The Remarkable Story of the Mustang
In August 1943, the cloudy skies over Europe were a place of death. Black smoke bursts, burning planes and dying airmen. At over 25,000 feet, the most vicious air battle in history was unfolding. Massive air armadas numbering hundreds of American B-17 Flying Fortress and B-24 Liberator bombers, shimmering sliver with gaudy colours, were pitted against swarms of German fighter pilots determined to defend the Fatherland.
At stake was the outcome of World War II. A failure to beat the Luftwaffe — the Nazi air force — and bomb its factories of war would make the D-Day landings a doubtful affair. However, things were not going to plan. Deep raids into Germany to attack vital strategic targets like the ball bearings plants at Schweinfurt had been failures. The U.S. Eight Force had sent 291 bombers from their English bases. Sixty did not make it home, shot down by fighters and flak guns. Another 17 planes landed but so severely damaged they were written off, and 121 others were damaged needing repair. Twenty-six percent of the attacking force was lost, representing 650 airmen out of 2,200 that set out that morning. It took almost two years to aircrew, and now a quarter of them were gone in an afternoon.
What had gone wrong? The bravery of the crews was without question. They attacked targets, again and again, losing planes daily. But even their morale had limits. Laying in their bunks on rainy English bases, empty cots of their friends around them, they could do the math. A U.S. combat tour was 25 bombing missions; with losses between 15 to 25 percent, the chances of finishing a tour were near impossible.
If the men had not failed, their leader had. In the 1930s, politicians were scared witless by experts and top brass who had been purveyors of doom. The air force Generals — and a horde of armchair strategists- had created a doctrine of the bomber’s supremacy. They believed the “bomber would always get through.” They had turned that doctrine into weapons of war. America had designed, tested and built giant four-engined bombers sprouting up to a dozen heavy machine guns. Thousands were now streaming off production lines in Tulsa, Long Beach (C.A.), Seattle, Detroit and Forth Worth (TX). With crews of 10 trained men: pilot, co-pilot, navigator-radioman, bombardier and six gunners. The Generals believed these magnificent planes, flying high, fast and heavily armed, could battle their way to the target and back without significant losses.
Now the mangled U.S. Eight Force had paid the price for that failed idea. The solution was obvious. The bombers would need fighter escort deep into Germany and on the way home. The problem was that most single-engined fighters of the day were short-range interceptors. The famous British Spitfire might have won the Battle of Britain but had short legs with an only 1,100-mile range. Flying from its bases, it could barely make halfway into occupied France.
The U.S. had its stable of fighters, but none of them met the bill. The twin-engined P-38 fighter had the range but proven to be a combat disappointment, unable to best the German Me-109 and Fw-190s. Meanwhile, the “Jug” P-47 Thunderbolt was massive, sturdy with eight .50 caliber machine guns. However, it only had the range to escort the bombers to the German borders and no further. Even when fitted with “drop tanks” -disposable gasoline fuel tanks that were jettisoned when attacked by German fighters- it could not make it beyond Bremen or Frankfurt.
All too often, the bomber crews would watch helplessly as their “little friends,” fighter escort reached the limit of their fuel and turned for home. They knew, now the waiting Nazi fighters would pounce like wolves.
What was needed was a miracle “bird,” a light, fast and maneuverable fighter, able to sweep the enemy’s skies but had the legs for long-range escort of the bombers to Hitler’s Berlin and back. The deliverance would come in an unwanted plane, hurriedly designed and built, twice rejected by both the U.S. and British, and then relegated to a subordinate role. Designed by a German but know to history as the P-51 Mustang, the most iconic American aircraft ever made.
Born in 1899, in a small town outside Zweibruken near the French border, Edgar Schmued was an immigrant to America. Fleeing the chaotic Weimar Republic with its hyperinflation and political turmoil, he emigrated first to Brazil and then landed in New York in 1930. A gifted airplane engineer, he worked at the Fokker, then the General Motors aircraft plant in New Jersey. Edgar endeavoured to learn English, even though most of his fellow designers were Germans and Dutch speakers. Years later his English proficiency exam was his most prized award. Hard-working, taciturn, inventive and technically superb, Edgar faced dim prospects in Depression America. His saving grace came in a move to California to work for the new North American Aviation company.
