P-51 Mustang

P-51 Mustang

A restored North American P51-D Mustang flies with an F-15D over the English countryside (July 2001). The back-seat passenger of the F-15 (Bud Anderson) flew Mustangs in World War II.
RoleAir superiority, bomber escort
First flight1941
Entered serviceDecember 1943
ManufacturerNorth American
Length32 ft 3 in9.8 m
Wingspan37 ft11.3 m
Height13 ft 8 in4.17 m
Wing area235 ft²21.8 m²
Empty7,000 lb3,175 kg
Loaded9,200 lb4,175 kg
Maximum takeoff12,100 lb5,490 kg
Engines1 x Rolls-Royce (Packard) Merlin V-1650-7
Power1695 hp1,264 kW
Maximum speed437 mph704 km/h
Combat range1000 miles1600 km
Ferry range1,895 miles3,050 km
Service ceiling41,800 ft12,700 m
Rate of climb(P-51D)2,300 ft/min701 m/min
Guns(P-51D) 6 .50 caliber (12.7 mm) MG
Bombs2,000 lb (907 kg)
Rockets10 x 5 inch (127 mm)

The North American P-51 Mustang was a successful long range fighter aircraft which set new standards of excellence and performance when it entered service in the middle years of World War II. Still regarded as one of the best piston-engined fighters ever made, the definitive version of the single-seat fighter was powered by a single supercharged V-12 Merlin engine and armed with six .50 caliber (12.7 mm) machine guns.



Shortly after the war began in 1939, the British government established a purchasing commission in the United States, headed by Sir Henry Self. One of Self's many tasks was to organise the manufacture of American fighter aircraft for the RAF. At the time, the choice was very limited: none of the US aircraft already flying reached European standards, only the Curtiss P-40 Tomahawk came close. With the Curtiss plant running at capacity already, even that aircraft was in short supply.

North American Aviation (NAA) President Dutch Kindleberger approached Self with the idea of selling the British a new medium bomber, the Mitchell. Instead, Self asked if NAA could manufacture the Tomahawk under licence from Curtis. (North American was already supplying their Harvard trainer but were otherwise underutilized.)

Kindleberger's reply, however, was that NAA could have a better aircraft with the same engine in the air in less time. From this unlikely beginning would come one of the best fighter aircraft of all time.

First versions

The result was the NA-73 project from March 1940. The design was in keeping with the best conventional practice of the era, but included two new features. One was a new NACA-designed laminar flow wing, which was larger than others on similar aircraft while still having the same drag. This left plenty of room for landing gear, guns, ammunition and fuel, all completely inside the wing and well streamlined. Another was the use of a new radiator design from Curtiss, that used the heated air exiting the radiator as a form of jet thrust.

The USAAC could block any sales they considered interesting, and this appeared to be the case for the NA-73. An arrangement was eventually reached where the RAF would get its planes, in exchange for NA providing two more cost-free to the USAAC.

Missing image
Early USAAC P-51 on a test flight.

The plane made its maiden flight on 26 October 1940, less than nine months from first being drawn up - an incredibly short period. In general, the plane handled well and the internal arrangement allowed for a massive fuel load. It was armed with four 0.5 in (12.7 mm) machine guns and another four 0.3 in (7.62 mm) guns - a rather light armament load for the era: the contemporary Focke-Wulf Fw 190 prototype was able to carry four 20 mm cannon and two 7.92 mm machine guns.

It was quickly evident that performance, although good near sea level, was not up to European standards at higher altitudes. This was due largely to the mechanically supercharged Allison V-1710 engine. The finer points of supercharging were very much a British specialty: United States engineers had concentrated mainly on the turbocharger instead and the Allison suffered in consequence.

About 20 of the Mustang I were delivered to the RAF and made their combat debut on 10 May 1942. With their long range and excellent low-level performance, they were judged useful for ground-attack duties over the English Channel, but too slow at altitude to be used as fighters.

The Mustang Mk.IA removed the 0.3 in (7.62 mm) guns in an effort to improve performance. At the same time the USAAC was becoming more interested in ground attack planes and had a new version ordered as the A-36 Apache which included two more 0.5 in (12.7 mm) guns, dive brakes, and could carry two 500 pound (230 kg) bombs. Neither of these versions were particularly effective.

P-51B and P-51C

About the same time, however, the Mustang was looked over by Rolls Royce engineers and test pilots. They were impressed by the great fuel capacity of the aircraft and its excellent maneuverability.

