs cleared the skies of the Luftwaffe—it was 30-70 mph faster than the Focke-wolfe FW-190 and Messerschmitt ME-109, could climb at the same rate, dive faster, and turn more sharply. From mid-1944, American pilots began wearing the Berger G-suit, which automatically constricted blood flow to the lower body during high rate maneuvers, enabling the pilots to engage in more extreme maneuvers without blacking out. Mustangs claimed 4,950 kills in the air and 4,100 on the ground (plus some V-1s), while losing 2,520 planes in combat. The Messerschmitt 262 jets were faster than the Mustangs, but they were few in number, and suffered from lack of resources due to constrained supply lines. They rarely challenged the Mustangs. Many of the jets were destroyed while they were taking off, landing, or parked on the ground. Luftwaffe boss Herman Goering admitted that when he saw the American bombers over Berlin in March, 1944, escorted by fighters he knew the war was lost.
The Pacific Theater
While the P-51 is most famous for its service in the European theater, several Mustang units served in Asia and the Pacific. The first Mustangs in the theater were assigned to the China-Burma-India front in September 1943. Mustangs also joined the fighting in the Philippines and central Pacific in 1945. The highest scoring Mustang ace of the Pacific theater was Major John "Pappy" Herbst, who shot down 14 Japanese planes while flying the P-51 with the 74th Fighter Squadron at the CBI front. Another notable Mustang pilot in the theater was Medal of Honor winner William Shomo
After the war, the Mustang, along with most other propeller aircraft, was displaced by jets, but a large number served in the Korean War, mainly in ground support missions. The re-designated F-51 was out-performed by the newer jet aircraft, but in 1951, two Mustang pilots shot down the first MiG-15 downed over South Korea. Israeli-piloted Mustangs also served as fighter-bombers in the Suez Crisis. In 1969, F-51s saw action for the last time in the air force of El Salvador, during the brief "Soccer War" with Honduras. One of them was lost in aerial combat with an F4U Corsair.
F-82 Twin Mustang
This plane was a long-range fighter made by combining two lengthened Mustang fuselages with a common wing. The resulting twin-engine, two pilot fighter had a greater speed and longer range than the P-51. The plane was first conceived as a long-range escort fighter for B-29 bombing raids on Japan, but the first planes weren’t delivered until after the Japanese surrender. However, the Twin Mustang saw service as an interceptor in first year of the Korean War. On June 27, 1950, Twin Mustangs flying cover over Kimpo airport scored the first aerial victories of the war for the USAF when they shot down three single-engine Yak-7 fighters for no losses. Some also served as night fighters.
- Bowman, Martin. P-51 Mustang vs Fw 190: Europe 1943-45 (2007) excerpt and text search
- Cooling, Benjamin Franklin ed. Close Air Support (1990) GPO
- Craven, Wesley and James Cate, eds. The Army Air Forces In World War II official history. (1948–55)
- Dibbs, John M. P-51 Mustang (2002) excerpt and text search
- Freeman, Roger A. Mustang at War (1974)
- Futrell, Robert F. The United States Air Force in Korea (1991),
- Goebel, Robert J. Mustang Ace: Memoirs of a P-51 Fighter Pilot (2004) excerpt and text search
- Joineau, Andre. P-51 Mustang: From 1940 to 1980 (2003)
- Ludwig, Paul A. P-51 Mustang: Development of the Long-Range Escort Fighter, (2003)
- McFarland, Stephen L. and Wesley Phillips Newton. To Command the Sky: The Battle for Air Superiority over Germany, 1942-1944 (1991)
- Rowland, Michael D. "Why the U.S. Air Force Did Not Use the F-47 Thunderbolt in the Korean War," Air Power History, Vol. 50, 2003 online edition
- Spire, David N. Air Power for Patton's Army: The 19th Tactical Air Command in the Second World War (2002) online edition
- Wagner, Ray. Mustang Designer: Edgar Schmued and the P-51 (1990)
- Aircraft vs. Aircraft, by Norman Franks, Barnes & Noble Books, 1998
- Weigley, American Way of War p. 342; Mike Spick, The Ace Factor: Air Combat and the Role of Situational Awareness (1988)
- Mustang and Thunderbolt Aces of the Pacific and CBI, by John Stanaway, Osprey Publishing, 1999
- Aces, by William Yenne, 2000
- Suez Crisis, 1956
- The Football War
- The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Combat Aircraft of World War II, by Bill Gunston, Salamander Military Press, 1990
- Rolling Thunder: Jet Combat From World War II to the Gulf War, by Ivan Rendall, Dell Publishing, 1997