In the 1930s, the Californian aviation industry was the Silicon Valley of its day. Since the Wright brothers first flew at Kitty Hawk, the flight had mesmerized an entire generation. The best engineers wanted to build aero planes, faster, sleeker and to fly longer. The boldest men and women sought to pilot them. Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart and Richard E. Byrd were the heroes of the age. Consolidated, Douglas, Northrop, North American -all to become household in the coming war- were talent magnets. All based in Southern California, they had come for the cheap real-estate and sunny weather, which made for excellent test flying.
James Kindelberger was the President of North American Aviation. Known to his friends as “Dutch.” He was a maverick in an industry of originals. Suave, larger than life, a gifted engineer and influencer in the byzantine military procurement world. However, he was also a visionary. Starting his career building flimsy biplanes, he was responsible for propelling American into sleek, all-metal monoplanes. He advocated for jet technology and ended his career on the edge of spaceflight with the hypersonic X15 rocket plane. His Vice President was Lee Atwood, his second in command. Quieter, less flashy, he was an engineer but also a builder of the company. He ensured what they designed could be built, and even mass produced. Together, they were a winning team. Edgar Schmued thrived as a designer under this inspired partnership. Leading teams of aeronautical engineers, in the 1930s, they designed and built several fighters, trainers and bombers. The Harvard T-6 Trainer was most famous, an advanced trainer in service until the 1970s with over 15,000 built.
Over in Europe, the clouds of war loomed. Hitler possessed the most formidable air force in the world, with over 3,000 modern aircraft. In 1940, he would use it to smash France, Norway and Low Countries. Britain would be alone. In desperation, Churchill looked to neutral America to build modern fighters he urgently needed. In April, the Americans offered the British the Curtiss P-40 Tomahawk, a proven design but already dated and no match for German fighters. With nothing else on offer and production of P-40s already stretched, the RAF ask “Dutch” Kindelberger if he could build more Tomahawks to fight the Nazis.
Dutch had a different idea. An idea that had been brewing in North American Aviation.
He asked Edgar, “Ed, do we want to build P-40s here?”
“Well, Dutch, don’t let us build an obsolete airplane. Let’s build a new one. We can design a better one.” Edgar said.
Edgar later wrote that he had been driven by “a burning ambition to build the best fighter…(in the world).”
For years he had been making lots of sketches of the ideal plane: cockpit, engine, gun installations and layout. All that was missing were performance wings, fuselage and tail section.
“When the time came, we were ready” he said.
However, there was a snag; the new aircraft would have to take its maiden flight in 100 days — a punishing schedule. Drawing board to a flying fighter. Everyone knew every day mattered. In June 1940, France surrendered. It was only a matter of time before Hitler turned his Luftwaffe against Britain.
However, the task was huge. The revolutionary plane would require 2,800 drawings — all painstakingly hand-drawn- and 41,880 hours to manufacture the parts and built the prototype. Working seven days a week, Schmued’s team had already fabricated a full-size wooden mock-up of the war-winning fighter a mere two weeks. Based on the initial plans and the wooden model, the British agreed to buy 400 planes based on a paper promise of superior performance.
Like all great innovations, the Mustang is a mixture of borrowed, new and bold pulled off under a stringent deadline. The tail section was a scaled-up version of the Harvard T-6 and NA-35 trainers, which also inspired the simple instrumentation layout. In an era where accidents often lost more planes than combat, the team insisted on a wide 11-foot landing gear making landings on rough airstrips less hazardous. The cockpit designed around the pilot, what we would call today “human-centred design” where Dutch insisted that the P-51 must be “the fastest plane you can build around a man that is 5 feet 10 inches and weighs 140 pounds.”
