Posts Tagged ‘North American P-51 Mustang’

I can’t believe it’s already October!  This year has rocketed by.  The fall colors, which we suspected would be pretty dismal due to our super-dry summer, have exploded in an array of colors I never would have imagined.  The reds and yellows and oranges are spectacular, offset by skies as blue as azure and temperatures that have been perfect.  We still aren’t getting any precipitation, but this weather has been awesome.

So it’s a bit of a shame that I’m still laid up.  The herniated disk (disc?) continues to frustrate me some, but at this time tomorrow morning (~7:30am), I’ll be heading into surgery.  The surgeon predicts a “LensCrafters” performance (success…in about an hour).  It’s my first time under the knife (not counting wisdom teeth), so I’m a bit nervous, but if they can get things squared away, that would be great.

October 1, 1947.

It was on this day that test pilot George Welch took to the skies in a revolutionary new aircraft.  Well, it was revolutionary for the United States.  The XP-86 was North American Aviation’s first serious jet fighter, and it was the first American jet to be produced with swept wings.  But we got a little help on this one.

North American’s P-51 Mustang was, quite probably, the pinnacle of piston-engine aircraft.  Range, speed, climb, maneuverability, the Mustang had it all.  As the Second World War wound down, it dominated the skies, regardless of theater.  But by 1944, even it’s most ardent fans knew the proverbial writing was on the wall.  Jet power was the wave of the future, as it promised far better performance.  And what’s more, Germany’s Luftwaffe was already putting jet power to use.  The Me-262 and the even faster (though much less practical and less safe) Me-163 entered production before the end of the War, putting the world’s air forces on notice as to what was possible.

So it’s somewhat understandable that the Allied race to Berlin (Russia from the east, the U.S. and Britain from the west) was about more than securing territory and ending the fighting.  Each side, while warring against Germany, was in a battle to capture these German scientists before the other in order to gain a competitive advantage in what was shaping up to be a post-war “falling out of the Allies.”

Back to our story.

North American’s first attempts at jet aircraft involved basically hooking jets up to Mustang wings and airframes.  But even with piston engines, the P-51 had reached the limits of its potential.  The straight wings simply created too much resistance as it was.  There was no way jets could be used.  But the German scientists had figured out several years prior that swept wings allowed for higher performance by greatly reducing drag, and any loss of low-speed stability could be countered by the simple addition of leading-edge slats.

The engineers took these ideas, headed back to the drawing boards, and revamped their design.  The aircraft that took to the skies on this day was the beginning of yet another remarkable product from North American.  Though initially under-powered, the XP-86 would evolve into one of the finest fighters of its generation.  It flew with great distinction in the Korean War as well as dozens of conflicts around the world in the service of other air forces.  There were numerous variants produced, both here and in other countries under license, and they served for years, with the last Sabres being retired from the Bolivian air force in 1994.

The United States Air Force dropped the “P” (for “Pursuit”) designation, replacing it with “F” (for “Fighter”).  So our XP-86 became, in production, the North American F-86 Sabre, and more Sabres were produced (upwards of 10,000) than any other jet-powered U.S. fighter.

And one other thing…

There are unsubstantiated claims that Welch’s first flight also included the first trip beyond the sound barrier…achieved in a shallow dive.

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The North American P-51 Mustang was a plane that very easily could have been relegated to the archives of “also-ran” aircraft.  When we first looked at it almost 18 months ago, we noted that pilots praised its performance at medium altitude.  Fast, nimble, forgiving, and very manueverable, the P-51 was a joy to fly…as long as the altitude didn’t soar.  When it did, the Allison engine, a very capable powerplant, simply ran out of juice, leaving the plane sluggish and unresponsive.

So initial Mustangs were used predominantly in the close-air support (CAS) and reconnaissance roles, and they were very good.  They finished the Second World War with the most bombs delivered per sortie of any fighter-bomber.  But this role presented another weakness, again the result of the engine.  The Allison engine was water-cooled, not air-cooled like radial engines (that powered, say, the P-47 Thunderbolt).  So while they were hard to hit with ground-fire at low altitude, a lucky shot that damaged any part of the radiator or ducting could bring a Mustang down.  This made them vulnerable as dive-bombers, coming in at a fixed angle of attack and maintaining speed until the bombs were dropped.

