The North American Aviation (NAA) P-51 Mustang had cemented its legacy as one of the world’s finest all-around piston-engine fighters when it first came about in World War II. Its induction into the Allied forces played a pivotal role in defeating the ruthless Nazi Germans and, eventually, the rest of the Axis powers.
Before its successful reign in the skies, however, the Mustang had been shunned many times by the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF)—initially refusing to see its strong potential to become a significant centerpiece that could lead them to victory. Due to the delay in its adoption and mass production, thousands of young airmen succumbed to their deaths in aviation bloodbaths over Europe. According to some Air Force historians, the P-15 delay “came close to representing the costliest mistake made by the AAF in World War II.”
Fortunately for the Allied forces, this hasn’t been the case, all thanks to a man who discovered and believed in the Mustang’s capabilities of becoming a reliable, deadly fighter escort to bombers.
P-51’s Inception and Fight for Production
A single-seat, single-engine fighter aircraft, the P-51 is a brainchild of NAA Chief Designer J.H. “Dutch” Kindleberger for the British Royal Air Force (RAF).
The year was 1940, and Kindleberger and his team were looking into making a new jet fighter from scratch rather than producing another Curtiss P-40 Warhawk under license. With notes on the mediocre performance of preceding aircraft taken into consideration, the team came up with what the Brits dubbed as Mustang, powered by a Rolls-Royce Merlin engine that could soar at a maximum speed of well over 400 miles per hour and an impressive endurance with a range of at least 2,000 miles. Sporting a Duralumin alloy, the Mustang quickly proved to be a silver bullet of a plane during flight tests. It turns out that the Merlin engine improved the aircraft’s overall performance, particularly at high altitudes, which most current fighters lacked at the time.
It has an overall measure of 32 feet in length and 37 feet in wingspan and is typically armed with two .50-caliber nose-mounted and four .30-caliber wing-mounted machine guns with a maximum load of up to 2,000 lbs of bombs or at least ten 5-inch rockets. One later version had four 20mm cannons, while another ground-attack/dive bomber version (dubbed the “A-36 Mustang/Apache/Invader”) served for the USAAF.
Dark Obstacles and Its Dramatic Arrival in USAAF
Air raids and assaults by Allies forces, particularly conducted by the USAAF aircraft over Germany, had seen little to no success because of the Third Reich Luftwaffe‘s premier fighters, who dominated the skies at that time.
Bombarding efforts conducted during the summer and autumn of 1943 had been less productive as neither of the USAAF’s fighter plane models could match the Luftwaffe’s, leaving the massive B-17 Flying Fortresses exposed and vulnerable. This has taken a toll on the reputable Eight Air Force (also known as the “Mighty Eight”) as they have suffered a staggering loss on both warplanes and airmen.
“For all its world-beating qualities, this silver bullet of a plane would initially be shunted aside by the U.S. Army Air Forces.” via Military History Now.
At this point, blueprints of the Mustang have already been lying around, waiting for manufacture. But according to historical accounts, the USAAF “refused to put it into mass production,” as the reason varied from lock-on patriotism to unwavering belief in the invincibility of the bomber Fortress to political favorites and more. The drama surrounding it almost buried the Mustang into a worthless mule.
A world-famous polo star and a former fighter pilot finally stepped forward upon discovering the potential of the North American warplane. Lt. Col. Thomas J. Hitchcock Jr championed the adaptation of the P-51 Mustang shortly after witnessing the remarkable testing of the P-51A airframe fitted with the Rolls-Royce Merlin 61 engine.
Hitchcock, who served as the assistant air attaché at the U.S. Embassy in London, then reported to Washington the outstanding performance of the Mustang and recommended its immediate development. A visionary, he also predicted that the Merlin-powered Mustang would soar to become a supreme air fighter of 1943—and he was right.
Soon after his recommendations, the USAAF promptly placed an order for approximately 2,200 P-51Bs, with its arrival could not have come at a better time. As mentioned, fighter planes played a key role in air raids as they served as escorts and protected bombers against frenzied ambushes. With the arrival of the Mustang, it can now compete, if not surpass, the German warplanes that had been pestering the previous jet fighters.
Six months before D-Day, the Mustang, combined with new aggressive tactics, had steadily shifted the power balance in the air war in favor of the Allies. It had significantly crippled the Luftwaffe and allowed an opening to the Normandy invasion by mid-1944.
Hitchcock sadly did not live to see the rose of the P-51 Mustang to air supremacy and its successful operations as daylight bombing escorts over the Nazi capital, as he died in a test flight in April 1944 aboard a newly revamped Mustang in rural England.
According to historians, the American Merlin-powered warplane shot down about 5,000 German fighters in the air and 4,000 on the ground throughout the Second World War, destroying almost half of the enemy-owned aircraft.