The P-51 Mustang: World War II Long Range Interceptor
The P-51 Mustang is one of the most iconic aircraft of World War II. As the premier long-range interceptor of the victorious coalition, the P-51 was seen escorting B-17 Flying Fortress and B-24 Liberator bomber crews all over Hitler's "Fortress Europe." There are many surviving examples that continue to remain in flying condition today with the help of extensive service, and they can be admired at air shows all over the world. The airframe of the Mustang is one of the most visually recognizable World War II aircraft; persons with little or no experience can easily pick a Mustang out of the crowd. It was this iconic nature that motivated Ford General Manager Lee Iacocca to name his concept for one of Ford's great sports cars the Mustang, a design which still permeates our roads today.
The first Mustangs were created as North American Aviation's answer to a British aircraft request. At the start of World War II, the United States was still maintaining its isolationism, and superchargers were considered classified and Top Secret along with many other items of military technology. The U.S. would later see sense and enact Lend-Lease aid for embattled nations which would open up the floodgates of research and technology, but in 1940, the Mustang was stuck with the Allison V-1710 engine. Unfortunately, this engine failed to deliver the needed performance at high altitudes. This was critical because most air-to-air combat was being fought at 25,000 feet and above at this time. It was British test pilot Ronald Harker that offered up the idea to use the new Rolls Royce Merlin series engines in 1942, and this was all that was needed to secure the P-51's solid airframe a place in aviation history.
The Mustang boasted some frighteningly fast performance figures with its new Merlin engine. Conservative estimates placed the aircraft's top speed at about 440 miles per hour, but actual combat records indicated that the plane easily exceeded that speed at maximum throttle. This speed was greater than all but a few Luftwaffe aircraft, such as the Me-262 (about 540mph) and Me-163 (from 650-690mph). Their greatest strength, however, was their ability to escort bombers further than any other fighter. When operators began fitting the planes with drop tanks, Mustangs could even occasionally go all the way to the target and back with bombers! This was an invaluable asset that greatly increased the survivability of bomber crews. While the P-38 Lightning had a similar capability, its twin boom design gave it a better opportunity to serve as a fighter/bomber. The Merlin V-1650 power plant generated 1,650 horsepower while the original Allison engine gave only 1,100. This difference was exaggerated to an even greater degree above 20,000 feet, and the Allison engine could not compete in any sense with the massive power and innovative two-stage supercharger of its Merlin counterpart.
With so much power now at its disposal, the Mustang could also easily wield a heavy assortment of six .50 caliber machine guns, which would put a heavy dent into any target. Fighter bomber versions often carried rockets as well. The Mustang's range easily exceeded 1,000 miles, which was just about double that of its slightly more maneuverable British counterpart, the famous Spitfire. Its role was cemented into the functions of long range interceptor, bomber escort, and long range reconnaissance. Word of the aircraft soon spread across the ocean, and Hermann Goering is believe to have lamented that the appearance of the aircraft over German airspace would effectively end the war.
The Mustang definitely lived up to its reputation during World War II. The over 15,000 planes produced destroyed nearly 5,000 enemy aircraft, which was a greater total than any other aircraft of the war. Numerous pilot accounts of flying the aircraft expressed sheer admiration of the aircraft's qualities, and the legend of the aircraft, like its namesake automobile descendant, has continued to endure and inspire.