P-51 Mustang: America’s Apex Predator

By Will Dabbs, MD
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P-51 Mustang: America’s Apex Predator

December 31st, 2022

9 minute read

The North American P-51 Mustang is arguably one of the coolest fighter planes ever flown in the United States military. In today’s article, Dr. Will Dabbs invites you to crawl in the cockpit and learn a few things about the classic plane you may not have known. — Editor

When I was an Army Aviator, nothing was cooler than doing airshows. We’d fly in for a long weekend filled with pressing the flesh and a little gratuitous hero worship. The hosts were invariably gracious and the fellowship with other aviators sublime. It’s tough to do something like that and actually claim it’s work.

north american p-51 mustang over england
Silhouetted against the sky, two 500 pound bombs are visible and attached to the sleek underside of a P-51. This Mustang was part of the Eighth Air Force based in England. Image: NARA

Ever since the genesis of manned flight it has always been thus. Cool flying machines invariably draw a crowd. However, there is also great danger to be found there. Most military pilots are, by definition, young, bulletproof and immortal. As a result, there is ever the temptation to push our machines farther than we should for the edification of an adoring public. So it was at a particular English airfield in the lead-up to D-Day.

p-51 mustang rides
The P-51 Mustang was the archetypal World War II American fighter plane. Its iconic lines cut a dashing figure through the skies above Europe and the Pacific. Image: U.S.A.F. Museum

Overlord and the Mustang

Operation Overlord was the largest amphibious invasion in human history. 156,000 Allied soldiers supported by another 195,700 sailors stood poised to breach Festung Europa while hundreds of dedicated combat aircraft kept the peace overhead. However, with all those guys and all those guns, the potential for fratricide was never far from anybody’s mind.

early p-51 mustang variant
This white-nosed North American P-51 is an earlier variant assigned to the U.S. Eighth Air Force. In this photo, it patrols the skies over England. Image: NARA

The Allies would enjoy air superiority over the invasion beaches, but that didn’t mean that a few Axis aircraft might not slip through. As a result, somebody decided it would be a good idea to introduce ground troops to the most common American close support aircraft that they might encounter once they hit the beaches. It was hoped that by letting the G.I.’s see them up close, they might hesitate to shoot if they spotted one of these friendly machines flying over in the combat zone.

p-51 in italy with mount vesuvius
A P-51 C sits on the runway at Castel Volturno, Italy with smoke rising from Mount Vesuvius in the background. Image: NARA

The concept of the operation was for one example of each aircraft included to be dispatched from their squadrons to a large British airbase. Several tens of thousands of ground troops would be trucked to the site to paw over the planes and then watch a quick aerial demonstration. The basic idea was quite sound.

p-51 mustang with invasion stripes
This North American P-51 was photographed as it peels off during heavy bomber escort mission. Note the invasion stripes that were applied to many Allied planes starting in June 1944. Image: NARA

The leadership at each of these squadrons was busy planning for the invasion, so they dispatched brand-new Second Lieutenant aviators on the mission. These young pilots knew where to report and when but had no further guidance. They had never met before.

tuskegee airman p-51
These P-51 pilots are engaged in conversation next to one of their P-51 Mustangs. Members of the 332nd Fighter Group, these Tuskegee Airmen fought the National Socialists in Italy. Image: NARA

Once on the ground the three pilots held a confab. They were all the same rank, and their specific command guidance was sparse. The P-51 Mustang driver was purportedly a short man who was quite full of himself. He immediately took charge and began issuing orders. They would knock out the static portion of the day and then take off in series.

miss eto
Lt George W. Jones stands with Cpl Ruby Newell. Jones named his plane “Miss E.T.O.” after Newell who had been voted the “prettiest WAC in the Eighth Air Force.” Image: NARA

He would then put on an impromptu aerobatic display above the runway for the accumulated troops while the others loitered nearby waiting their turn to do likewise. They would coordinate cycling in and out of the airspace via radio. The other drivers had no issues with the plan, so they played along.

All went swimmingly right up until the Mustang did an extreme low pass right over the runway centerline. The P-51 pilot pulled up hard at the end of the tarmac into a beautiful vertical climb. He then laid the plane on its back to describe a loop intending to level out essentially where he started. He rightfully assumed the crowd would go wild.

p-51 escorting b-17 bombers
P-51 Mustangs frequently flew bomber escort missions. This P-51 is one of several Mustangs covering a B-17 formation flying out of England. Image: NARA

Alas, military aviation can be terribly unforgiving of stupidity. The Mustang driver misjudged his altitude in the loop and ran out space for the pull out, splashing his plane and himself into a zillion tiny little bits amidst a massive fireball of conflagrating avgas. Thankfully no one was injured on the ground.

p-51 in the snow in england
This North American P-51 sits in the English snow in early 1945. Image: NARA

The other pilots felt that little else could be done to add to the event and, after a brief conference over the radio, wisely just headed home. The accumulated troops returned to their staging areas and did indeed ultimately wrest Europe back from the clutches of a madman. I’m sure the family of the over-zealous P-51 pilot got a somber but sincere letter from his exasperated CO.

