The Iconic P-51 Mustang: The Fighter That Destroyed Hitler’s Luftwaffe and Won the War

Last month, I had yet another opportunity to ride in and fly one of the most iconic military aircraft of all time, the North American P-51 Mustang. Sadly, it did not happen. Maybe next year!

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The chance to ride in a P-51 materializes yearly when the Collings Foundation and its “Wings of Freedom” nationwide tour of restored World War II aircraft lands at nearby Moffett Field. For nearly a week, the public has the opportunity of getting up-close-and-personal with several “survivors” from the mass post-war scrapping of airplanes which defeated Hitler and Japan not so long ago.

The Betty Jane P-51 is a flying survivor from 1945, one of the very few Mustangs outfitted with two seats and dual flight controls (that’s her pictured above in a Collings Foundation photo and below, in one of mine). For $2200 along with a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” attitude, a visitor can reserve a half-hour ride over the San Francisco bay area in that venerable war-bird along with the opportunity of briefly guiding her through a gentle turn or two.

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Linda and I took our two young grandsons to Moffett for an afternoon of gawking at and clambering through the foundation’s B-17 Flying Fortress and B-24 Liberator bombers. These two aircraft were the major weapons used to dismantle Hitler’s war machine by destroying German factories, airfields, and infrastructure. Implementing a revamped allied strategy in late 1943, these four-engine airplanes commenced attacking the civilian populations of Berlin, Hamburg, and Dresden in a successful effort to erode the German people’s support of Hitler’s war effort. The Collings Foundation’s B-24, Witchcraft, is the lone remaining flying example of its genre (close to nineteen-thousand of them were built during the war)!

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The B-17 Flying Fortress was the more storied of the two workhorse bombers early in the war, and the Foundation’s Nine O’Nine is a beautiful example. It was anticipated that the multiple 50 caliber machine guns protruding from the aptly named “Fortress” would provide an adequate defense against German fighter-interceptors. That soon proved to be misplaced idealism as the Luftwaffe and flak from the ground took its toll on the “heavies.”

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But the airplane on the tour that, as in years past, captured my imagination even more than the others, was the Betty Jane. The P-51 Mustang rapidly became the best friend of the B-17 and B-24 bomber crews who flew mission after mission in large formations from their airfields dotting Great Britain’s countryside. Their destination: Targets deep into German airspace. Earlier in the war, the slow-flying four-engine bombers and their deadly cargo were initially escorted during the long flight into Germany by allied fighter planes like the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt, a plane of limited flying range and mediocre maneuverability. Typically, well before the heavy bombers reached their targets over Germany, the fighter escorts were forced to break-off and return to base due to their limited range (fuel). At that point, the bomber formations became sitting ducks for the agile and deadly German fighter planes which came up to meet them.

The P-51 Mustang: Just-In-Time Delivery to Allied Fighter Groups

The deeper the penetration into German airspace, the greater the allied bomber losses. The turning point came during the infamous raid over Regensburg, Germany, where 60 bombers were lost, each with a ten-man crew – 600 men. Just at this critical point, the newly-developed P-51 Mustang reached operational status and became available to the fighter groups based in England. Designed from the get-go to be a superior fighter, the P-51 was just that. With its fine maneuverability and the powerful, in-line, twelve cylinder, liquid-cooled engine conceived by Rolls-Royce but built under license by the Packard motor car company in the United States, the Mustang was superior to its German counterparts, the Messerschmidt Me 109 and the Focke-Wulf 190.

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 A German Me 109 caught in the gun cameras of a P-51

 Critically important was the Mustang’s superior range, aided by external, under-the-wing, drop-tanks carrying fuel. Now, the bombers had an escort fighter which could not only accompany them deep into German territory in a defensive, protective posture, but could inflict losses on the Luftwaffe as its pilots attacked the bomber formations. In this dual sense, it can justifiably be said that the P-51 both destroyed the Luftwaffe and won the war by allowing the “heavies” to reach and destroy their targets.

