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P-51D Mustang: The Best Fighter Plane Ever?

P-51D
P-51D. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

What made the P-51D such a special fighter plane? So then, which warbird deserves the title of Best Fighter Plane Ever? Obviously a highly subjective matter, and one that’s going to stir to sit up some controversy no matter what answer I give, so as I type this I’m mentally prepping to duck the rotten tomatoes that some readers are bound to throw my way for my answer: the North American P-51 Mustang, more specifically the P-51D Mustang.  No, the Mustang doesn’t have the mind-boggling 104:0 air-to-air kill ratio of the F-15 Eagle, the 135:4 kill ratio of the F-14 Tomcat (sorry, Top Gun fans), or the 76:1 kill ratio of the F-16 Fighting Falcon. H

owever, will all due respect to those highly impressive warplanes and their aircrews, none of those more modern jet jockeys played a victorious role in a conflict of such sheer magnitude of WWII, ergo the P-51 DMustang gets the nod.

Other WWII Contenders for the Title

“Whoa there, Chris,” I can already hear fans of various other WWII fighter planes admonishing me, “if you’re gonna set winning ‘Dubya-Dubya Two’ as your bar, what about the (insert their favorite WWII warbird here)…”  And for the sake of being “fair & balanced” (to borrow Fox News’s catchphrase), quite a few of them have valued arguments.

There’s the P-38 Lightning, which was flown by America’s all-time Ace of Aces, Major Richard “Dick” Bong.

There’s the P-47 Thunderbolt AKA “The Flying Bathtub” AKA  “The Jug,” which was flown by America’s top two aces of the European Theatre, Francis “Gabby” Gabreski and Robert S. Johnson, and also had an unmatched reputation for ability to withstand brutal punishment and still fly home safely.

Then there’s the F6F Hellcat, which finally enabled the U.S. Navy to gain air superiority against the infamous Japanese Zero and was flown by the USN’s top ace, Commander Dave McCampbell, who scored a record-breaking 9 kills in a single day during the Battle of Leyte Gulf.

Still, others can make well-reason arguments for the F4U Corsair (Black Sheep Squadron, anyone?), the P-40 (Flying Tigers, anyone?), and so forth).

P-51D – The Game Changer

However, none of those aforementioned planes quite achieved the true game-changer status during “The Big One” that the P-51 DMustang did.

After all, it was the Mustang that supposedly prompted Reichsmarschall and Luftwaffe head honcho Hermann Goering to concede “The day I saw Mustangs over Berlin, I knew the jig was up.”

That said, when singing the praises of the Mustang’s successes, it should be specified that we’re talking about the D model here. After all, as my 1945 colleague Peter Suciu points out, “While the P-51 Mustang would go down in history as arguably the best operational piston-engined fighter ever built, and was able to provide long-range escort to U.S. heavy bombers that could the take war to the very heart of Nazi Germany, it didn’t immediately impress.”

Mr. Suciu adds: “The Mustang entered service with the RAF in 1942, and it was hardly an instant success. It was initially equipped with the Allison V-1710 liquid-cooled engine, which limited its performance at altitude. For that reason, the aircraft was primarily employed in an armed tactical reconnaissance role.”

P-51D Specfics 

Enter the P-51D, with its far more powerful Rolls-Royce Merlin engine that rectified the altitude performance issues, and a “teardrop”, or “bubble”, canopy which addressed problems with poor visibility to the rear of the earlier versions of aircraft.

These factors, combined with the six Browning .50 caliber machine guns—three in each wing—are what enabled the Mustang’s reputation to finally take off (bad pun intended).

As already indicated, the Mustang was thus able to escort the B-17 Flying Fortresses and B-24 Liberators to fly their delight precision bombing missions deep into Germany without suffering unbearable casualties via the ravages of the Luftwaffe anymore.

Meanwhile, in the Pacific Theatre of operations, P-51D pilots performed the same type of crucial escort service for the B-29 Superfortresses in their bombing raids against Japan.

Combat Record

Mustang pilots ended up shooting down a total of 4,950 enemy aircraft while more than 250 of its pilots achieved ace status, and had an average rate of 7.69 air-to-air kills.

The most famous of these pilots was Chuck Yeager—the man would go on to break the sound barrier—who scored 11.5 victories, including 5 in a single day to achieve “ace in a day status,” and even managed to shoot down a Messerschmitt 262 Schwalbe (“Swallow”) jet, the world’s first operational jet fighter.

Here I must confess my own sentimental personal bias in favor of the P-51: back in 1986, at the tender age of 11, the very first model airplane I built was a Monogram 1:48 scale P-51D; concurrently I was reading Yeager’s bestselling autobiography at the time, being enthralled by Chuck’s aforementioned WWII exploits, especially getting a kick out of his described one of his shootdowns along the lines of (paraphrasing here) “Man, I opened up that [Messerschmitt] 109 as if it were a can of Spam.”

P-51D – Beyond the Second World War

The P-51D would go on to serve admirably in the Korean War in spite of being rendered obsolescent by the Jet Age, specifically the MiG-15 fighters flown by the enemy and the F-86 Sabre that became the U.S. Air Force mainstay during the conflict.

The U.S. Air Force retired its last P-51 was retired from the U.S. Air Force in 1978, but the mighty Mustang managed to stay in service with Dominican Republic Air Force all the way up until 1984.

