The P-51 Mustang is undoubtedly one of the most recognized fighter planes to emerge from World War II. A supreme machine, particularly in the matter of high speed and maneuverability, certainly a leading candidate for the best-all-around-fighter of WWII, and definitely the best long-range escort fighter of its era, its conception and origin alone is an intriguing history.
With the outbreak of WWII, the British RAF approached North American Aviation (NAA) for an emergency order of Curtiss P-40 Warhawks. Since Curtiss had insufficient capacity to meet the urgent requirements for production, NAA was approached to build the P-40 under license for the RAF.
“Dutch” Kindelberger, the head of NAA, convinced the RAF that his company could have a superior fighter in production in less time than it would require to gear up for the P-40. A design team, headed by Chief Designer Edgar Schmued and Chief Engineer Raymond Rice, was able to deliver the prototype NA-73X in a remarkable 102 days. It was first flown on October 26, 1940.
In order to satisfy the RAF, Curtiss had to turn over some of its own early design work, and the wind tunnel test results of its revolutionary new fighter, the P-46, to NAA. To this day, much controversy centers around how much of this preliminary Curtiss design work was incorporated into the final NA-73X prototype. Regardless, NAA was able to design a plane that was extremely advanced in both structure and aerodynamics.
The adoption of a revolutionary laminar flow wing (which provided less drag at high speeds), an underbelly radiator scoop and novel radiator system (that gave it additional thrust and sleek aerodynamic design) made the P-51 performance outstanding in all respects, and its flying qualities superb. It was powered by the 1,110 hp Allison V-1710 engine and a 3-bladed prop, which provided ample power below 15,000 ft.
Yet, it was the adaption by the RAF to the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine that provided an ideal complement to the P-51, and was to bring the Mustang to fruition as an all-around fighter par excellence. At low altitude, the Allison and Merlin were comparable but, at high altitude, the Merlin, with its excellent two-stage, two-speed supercharger allowed an ability to perform well up to 41,900 feet, achieving a speed of 440 mph. This combination of a 4-bladed prop, Merlin engine, a slick aerodynamic design, and six 50-caliber machine guns produced the superior, winning Allied fighter of WWII.
The definitive Mustang was the P-51 D which was powered by the Merlin V-1650-3 or -7, able to produce 1720 hp. In 1941, Packard Motors was licensed to build the Merlin engines for both the US and Britain, and over 55,000 were produced during the war. Also introduced with the D Model was a clear “bubble top” canopy that offered an outstanding field of vision. Of over 15,000 P-51s produced, more than half of these were the P-51D Model.
The Mustang’s extreme range and ability at high altitude made it a natural as a bomber-escort and fighter in the European theater. It eventually replaced both the P-47 Thunderbolt and the P-38 Lightning in this capacity. Its combination of speed, maneuverability and range made it not only the most popular, but also the most effective fighter over Europe in the last two years of the war. In the European Theater alone, the P-51 destroyed over 4,950 enemy aircraft in the air.
In the broad Pacific Theater, the P-51 Mustang’s extreme range made it a natural bomber-fighter escort choice there as well. The 7th Air Force Mustangs based at Iwo Jima were the first fighters to operate over the Japanese home islands, while the 5th Air Force Mustangs scourged the skies over the Philippines. In the Philippines, William Shomo earned the only Medal of Honor given to a Mustang pilot in the Pacific, by downing seven Japanese planes in a single mission.
When the Korean War began, the Mustang was the primary fighter for the United Nations until such fighters as the F-86 assumed this role. Thus, the P-51 Mustang fittingly became one of the final links between the piston-driven engine combat aircraft of the past, and the jet revolution of the future.
Without question, the P-51 Mustang was one of the finest fighters to see service during World War II.