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P-51 Mustang Fighter Plane - Icon

P-51 Mustang

Colin Ryan
Feb 25, 2009 SHARE
Epcp_0902_01_z+P_51_Mustang+fighter_plane Photo 1/1   |   P-51 Mustang Fighter Plane - Icon

*World War II had just started. Britain needed more fighter planes and was looking to the USA. The Curtiss P40 Warhawk seemed attractive, but the Curtiss facility was already working at full capacity. So the Brits asked James H. "Dutch" Kindelberger of North American Aviation (NAA) to produce it at his plant in Inglewood, Calif.

His reply was that, in the 120 days it would take to tool up, he could offer an all-new machine that would fly faster, higher and farther, with greater maneuverability and firepower. This was an ambitious claim, but NAA had already proved its worth by supplying the Harvard trainer to the British military, so Kindelberger got the AOK. The Royal Air Force (RAF) was looking for something exactly like this. Its strategy was to conduct a campaign of bombing raids on Germany, but the fighter plane escorts that protected the big bombers against enemy attack didn't have the range. They could fly as far as the German border and then had to turn back, leaving the bombers vulnerable. The subsequent losses were unsustainable. Edgar Schmued was put in charge of the design team and after 78,000 man-hours and 102 days, an engine-less, unpainted prototype was completed; 18 days later, it was fitted with an Allison V-1710-39 engine (making about 1,100 hp). On October 26, 1940, test pilot Vance Breese took the plane for its maiden flight. The name of the person responsible for calling it the Mustang has not been recorded, but it was someone working within the British bureaucracy.

Despite a conventional (for the time) appearance, the Mustang sported two new features-a new low-drag wing designed by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), and an innovative cooling design with the characteristic belly scoop and a feature where hot air exiting from the radiator acted as a form of jet thrust (known as the Meredith Effect, named after a British aerodynamicist). However, the Allison engine was found to be wanting at high altitudes. In April 1942, a British test pilot, Ronald Harker, suggested an engine swap with the Rolls-Royce Merlin V12 that powered the Spitfire and Hurricane. This change transformed the Mustang and unlocked its full potential. A Merlin-equipped Mustang could hit a top speed of 440 mph at 30,000 feet, 100 mph faster than an Allison-engined model. The Packard luxury car company was tasked to produce Merlins under license at its Detroit factory. Early versions made 1,400 hp, but power grew to 1,900 hp during the course of its development. Taking off and landing could be tricky, but in the words of fighter ace Clarence "Bud" Anderson, the Mustang "was pleasant and forgiving to fly... it could turn on a dime. Best of all, it went like hell.

"The Merlin had great gobs of power and was equally at home high or low, thanks to a two-stage, two-speed supercharger. We sensed it was special, even before we measured it against what the enemy pilots were flying." A fuel tank was installed in the fuselage behind the pilot, and with auxiliary wing-mounted tanks the Mustang could fly six-hour missions-something unheard of at the time. It could now go where any bomber went. NAA opened a second facility in Dallas, Texas, eventually producing 857 planes a month. Further revisions and model designations brought the Mustang to its most iconic version-the P-51D. This was the plane with a plexiglass bubble canopy (for better rearward visibility) and six Browning .50-caliber machine guns. June 1943: Allied chiefs of staff issued the Pointblank Directive to destroy the Luftwaffe, a crucial objective. The Mustang's range and capabilities made it an important factor for the success of missions carried out with USAAF bombers and for achieving dominance in the skies. The most successful squadron of WWII P-51 flyers was the 357th, with 609 air and 106 ground kills from February 11, 1944, to April 25, 1945. Top aces were George Preddy with 25 kills, John C. Meyer with 24 and Don Gentile with 23. Other famous aviators linked with the P-51 include the Tuskegee Airmen-the first African American fighter pilots-and the legendary Chuck Yaeger.

The final production Mustang was the P-51H, which had a maximum of 2,218 hp in a lighter airframe and was capable of 487 mph at 25,000 feet, making it one of the fastest prop fighter planes ever. In total, 15,875 Mustangs were made, with around 8,000 of those being P-51Ds. Approximately 280 Mustangs survive to this day, with around 140 still flying. Although the plane's primary theater was Europe, it also took part in combat against the Japanese. The plane went on to see some active service in the Korean War, re-named as the F-51 (P stands for Pursuit; F stands for Fighter).

A Mustang cost $50,985 in 1945. Today, airworthy examples can fetch in excess of $1 million. And yes, that famous Ford is named after it.

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By Colin Ryan
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