Rolls Royce was at that point starting production of the Merlin Series 60 of about the same power, size and weight as the Allison, but with far better supercharging and thus considerably better high-altitude performance. Taking it on their own initiative, Rolls engineers did the obvious, and fitted Merlin 68 engines to four Mustang Mk.IA airframes.

The result was astonishing. The transformed Mustang could outfly anything in the air including the latest British fighters, and could do so at great distances from England. A license was sold to Packard to manufacture the Merlin as the V-1650, and production of the Mustang with this engine was started immediately.

The pairing of the P-51 airframe and the Merlin engine was designated P-51B/C (B being manufactured at Inglewood, California, and C at Dallas, Texas). The new version was used in 15 fighter groups, that were part of the 8th and 9th Air Forces in England, and the 12th and 15th in Italy (which had been liberated by that time).

The main task for which the plane was used was bomber escort. It was largely due to the P-51 that daylight bombing raids deep into German territory became possible in the middle of 1944. Several hundred of the aircraft were also given to the Allied Air Forces in China and sold to Australia under lend-lease.


The P-51D was the definitive Mustang. Armament was increased with the addition of another pair of the 0.5 in (12.7 mm) guns for a total of six, the inner two on each wing having 400 rounds and the outer 270. Some aircraft had rocket pylons added to the undersides of the wings to carry up to ten rockets per plane.

The only other major concern was the very limited visibility to the rear, a problem the British had complained about. Many pilots took to fitting the canopy from later model Supermarine Spitfires to their Mustangs in order to improve the view. However, after the first examples of the P-51D had already been produced, the D series introduced an improvement consisting of a cut down rear fuselage and a "bubble" style canopy of new design which offered excellent all-round visibility. Removing the metal behind the cockpit lowered the longitudinal stability, so later in the D series a fillet was added to the front of the vertical stabilizer to improve handling.

The resulting P-51D (and RAF P-51K version which differed very slightly)became the most produced of all the Mustangs by far. The new version began to arrive in Europe in March of 1944, just in time to deploy for D-Day combat.


The original NA-73 had been built to the USAAF acceleration standard of 7.33 g (72 m/s²), which made it stronger but considerably heavier than if it had been designed for the British standard of 5.33 g (52 m/s²). Both the USAAF and the RAF were interested in lightening the plane to be more in line with the Spitfire, which was expected to boost its performance significantly.

This would result in what was basically an entirely new plane, and it gained a new name, the NA-105. Several prototypes were built with different engines from the P-51F (same engine as the D), G (Merlin 145M) and J (Allison V-1710-119) models. However none of these would go into production.

Instead the final production version would be the P-51H, using the new V-1659-9 engine, a version of the Merlin that included automatic supercharger controls and water injection for bursts of up to 2,000 hp (1,500 kW). With the new airframe several hundred pounds lighter, the extra power, and a better streamlined radiator, the P-51H was among the fastest propeller fighters ever: able to reach 487 mph (784 km/h) at 25,000 ft (7,600 m).

It was planned that the H model would become the standard fighter for the USAAF for the invasion of Japan, replacing all other models. Production was just ramping up with 555 delivered when the war ended. Additional orders already on the books were cancelled.


In 1946, the designation P-51D (P for pursuit) was changed to F-51D (F for fighter) because of a new designation scheme throughout the USAF. During the Korean War, P-51s, though obsolete as fighters, were used as tactical bombers. Because of its lighter structure, and less availability of spare parts the newer, faster P-51H was not used in Korea in place of the D model. With the planes being used for ground attack, their performance was less of a concern than their ability to carry a load.

The P-51 was adopted by many air forces; the Israeli Air Force used them in the War of Independence (1948) and in Operation Kadesh (1956). The last Mustangs were discarded by the USAF in 1957. Many remain airworthy across the globe, in private hands.

Effects of the P-51

The US effort to launch massive bombing raids into Germany took some time to build up. Based on the pre-war concept that "the bomber will always get through", their doctrine was to send in huge numbers of bombers flying in tight formation with heavy defensive gun loads.

A number of air forces had already tried this, including both the RAF and Luftwaffe. They found, contrary to Douhet's thesis, that the single engine fighters were more than able to catch a multi-engine bomber, and outgun it easily. The RAF had worried about this before the start of the war, and had decided in the mid-1930s to produce an all night-bomber force, but when the war started they had these planes operate during the day. Both forces lost so many planes during initial operations that they quickly switched to night operations.

