Airplane buffs call historic military aircraft "warbirds." The most famous and beloved warbird of them all is the North American P-51 Mustang, the sleek U.S. WW II fighter plane that dominated the wartime skies of Europe.
P-51s were the nemesis of the Luftwaffe, shooting down 4,950 enemy aircraft while achieving a kill ratio of 11:1. It's said that when Hermann Goering learned that long-range P-51Ds were beginning to escort Eighth Air Force B-17s on bombing runs over Berlin in 1944, he told his staff, "The war is over."
In addition to its heroic war record, the P-51's graceful lines are a big part of its lasting appeal. The Mustang's long slim nose, teardrop canopy, and unique belly air scoop combine in a particularly aesthetic way. The Mustang has long been a favorite of aviation artists.
The P-51's legacy has also been kept alive by the presence of more than 150 surviving aircraft in flying condition. Millions of people have watched P-51s streak overhead and heard the unique growl of their Rolls Royce Merlin engines at air shows and the famed Reno Air Races. No other warbird still exists in such numbers.
The P-51 actually began as a project for the British. Unable to buy Curtiss P-40s, Britain signed a deal with North American Aviation in 1940 for a new long-range fighter to defend its skies against the Luftwaffe.
The first prototype Mustang, the NA-73, flew five months later. It had the Allison V-1710 engine of the P-40, but much better performance. A big reason was its "laminar flow" wing, which had less drag. The wing was shaped in such a way that the airflow over it remained smooth, or laminar, to a greater degree than standard wings.
After delivery of the first Mustangs to the British, the U.S. Army ordered its own version, the P-51A. When the U.S. entered the war, production went into full swing.
Almost immediately, the P-51A got a big upgrade: the legendary Rolls Royce Merlin supercharged V-12 engine that had powered the Spitfire and Hurricane fighters during the Battle of Britain. The Merlin, manufactured in the U.S. by Packard, gave the P-51B much better performance, especially at high altitude. It entered the war late in 1943.
The P-51D model was the first to have the teardrop canopy in place of the original greenhouse. Some 8,000 P-51Ds were built, and it has become the classic version of the Mustang, as well as its aesthetic pinnacle. The last model, the P-51H, was faster and lighter, but also uglier. It came too late to see any WWII action.
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