The P-51

While the P-51 Mustang was not necessarily the most capable piston-driven fighter aircraft of World War II, it was indeed fast, fuel-efficient and deadly. However, many German fighters packed more firepower, and a few of them were faster both in level flight as well as in the climb.

flight of p-51 mustangs escorting a us bomber
Yellow-nosed North American P-51s form up as they climb to altitude over England. This mission was to escort a group of U.S. bombers over the ETO. Image: NARA

What the Mustang had that the Axis could not hope to match was numbers, along with exquisitely well-trained pilots. By the war’s end, American industry had built some 15,000 copies of the nimble little plane. Mustangs accounted for 4,950 downed enemy aircraft. Produced by North American Aviation, the esteemed P-51 nonetheless had a rocky start.

major sam brown in cockpit of p-51
Major Sam J. Brown sits in the cockpit of his P-51 Mustang. Flying in Italy, Maj. Brown downed a number of the enemy as indicated by the swastikas painted on his plane. Image: NARA

In 1940, the British were starving for fighter aircraft. The British Purchasing Commission led by Sir Henry Self scoured the U.S. aviation industry looking for a suitable combat plane that could be produced in America and deployed for RAF service in Europe both in quantity and in a hurry.

guns and ammo in p-51 mustang
These men carry the six .50-caliber machine guns used in the P-51 Mustang. The cartridge belts shown are only 1/6 of the total loaded before a mission. Image: NARA

At the time the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk was essentially the only show in town, and P-40 production was already maxed out meeting American requirements. As a result, Sir Henry approached North American about producing a fresh new design from scratch. The original discussions orbited around a series of drawings scrawled freehand on a piece of paper.

p-51 ordnance payload
This photo shows the ordnance that could be loaded on a P-51 Mustang. Image: NARA

The first prototype titled the NA-73X rolled out of the factory a mere 102 days after the order had been inked. This radical plane incorporated such advanced features as low-drag laminar-flow airfoils for exceptional performance at high speeds and an unusual single ducted radiator for both oil and engine coolant.

loading a bomb on the p-51
Trigger warning for OSHA employees: Cpl. Lloyd Shumway directs a crane while riding a 500-pound bomb into place on a P-51 wing. Image: NARA

This design took advantage of the Meredith Effect wherein ram air through the radiator provided just a bit of jet thrust to the airframe. Those early machines were armed with a pair of Browning fifties in the engine cowling and four .30-caliber guns in the wings. They were powered by Allison engines similar to those found in the P-38 and P-40.

p-51 armorer with browning 50 caliber machine gun
During the Italian campaign, this armorer removed one of the .50-caliber machine guns from a P-51 for maintenance. Image: NARA

The resulting plane had much to commend it, but performance fell off badly above 15,000 feet. As the RAF needed a fighter that could hold its own with the Luftwaffe at high altitudes, this was potentially a show-stopper. The answer came from a Rolls Royce test pilot named Ronald Harker. He suggested they fit the Rolls Royce Merlin engine from the Spitfire Mk IX to the new airframe and see how she flew. The resulting hybrid plane could reach 440 mph at 28,000 feet, breathtaking performance for its day.

p-51 repairs
This P-51 undergoes repairs at Manston Air Base on the Dover Coast in England. Image: NARA

The American Packard Company began producing Merlin engines under license from Rolls Royce, and the whole world moved just a little bit. The original A, B and C-model Mustangs evolved into the definitive D-model with its distinctive bubble canopy, and North American started churning them out day and night. The final operational versions fitted half a dozen AN/M2 fifty-caliber guns in the wings.

Impressions of the Fighter

The Mustang’s sexy lines and impressive performance create a timeless allure. The P-51 that Tom Cruise flew at the end of the latest Top Gun movie actually belongs to him. He originally christened it Kiss Me Kate back when he was married to Katie Holmes. I suspect he calls it something else these days.

p-51 mustangs escorting b-29 bombers over iwo jima
These P-51 fighters escort a group of B-29 Superfortress bombers over Iwo Jima. Image: NARA

Though I have never had the pleasure myself, I am told that the Mustang is pure joy to fly. The plane has ample power and rolls faster than a Spitfire. However, the Mustang’s turning radius was not quite as tight as was that of the British Spit, the Bf-109 Messerschmitt, or the FW-190 Focke Wulf. The laminar flow wing had its own eccentricities, but the P-51 was a generally stable and forgiving machine.

escort flight of p-51 mustangs
A group of P-51 Mustang fighters had to be a reassuring sight for the crews of Flying Fortresses over Europe.

In addition to pure numbers, when equipped with drop tanks the Mustang enjoyed a simply breathtaking range. It was the P-51 that allowed fighter escorts to remain with attacking heavy bombers all the way to their targets in Germany and back.

james fisk examines damage to his p-51
Lt James T. Fisk examines the damage his P-51 received during a mission against the Germans over Italy. He stands where a large part of his wing had been prior to being hit by flak. Image: NARA

Luftwaffe commander Herman Goering purportedly acknowledged to close friends that the war was over the day he saw Mustangs in the skies above Berlin. Nimble, fast, deadly and cool, the Mustang was a critical part of the Allied victory during World War II.

Special thanks to www.flyaspitfire.com for their support with this project.

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Will Dabbs, MD

Will Dabbs, MD

Will was raised in the Mississippi Delta and has a degree in Mechanical Engineering. After eight years flying Army helicopters, he left the military as a Major to attend medical school. Will operates an Urgent Care clinic in his small Southern town and works as the plant physician for the local Winchester ammunition plant. He is married to his high school sweetheart, has three adult children, and has written for the gun press for a quarter century.

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