The key to making the Mustang fast was its sleek aerodynamic fuselage. The bird had to be shaped to slice through the air causing the least amount of drag. As Edgar said years later, “an airplane has to be designed in such a manner that the air can flow evenly around the body…(using)…smooth curves.” Other than the wing and tail section, the plane’s entire fuselage were designed as conical sections, flawlessly aerodynamic with only the thinnest of aluminum skins (about 1mm thick), further reducing drag, making it more fuel-efficient. Even the belly radiator used the air intake was designed with the Meredith effect. A first on an airplane, the cooling duct, rather than creating drag, actually made thrust pushing the Mustang forward.
The most revolutionary technology on the plane was the wing. Since the Wright brothers, all aircraft had a traditional shape: chunkier at the front raised slightly in the middle and tapering off to a thin trailing edge. This design creates lift as the air flows slower on the underside than the upper surface. When you build a slow canvas and wooden biplane, this layout is ideal, making the aircraft climb into the air. However, as you fly faster above 300 mph, this shape recreates turbulence and drag. The solution is a laminar flow: a flatten symmetrical teardrop design, with the thickest part in the middle of the wing, making the airflow less uninterrupted over the wing’s contour.
Today, laminar flow wings are standard on high-performance jets and airliners. In 1940, it was still untested. The Mustang was the first production aircraft in history to use this radical design. Schmued choice of using a laminar flow wing was a bold one. However, after 6,000 hours, various configurations, numerous tests at the California Institute of Technology’s wind tunnel at Pasadena and Seattle, they had perfected a laminar flow wing. The bird had wings.
After 102 days, the team of fifty engineers, fabricators and draftsmen had built a plane — just two more than planned. However, there was a problem: it had no engine. The makers of the Allison 1,150-hp engine used on the Tomahawk did not believe anyone could build a new plane from scratch in 100 days and so did not deliver one. However, 18 days later, the engine arrived, and on October 26th, the Mustang first took to the air.
However, the Allison engine was not ideal. Old, lackluster at attitude, it would hobble this thoroughbred for three more years. When delivered to the RAF, pilots were impressed but had concerns. The Mustang was faster than the British Mk Vb Spitfire, had twice the range (990 miles) and more maneuverable. It had a top speed of 387 m.p.h., at a time when Nazi’s Messerschmitt’s were doing 355 m.p.h. However, its performance tailed off above 20,000 feet, Europe’s combat attitudes because of the Allison engine. This performance ceiling limitation meant the early Mustangs could not be an effective fighter and relegated them to low-attitude reconnaissance missions. Similarly, the U.S. Army Airforce was busy with a host of new planes, saw the Mustang only as low-level ground attack aircraft, ordering it in limited numbers. It seemed the Mustang was doomed to minor role, one of the hundreds of planes built during World War II.
Stand forward, the next hero is this tale: Lieutenant Colonel Tommy Hitchcock. Polo champion, Harvard and Oxford Graduate and World War I Fighter pilot, Tommy was the all-star American. He is even rumoured to be the inspiration for Daisy’s husband, Tom Buchanan, in Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby.
In the summer of 1942, Tommy was posted to London as air force attaché as the Eighth Force bombing squadrons were still beginning to be formed. The war was shifting from the defensive, where the short-range Spitfire could dominate, to a bomber offensive over Germany, new thinking was needed. As the Mustang was heavier, sturdier with a more extended range than Spitfire IX it might still be a winner except for the Allison engine. Having flown both fighters, Tommy suggested, “A cross-breeding of the Mustang with the Merlin 61 engine (fitted the Spitfire IX) would produce the best fighter plane in the Western Front.”
After much persuading, Tommy managed to convince the Rolls Royce plant, makers of the Merlin, in Nottingham to built four experimental Merlin-Mustangs hybrids. He flew one just after the test pilot and described it as “hot stuff.” A legend was born. The marriage between the British Rolls-Royce Merlin engine -arguably the war’s best aero powerplant- and Edgar streamlined design unleashed Mustang’s power. At last, there was a high-altitude, long-range fighter escort that could protect the bombers and take to the fight to the enemy.
