In the fall of 1940, the British were withstanding the Blitz, and Adolf Hitler had already said goodbye to his old love (Operation Sealion…the invasion of Britain) and was flirting with a new interest…the invasion of the Soviet Union. This, to a small degree, gave the island redoubt a bit of rest from her labors and a chance to evaluate her situation…which wasn’t too good.
All alone in Western Europe, she was besting the German onslaught, aided by the strength of her people, the will of her Prime Minister, the tenacity of her pilots, and the quality of the Supermarine Spitfire. But taking the fight to the enemy would require more of all of them, particularly the airplanes. The Spitfires, fighting over Britain, were able to mask the only real shortcoming they had: very short range. Going on the offensive, however, would require more than just defending the homeland.
As improved (read: longer-range) versions of the Spitfire hit the drawing boards, the British turned to America for help. The closest fighter to the Spitfire in the U.S. inventory was the Curtis P-40 Warhawk, an extremely maneuverable but rather slow aircraft. But asking Curtiss to build more Warhawks was impossible as their factory was already at capacity, so the British turned to North American Aviation and asked them to build Warhawks.
North American president James Kindelberger knew an opportunity when he saw one, and responded that he could build a better plane than the P-40 in less time than it took to re-tool to Warhawk production. The British took the bet and ordered more than 300. In an amazing feat of speed and manufacturing prowess, the NA-73X Project (as it was called) produced its first prototype just 117 days after the order was placed. Two months later, on October 26, 1940, that prototype would take to the skies for the first time.
With smooth handling, good maneuverability, and outstanding range, the plane was faster than the Warhawk at all altitudes. What’s more, the advanced aerodynamics of the new mark actually made it faster than the Spitfires at medium altitude, despite a distinct horsepower disadvantage caused by use of the Warhawk’s Allison engine. The British couldn’t help but be pleased that such a quality product could be delivered in such a short time frame. They began taking delivery of the aircraft, giving it the name Mustang. The U.S. Army Air Corps would also purchase a few Mustangs, as their terrific low-level performance made them ideal for ground-attack and reconnaisance roles.
October 26th was a good day for North American Aviation. But the Mustang’s rise was only just beginning and, as we’ll see in the future, developments would turn this “Warhawk replacement” into the finest piston-engined fighter of World War II…and one of the best fighter aircraft of all time.
Recommended Reading: The Mustang Story – The Mustang is my all-time favorite airplane (somebody needs to donate one to me). This book does it justice.