I suppose it was inevitable that, with the quality of the Mustang’s airframe, someone would suggest a change of powerplant.  In April of 1942, the Chief Test Pilot for Rolls-Royce, Ronald Harker, took an Allison-powered Mustang up for a 30-minute flight.  And after giving it some thought, he sat down with pen and paper on May 1, 1942 and wrote the words that would alter the Mustang’s history forever:  “This aircraft could prove itself a formidable low- and medium-altitude fighter.  It closely resembles the Me 109F, probably due to its being designed by one of the Messerschmitt designers, who is now working for North American Aviation Co. . . . The point which strikes me is that with a powerful and a good engine, like the Merlin 61, its performance could be outstanding, as it is 35mph faster than the Spitfire V at roughly the same power.”

And while Harker got the part about the Messerschmitt engineer wrong, the Rolls-Royce team (the builder of the Merlin engines) agreed with the rest of his assessment, and five aircraft were converted.  What they saw in return was more than just a 4-bladed propeller that replaced one with 3 blades.  They also got a staggering improvement in performance.  Top speed jumped to nearly 440mph (H-models which saw very limited production were 40mph faster yet).  Climb rates improved dramatically.  The Mustang had been transformed from a medium-altitude fighter-bomber to a full-fledged escort fighter.

And the sounds!!  If you’ve never heard a Merlin-powered Mustang, you’ve missed a treat.  I was afforded the chance to see one in a local one-plane airshow many years back (a P-51B), and I still get goosebumps thinking about it…I’ll never forget it.

Anyways, enemy aircraft such as Germany’s Me 109 and Fw-190 were not only equalled, they were bettered.  In the Pacific, the Japanese marks were swatted from the skies with an inevitability that shocks reason.  They stood no chance against the Mustangs.  Exploits like those of Major James Howard were made possible by the mixing of the Merlin engine (from the Spitfire) with the incredible airframe from North American engineer Raymond Rice and designer Edgar Schmued.  At Nuremburg, Hermann Goering testified that when he saw fighters escorting bombers over Berlin, he knew the war was lost.  The fighters he saw were Mustangs.

After the war, Mustangs continued in front-line USAF service until the 1950’s.  By then, jet-powered planes were available, and the days of piston-engined fighters were finished.  But the Mustangs lived on in the National Guard and were used by smaller air forces all over the world into the mid-1970’s.

Today, Mustangs are coveted by pilots and racers all over the world.  Of the more than 16,500 produced, only several hundred remain, of which fewer than 200 are considered flyable.  And those that do fly are maintained by their owners with fanatical care.  Priced at roughly $40,000 in 1940, they now routinely fetch more than $1 million.

Saying anything is “the best” is fraught with peril.  It tends to be subjective and opens a can of worms for an argument.  And there were numerous high-quality planes when the war ended in 1945.  Grumman’s high-powered, high-speed F8F Bearcat.  The Hawker TempestVought’s F4U-Corsair.  The Fw-190D.  Late-edition Spitfires.  All could make a claim.

But I personally consider the Mustang to be the best piston-engined fighter of all time.  It is stunningly beautiful, stunningly fast, and stunningly sonorous.  Years ago, Luke Swann put together a video series called Great Planes, which was picked up by the Discovery Channel in the late 1980’s.  I recorded the Mustang episode and watched it dozens of times…I really wish I still had it.  I can’t remember his exact quote at the end, but in speaking of piston-engined planes, he says something very close to:  “Compare the others to one another.  The Mustang stands alone.”

I completely agree.

And if someone has gobs of money and has no place to spend it, please buy me a P-51D (H- or K-models would suit, too).

Recommended Reading: The Mustang Story

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As the Allied air forces began take the fight to Germany in 1943, they very quickly learned a double-edged lesson.  Operation Gomorrah and individual attacks on the ball-bearing factories at Schwienfurt and the oil fields of Ploesti (ok, Ploesti’s in Romania, not in Germany, but it still works for our example) taught U.S. military planners that heavily-gunned bombers like the B-17 and B-24 were not enough to fight off enemy fighters.  The Flying Fortresses and Liberators each sported nearly a dozen machine guns as protection, yet bomber losses in many of these missions were large.