At about that time, allied commanders expanded bombing targets to include the populations of Berlin, Hamburg, and Dresden. Late in the war, General Jimmy Doolittle also famously altered the successful defensive role of the P-51 from solely  a long-range bomber escort by ordering the fighter groups to adopt a more offensive posture, attacking Luftwaffe fighters wherever they could be found. The mandate was to leave the bomber formations, when feasible, and destroy the German interceptors before they could locate and reach and the bombers. Doolittle wanted to strafe and destroy German planes on the ground – at their airfields – when possible. The goal: To gain complete air superiority prior to the planned ground invasions central to D-Day. The Luftwaffe was nowhere to be seen by D-Day, thanks in large part to the effective dual role of the P-51 both as bomber escort and Luftwaffe killer.

Firing-Up the Big Packard Engine of Betty Jane

As my grandsons and I stood outside the roped area, a mere 50 feet from Betty Jane, the pilot fired up the big Packard-built twelve-cylinder engine sporting a large, four-bladed propeller. The pilot yelled “clear” from the cockpit, the big prop started to turn, and the engine came to life after belching smoke and the usual series of backfires. The engine sounded a throaty roar as Betty Jane moved out toward the taxi-way. My grandsons held their ears…I did not and drank it all in. In my mind’s eye, I could imagine the emotions of a pilot on the flight line at Leiston, England, bringing that big engine to life en-route to yet another bomber escort mission over Germany in 1944/45. Despite the huge war effort and all the backing provided by the allies for combat flight operations, out there on the flight line, as the engine coughed, sputtered, roared to life, and the canopy closed, it was one man in one machine – very far from home. The pilot was about to face the uncertainties of weather, navigation, and his enemy counterparts who would be out there, somewhere, waiting for him and the opportunity to shoot him and his machine out of the sky.

For me, it is difficult to conjure up a more daring and exhilarating human experience than that encountered by those flyers in World War II. For them at the time, there surely seemed nothing “romantic” about the deadly task they faced – only a sense of high adventure and “what the hell, I hope I come back from this one!” I have read the late-life accounts of some who flew Mustangs against the German Luftwaffe and lived to tell about it. Despite some surely ugly recollections of killing and death which stubbornly remain, time dulls many of the sharp edges – as it always does – for these men. These flyers are revered by the public for their courage, daring, and skill during wartime, and that is appropriate. Despite old age and the challenges of settling down after flying, these warriors possess indelible and precious memories of that time in their young lives when they and their machines defied the great odds stacked against them. Those who flew the P-51 Mustang, to a man, relate their admiration of and gratitude to the airplane that saw them through.

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Lt. Jim Brooks and his P-51, February – 1945

Perhaps next year, when the Collings Foundation tour returns, I will have an extra $2200 to go up in Betty Jane as well as the requisite moxie to do so. I cannot think of a greater, more meaningful thrill.

The Sky Warriors: In Memoriam

Monday, May 27, is Memorial Day, a time to reflect on those living and dead who have served our country. Our debt of gratitude is great to all of them. I am particularly intrigued by those who took to the skies in the Second World War; that period has always fascinated me. As I write this, I am currently reminded of the intrepid sky warriors of that war by the unusual sounds heard overhead the last few days, the unmistakable heavy drone of multi-engine aircraft periodically flying over the house. When not engaged in something pressing, I more often than not drop what I am doing and run out the front or patio door to gawk once more at what I know to be the source – one of the iconic heavy bombers from the 1940’s. I have been doing this drill for some years, now.

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The Collings Foundation is back in town for several days with it’s “Wings of Freedom” tour, part of an annual pilgrimage across the country. The tour features one of the few flyable examples left in the world of both the mighty B-17 Flying Fortress and the once ubiquitous B-24 Liberator. It is difficult to resist the urge to run outside to see one of these legendary “warbirds” lumbering fairly low over the neighborhood on early approach to the runway at nearby Moffett Field. The foundation, true to its mission, keeps these icons flying (no small task) by touring the country and charging a nominal admission to walk through the aircraft or $400 for a brief ride in one of them.

 Linda and I made the short trip to Moffett Field a few years ago to see these planes up-close and personal. We chose a weekday, early in the morning when there were few other people out and about other than the daily commute. We were rewarded with a leisurely and thought-provoking, self-guided experience clambering around within the bowels of each of these legendary airplanes. Unlike so many typical “airshow experiences” where the sheer press of people in line behind you necessitates a hurried look before quickly moving on, we were able to linger in the bellies of these beasts and truly visualize, to the limited extent possible, what those intrepid flyers must have felt each and every time they clambered aboard their aircraft for yet another dangerous bombing mission.

