Best U.S. Air­frame, Meet Best Bri­tish Engine

Air & Space Smithsonian - - Technically Speaking - –CHRIS KLIMEK

SUPERMARINE SPITFIRES could bob and weave, but North Amer­i­can Avi­a­tion’s P-51 Mus­tang was the fighter that could go the dis­tance— and it did, es­cort­ing B-17s and B-24s on bomb­ing mis­sions deep in­side Ger­many. When out­fit­ted with ex­ter­nal fuel tanks, the Mus­tang could fly more than 2,000 miles with­out a re­fill, but with a top speed of 437 mph, it was more akin to a race­horse than a camel. Four Brown­ing .50- cal­iber ma­chine guns (in­creased to six in the P-51DS) made the Mus­tang a prodi­gious dog­fighter, though pi­lots rarely passed up the op­por­tu­nity to strafe Luft­waffe air­fields on their way home from es­cort mis­sions.

In 1942, a Bri­tish-ini­ti­ated up­grade en­dowed the Mus­tang with the Rolls-royce Mer­lin engine ( built State­side by Packard); its two-stage su­per­charger gave the P-51 power up high, where the bombers flew, and made it 50 mph faster.

In Au­gust and Oc­to­ber 1943, the Eighth Air Force lost so many B-17s dur­ing raids that the Al­lies tem­porar­ily sus­pended long-range bomb­ing. In 1944, newly ar­rived P-51s gave the Eighth the con­fi­dence to again strike deep. After Gen­eral Jimmy Doolit­tle or­dered fighter squadrons to hunt the en­emy in­ter­cep­tors in­stead of fly­ing close for­ma­tions with bombers they es­corted, P-51 vic­to­ries rose.

Mus­tangs were the mounts of the 332nd Fighter Group, the first African Amer­i­can fighter unit, which flew es­cort mis­sions in Italy dur­ing 1944. Com­manded by West Point grad­u­ate Ben­jamin O. Davis, the Red Tails—a nick­name based on the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion paint on their air­planes—shot down 111 en­emy air­craft.

By D-day—june 6, 1944— the Com­bined Bomber Of­fen­sive from Eng­land and Italy had bro­ken the Luft­waffe. Barely able to re­place lost air­craft, hav­ing to ra­tion fuel, and only marginally able to train re­place­ments for the pi­lots lost each month, its lead­ers trans­ferred pi­lots from the Eastern Front, with lit­tle con­se­quence. “I don’t re­mem­ber any­one who came to us from the East who sur­vived,” re­called fighter com­man­der Kurt Buehli­gen to his­to­rian Chris­tian Sturm in 1985, adding “these fel­lows sim­ply had no real com­pre­hen­sion of what we were faced with in the air.”

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