The name evokes an image of a strong and muscular animal running wild through the open plains with beautiful curves and power in spades, making light work of traveling long distances and surviving the toughest conditions. If you’re an aviation aficionado, or just been around a while, it’s the name of one of the most iconic fighters of World War II. Universally recognized and preserved in flying condition in greater numbers than any other fighter from the era, she stands as a symbol of freedom and perseverance of the greatest generation bringing history to life for future generations.
Although it’s known as one of the greatest American fighters ever produced, the P-51 was actually an aircraft commissioned by the British to supplement their Spitfire and Hurricane squadrons. When Sir Henry Self was approached by the President of North American Aviation (NAA) in an attempt to sell the B-25 Mitchell medium bomber to the British, Self instead asked if NAA would be capable of producing the sought after P-40, designed by Curtiss, under license. NAA President “Dutch” Kindelberger had a better proposition for him: NAA would create a clean-sheet design capable of outperforming the Warhawk, and they’d do it in under 120 days. Sir Self agreed, with the requirements that the aircraft cost less than $40,000 per unit, and would be armed with 4 .303 caliber machine guns. With this, NAA designers went to work to produce the NA-73X that would eventually become the P-51. Not the type to back down from a challenge, NAA not only managed to keep their 120 day deadline, they actually rolled the NA-73X prototype out in 102 days and the aircraft went on to make its first flight only 149 days after the initial contract was put in place.
The first thing that NAA had to do when designing the P-51, was to come up with the new laminar-flow wing that the Mustang would employee, with the help of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). What this meant is that, even at the high speeds required of a front-line fighter, the wing would not produce as much drag as the standard wings already in service on other aircraft while still providing the necessary lift required to keep the aircraft aloft. As the wing was being developed, NAA went to work designing the fuselage and empennage; reducing drag, cutting weight at every possible point, and even identifying and harnessing the Meredith Effect using heated air exiting the radiator to produce a small amount of thrust. When all was said and done, the engineers at NAA had created an aircraft that that would change the war. They built the entire aircraft out of aluminum to save weight, and armed it with 4 .30 caliber machine guns, two firing from the wing and two firing through the propeller making use of a prop synchronization gear. After all of the parts were put together they stuck an Allison V-1710 V-12 engine, the same used to power the P-40, under the cowling. This, however, proved to be the downfall of the early P-51 models as the Allison engine was not as capable at high altitudes as initially expected. This did not deter the British, who were so impressed with the NA-73X, that they ordered 300 units, totaling an order of 620 units.
The Mustang Mk.1/P-51A would see extensive use in Europe, serving as a learning experience for all future P-51 variants. It would be in the P-51B model that the P-51 began to become the aircraft it was meant to be, with the mating of a Rolls-Royce twin stage Merlin V12 engine. The definitive version of the P-51 would be the fourth iteration, the D model. The P-51D was equipped with a Packard V-1650-7 V12 built under license from Rolls Royce, 6 .50 caliber machine guns located in the wings, and a “bubble” canopy for clear 360º views. This became the airplane that is universally known as the Mustang.
The P-51 served a long and illustrious career starting in 1940 with the NA-73X and ending with the F-51K, with multiple other variants in between, in service well into the 1980s. The Mustang also served with a multitude of different countries including Australia, Canada, China, The Dominican Republic, France, Israel, Poland, South Korea, and even the German Luftwaffe. It served in World War II and the Korean War, even though it was already being upstaged by the new jet fighters entering service at that time. There are an estimated 150+ airworthy Mustangs today, speaking volumes to the great engineering and passion that went into designing and building the airframe.
Armament: Six .50-cal. machine guns and 10 5-in. rockets or 2,000 lbs. of bombs
Engine: Packard-built Rolls-Royce Merlin V-1650 of 1,695 hp
Maximum speed: 437 mph
Cruising speed: 275 mph
Range: 1,000 miles
Ceiling: 41,900 ft.
Span: 37 ft.
Length: 32 ft. 3 in.
Height: 13 ft. 8 in.
Weight: 12,100 lbs. maximum