Viewed by many as one of the all-time greatest fighter planes, the P-51 Mustang served the US military well in World War II and beyond.
Designed for the British
The Mustang wasn’t originally built for the US armed forces. It was designed to meet a specification provided by Great Britain’s Royal Air Force (RAF) during the early days of World War II.
Built for Speed
The Mustang had remarkable speed for such a complex and expensive machine. The first model was designed and built in just 117 days.
The first Mustang test flight took place on 26 October 1940. It proved to be an impressive machine, able to outperform any other American fighter in use at the time.
Despite this promising start, the Mustang’s use in the European theater of war was at first limited. It lacked power both at altitude and in a climb, so it was relegated to an armed reconnaissance role.
First over Germany
In October 1942, a group of RAF Mustangs became the first British single-engine planes of the war to take to the skies above Germany, during an attack on targets around the Dortmund-Ems canal.
The early Mustangs were equipped with Allison engines, which provided adequate performance and let the plane get into the war. But it was the replacement of these engines in 1942 that turned the Mustang into one of the most effective fighters in the world.
The new Rolls-Royce Merlin engines let the Mustang overcome its earlier limitations. It could now provide great performance in long-range aerial operations.
Aerodynamic for Speed
The Mustang’s clean lines made it incredibly aerodynamic. Following its upgrade, it achieved top speeds faster than the famous RAF Supermarine Spitfire, which was equipped with an equivalent engine.
Transforming Bombing Runs
By 1943, the Allies were carrying out a campaign of heavy strategic bombing against Germany. While the RAF flew at night, the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) preferred to attack during the day, as this made their attacks more accurate.
The problem with daytime raids was that it was easier for German pilots and anti-aircraft gunners to identify and target American planes. There were no Allied fighters that could provide the bombers with the protection they needed on these long-distance raids, so American losses soared. In October 1943, the bombing runs were suspended.
The arrival of Mustangs with Merlin engines changed that. When equipped with external droppable fuel tanks on the wings, it could escort the bombers on raids as far away as Berlin.
Fighting well even at that range, it out-performed most aircraft of the German Luftwaffe, protecting bombers from their attacks.
Equipped with the Mustang, the Allies could dominate the skies over Germany day and night. Bombs rained down on German cities, factories, and transport links. The Mustang made possible an incredible campaign to cripple the enemy’s economy.
The early model Mustang was also turned into a dive-bomber, the A-36 Invader. This was used to great effect by the USAAF in Sicily, as the Allies began the conquest of Italy in 1943.
A Comfortable Aircraft
The Mustang was designed with the pilot’s comfort and convenience in mind, recognizing the importance of supporting the human component on long missions. The ergonomically laid out cockpit made sure that all the controls were right at hand, and there was excellent visibility.
A Physically Demanding Fighter
Though comfortably designed, the Mustang wasn’t always an easy machine to fly. At high speeds, the pilot had to exert himself physically to get the best performance out of the plane.
It was worth the effort, providing the great maneuverability that let the Mustang out-fight so many enemy planes.
Like many vehicles, the Mustang was continuously refined and improved over the course of WWII. The P-51D, equipped with Merlin engines, was the most numerous, but the best was the P-51H, the final model of the war.
Its weight was reduced by a thousand pounds compared with the P-51D, giving it greater speed. It became the fastest piston-engined plane the Allies fielded in the whole war, beaten in speed only by the jet fighters that appeared in the final months.
15,586 Mustangs were made.
An International Aircraft
Though originally built by the Americans and for the British, the Mustang later served in at least 55 air forces around the world. A license was even provided to an Australian manufacturer to produce their own Mustangs in the late 1940s.
Service in Korea
The Mustang continued in service after the end of WWII, most notably in Korea. There, the South African and Australian air forces brought their Mustangs, while the US fetched remaining P-51s, now redesignated F-51s, out of storage.
The planes were used as fighter-bombers and in aerial combat against communist forces.
Service in Indonesia
The Dutch took Mustangs to the Dutch East Indies in 1946 as part of their efforts to protect their colonies. When the Dutch withdrew, they handed the planes over to the air force of the fledgling nation of Indonesia.
The Indonesian Air Force used these planes until the 1970s. In 1962, they were even sent into action against their former owners, when Indonesia launched a failed invasion of Dutch New Guinea.
Another nation to field the Mustang was Israel. The Israelis used these fighters in the Arab-Israeli conflict of 1956.
The quality of the Mustang design was so remarkable that production was revived in 1967, more than 25 years after it first saw service. This time, it was to be used as a counter-insurgency aircraft.