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North American P-51 Mustang | by Alex Drennan
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North American P-51 Mustang

North American Aviation P-51 Mustang was an American long-range single-seat World War II fighter aircraft. Designed and built in just 117 days, the Mustang first flew in Royal Air Force (RAF) service as a fighter-bomber and reconnaissance aircraft before conversion to a bomber escort, employed in raids over Germany, helping ensure Allied air superiority from early 1944. The P-51 was in service with Allied air forces in Europe and also saw limited service against the Japanese in the Pacific War. The Mustang began the Korean War as the United Nations' main fighter, but was relegated to a ground attack role when superseded by jet fighters early in the conflict. Nevertheless, it remained in service with some air forces until the early 1980s.

As well as being economical to produce, the Mustang was a fast, well-made, and highly durable aircraft. The definitive version, the P-51D, was powered by the Packard V-1650, a two-stage two-speed supercharged version of the legendary Rolls-Royce Merlin engine, and was armed with six .50 caliber (12.7 mm) M2 Browning machine guns.

After World War II and the Korean War, many Mustangs were converted for civilian use, especially air racing. The Mustang's reputation was such that, in the mid-1960s, Ford Motor Company's Designer John Najjar proposed a new youth-oriented coupe automobile be named after the fighter

At the Casablanca Conference, the Allies formulated the Combined Bomber Offensive (CBO) plan for "round-the-clock" bombing by the RAF at night and the USAAF by day. American pre-war bombardment doctrine held that large formations of heavy bombers flying at high altitudes would be able to defend themselves against enemy interceptors with minimal fighter escort, so that precision daylight bombing using the Norden bombsight would be effective.

Both the RAF and Luftwaffe had attempted daylight bombing and discontinued it, believing advancements in single-engine fighters made multi-engined bombers too vulnerable, contrary to Giulio Douhet's thesis. The RAF had worried about this in the mid-1930s and had decided to produce an all night-bomber force, but initially began bombing operations by day. The Germans used extensive daylight bombing during the Battle of Britain in preparation for a possible invasion. Due to the high casualty rates, the Luftwaffe soon switched to night bombing (see The Blitz). Bomber Command followed suit in its raids over Germany.

Initial USAAF efforts were inconclusive because of the limited scale. In June 1943, the Combined Chiefs of Staff issued the Pointblank Directive to destroy the Luftwaffe before the invasion of Europe, putting the CBO into full implementation. The 8th Air Force heavy-bomber force conducted a series of deep-penetration raids into Germany beyond the range of available escort fighters. German fighter reaction was fierce, and bomber losses were severe—20% in an October 14 attack on the German ball-bearing industry. This made it too costly to continue such long-range raids without adequate fighter escort.

The Lockheed P-38 Lightning had the range to escort the bombers, but was available in very limited numbers in the European theater due to its Allison engines proving difficult to maintain. With the extensive use of the P-38 in the Pacific Theater of Operations, where its twin engines were deemed vital to long-range "over-water" operations, nearly all European-based P-38 units converted to the P-51 in 1944. The Republic P-47 Thunderbolt was capable of meeting the Luftwaffe on more than even terms, but did not at the time have sufficient range. The Mustang changed all that. In general terms, the Mustang was at least as simple as other aircraft of its era. It used a single, well-understood, reliable engine and had internal space for a huge fuel load. With external fuel tanks, it could accompany the bombers all the way to Germany and back.

Enough P-51s became available to the 8th and 9th Air Forces in the winter of 1943-44, and, when the Pointblank offensive resumed in early 1944, matters changed dramatically. The P-51 proved perfect for the task of escorting bombers all the way to the deepest targets, thus complementing the more numerous P-47s until sufficient Mustangs became available. The Eighth Air Force immediately began to switch its fighter groups to the Mustang, first exchanging arriving P-47 groups for those of the 9th Air Force using P-51s, then gradually converting its Thunderbolt and Lightning groups until, by the end of the year, 14 of its 15 groups flew the Mustang.

Luftwaffe Experten were confident that they could out-manoeuvre the P-51 in a dogfight. Kurt Bühlingen, the third-highest scoring German fighter pilot of the Second World War on the Western Front, with 112 victories, later recalled that "We would out-turn the P-51 and the other American fighters, with the (Bf)109 or the (Fw)190. Their turn rate was about the same. The P-51 was faster than us but our munitions and cannon were better”. Robert S. Johnson, the second-highest scoring U.S. fighter pilot in European theatre flew the P-47 against German fighters. Johnson pointed out “Generally speaking, I’d say the best (Focke-Wulf) 190s and the P-51 were very close in performance; the difference was probably in the pilot in these combats.”

