about the universe forum commander Shop Now Commanders Circle
Product List FAQs home Links Contact Us

Tuesday, September 29, 2015


Steve Cole's thoughts on a surprising and little known part of military history.

The P-51 Mustang was clearly the best fighter of World War II. No other aircraft comes close. The British are fond of saying "and it was a British design" but that's just not the case. Here's the story.

North American was trying to get into the business of selling combat aircraft to the US military, but older and bigger companies had all the contracts. The British came to the US and asked to buy ground-attack fighters.  (The British had, for all practical purposes, no ground-attack aircraft in 1940 and were embarrassed that pretty much everybody else did.) The US military leadership said that all of our production was spoken for (by them). Then the US government remembered North American and suggested that the British to go to them.

North American proudly proclaims that they designed and built the first prototype in only 102 days. The reality (rarely mentioned in public) was that North American had several designs already finished, but no customers for them. When the British showed up, North American grabbed the design that was closest to what the British wanted, made minor changes (adding bomb racks), and produced the first prototype in the storied 102 days. (It did not actually fly until 45 days later. The 102-day prototype was missing a few internal parts that September day in 1940.)

The P-51A used an American engine that wasn't very good for high-altitude work, but would be good enough for the low-altitude job the British wanted it for. North American asked for a license to build British engines that were good for high-altitude work. The British (seeing no reason for high-altitude engines but happy to collect the licensing fees and the lavish praise of their superior engine) promptly handed over the designs. With the superior high-altitude engines in hand, North American then offered the P-51D to the US Army Air Forces as the long-range escort that would make bombing Germany a practical business model. The US Army Air Forces had, by that point, realized that unescorted daytime bombing formations were a very expensive proposition involving lots of lost aircraft and lost aircrew. The P-51D provided the missing element that made daytime bombing successful. (Well, sort of successful. Fighters did not improve the accuracy of bombing, which was lucky to put one bomb in 10 into the targeted factory.)

And so, my British friends, thanks for the engine that won the air war. Consider that payback for World War I, when the US built no fighter planes but provided the French and British with superb engines that greatly improved their fighters.