Roughly 175 Mustangs still flying today thanks to private collectors and restoration experts, whilst about 100 other Mustangs are on display in museums.

Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon).  Chris holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies (concentration in Terrorism Studies) from American Military University (AMU).  He has also been published in The Daily Torch and The Journal of Intelligence and Cyber Security.

Written By

Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon).

6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. Fluffy Dog

    May 30, 2022 at 1:02 pm

    @Orr the author
    You should read what you wrote. Spell checker does not check for grammar or common sense.

  2. abraham lincoln

    May 30, 2022 at 1:40 pm

    The P-47 often gets short shrift in this sort of thing. Once they got the fat bladed props, their performance improved dramatically. They could compete very well with the German planes after that. AND, in total, more planes were shot down by P-47’s than any other plane. AND, they were the greatest ground attack plane of their day.

  3. Him

    May 31, 2022 at 1:31 am

    Omission of any mention of the Spitfire, that won the “Battle of Britain”, makes it either an American-focused article, or an incomplete article.

    • Andrew M Winter

      May 31, 2022 at 12:42 pm

      Not really. The Spit was a Great Plane, but it was not suited for really long range escort duty. Much of it’s abilities can be attributed to the same thing that made the 109 and the 190 great, weight.

      The lightness of the Spitfire, like almost all the European fighters was that it didn’t carry much fuel.

      Great Plane, but it simply could not do what the Ponies could do “for as long as the P-51 could do what it did” in one flight.

      Not enough endurance.

  4. Qdjraiker

    May 31, 2022 at 10:28 am

    Really can see your bias, do you know something about the football war?, You know, the war were the F4U Corsair defeated the P-51, the only amaizing cuality of the Mustang was it’s operational range, had a average turno rate, had an average rollo rate, becaouse of the laminar flow wing had a good speed un a straig line, it looses momentum and energy during a turn, also was unbalanced, meaning, when you put drop tanks under the wings, first you neeeded to empy the internal tank, if not, the aircraft became tail heavy; there aré better aircraft over the P-51, like the P-47, the P-38, the Tempest or the F4U, or even the German aircraft like the FW 190/Ta 152, or the Do 335; please don’t go saying that the P-51 was the Best aircraft, yeah it was the most famed, but if we go for contribiution, the B-17, B-24 and the Landcaster were the ones who won the war by destroing the factorys and refinerys in Germany,

  5. Andrew M Winter

    May 31, 2022 at 2:20 pm

    The title is that it was the “best” fighter ever made. It had it’s advantages. But some correction needs to be inserted.

    The original “P-51” was not relegated to the armed recon role. It was designed as a ground attack aircraft. It was designed to have a lot of gas on board for the ability to loiter for longer periods of time. That would be this airplane:
    http://www.aviation-history.com/north-american/a36.html
    If you read this early Mustang was actually equipped with four 20mm cannon!

    The later developments into a “fighter” was an evolutionary progress. The D- model didn’t actually start “hitting the streets” if you will until mid 1944.

    Most notably this operation:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Week
    had actually achieved allied Air Superiority prior to the mass deployment of the P-51D.

    The major change was the tactic initiate by Gen Doolittle of “freeing the fighters”. Instead of keeping them close to the bombers, where it is almost impossible to stop a diving opponent from getting at least one pass on your bombers, freeing the fighters and sweeping forward of the bombers would catch the German Interceptors from actually getting to a their optimum altitude, and given that the high rate of climb needed to get to that altitude necessitated a small fuel load, which in turn reduced the endurance of most German interceptors to 90 minutes or less, the Luftwaffe lost it’s core cadre of pilots.

    Sure they could make more planes, but the body of knowledge needed to do so effectively was gone.

    What is particularly telling is that from the very first intercept the P-38 had already demonstrated the ability to out range any fighter in the Luftwaffe. The P-38 could carry so much fuel it was ridiculous. It was only the 8th Air Force that thought poorly of it. Everybody else loved it.

    So, in the end breaking the back of the Luftwaffe happened before the P-51D was deployed in numbers.

    Once freed from that fuel consuming mess of Close Escort, even the so called, “short range” P-47 could do some serious roaming around, freed from the bombers P-47s could and did roam over a great deal of Germany and could almost make it to Berlin from London, and this article makes it look like that range was with internal fuel only.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Republic_P-47_Thunderbolt#Specifications_(P-47D-40_Thunderbolt). Pretty sure that “sweeping” forward with an external drop tank would have put Berlin in range.

    So while I agree that the P-51D was the “best” propeller fighter plane ever built, I can not agree that it was the best of the entirety of WWII. It simply wasn’t there to be the best. By the time the D was available in numbers it was June of 44, D-Day was around the corner and on D-Day the Luftwaffe only managed to get two planes up over the invasion site.

    LOL Even Doolittle himself used a P-38 to get a personal first hand look at the Normandy Invasion.

    So “Best” in terms of raw capability, yeah. In terms of total effect? That has to go to the P-47. In terms of total effect around the globe? That trophy goes to the P-38.

    In terms of being a fabulous point defense interceptor? That goes to the Spitfire.

    Cool idea though. The Pony-D was a truly marvelous plane, but the D was a relative late comer.

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