The North American Aviation P-51 Mustang was the most successful aircraft of WWII. It was specifically created to be fast, maneuverable, and fly at long range. It was the first single engine fighter aircraft in Great Britain that was able to escort bombers to Germany. The P-51 Mustang is also credited with shooting down 4,950 enemy aircraft during the war. The fighter plane may not have been made as we know it today, without the pioneering spirit of North American Aviation’s President, James “Dutch” Kindelberger.
The idea for the P-51 Mustang was realized while the Royal Air Force (RAF) was in search of a manufacturer for another aircraft. The Curtiss P-40 Tomahawk was the only American fighter aircraft that fit RAF requirements. The Royal Air Force asked North American Aviation if they could manufacture the P-40 Tomahawk under license from Curtiss. Dutch Kindelberger responded by offering to build a new fighter aircraft that used the same engine (Allison V-1710).
The Royal Air Force agreed, expecting a prototype within 120 days. The stipulations required the aircraft to cost less than $40,000 USD, use the Allison V-1710 engine, contain armaments for 4 machine guns, and meet the 120 day delivery deadline. The North American Aviation aircraft featured a new cooling arrangement and aerodynamic wings.
The first aircraft designed in North America with the laminar airfoil design was the P-51 Mustang. The laminar flow wing differs from a traditional airfoil because the maximum thickness of the structure is in the middle camber line. This design allows for smoother air flow over a larger percentage of the wing at high speeds (minimizing drag).
The technology had been available before conception of the P-51 Mustang, but manufacturers had been hesitant to use it. The laminar airfoil required a perfectly smooth surface. Rough airfoil surfaces would break the airflow, leading to turbulence. North American Aviation filled and painted the wing to ensure the airflow would not be disrupted.
The Royal Air Force placed an order for the new aircraft, designated the North American Mustang Mark I. Under the Lend-Lease policy (program during WWII where the US gave vessels and materials to allied nations on lend), the UK received variants of the Mustang. The aircraft were used for tactical reconnaissance and ground attack. The Royal Air Force found that the planes performed poorly at high altitude. The Mustangs were used to combat Nazi cruise missile sites.
The USAAF had the P-51 Mustang in mind for accompanying bombers to Germany. The Mustang was considered over other aircraft because of its long range. Concerns arose due to the power decrease in the engine above 15,000 feet. The altitude limitations on the engine made the Mustang a bad choice for bomber escort. Luckily, Stanley Hooker of Rolls-Royce suggested that the USAAF swap the engine to a Merlin.
After the new engine was introduced, the P-51 Mustang was able to fly at high altitude. Along with the engine swap, North American Aviation added a fuselage fuel tank. Many of the USAAF groups swapped to the Mustang. The plane easily out-performed the Focke-Wulf Fw 190A in use by the Luftwaffe (German Air Force), and was able to hold its own with the Messerschmitt Bf 109.
The USAAF decided to use the P-51 Mustang to achieve air supremacy, targeting as many Luftwaffe aircraft as possible during missions. The strategy worked, Luftwaffe numbers fell by 17% in one week. Eventually, Luftwaffe air bases weren’t targeted because there weren’t enough pilots left.
The P-51 Mustang was introduced to the Pacific theater near the end of the war. Many attribute this to the strong need for the Mustang in Europe, leaving none available until 1944 to be used in te Pacific. It was used for bomber escort during missions over Japan. Reports indicate that the P-51 looked similar to the Kawasaki Ki-61, at times this could help or hinder operations.
The P-51 Mustang is luckily quite easy to find if you want to see one in person. The US has many Mustangs that are still operational, and even more that are on display. The predominant variation is the P-51-D. Planes of Fame in Chino, California has the only airworthy P-51A available for public view. The Crawford Auto Aviation Collection in Cleveland, Ohio has the P-51K, one of the last Mustangs. The Collings Foundation hosts the Wings of Freedom Tour at multiple locations in the US. The Collings Foundation offers flight experiences in WWII aircraft, including the Mustang.