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“The day I saw Mustangs over Berlin, I knew the jig was up.”- German Reichsmarshall Hermann Göring (some people dispute this quote’s validity, but it’s badass nonetheless)
Before the winter of 1943, B-17 Flying Fortresses were a hunted breed. A big, lumbering aircraft constructed to obliterate targets with a shitload of ordinance dropped from high altitude, the B-17 was not built to hold its own in a dogfight. Despite bristling from nose to tail with up to 13 M2 Browning heavy machine guns and having a reputation for an ability to absorb an exorbitant amount of punishment, B-17s were exceedingly vulnerable to the quick scything attacks of fighter aircraft. In fact, the aerial branch of the German military, known as the Luftwaffe, was so adept at shooting B-17s down that the average life expectancy of a Flying Fortress tail gunner was two weeks.
The United States Army Air Force’s response to the B-17’s plight was initially slow. The USAAF spent the first years of the war devising tactics based on a doctrine that revolved around tightly packed groups of bombers holding the potential to survive fighters’ attacks through the concentrated fire power of the group. They assumed the combined might of the bombers’ weapons would be sufficient to destroy enough of the enemy fighters to allow for the bombers’ mission to continue. When it became apparent that this presumption was unadulterated horse shit, the USAAF started dispatching fighter aircraft to escort the B-17s during their bombing runs. Despite the new guards, there was no significant decrease in B-17 casualties due to the fighters lacking the fuel capacity to successfully protect the bombers from enemies for the entire extent of the missions. During the early 1940s, the USAAF desperately searched for a solution to this problem. And in the beginning of 1944, they debuted their answer.
The North American Aviation P-51 (Pursuit) Mustang began its life as the NA-73X, a fighter originally promised to the Royal Air Force as an upgrade over the aging Curtis P-40 Tomahawk. For a year, NAA put the NA-73X and its components through a series of rigorous tests and redesigns, the culmination of which resulted in the first squadron of battle-ready NA-73Xs being delivered to the RAF in January of 1942. The RAF immediately pressed the NA-73Xs into service and deployed them in operations over France and Germany, showcasing their improved long range and ground attack effectiveness. However, despite these new capabilities, the NA-73X performed poorly at high altitude, meaning it was unfit as an escort for bombers or for participation in direct fighter-to-fighter combat. Thus, the NA-73X was relegated to reconnaissance directives and covering ground assaults. As promising as the new plane proved to be, the need for a true escort fighter was left unfulfilled.
The problem with the NA-73Xs was the engine. The Allison V-1710 that each fighter was equipped with only contained a single stage supercharger, causing power in the plane to drop rapidly above an altitude 15,000 feet; a fatal flaw in an aircraft required to wage war at a bomber’s cruising altitude. It wasn’t until mid-1943 that a solution was found. On the advice of a test pilot, the fighters were furnished with the Rolls Royce Merlin 61 engine, a monster with a double stage supercharger already standard with the British Spitfire Mk IX that was more than capable of handling altitudes above 15,000 feet. It was a match made in heaven. Or hell, if you’re the Nazis. With the Rolls Royce Merlin 61 acting as the new beating heart of the craft, the P-51 was faster, sharper, and stronger than any other plane in the air. The dawn of a new era of airborne warfare had fallen upon the world.
The Mustang’s overwhelming advantages, coupled with the launch of Major General James Doolittle’s directive of achieving air supremacy —
where the strategy of flying defensively in formation with bombers was replaced by the instruction to attack the Luftwaffe wherever they could be found — resulted in the Mustang quickly cementing its place as king of the sky. Capable of dispensing death to America’s enemies to the tune of six M2 Browning machine guns at longer ranges than any other fighter in the air, the P-51 was the deadliest aircraft ever invented. The Luftwaffe never knew what hit them. Their Focke-Wulf Fw 190s couldn’t match the Mustang’s maneuverability at high altitude and their Messerschmitt Bf 109s were too heavily armed to compete with the P-51’s speed. The Luftwaffe’s forces were cleaved from the sky in a shower of metal and fire, the gleaming silver of the P-51’s paint job the last vision many German pilots ever had as they plummeted toward the unforgiving earth.
From January 1944 until the end of the war in the European theater, American pilots flying P-51 Mustangs claimed 4,950 aircraft shot down and 4,131 ground targets destroyed, more than any other fighter in the Allied forces. These successes against the enemy earned the Mustang the adage “the plane that won the war.” A true representation of the coming age of American military dominance, the P-51 was the first war machine the United States produced that was unquestionably superior to anything the world had ever seen before, making it the first indication of what was on the horizon: the rise of American Steel..
Image via Shutterstock