The second part of the lesson was a corollary to the first…fighter protection for the bombers was essential.  Many bombing raids had fighter escorts for part of the trip to the target and for part of the trip home.  But no fighter in the inventory had the range (even with droptanks) to accompany the bombers all the way to their targets.

P-38’s and P-47’s had to turn back early, and the bombers were left alone at their most vulnerable time, flying straight, level, and at a consistent speed to make their bombing runs.  The Germans were well aware of this issue, and capitalized on it fully, waiting until the bombers were well into Germany before loosing the fighters.

But that was 1943, and 1944 saw some positive developments, at least as far as the American bomber pilots were concerned.  P-51 Mustangs began arriving in the theater in force, and they had the range to go all the way to Germany.  So when Allied planners began laying the groundwork for Operation Argument, they had a new tool in the shed with which to work.

In the Pacific, the Imperial Japanese Navy spent the better part of the war trying to draw out (and defeat) the U.S. Navy in a decisive battle.  Operation Argument was, in a sense, a similar attempt by the Allies to draw out the Germans and destroy their fighter forces with their new long-range escorts.

Operation Argument began on February 20, 1944 and involved a week-long series of large-scale bombing attacks on German airfields and aircraft manufacturing and assembly facilities throughout Germany.  Big Week (as Operation Argument is also known) was a modest strategic success for the Allies, who used more than 3,000 sorties to drop 10,000 tons of bombs, destroying or damaging numerous targets.

But the biggest success was the 75% reduction in bomber losses.  Allied air commanders had discovered a repeatable formula that protected the bombers.  When testifying at Nuremeburg, Luftwaffe Chief Hermann Goering said that when he saw fighters escorting the bombers over Berlin, he knew the war was lost.  Operation Argument was the beginning of that realization.

But here’s that pesky P-51 Mustang again.  A modestly-powerful medium-altitude fighter that is now saving the day for the bombers in high-altitude escort missions.  The calendar of Today’s History Lesson is getting closer to answering the question.

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As Major James Howard climbed into the cockpit of his fighter on January 11, 1944, he was already an ace. He was about to become one all over again.

Howard “grew up” as a pilot in the fledgling carrier wings of the U.S. Navy.  In the late 1930’s, he was aboard the USS Enterprise.  But when Claire Chennault put together his all-volunteer force in Burma in mid-1941, Howard couldn’t resist the lure of immediate action, possible glory, and flying the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk, at that time the best fighter available in the U.S. inventory.  So he left the Navy and joined what became known as the Flying Tigers.  In 50+ missions, Howard was credited with six-and-a-half kills, one (and a half) more than the 5 required to be an ace.

In mid-1942, the Flying Tigers were assimilated into the Army Air Force, and Howard was commissioned as a captain, and promoted in 1943 to major.  It would be as a squadron commander in the 354th Fighter Group that he would become, for a while, a household name.  Which brings us back to January 11th…

Flying escort for a bombing package of B-17 Flying Fortresses, their formation was jumped by a gaggle of German Me-109’s and 110’s.  And while the gunners in the belly of the bombers had their hands full, they were also treated to an aerial spectacle as Howard repeatedly pressed attacks against the enemy.  Even when separated from the rest of his squadron and flying alone, he remained the aggressor.  James Howard was credited with 3 definite kills and 3 probables.

When Frederick Graham published the story a week later in the New York Times, he reported how bomber crews returned to base just gushing about this one guy who, for a short time, was a “one-man air force”.  The leader of the bomber force later said, “For sheer determination and guts, it was the greatest exhibition I’ve ever seen. It was a case of one lone American against what seemed to be the entire Luftwaffe. He was all over the wing, across and around it. They can’t give that boy a big enough award.”  And it would be their eyewitness accounts that not only verified his actions, but upped Howard’s conservative “2 kills and 2 probables” to “3+3”.

The leader of the bomber force was right. Five months later, Howard was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his exploits (shown above with Howard on the right).

And James Howard’s airplane?  Well, his P-51B Mustang landed safely (unlike our comrade Alexander Gorovets) with just one bullet hole.  A pretty awesome result for a modest, tall, skinny kid.

But now intrepid readers will likely recall that, when we last visited the P-51 Mustang (in 1940), she was flying for the first time.  Characterized as a very solid medium-altitude fighter, what was it doing in 1944 as a high-altitude bomber escort, shooting down enemy planes with reckless abandon?  Ah, that is the question…and we’ll answer it in a couple months.

