One of the most effective, famous
and beautiful fighter aircraft of WWII, the P-51 was designed to fulfil
a British requirement dated April 1940. Because of the rapidly-mounting
clouds of war in Europe, the UK asked North American Aircraft to design
and build a new fighter in only 120 days. The NA-73X
prototype was produced in record time, but did not fly until 26 October
1940. The first RAF production models, designated Mustang
Mk Is, underwent rigorous testing and evaluation, and it
was found that the 1,100-hp Allison engine was well suited for
low-altitude tactical reconnaissance, but the engine's power decreased
dramatically above an altitude of 12,000 feet, making it a poor choice
for air-to-air combat or interception roles. Because of this, the RAF
left its eight machine guns intact, but also fitted the Mustang with
cameras. In this configuration, it served in at least 23 RAF squadrons,
beginning in April 1942.
At the same time, the
US Army Air Corps ordered a small number for tactical reconnaissance
evaluation as the F-6A. After the RAF found
the aircraft's performance lacking, they tested a new engine, the
12-cylinder Rolls-Royce Merlin. This gave much-improved performance,
and led to the USAAF fitting two airframes with 1,430-hp Packard-built
Merlin V-1650 engines. These aircraft were redesignated
XP-51B. Practically overnight, the aircraft's potential
began to grow.
Since the RAF had had
good success with the Mustang in a ground attack role, the USAAF bought
500 aircraft fitted with dive brakes and underwing weapons pylons.
These were initially designated the A-36A Apache,
but later retained the name Mustang. Almost simultaneously, they
ordered 310 P-51As with Allison engines. Some
of these were delivered to the UK as Mustang Mk IIs,
and some became F-6B reconnaissance aircraft
for the USAAF.
Merlin-engined versions appeared in 1943 with the P-51B,
of which 1,988 were built in Inglewood, California, and the
P-51C, of which 1,750 were built in Dallas,
Texas. Both new versions had strengthened fuselages and four
wing-mounted 12.7-mm machine guns. Many of these new Mustangs were
delivered to the UK as Mustang Mk IIIs, and
others went to the USAAF as F-6Cs. The
Merlin-powered Mustangs were exactly what the Allied bombers in Europe
desperately needed, and they became famous for their long range and
potent high-altitude escort capability. The most significant variant,
the P-51D, featured a 360-degree-view bubble
canopy, a modified rear fuselage, and six 12.77-mm machine guns. 7,956
were built, and once again, many went to the UK as Mustang
Mk IVs and others became USAAF F-6D
reconnaissance aircraft. Next came the P-51K,
which was generally similar. A third of these became RAF
Mustang IVs also, and over a hundred became
F-6Ks. Very late in the war, the P-51H
appeared, although only 555 of 2000 were completed before V-J Day
caused the cancellation of the order. US production totaled 15,386, but
at least 200 more were built by the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation
of Australia with imported parts and designated Mustang Mk
20/21/22/23. None of these saw service before the end of
the war. Under the Lend-Lease program, 50 P-51s were supplied to China,
and 40 more were supplied to the Netherlands in the Pacific theatre.
After the war, the P-51 remained in US service with
the Strategic Air Command until 1949, and with the Air National Guard
and Reserves into the 1950s. It became one of the first fighters to see
combat in the Korean War. The RAF's fighter Command used them until
1946. In addition, over 50 air forces around the world acquired and
used the Mustang for many more years, some as recently as the early
1980s. When the US Air Force realigned their aircraft designations in
the 1950s, the Mustang became the F-51.
In the last 40 years, surplus Mustangs have been
modified and used extensively as civilian air racers, but the latest
trend is for private owners to restore them to almost perfect,
historically-accurate condition. As public appreciation for the Mustang
has grown, the monetary value of the few remaining examples has
skyrocketed. War-surplus P-51s, once auctioned from storage for less
than (US) $2000, are now often valued at three-quarters of a million
dollars or more. The restoration of existing airframes has become a
small industry in the US, UK and Australia, and the total number of
flyable examples, despite one or two accidents each year, is growing.
Several Mustangs have been or are currently being restored as two-seat,
dual-control TF-51s, a trend which promises
to ensure that today's operators are better-trained than any previous
generation of Mustang pilots.
Fifty One; 'Stang;
One 1,695-hp Packard Merlin V-1650-7 piston V-12 engine
Weight: Empty 7,125 lbs.,
Max Takeoff 12,100 lbs.
Wing Span: 37ft. 0.5in.
Length: 32ft. 9.5in.
Height: 13ft. 8in.
Maximum Speed: 437 mph
Ceiling: 41,900 ft.
Range: 1300 miles
Armament: Six 12.7-mm (0.5
inch) wing-mounted machine guns, plus up to two 1,000-lb bombs or six
127-mm (5 inch) rockets.
Approximately 15,018 (including ~200 built in Australia)
Number Still Airworthy: