Development Of The Long Range Fighter, P-51 Mustang

Classic Publications, Hersham, Surrey, U.K., 2003, $56.95

As is customary now-a-days, I must first offer a disclaimer about this book, for I had some very modest input to its creation. The author, an old friend, came to me with a huge manuscript, some 250,000 to 300,000 words as I recall, and asked for my opinion. I told him that he was a brave man to try to write yet another book on the Mustang, and that the size of the book would be off-putting to publishers. However, his approach to the P-51 was very different than other authors, and I encouraged him to find a way to shorten the book, but keep the same original angle that he had developed.

Having said this, it is now my pleasure to say that the author has done a magnificent job in creating a new and fascinating book on the North American P-51 Mustang, one that is filled with facts, photos and superb color illustrations that will be new to almost every Mustang fan, and enhanced by foreword from that eminent Mustang Ace, Colonel Don Blakesee.

Ludwig begins his task by detailing the attitude of the U.S. Army Air Corps in the 1920s and 1930s toward bombers (preferred) and pursuits, as fighters were then called (a necessary evil, useful for ground attack.) This attitude was fostered by the Air Corps Tactical School, which developed and maintained the theory that a well-armed formation of bombers would always be able to fight their way to the target. The corollary to this theory was that it was physically impossible to develop a long-range escort fighter that would be capable of defeating the shorter-range enemy interceptors it would meet en-route to the target.

There were some proponents of the pursuit as an escort fighter, and these included Claire Chennault. Small numbers of escort fighters were built, including the Berliner Joyce P-16, the Consolidated PB-2 and its predecessors, and the Bell Airacuda, which was exciting in appearance if not performance. But for the most part, a failure to create the necessary engines, and a lack of research into the requirements for the long range mission handicapped the thinking of leaders in the Air Corps and in industry.

Ludwig is at his best (and most controversial) when laying out the details of the creation of the Mustang, and he will certainly irk those who maintain that the Curtiss XP-46 was the fountainhead of Mustang creation.

The story of the XP-46, particularly its wind-tunnel experiments in the Langley Field wind-tunnel, are of particular interest.

What is perhaps most surprising is the attenuated period during which Air Corps leaders persisted in their belief that a long-range fighter was essentially impossible. It was not until March 27, 1940 that the first official requirement for an escort fighter was created. Even then, a misunderstanding of what was achievable with current technology led to the creation of such failures as the Boeing XB-40 and Consolidated XB-41. Both were merely very heavily armed variants of the B-17 and B-24, respectively, and neither had the performance to match that of standard bomber formations.

The author’s account of the development of the Packard-built version of the Rolls-Royce Merlin is both succinct and comprehensive, and is a valuable addition to the book. His discussion of the adverse effect of Wright Field personnel on the acquisition of the P-51 will certainly cause comment, for Ludwig does not pull any punches, attributing a hostile attitude on the part of (later) Major General Oliver P. Echols as a major cause for the lack of Army Air Forces interest in the Mustang.

The book builds in interest, as it describes the success of the early P-51s as a low-altitude fighter, the increasingly high regard of the RAF for the aircraft, and then, in a tour-de-force chapter, bitter in-fighting which led ultimately to the installation of the Packard-built Rolls-Royce engine, a modification that resulted in what many consider to be the best piston-engine fighter of World War II.

As the author points out, even the radical change in performance did not immediately change the official attitude toward the Mustang. Competitors, such as the ill-fated Fisher XP-75 were still touted, and even when the Merlin-engined P-51s became available, they were initially assigned to the 9th Air Force for close-air support duties.

At last, of course, common sense prevailed, and the P-51 became the long-range escort fighter that led the way in destroying the Luftwaffe and establishing daytime air superiority over Europe. Part of this success was attributable to North American’s willingness to adapt the Mustang to new ideas, and part to the long-delayed and much neglected acquisition of sizeable drop tanks to extend range.

This is a very satisfying book, well documented, and showing considerable research into primary sources. There is enough operational material to satisfy those who want to know what the aces did with the airplane, but Ludwig’s real strength is realistically depicting the many hurdles that the Mustang had to overcome before beginning its career as a war-winning fighter.