Perhaps the most influential warplane of all time, the P-51 Mustang is still one of the most beloved aircraft in the air show circuit today. Seventy years past its prime, the Mustang remains a steadfast and prominent part of air shows, only occasionally and temporarily overshadowed by the appearance of a modern fighter jet. Reliable and distinguished, people who know the P-51 recognize it and greet it the way they do an old friend - with respect and admiration. Why do people love the Mustang so much? After decades of innovation and an abundance of new sleek, capable aircraft, why do people still marvel at the sound of the Merlin engine?
A war hero…
The Mustang is an airplane with a story. It's a war hero - a sigh of relief in a dark time, a ray of sunshine that helped end an uncertain era in our nation's history. It's quick, easy on the eyes and music to our ears. The P-51 Mustang is so well loved and so respected because it tells the story of innovation, speed, valor and beauty during a time of difficulty.
As the first aircraft designed around a laminar flow wing, the Mustang was ahead of its time. And it wasn't just the 425+ mile per hour airspeed that made it impressive. The aircraft was rolled out in record time -about 100 days - making it one of the fastest aircraft to be produced, even during wartime. In a 1943 Popular Science article, author Andrew Boone predicted, "When the history of this war is written, there may be a hundred days underlined in red pencil - a period in which a young engineer and a veteran designer took a theory on airflow and turned it into the deadliest change-of-pace fighter airplane this stage of the war has yet produced." He was right.
The production of the P-51 was a demonstration of our nation's ability not only to innovate, but to innovate rapidly and on demand. The P-51 was designed by request of the British Purchasing Commission, and around 100 days after signing the first contract with the British Purchasing Commission, North American rolled out the first P-51, initially dubbed the NA-73X.
The British ordered 320 more aircraft from North American in March 1940, and soon after, America jumped on board, too. The U.S. Army Air Force took possession of its first Mustangs in March 1942. The airplane flew in every theater during World War II and continued to serve throughout the Korean War. By the end of World War II, it had destroyed 4,950 enemy aircraft - more enemy aircraft than any other fighter aircraft in Europe.
There's no doubt that the P-51 Mustang, with its numerous capabilities, had a tremendous effect on the outcome of the war. But we should give credit where credit is due, and the Merlin V-1650 engine, originally designed by Rolls Royce, was a game-changer.
Early on, the P-51 was fitted with an Allison V-1710 engine and used as a dive-bomber and for reconnaissance missions. But the Allison engine, as good as it was, lacked performance at high altitudes, and in 1942, Mustangs were fitted with more powerful 1,430-hp Packard-built Merlin V-1650 engines. The aircraft's capabilities expanded greatly, marking a turning point in the war.
With the Merlin engine, the P-51 could fly up to 441 miles per hour at almost 30,000 feet. Flying at altitudes without losing power made the Mustang capable of both long-range, high altitude escort missions as well as its low-altitude reconnaissance missions that it was known for.
The sound of the Merlin engine is one that's not easily forgotten. It's a slow, rumbling sound that sneaks up on you, maybe startles you, only to put you at ease, knowing that behind the whir of the engine is the sound of victory that many people know and remember. In a 1943 article in Popular Mechanics, the author describes the airplane as fast and quiet. "There is no distant engine drone, growing louder as the plane approaches, but a sudden screaming roar overheard and the wild horse is upon you."
Today, we marvel at the history and the airplane and the sound of the Merlin, but we also stand in awe of an airplane that is not only fast and practical, but absolutely stunning to look at. With its bubble canopy, its sleek lines and silver wings... the P-51 Mustang is simply one of the most beautiful airplanes in the word.
Never has an airplane surpassed the P-51 when it comes to utility and beauty in one. It's strong and powerful, yet quiet and elegant. It's a natural performer, and it demands respect without the dog and pony show. For those who witnessed its prowess during the war, it's evocative. For the others who marvel at it during air shows today, those who can only look into its past and wonder, it's an airplane with a strange pull, an often unexplained attraction.
You may wonder why you're so drawn to an airplane that is before your time, why this particular airplane is such a showstopper. Because whether you know the history of the airplane or not, the Mustang is an airplane that stops you in your tracks. Its beauty captivates you, lures you in, and makes you want to hear its story. And it's a story worth repeating, air show after air show.