The USAAF reasoned that their bombers' higher altitudes and more powerful defensive gun load would be enough to turn the tide in favour of the bomber. The limited numbers of B-17's made large scale operations impossible until late 1943, with only small, well-escorted raids being made in the meantime over France to shake out the crews and planes.

The numbers had improved enough by late summer of 1943 that the USAAF decided to attempt large scale operations. Picking the German ball-bearing industry as a vital choke point of aircraft production, they launched several massive raids in October that flew deep into Germany. The results were disastrous, with over 10% of the planes failing to return to England from each mission, and many more written off due to heavy damage. A few more raids and there would be no bombers left.

It was clear that the bombers required fighter escort, but no fighter had anywhere near the range of the bombers. The Lockheed P-38 Lightning came close, but this was a very expensive plane to construct and maintain. The Mustang changed all that. In general terms, the Mustang was as simple or simpler than other aircraft of its era. It used a single well-understood and reliable engine, and had internal space for a huge fuel load. With the addition of external fuel tanks it could protect the bombers all the way to Germany and back.

Numbers were available when the 8th and 9th Air Forces had re-grouped over the winter of 1943/44, and when the raids recommenced in February 1944 things changed dramatically. Bomber losses prior to that point had been primarily (in percentages at least) from rocket-firing twin-engine designs, and these were chased from the skies.

However the Luftwaffe pilots learned how to avoid the US fighters by grouping in huge numbers well in front of the bombers, then attacking in a single pass and leaving. This gave the escorting fighters little time to react. But in May a new policy was instituted which allowed the fighters to roam away from the bombers and attack the German planes wherever they were found. The numerical superiority of the USAAF fighters and the flying qualities of the P-51 made this policy highly effective, and after the Luftwaffe had suffered heavy losses both in defense of the Reich and in the failed attempt to fight off the Allied invasion in France, the US, and later British, bombers had little to fear from German day fighters after the summer of 1944.

P-51s also distinguished themselves while fighting against advanced enemy rockets and aircraft, be it V-1s that were launched into London (a P-51B/C with high-octane fuel was fast enough to catch up with one), and even the Me 163 Komet rocket interceptors and Me 262 jet fighters, though considerably faster than the P-51, weren't invulnerable. Chuck Yeager, flying a P-51D, was the first Allied pilot to shoot down a Me 262 when he surprised it during its landing approach.

The P-51s were deployed in the Far East later in 1944, and operated there both in close-support and escort missions.

Specifications (variant described)

General characteristics

  • Crew: one
  • Capacity:
  • Length: 9.83 m (32 ft 3 inch)
  • Wingspan: 11.28 m (37 ft)
  • Height: 2.64 m (8 ft 8 inch)
  • Wing area: 21.65 m² ( 233.0 ft²)
  • Empty: 3232 kg (7,125 lb)
  • Loaded: 5488 kg (12,100 lb)
  • Maximum takeoff: 5488 kg (12,100 lb)
  • Powerplant: Engine type(s), kN (lbf) thrust or
  • Powerplant: one Packard Merlin V-1650-7 V-12 piston engine, 1264-kW (1,695 hp)


  • Maximum speed: 703 km/h (437 mph)
  • Range: 3,347 km (2,080 miles)
  • Service ceiling: 12,770 m (41,900 ft)
  • Rate of climb: m/min ( ft/min)
  • Wing loading: kg/m² ( lb/ft²)
  • Thrust/weight: or
  • Power/mass:1264kW (1,695-hp)

Produced versions

  • P-51A, 310 built at Inglewood, California
  • P-51B, 650 built at Inglewood
  • P-51C, 3,750 built at Dallas, Texas
  • P-51D/K, 6,502 built at Inglewood, 1,454 built in Dallas. A total of 7,956.
  • P-51H, 555 built at Inglewood

Total number built: 15,675 (among American fighter aircraft second only to the P-47 Thunderbolt)

External links

Related content
Related aircraft

A-36 Apache - F-82 Twin Mustang - CAC Kangaroo - Cavalier Mustang - Piper PA-48 Enforcer

Similar aircraft

Supermarine Spitfire - Focke-Wulf Fw 190 - Lavochkin La-7

Designation series

XP-48 - XP-49 - XP-50 - P-51 - XP-52 - XP-53 - XP-54

Related lists

List of military aircraft of the United States - List of fighter aircraft

Lists of Aircraft | Aircraft manufacturers | Aircraft engines | Aircraft engine manufacturers

Airports | Airlines | Air forces | Aircraft weapons | Missiles | Timeline of aviation

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