Usually Luftwaffe pilots attempted to avoid U.S. fighters by massing in huge numbers well in front of the bombers, attacking in a single pass, then breaking off the attack, allowing escorting fighters little time to react. The need to inflict heavy casualties on the American bombers was now more pressing than ever. To do this, the German fighters needed to carry very heavy armament. The weight of this armament decreased performance to the point where their aircraft were sitting ducks if caught by the P-51s, likely to appear in large numbers anywhere over Germany. The Luftwaffe answer was the Gefechtsverband (battle formation). It consisted of a Sturmgruppe of heavily armed and armoured Fw 190s escorted by two Begleitgruppen of light fighters, often Bf 109Gs, whose task was to keep the Mustangs away from the Fw 190s attacking the bombers. This scheme was excellent in theory but difficult to apply in practice. The massive German formation took a long time to assemble and was difficult to manoeuvre. It was often intercepted by the escorting P-51s and broken before reaching the bombers. But when the Sturmgruppe worked, the effects were devastating. With their engines and cockpits heavily armoured, the Fw 190s attacked from astern and gun camera films show that these attacks were often pressed to within 100 yds.

While not always successful in avoiding contact with the escort (as the tremendous loss of German pilots in the spring of 1944 indicates), the threat of mass attacks, and later the "company front" (eight abreast) assaults by armored Sturmgruppe Fw 190s, brought an urgency to attacking the Luftwaffe wherever it could be found. The P-51, particularly with the advent of the K-14 gunsight and the development of "Clobber Colleges" for the in-theater training of fighter pilots in fall 1944, was a decisive element in Allied countermeasures against the Jagdverbände.

Beginning in late February 1944, 8th Air Force fighter units began systematic strafing attacks on German airfields that picked up in frequency and intensity throughout the spring, with the objective of gaining air supremacy over the Normandy battlefield. In general, these were conducted by units returning from escort missions, but beginning in March, many groups also were assigned airfield attacks instead of bomber support. On 15 April, VIII FC began Operation Jackpot, attacks on specific Luftwaffe fighter airfields, and on 21 May, these attacks were expanded to include railways, locomotives, and rolling stock used by the Germans to transport materiel and troops, in missions dubbed "Chattanooga".The P-51 also excelled at this mission, although losses were much higher on strafing missions than in air-to-air combat, partially because, like other fighters using liquid-cooled engines, the Mustang's coolant system could be punctured by small arms hits, even from a single bullet.

The numerical superiority of the USAAF fighters, superb flying characteristics of the P-51 and pilot proficiency helped cripple the Luftwaffe's fighter force. As a result, the fighter threat to US, and later British bombers, was greatly diminished by July 1944. Reichmarshal Hermann Göring, commander of the German Luftwaffe during the war, was quoted as saying, "When I saw Mustangs over Berlin, I knew the jig was up

P-51s also distinguished themselves against advanced enemy rockets and aircraft. A P-51B/P-51C with 150 octane fuel was fast enough to pursue the V-1s launched toward London. The Messerschmitt Me 163 rocket interceptors and Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighters were considerably faster than the P-51, but were not as maneuverable as the Mustang, and as all aircraft are, were vulnerable on take-off and landing. Chuck Yeager, flying a P-51D, was one of the first American pilots to shoot down a Me 262 when he surprised it during its landing approach. On 7 October 1944, Lt. Urban Drew of the 365th Fighter Group went him one better. During a fighter sweep, he surprised and shot down two Me 262s taking off. On the same day, Hubert Zemke, now flying Mustangs, shot down what he thought was a Bf 109, only to have his gun camera film reveal it to be an Me 262.[48] On 1 November 1944, the Mustang pilots once again demonstrated that the threat could be contained with numbers. While flying as escorts for B-17s, the 20th Fighter Group was attacked by a lone Me 262, which destroyed a solitary P-51. The Me 262 then attempted to attack the bombers, only to be cut off by a mixed formation of P-51s and P-47s. The fighter groups competed for the kill. Eventually, a P-47 pilot of the 56th, and Mustang pilots Lts. Gerbe and Groce of the 352nd Fighter Groups, shared the kill.

By 8 May 1945, the 8th, 9th and 15th Air Forces' P-51 groups claimed some 4,950 aircraft shot down (about half of all USAAF claims in the European theater), the most claimed by any Allied fighter in air-to-air combat , and 4,131 destroyed on the ground. Losses were about 2,520 aircraft.

One of these groups, the 8th Air Force's 4th Fighter Group, was the overall top-scoring fighter group in Europe, with 1,016 enemy aircraft claimed destroyed. This included 550 claimed in aerial combat and 466 on the ground.

In aerial combat, the top-scoring P-51 units (both of which exclusively flew Mustangs) were the 357th Fighter Group of the 8th Air Force with 595 air-to-air combat victories, and the Ninth Air Force's 354th Fighter Group with 701, which made it the top scoring outfit in aerial combat of all fighter groups of any type. Martin Bowman reports that in the European Theater of Operations, Mustangs flew 213,873 sorties and lost 2,520 aircraft to all causes.[citation needed] The top Mustang ace was the USAAF's George Preddy, whose tally stood at 27.5, 24 scored with the P-51 when he was shot down and killed by friendly fire on Christmas Day 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge. The P-51s were deployed in the Far East later in 1944, operating in close-support and escort missions as well as for tactical photo reconnaissance.

In the aftermath of World War II, the USAAF consolidated much of its wartime combat force and selected the P-51 as a "standard" piston-engine fighter, while other types, such as the P-38 and P-47, were withdrawn or given substantially reduced roles. However, as more advanced jet fighters (P-80 and P-84) were being introduced, the P-51 was relegated to secondary status.