But not quite. Bureaucracies are potent things. Back in the U.S. Tommy launched a campaign to get the Merlin-Mustangs into production. He faced an uphill battle against proponents of the Allison engine. He lobbied General Hap Arnold, commander of the air force, but he was unmoved. The Allison engine was American, it was mass production. His experts said it was good enough. Furthermore, Tommy had no data to prove the Merlin-Mustang was a war winner. Impressions of pilots do not convince the corridors of power.
Tommy was depressed. Hardly sleeping, he waited for the performance figures to arrive from England. In the meantime, he contacted everyone he knew in Washington. One old friend and World War I veteran flier was Robert Lovett. Now the undersecretary of war for air. Having flown with the British, he knew Rolls-Royce engines to be reliable, and that Packard could manufacture the Merlin 61 under license. Years later, he remembered, “We could not fool around with an inferior product when a superior one was available.” In fact, so high up did the lobbying go that President Roosevelt sent a memo to Arnold that inquiring about the Merlin-Mustang hybrid? Days later, Arnold was pleased to report to the Commander in Chief that 2,200 of the newly christened P-51 B had just been ordered.
Back in Europe, things were not going well. Bomber losses were mounting. Flying in huge “box” formations up to 300 B-17 and B-24 at a time, American bombers were being torn to ribbons by German fighters — many of them veterans of the Battle of Britain, Russia and Mediterranean. They tried first to “super-size” the defensive armament by adding more machine guns to the bombers, but it did not work. The resulting planes were even more unwieldy, slower and better targets for the enemy. Success now hinged on the need for a long-range escort, and here again, the Californian team worked their magic.
Schmued and his team, had already coaxed a 4.75-hour endurance out of the P-51 B. By comparison, a Spitfire could fly for less than three hours. This impressive feat was achieved by 184 gallons carried onboard fuel tanks with another 150 gallons drop tanks under each wing. However, five hours was still not good enough.
“This (P-51 B) was an airplane destined to fly escort missions to Berlin, “ Edgar wrote. He was determined to find a way. The solution was to install an 85-gallon fuel tank directly behind the pilot. His original conical fuselage design paid off again. Being able to squeeze the tank just behind the armour plate. This tank made the handling of the aircraft sloppy on take-off. However, once 30 gallons were burnt off, the plane regained its light handling. More importantly, the magic had been realized. A superior fighter plane that could fly for 7 1/2 hours. Long enough to escort the bombers deep into Germany.
On March 4th, 1944, 121 Mustang protected the bombers to Berlin and back for the first time. With a top speed of 437 mph at 25,000 feet, magnificent performance, the German day-fighters became the hunted, not the hunters. Luftwaffe losses mounted; bomber losses declined. In May, P-51 D -the definitive model- with a clear bubble canopy was sent to squadrons. Elegant, silver and smooth, with dark paint in front of the pilot, the Mustang became the finest piston-engined fighter of the war. As Reichmarschall Hermann Goering, head of Nazi Germany’s Luftwaffe, said, “When I saw those Mustangs over Berlin, I knew that the war was lost.”
When the guns fell silent in Europe in May 1945, Edgar Schmued’s design had surpassed all expectations. Mustangs shot down 4,950 of the 10,720 enemy planes felled by Americans in Europe. They had also destroyed 4,131 Nazi aircraft on the ground. Mustangs also shot down 230 V-1 “buzz bombs,” the modern cruise missile’s ancestor and several of Germany’s revolutionary jet fighters. Although, used in the pacific war against Japan, it is in Europe where the Mustang earned its fame.
All this was achieved by an innovator who sketched, doodled and knew the world would need a rabbit in the hat when times darkened.
About the Author
Simon Trevarthen is Founder and Chief Inspiration Officer of Elevate Your Greatness (EYG). EYG helps individuals, teams, and organizations unpack the secrets of success by becoming even better versions of themselves through dynamic keynotes, seminars, and workshops on innovation, inspiration and presentation excellence.