P51 Mustang

Despite the weather, this is supposedly the time of year when families gather together at their nearest airfield for the local air show. With many different types of aircraft both on static display, as well as being put through their paces in the air, it’s the war birds that most people want to see. You cannot help get stirred up by the likes of Spitfire, Hurricane, Tomahawk, Lightning and Hellcat. Perhaps the most famous fighter from across the pond is the North American Aviation (NAA) P51 Mustang. These aircraft also star in the recent George Lucas film Red Tails about the Tuskegee Airmen of the 332nd Fighter Group during WWII. Oh, and Tom cruise owns one as well!


Design and development

Just after Germany ‘annexed’ Austria in 1938, the British Government established a purchasing commission in the United Sates, headed up by Sir Henry Self. One of his tasks was to research and organise the manufacture and supply of American Fighter aircraft for the RAF. At that time there was a very limited choice, as no US aircraft already in production met European standards. The closest was the Curtiss P40 Tomahawk, but the Curtiss factory was already running at full capacity.

The president of NAA, ‘Dutch’ Kindelberger, said that they could have a better aircraft in the air. The stipulation was that the aircraft must be armed with four .303 machine guns, be powered by the Allison V-1710 liquid cooled engine, have a production cost of no more than $40,000 per unit and deliver the first production aircraft by January 1941.

The design, known as NA-73X, had several innovative features. One was its wing design, which used laminar flow airfoils (NAA/NACA 45-1000) and generated very low drag at high speeds. It also had a radiator that heated air exited the radiator as a form of jet thrust. The NA-73X was one of the first aircraft to have a fuselage designed mathematically using conics to give smooth, low drag, surfaces.

The first prototype appeared on 9 September 1940, with its maiden flight on 26 October only 149 days since the order for 320 aircraft was placed. The prototype flew and handled well and also had an impressive fuel load capacity. It was armed with four Browning M1919 .30 machine guns. Two were housed in the wings while the other two were mounted under the engine and fired through the propeller arc using gun synchronising gear.

Once in service with the RAF, upgrades and modifications continued, culminating in what is seen as the definitive version: the P-51D. This version was powered by the Packard V-1650-7, a licence-built version of the Rolls Royce Merlin 60 series, two-stage two-speed supercharged engine. It was also up-armed, now carrying six 0.50 M2 Browning machine guns. These design changes and upgrades made the P-51D a very different and capable beast.

Operational service: European theatre

Early P51s (fitted with the Allison engine) entered service with the RAF as a tactical reconnaissance aircraft and fighter bomber. However, it was the Americans who really saw the full potential of the aircraft. With its large fuel capacity the Mustang was ideal as a long range fighter or fighter escort.

Before WWII the doctrine for most bomber forces was to attack at night. In the early days of the war the RAF attempted some long-range daylight raids, but due to lack of a fighter escort force they suffered high casualties. This practice was soon abandoned in favour of night raids.

The US already had a long-range bomber in service. The B17 had been designed to attack shipping in daylight, at long distances from the coast of the US. The USAAC believed that tightly-packed formations of B-17s would have more than enough firepower to fend off fighters on their own. Building up a strategic bomber force in the UK, this strategy was soon put to the test.

The allies put together the ‘Combined Bomber Offensive’ (CBO) which planned for round-the-clock bombing. The RAF would take on night bombing while the USAAF (formerly USAAC) would take on all daylight bombing raids. In June 1943, a point-blank directive was issued by the Combined Chiefs of Staff to destroy the Luftwaffe, before the invasion of Europe, putting the CBO into full effect. The 8th Air Force started a series of deep penetration raids into Germany, beyond the range of escort fighters. Losses were severe – 20 per cent in one raid alone! Clearly, a fighter escort was required.

Escort duty

The Mustang was a simple design, with a reliable and common engine and a massive fuel capacity. With external fuel tanks fitted they could escort the bombers all the way to Germany and back. Enough P-51Bs, later supplemented by P-51Ds (from mid-1944) were available to both the 8th and 9th Air Force.

Mustang fighter groups flew ahead of the bomber formations so they could go and hunt the German fighters as they were forming up. This change of tactics made for some astonishing results. In just over one week the Luftwaffe lost 17 per cent of its fighter pilots, which by this point in the war were a rare commodity at best. Even Luftwaffe fighter ace Adolf Galland admitted that with this change of tactic, Germany had effectively lost the air war.

