The mighty Mustang is without a doubt one of the best known and most popular aircraft of all time. It is known worldwide as one of the great icons of the Second World War. Let us find out why.
Development and variants
During the late 1930s North American Aviation (NAA), a relatively small aircraft manufacturing company, developed the T-6 Harvard, which would ultimately become the world’s most successful training aircraft. The British placed large orders for the type and were so impressed with NAA’s trainers, that the British Purchasing Commission approached NAA to build Curtis P-40 Warhawks for the Royal Air Force (RAF). Even at the beginning of World War II, P-40s were mediocre fighters. NAA insisted that it could build a much more capable fighter for the RAF. After seeing drawings of the proposed fighter’s design, the British placed an order for 320 fighters, called NA-73Xs at that stage. Under the direction of German-born Chief Designer Edgar Schmued and Chief Engineer Ray Rice, the prototype was rolled out in a record-breaking 102 days. The first NA-73X’s maiden flight took place on 26 October 1940 and the results of that test flight were astonishing. The large, aerodynamically clean, new fighter could fly faster and further than any fighter in Europe. The British almost doubled their order and named the fighter the ‘Mustang’, after a song that had become popular during the 1930s.
RAF and Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) Mustangs were quickly pushed into combat in Europe, where they were used successfully in fighter, ground attack and reconnaissance roles. Meanwhile, the U.S. Army Air Force (USAAF) had also placed orders for the Mustang, by then designated the ‘P-51’ (P for Pursuit). The USAAF placed more emphasis on using its Mustangs as ground attack aircraft and even ordered the development of the A-36 Apache, a dedicated dive bombing version of the Mustang.
More than 1 500 Allison powered Mustangs and Apaches were built, but the best was yet to come. Powered by Allison engines, Mustangs preformed brilliantly at low level, but were hopelessly underpowered when flown above 15 000 ft. In 1942, a Rolls-Royce test pilot, Ron Harker, recommended that Mustangs should be powered by Rolls-Royce Merlin engines. This was a pivotal point in the Mustang’s development. Soon, Merlin engines were being produced under licence by Packard in the USA, whilst NAA developed the next Mustang variant, this time powered by a Merlin engine which was not only more powerful than the Allison engine, but also optimised for high altitude performance. The Americans called it the P-51B, whilst the British called it the Mustang III.
In many ways, the P-51D (Mustang Mk IV to the RAF) was the definitive Mustang variant. Visibility from these Mustangs was dramatically increased due to the introduction of ‘bubble canopies’, which were based on canopies used on RAF Spitfires and Typhoons. About 8 000 P-51Ds were built, not counting more than 1 300 P-51Ks, which were identical to P-51Ds, other than the fact that they used different propellers.
Many interesting variants and versions of the Mustang were developed after the Second World War. The most important development was the F-82 Twin Mustang. These heavily armed night fighters consisted of two Mustangs joined together by a wing centre section. Twin Mustangs were powered by Allison engines and became very successful during the initial stage of the Korean War. Later developments during the 1950s, 60s and 70s included the Cavalier Mustang and Piper Enforcer. These were heavily modified Mustangs, designed to participate in counter insurgency operations. The Piper Enforcer featured wing tip external fuel tanks, six under-wing weapon pylons and was powered by a Lycoming turboprop.
World War II combat
Mustangs were first used in combat when the RAF operated them as armed reconnaissance aircraft over France in 1942. These large, yet agile fighters were very successful in low level air-to-air combat and during strike missions. As early as October 1942, Mustangs became the first single engine fighters to fly over Germany. The Americans only started using Mustangs and Apaches in combat in 1943, just after the invasion of North Africa and during the drive through Italy. More Allison-powered Mustangs and Apaches were sent to equip squadrons in the China-Burma-India theatre, where they were outclassed by Japanese fighters. However, with the introduction of Merlin-powered Mustangs, things were about to change.
In 1943, the USAAF Eight Air Force began flying daylight bombing raids over Germany. Although B-17 Flying Fortresses, and eventually B-24 Liberators, were heavily armed, losses were extremely high. German fighters devastated large formations of Allied heavy bombers. The Eighth Air Force desperately required excellent, long range fighter escorts. The Mustang was the answer to that requirement. By the end of 1943, Merlin-powered P-51s were escorting vulnerable bombers deep into enemy territory and conducting fighter sweeps over Europe. Reichsmarschall Herman Goering, who commanded the German Air Force, has been quoted as saying, “The day that I saw Mustangs over Berlin, I knew the war was lost.”
