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The P-51 Mustang: An Allied Advantage

Seventy years ago, the country was deep into World War Two, and the US was on the offensive in the air.  Commentator Dan Patterson says that the big US four engine bombers were being shot down in shocking numbers.

Think about this: on one mission, we lost sixty bombers.  That's six hundred men.  It was just too much.

The US needed a fighter plane with long pegs, one that could go all way deep into Germany and protect the bombers, essentially win the air war and provide the long sought after supremacy of the air.

The German Luftwaffe, their air force, was now fighting for their own country, and they were ferocious in combat.  They devised tactics which included firing rockets, dropping bombs onto the bombers and flying at very high speed through the formations of large, slow airplanes, firing with machine guns and big cannons.

It was a combination of American and British industry. The ability to go the distance and dog fight at twenty thousand feet required a truly allied effort.

The US theory that the bombers would always get through was proven wrong, and for a time the Army Air Force drew back.  They needed help, and help was on the way.  It was the P-51 Mustang. 

Everyone was betting on the Mustang.  It was a combination of American and British industry.  The ability to go the distance and dog fight at twenty thousand feet required a truly allied effort.  The best aircraft engine in the world was the British Rolls Royce Merlin.  It was married to the world's best fighter design, provided by North American Aviation.

In a 1942 test, it proved to be the essential fighter, the air craft to defeat the Germans anywhere, at any altitude.  There were growing pains, but by then American industry was running at full steam.  The cobwebs and rust from the Great Depression had been pushed aside and, as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had named it, the Arsenal of Democracy was in high gear.

In late 1943, the P-51 Mustang arrived in England.  They were transported on ships and then assembled by the Army Air Force mechanics.  Slowly, too slow for the air crews, the Mustangs were deployed to the fighter squadrons. The training and orientation process was shortened as much as possible.  Once the pilots learned how to fly their new fighter and take advantage of its superiority, operations began in February of 1944, seventy years ago right now. 

Credit Dan Patterson
A Mustang in flight

The commanders had also rethought tactics and gave the fighter leaders much more freedom to pursue the Germans and take the war to them.  The results were swift, and they were sure. Bomber losses began to decline, and American fighter pilots started adding up aerial victories. 

In late February, the bomber forces attacked the German aircraft industry relentlessly.  In early March, they flew all the way to Berlin with the escorting Mustangs able to go all the way to the target and back.

Superiority of the air was also essential to being able to launch the invasion of Europe by the Allies under the command of General Eisenhower.  Between February and late May, just before the invasion, the German fighter forces had taken a huge beating.  On D-Day, June 6, 1944, there were only a handful of attacks by German planes and they were not very effective. 

While General Eisenhower was looking over the Normandy beaches, late in June 1944, and asked if he had control over the air, by a young Lieutenant General Eisenhower, Ike's son, the General responded, "If I didn't have air superiority, I wouldn't be here."

Dan Patterson is an aviation historian and photographer. You can see more of his photos at his website, www.flyinghistory.com

Aviation programming on WYSO is supported in part by the National Aviation Heritage Alliance and The Air Force Museum Foundation.