Recommended Reading: The Mustang Story

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In the mid 1930’s, the German Air Force was taking delivery of its primary fighter, the Messerschmitt Bf-109, and it had proven to be a very capable aircraft.  But the Air Ministry was concerned about maintaining its competitive edge.  As Hitler became bolder and the threat of war increased, France and Great Britain began testing and production on advanced aircraft of their own, such as the Dewoitine D.520 and Supermarine Spitfire.

Germany wanted to stay ahead, so they contracted with the Focke-Wulf aviation company to put together a prototype.  Focke-Wulf, the creator of the first true helicopter, had a reputation for ingenuity and innovation and its design leader, Kurt Tank, was well-respected.  Plus, they had the added benefit of not having a major project on which to work.  So they set to it and designed what came to be known as the Fw-190.

First flown on June 1, 1939, the Fw-190 prototype was lauded by test pilots.  It had great power, great speed, great manueverability, strong firepower, and good endurance.  Though it entered service too late to make a difference in the Battle of Britain, the Fw-190A was immediately superior to the Spitfires, as well as the German Bf-109’s at low altitude.

There were a bunch of variants of the 190 that were produced, and they took on nearly every role imaginable, from fighter to attack to close air support and even light bombing.  But I think it’s easiest to break all of them into two basic categories: 190’s with radial engines and those with inline engines.  The former were fitted BMW radial engines and were generally very good performers at low and medium altitudes, but suffered greatly as the fight climbed past 15,000 feet.  To that end, Kurt Tank went to work, modifying the plane and testing various engine configurations.

In the end, an inline engine producing more than 2000 horsepower proved the winning match and was introduced in the Fw-190D models, which were subsequently renamed the Ta152 (“Ta” in honor of Kurt Tank).  While still not fully up to par at high altitude, the new plane was, at medium altitudes, considered superior to all enemy aircraft in Europe, including late-model Spitfires and Merlin-powered Mustangs.  Later variants had even more powerful engines and were among the fastest piston-engined planes produced.

But by this time, Allied bombers and fighters were roaming the skies and destroying German production at will.  So many of the later models came way too late and in too small numbers to really be of any use to the German war effort.

Still, when matched up against the best Allied planes of the day, the Focke-Wulf Fw 190 gave a very good account of itself.  It was certainly the best piston-engined plane built in Germany.  More than 20,000 were produced, more than nearly every other aircraft of the period.

Recommended Reading: Jane’s Fighting Aircraft of World War II

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It’s 1945, it’s Sulphur Island (aka Iwo Jima), and there’s an ugly, nasty, fight-to-the-death battle in progress.  On one side are the 3rd, 4th, and 5th U.S. Marine Divisions, supported by the U.S. Navy and Army Air Force.  Standing in opposition are an estimated 22,000 well-dug-in Japanese soldiers, led by Lt. General Kuribayashi.  The prize is three airfields, critically important to U.S. interests.

B-29 Superfortresses are making 2,800 mile round-trip bombing runs originating from air bases captured in the Marianas (primarily Saipan & Tinian).  It’s no problem for them, but there is no fighter in the inventory (including the relatively economical P-51 Mustang) that can make the entire trip, leaving the bombers without escort for a significant (and very dangerous) portion of the mission.  Iwo Jima’s airfields are less than 800 miles from the Japanese homeland, and present the solution to the fighter escort problem, while giving crippled or malfunctioning bombers an intermediate point of rescue.

The U.S. needs these bases, and Japan knows it well.  The battle for control, begun on February 19th, continues unabated…every foot of land being contested with blood and brutality, no quarter taken, none given.

But today, March 2nd, a breakthrough, a battle won while the war still wages.  Today, the last of the three precious airfields is taken by the Marines.  The slugfest will continue for another three weeks, but by then, bombers will be occupying the airfields, along with the crucial fighter escorts that can now protect the heavies all the way to Japan.

Recommended Reading: Iwo – A terrific read by someone who was there. I love it.
Bonus Recommendation: The Mustang Story – The Mustang is my all-time favorite airplane and this book is one of its more in-depth references. I’m constantly leafing through it.

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