Chuck Yeager, who became famous as the first man to break the sound barrier, was also the first USAAF pilot to become an ace by claiming his first five kills during a single mission. He described his P-51 ‘Glamorous Glen’, which he was flying at the time, as ‘a dogfighter’s dream’ and he felt that it could outmanoeuvre any other fighter that existed. Here is how he described three of the kills that helped him earn ‘ace’ status: “I blew up a 109 from 600 yards (550 m) – my third victory. I turned around and saw another angling in behind me. Man, I pulled back on my throttle so hard I nearly stalled, rolled up and over, came in behind and under him, kicking right rudder and simultaneously firing. I was directly beneath the guy, less than 50 ft, and I opened up that 109 as if it were a can of spam. That made four. A moment later, I shot down another in a steep dive. I pulled up at about 1 000 ft. He went straight into the ground.”
Of course, whilst Merlin-powered Mustangs were instrumental in achieving and maintaining air superiority over Europe, they were used extensively in many other areas. The RAF, for example, used Mustangs along with Spitfires and Typhoons to intercept V-1 rockets launched at England. On the other side of the world, P-51s escorted B-29 Superfortresses over Japan. During some of those missions, Mustangs were required to fly almost 2 500 km per sortie. After World War II, Mustangs remained in service with numerous countries and saw action in several conflicts.
In service with the South African Air Force (SAAF)
5 Squadron was the only unit in the SAAF to operate Mustangs during World War II. The squadron flew many dangerous close support and strike missions in Italy and the former Yugoslavia. Targets such as trains, convoys, aerodromes and artillery positions were often well defended, resulting in high losses for 5 Squadron. Add to that the fact that the Mustang’s Achilles heel had always been its vulnerability to ground fire during strike missions. Nevertheless, under such heavy opposition, the SAAF Mustang pilots performed remarkably well. This month’s gate fold poster features a Mustang III (P-51B) flown by Lt. Tinky Jones. He always flew with his personal emblem, a Zulu shield, painted on the side of the aircraft. As with many pilots, Jones preferred flying the Mustang III, rather than the more modern Mustang IV (P-51D), as the former had a slight speed advantage and handled differently. Tinky Jones also flew Mustangs in Korea and transport aircraft during the Southern African ‘Bush War’.
When the Korean War broke out, the USA sent an initial batch of 145 Mustangs to Japan on an aircraft carrier. Mustangs would be flown against Communist forces by American, South Korean, Australian and South African squadrons. The P-51s, then designated F-51s, were used primarily as close support and ground attack aircraft, although air-to-air kills were recorded. SAAF 2 Squadron ‘Flying Cheetahs’ Mustangs excelled at attacking communication and logistical lines, armoured convoys and other strategic targets. The squadron also participated in rescue operations and conducted reconnaissance flights. However, 2 Squadron’s contribution to the war came at a cost. The squadron lost 34 pilots, whilst 74 Mustangs were either destroyed or written off. In 1953, 2 Squadron’s Mustangs were replaced by F-86 Sabres. That marked the end of an era for piston engine fighters.
The second illustration on this month’s gate fold depicts a 2 Squadron F-51D, which was flown by Lt. P. Maxwell in Korea. That particular aircraft crashed whilst landing in 1952.
The P-51D was powered by a Packard V-1650-7, a licence-built Rolls-Royce Merlin, which produced 1 590 hp. With a wingspan of over eleven metres and a length of almost ten metres, the Mustang was larger than a Bf-109 and about the same size as an FW-190D. Armament consisted of six 12.7 mm machine guns, eight rockets and two 500 lb (227 kg) bombs. The P-51D could reach transonic speeds during steep dives, whilst its maximum speed in level flight was an impressive 380 kts. There was no doubt that the Mustang was a ‘hot’ aircraft, as there were many reports of P-51s reaching incredible speeds during dogfights. Lt. Harold Burt of the USAAF, for example, recalled the following sequence of events, just after destroying a Bf-109. “The Bf-109 went straight in from about 5 000 ft. I followed until it hit the ground and exploded. I pulled out with an indicated airspeed of 650 mph (565 kts) at 500 ft.”
The P-51 Mustang had tremendous range, ruggedness, speed, manoeuvrability and an excellent combat record. Even today, as you read this article, there are more than 150 Mustangs in flying condition, of which many participate in air races. This legendary fighter is undoubtedly one of the greatest aircraft of all time.
This article was written by Divan Muller and was first published in African Pilot Magazine in 2009 - www.africanpilot.co.za