Meet the P-51D: We Say It’s the Best Fighter Jet Ever
Yes, in today’s stealth world of F-22 and F-35 fighters, old planes like the P-51D can look realistic. However, a former Air Force officer and aviation expert says the P-51D might just be the best fighter jet to ever fly. Here’s why : So which warbird deserves the title of best fighter of all time? Obviously a highly subjective question, and one that is going to cause controversy no matter what answer I give, so as I type this I am mentally preparing myself to dodge the rotten tomatoes some readers are bound to throw at my path for my answer: the North American P-51 Mustang, more precisely the P-51D Mustang.
No, the Mustang doesn’t have the jaw-dropping 104:0 air-to-air kill ratio of the F-15 Eagle, the 135:4 kill ratio of the F-14 Tomcat (sorry, Superior gun fans), or the 76:1 kill ratio of the F-16 Fighting Falcon. However, with all due respect to these very impressive warplanes and their crews, none of these more modern jet jockeys played a victorious role in a conflict of such magnitude in World War II, ergo the P-51 DMustang gets the green light.
Other World War II title contenders
“Whoa there, Chris”, I can already hear fans of various other WWII fighters chastising me, “if you want to define the ‘Dubya-Dubya Two’ winner as bar, what about the (insert their favorite WWII warbird here)…” And for the sake of being “fair and balanced” (to use the Fox News tagline), many of them have strong points.
There is the P-38 LightningPiloted 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 two top European theater aces, Francis “Gabby” Gabreski and Robert S. Johnsonand also had an unrivaled reputation for his ability to withstand brutal punishment and return home safely.
Then there’s the F6F Hellcat, which ultimately gave the US Navy air superiority against the infamous Japanese Zero and was piloted by the USN’s top ace, Commander Dave McCampbell, who scored a record 9 wins in a single day during the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
Yet others can make well-founded arguments for the F4U Corsair (Black Sheep Squadron, anyone?), the P-40 (Flying Tigers, anyone?), and so on.
P-51D – The Game Changer
However, none of these aforementioned aircraft achieved the true game-changing status during “The Big One” that the P-51 DMustang did.
After all, it was the Mustang that would have prompted Reichsmarschall and Luftwaffe chief honcho Hermann Goering to concede “The day I saw Mustangs over Berlin, I knew the template was in place.”
That said, when we sing the praises of the successes of the Mustang, we must clarify that we are talking here about the D model. After all, as my 1945 colleague Peter Suciu points out, “While the P-51 Mustang would enter history as arguably the finest piston-engined operational fighter ever built, and was capable of providing long-range escort to American heavy bombers who could wage war in the very heart of Nazi Germany, this n didn’t immediately impress.
Mr. Suciu adds: “The Mustang entered service with the RAF in 1942, and it was not an immediate success. It was initially fitted with the Allison V-1710 liquid-cooled engine, which limited its performance at altitude. For this reason, the aircraft was primarily used in an armed tactical reconnaissance role.
Enter the P-51D, with its much more powerful Rolls Royce Merlin engine that corrected altitude performance issues, and a “teardrop” or “bubble” canopy that resolved poor visibility issues aft of earlier versions of the aircraft.
These factors, combined with the six .50 caliber Browning machine guns – three in each wing – are what allowed the Mustang’s reputation to finally take off (pun intended).
As already indicated, the Mustang was thus able to escort the B-17 Flying Fortresses and the B-24 Liberators to carry out their delightful precision bombing missions deep in Germany without suffering unbearable losses via the ravages of the Luftwaffe more.
Meanwhile, in the Pacific theater of operations, P-51D pilots performed the same kind of crucial escort duty for the B-29 superfortresses during their bombing raids against Japan.
Mustang’s pilots ended up shooting down a total of 4,950 enemy aircraft while over 250 of its pilots achieved ace status and had an average air-to-air kill rate of 7.69.
The most famous of these pilots was Chuck Yeager – the man who broke 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”), the world’s first operational jet fighter.
Here I must confess my own sentimental bias in favor of the P-51: in 1986, at the tender age of 11, the very first model aircraft I built was a scale P-51D Monogram 1:48; at the same time I was reading Yeager’s best-selling autobiography at the time, being captivated by Chuck’s aforementioned World War II exploits, particularly while having fun, he described one of his shots along the lines of (paraphrasing here) “Dude, I opened that [Messerschmitt] 109 as if it were a spam box.
P-51D – Beyond WWII
The P-51D would continue to served admirably in the Korean War although they were rendered obsolete by the Jet Age, particularly the enemy-piloted MiG-15 fighters and the F-86 Saber which became the mainstay of the US Air Force during the conflict.
The US Air Force retired its last P-51 from the US Air Force in 1978, but the mighty Mustang managed to remain in service with the Dominican Republic Air Force until 1984.
Around 175 Mustangs are still flying today thanks to private collectors and restoration experts, while around 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 in Iraq, United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany and the Pentagon). Chris holds a BA in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an MA in Intelligence Studies (concentration in Terrorism Studies) from the American Military University (AMU). It was also published in The Daily Torch and The Journal of Intelligence and Cybersecurity.