North American P-51B "Mustang"
The North American P-51 Mustang ranked as perhaps the finest propeller driven aircraft of the Second World War. It was also one of the most ubiquitous, flown by 12 Allied Air Forces, including the U.S. Army Air Force; with 15,586 produced in total. Although North American designed and built the prototype Mustang in only 117 days, with the Mustang initially ordered by the Royal Air Force, the basic design was so sound that other than changes to the aircraft's range, armament, cockpit and engine the aircraft later proved technically superior to virtually every piston engine foe it encountered. Proof of the Mustang's inherent technical excellence lies in the fact that its pilots loved the aircraft, and for good reason, as 281 Mustang drivers became aces during the Second World War. The Mustang was also extraordinarily versatile, and in addition to ranking as a premier air superiority fighter it also served as a fighter-bomber, long-range escort fighter, reconnaissance aircraft and interceptor of German V-1 cruise missiles launched at England.
The P-51B seen here is easily identifiable because of its straight back canopy. The most produced Mustang, the P-51D, featured a bubble canopy that provided a tremendous improvement to pilot visibility. That said, the P-51B was an enormously capable aircraft and was an improvement over not only the Curtiss P-40 Hawk, flown by the RAF as the Tomahawk, but also the early Allison engine marks of the P-51 flown by the RAF in combat against the Germans beginning on May 10, 1942.
Although the Allison engine Mustang was competitive against German Me-109 and FW-190 series aircraft at lower altitudes, at higher altitudes the German aircraft outclassed early Mustangs. All of that changed when in April of 1942 a RAF test pilot named Ronald Harker suggested that Rolls Royce mount its Merlin engine in the Mustang. After testing in both England and the U.S. the first P-51B production aircraft, mounting a Packard built Rolls Royce Merlin engine, was delivered in June of 1943. The difference between the Allison engine P-51A and the Merlin engine equipped P-51B was night and day with the P-51B's Packard Merlin V-1650-3 engine producing 420 more horsepower than the P-51A's Allison V-1710-81 engine. The more powerful engine translated into a higher service ceiling (42,000 feet for the P-51B vs. 31,350 feet for the P-51A), faster top speed (440m.p.h. at 30,000 feet for the P-51B vs. 390m.p.h. at 20,000 feet for the P-51A) and a greater rate of climb.
The USAAF initially assigned the P-51 to the 9th Air Force and envisioned it as primarily a tactical support aircraft, however it had one particularly glaring advantage over the P-47's serving as long range bomber escorts - the P-51's range. With a shorter range, the otherwise superlative P-47's from the 8th Air Force were unable to escort American strategic bombers all the way to their targets in Germany. Consequently, throughout 1943 USAAF bomber losses quickly climbed to unacceptable levels. Thus with the P-51's range and performance all too evident the USAAF transferred P-51s to the 8th Air Force in England. By the end of 1943, P-51s began taking over the primary long-range escort duties for American strategic bombers. By early in 1944 the P-51 was playing a central role in decimating the Luftwaffe's ranks of experienced fighter pilots; winning Allied air superiority over Europe and cementing its status as perhaps the best combat aircraft ever produced.
Picture Courtesy of Steven Douglas Mercatante