In 1947, the newly-formed USAF Strategic Air Command employed Mustangs alongside F-6 Mustangs and F-82 Twin Mustangs, due to their range capabilities. In 1948, the designation P-51 (P for pursuit) was changed to F-51 (F for fighter), and the existing F designator for photographic reconnaissance aircraft was dropped because of a new designation scheme throughout the USAF. Aircraft still in service in the USAF or Air National Guard (ANG) when the system was changed included: F-51B, F-51D, F-51K, RF-51D (formerly F-6D), RF-51K (formerly F-6K), and TRF-51D (two-seat trainer conversions of F-6Ds). They remained in service from 1946 through 1951. By 1950, although Mustangs continued in service with the USAF after the war, the majority of the USAF's Mustangs had been surplussed or transferred to the Air Force Reserve (AFRES) and the Air National Guard (ANG).

During the Korean War, F-51s, though obsolete as fighters, were used as close ground-support aircraft and reconnaissance aircraft until the end of the war in 1953. Because of its lighter structure and less availability of spare parts, the newer, faster F-51H was not used in Korea. With the aircraft being used for ground attack, their performance was less of a concern than their ability to carry a load.

At the start of the Korean War, the Mustang once again proved its usefulness. With the availability of F-51Ds in service and in storage, a substantial number were shipped via aircraft carriers to the combat zone for use initially by both the Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF) and USAF. Rather than employing them as interceptors or "pure" fighters, the F-51 was given the task of ground attack, fitted with rockets and bombs. After the initial invasion from North Korea, USAF units were forced to fly from bases in Japan, and F-51Ds could hit targets in Korea that short-ranged F-80 jet fighters could not. A major concern over the vulnerability of the cooling system was realized in heavy losses due to ground fire. Mustangs continued flying with USAF and ROKAF fighter-bomber units on close support and interdiction missions in Korea until they were largely replaced by Republic F-84 and Grumman Panther jet fighter-bombers in 1953. No. 77 Squadron Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) operated Australian-built Mustangs as part of British Commonwealth Forces Korea, replacing them with Gloster Meteor F8s in 1951. No. 2 Squadron South African Air Force (SAAF) operated US-built Mustangs as part of the US 18th Fighter Bomber Wing, suffering heavy losses by 1953, when it converted to tF-51s flew in the Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard throughout the 1950s. The last American USAF Mustang was F-51D-30-NA AF Serial No. 44-74936, which was finally withdrawn from service with the West Virginia Air National Guard in 1957. This aircraft is now on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson AFB in Dayton, Ohio. It is, however, painted as P-51D-15-NA Serial No. 44-15174.

The final withdrawal of the Mustang from USAF dumped hundreds of P-51s out onto the civilian market. The rights to the Mustang design were purchased from North American by the Cavalier Aircraft Corporation, which attempted to market the surplus Mustang aircraft both in the U.S. and overseas. In 1967 and again in 1972, the USAF procured batches of remanufactured Mustangs from Cavalier, most of them destined for air forces in South America and Asia that were participating in the Military Assistance Program (MAP). These aircraft were remanufactured from existing original F-51D airframes but were fitted with new V-1650-7 engines, a new radio fit, tall F-51H-type vertical tails, and a stronger wing that could carry six 0.50 in (13 mm) machine guns and a total of eight underwing hardpoints. Two 1,000 lb (454 kg) bombs and six 5 in (127 mm) rockets could be carried. They all had an original F-51D-type canopy, but carried a second seat for an observer behind the pilot. One additional Mustang was a two-seat dual-control TF-51D (67-14866) with an enlarged canopy and only four wing guns. Although these remanufactured Mustangs were intended for sale to South American and Asian nations through the MAP, they were delivered to the USAF with full USAF markings. They were, however, allocated new serial numbers (67-14862/14866, 67-22579/22582 and 72-1526/1541).

The last U.S. military use of the F-51 was in 1968, when the U. S. Army employed a vintage F-51D (44-72990) as a chase aircraft for the Lockheed YAH-56 Cheyenne armed helicopter project. This aircraft was so successful that the Army ordered two F-51Ds from Cavalier in 1968 for use at Fort Rucker as chase planes. They were assigned the serials 68-15795 and 68-15796. These F-51s had wingtip fuel tanks and were unarmed. Following the end of the Cheyenne program, these two chase aircraft were used for other projects. One of them (68-15795) was fitted with a 106 mm recoilless rifle for evaluation of the weapon's value in attacking fortified ground targets. Cavalier Mustang 68-15796 survives at the Air Force Armament Museum, Eglin AFB, Florida, displayed indoors in World War II markings.

The F-51 was adopted by many foreign air forces and continued to be an effective fighter into the mid-1980s with smaller air arms. The last Mustang ever downed in battle occurred during Operation Power Pack in the Dominican Republic in 1965, with the last aircraft finally being retired by the Dominican Air Force (FAD) in 1984

he F-86 Sabre.

 

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Taken on September 11, 2010