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For many, it was to be their last. Death came quickly in the skies, usually in the form of German fighter aircraft in the skies over Europe or shrapnel from the deadly flak-shell explosions which enveloped these aircraft as they lumbered to and from their targets. Many a crew was lost when a tail or wing was sheared off by shrapnel. In such a situation, the plane quickly spun wildly out of control as it plunged to earth literally pinning the crew within its confines and rendering their parachutes useless.

 What stories they tell, those who survived the overall experience! I recall quite vividly one evening in the mid-1950’s when a very good friend of my father came one evening to visit. He, like dad, was employed at United Airlines and was working his way up the ladder. They had enrolled together in a calculus night class at San Mateo Junior College some years prior. He happened to be in San Francisco on business and was invited to the house for dinner that evening. At my parent’s urging, he recounted his war experiences during dinner. He was flying a B-24 Liberator on a critical and quite famous bombing mission over German territory. Their target was the German oil supply and the Ploesti oil fields.

 His aircraft was shot down by flak as I recall. He parachuted safely down only to be captured by the Germans and held for a considerable period of time. I cannot recall whether he escaped from the prison camp or was ultimately set free after the war. I was but a young teenager at the time of his visit, but I listened intently to his story and asked some questions about his experiences. As interested as I was, it seemed to me at the time that the Second World War was already ancient history, yet what I was hearing had happened a mere ten years prior – oh, the time-warp of youth. Would that I could talk to him today! He later worked his way up the ranks at United Airlines and became a vice-president stationed in Chicago; alas, we rarely saw him after that.

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Linda and I had the good fortune to meet a volunteer at Moffett Field who, like my dad’s good friend, had plenty of war stories to relate to a gathering throng beneath a wing of the Collings B-24J, Witchcraft, the only one still flying of the original 6,687 J-type aircraft built by Consolidated. He was a bombardier aboard a similar Liberator during the war. You can bet that the appreciative crowd kept him very engaged for the hour-plus we spent listening…and that is how it should be! These flyers, their stories, and their lessons-learned (also known as wisdom and a mature world-view) should be heard, appreciated, and their experiences recorded for future generations. And – just as important – future generations should be encouraged by parents, teachers, and mentors to read these histories and reflect on what such veterans went through. Let us not forget the soldiers and sailors as well; they have their own stories to tell.

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I just heard in the news that the final reunion of the Doolittle flyers has been held this year. Only three or four remain alive and able to travel. The daring early raids on Tokyo were conducted by Jimmy Doolittle and his men flying medium-range B-25 bombers from the deck of an aircraft carrier in April, 1942 – an unheard-of feat. Although these brave flyers are almost all gone, their stories will live on. Let us not forget such momentous history. 

Have a relaxing and meaningful Memorial Day weekend!

 As a postscript for those interested, Linda has alerted me to a currently best-selling book titled Unbroken, the story of Louis Zamperini who went down in a B-24 Liberator over the Pacific and was held prisoner by the Japanese. Linda has read it and raved about it as has everyone else, apparently. The aviation aspect is only a portion of the total story of this amazing man who still lives in Southern California. So many stories surface in that one life that it is hard to believe, even though they are verified and well documented. I plan to read it.

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For you aviation fans and for anyone with an interest in the history, there is a brief documentary (in color) made by the government during the war about the famous B-17,  Memphis Belle – not to be confused with the Hollywood movie of the same name. This one is actual footage filmed in color during her crew’s last (and successful) bombing mission over Germany. Twenty-five such missions got you a ticket home from the war, and this is the documentary story of the B-17 that brought her crew safely back each time. Ride along on that last mission, and you will begin to understand what it was like! I highly recommend it. If you have difficulty finding this, let me know by leaving a reply (comment). I can tell you where I ordered my DVD copy.

 As always, I have no connection with any product which I endorse (other than my own book). My recommendations are based strictly on merit for the benefit of you, the readers.