Mustangs also proved effective against V-1 rockets. Using 150 octane fuel, they were fast enough to intercept the ‘doodlebugs’ in flight.

Reichmarshal Herman Goring, commander of the Luftwaffe, was famously quoted saying: “When I saw Mustangs over Berlin, I knew the jig was up.”

Other theatres

F-51Ds_2_Sqn_SAAF_Korea_May_1951P-51s were also used in the European theatre in the Italian and Mediterranean campaigns.

By 8 May 1945, the 8th, 9th and 15th US Air Force P-51 groups laid claim to some 4,950 enemy aircraft. This was almost half the amount shot down by the USAAF in the European theatre. They also claimed 4,131 aircraft destroyed on the ground. There was a price to pay for all this – out of the 213,873 sorties Mustangs flew in, losses amounted to around 2,520.

The top Mustang ace was George Preddy, whose final tally was 26 – 23 of these in his P-51, until he was shot down and killed by friendly fire on Christmas Day 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge. Chuck Yaeger achieved 12 kills, including two Me 262s in his P-51D Mustang, Glamorous Glennis III.

By the end of the war a P-51D Mustang would set you back $51,000.


At the end of WWII the P-51 was selected as the standard piston engine fighter. The P (for Pursuit) was now changed to an F (for Fighter) and already existing F-designated aircraft (for photographic reconnaissance) was dropped. By 1951, although still in general service, as jet fighters came into operational service, many Mustangs went to the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve where they were used throughout the 1950s or ended up in storage.

Mustangs proved themselves highly useful during the Korean War. A substantial number were brought out of storage and shipped via aircraft carrier to the combat zone. Flown by both the USAF and the Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF), most were fitted out to carry modern rockets and bombs and used as ground attack aircraft, while the rest were used for photo reconnaissance.

The last USAF Mustang was finally withdrawn from service with the West Virginia National Guard in 1957. This F-51D is now on display at the NationalMuseum of the USAF.

After service life

The final withdrawal of the Mustang from the USAF meant hundreds were available on the civilian market from as little as $1,500. Many were sold for $1 each to countries who had signed the ‘Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance’ (I kid you not!). The rights for the Mustang design were sold to Cavalier Aircraft Corporation, who attempted to market the surplus Mustang aircraft in the US and overseas. They also initiated their own upgrade programme.

The USAF purchased batches of re-manufactured Mustangs from Cavalier, mostly destined for South American and Asian countries who were participating in the Military Assistance Programme. These aircraft were fitted with new engines and new armaments. More were updated militarily and subsequently sold to US-friendly countries – and some were still in service as effective fighters until the mid-1980s. The last Mustang ever brought down in combat occurred during Operation Power Pack in the Dominican Republic in 1965, and the last combat Mustang finally retired in 1984. In 1968, the US military used an F-51D as a chase aircraft for the Lockheed YEH-56 Cheyenne armed helicopter project. This airplane was so successful that the Army bought two more from Cavalier as chase aircraft. Once the Cheyenne project ended these aircraft were employed on other projects. From its initial entry into WWII with the RAF, to its post-war combat life, Mustangs of all types saw service duty with over 28 countries!

In 1958, 78 Mustangs were retired from the Royal Canadian Air Force. Lynn Garrison, an RCAF pilot, flew each of these aircraft to Canastota, New York where American Buyers came to purchase them. It is these aircraft which make up a large percentage of Mustangs presently flying worldwide today.

Civilian use and modern day

The Mustang was heavily used in air racing. This sport is still as popular in the US today as it was straight after the war. The speed and agility of the P-51, especially the P-51D, made it an ideal chassis for the sport. Most air racing Mustangs have their wings clipped, the canopies made smaller and are given smaller tail fins. Original engines were tweaked to produce more horsepower and in more recent times modern engines have been fitted.

P-51-Side-OnMany are owned by enthusiastic individuals, groups and organisations who own, maintain and fly them Mustangs at airshows around the world. In the US, according to the FAA, there are 204 privately-owned P-51s most of which are still flying. One of the most famous Mustangs is the P-51D Kiss Me Kate, a part of Tom Cruise’s personal collection.

There were only a couple of original P-51s for sale at the time of writing. A project P-51D requiring full restoration is up for grabs at $650,000. A fully airworthy and registered P-51D is for sale in Texas for a mere $2,145,000. I wonder if they’ll take an IOU?