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Return of the North American P-51D Mustang

Return of the North American P-51D Mustang

Mustang taking off from Duxford

The fighter aircraft of the Second World War are some of the most famous aeroplanes to ever take to the skies. As the young pilots of all nations played out gladiatorial style combat amongst the clouds, these men and machines became the stuff of legend and continue to captivate us to this day.

Arguably, the most accomplished fighter aircraft of WWII was the North American P-51 Mustang and with many examples still flying to this day, it is no wonder that the Mustang continues to attract a great many admirers, even though it is almost 75 years since it first took to the skies. The latest Corgi Aviation Archive catalogue included news of a brand new tooling release of the much loved P-51D Mustang, but we have not really heard too much about this project since. We will put that matter right in this, the second edition of our Aerodrome blog, but that is for a little later – first, let’s look at why the Mustang commands such affection amongst historians and enthusiasts alike.

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 P-51D 44-14888 of the 8th AF/357th FG/363rd FS, named Glamorous Glen III


In the dark days of 1940, Britain stood alone against the might of the all-conquering German Wehrmacht and as Europe was thrown into chaos, Britain knew her greatest challenge was still to come. As with most of the European powers in the 1930’s, Britain did not want to contemplate another war and she was ill prepared for what she now faced - Britain desperately needed help and she needed it fast.

Britain’s most pressing need was for aircraft and in 1940, the British Purchasing Commission approached US aircraft manufacturer North American Aviation, to produce licence-built Curtiss P-40 fighters for the RAF. Slightly indignant at the prospect, North American officials proposed to build a totally new aircraft for the Royal Air Force, which would be superior to the P-40 and more suitable for their needs. So impressive was their pitch, the British agreed to their proposal and signed a contract for the new aircraft. Unfortunately, time was very much against the North American design team, as Britain desperately needed aircraft without delay. Work on the new project began immediately.

What North American Aviation achieved with their new aircraft design was nothing short of astonishing. Incorporating highly advanced new features and the very latest manufacturing techniques, the prototype aircraft (NA-73X) rolled out of their hangar on 9th September 1940, only 120 days after the contract had been signed. The first flight of the aircraft took place just 47 days later and other than the usual issues associated with a first flight, the aircraft showed great promise and was a clear vindication of the confidence North American Aviation had in their design capabilities.

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 Scandinavian Historic Flight P-51D Mustang at Cosford

The first Mustang aircraft were powered by the Allison V-1710 V-12, liquid cooled engine – this was the same basic power plant used in the P-39 Airacobra, P-40 Warhawk and highly successful P-38 Lightning. Although a perfectly good engine, the lack of a supercharger restricted higher altitude performance to little better than average, so the overall operational effectiveness of the engine was compromised. In 1941, the North American (P-51A) Mustang I’s entered RAF service and the types lack of high altitude performance quickly became apparent. Operationally, this dictated that the first Mustangs would be used for tactical reconnaissance and ground attack missions, however, they did prove to be a great success. The Mustang was required to operate at high speeds, often at treetop heights, where there was certainly no margin for error. Proving itself to be rugged and reliable, the Mustang brought its pilots home and quickly earned the respect of pilots and ground crew alike. Importantly, the Mustang had a strong, wide track undercarriage, which gave it much better ground handling characteristics than an RAF Spitfire.

Just as the British were inextricably linked with the birth of the Mustang, they were also responsible for unlocking its full potential. In early 1942, a Rolls Royce test pilot had flown the Mustang I and been suitably impressed with its low and medium altitude performance. He informed his superiors that a Merlin 61 engine would transform the performance of the aircraft significantly and after much persuading, he eventually got his way. In August 1942, the Mustang X programme saw a number of Mustang I airframes married with the Merlin engine and the result was spectacular. Incredibly, this new combination propelled the Mustang to 441mph at 29,800ft, which was approximately 100mph faster than the Allison powered P-51A at the same altitude. The Mustang had just come of age!

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 Early P-51C Mustang at Duxford

As the Mustang/Merlin combination trials progressed, performance data was supplied back to North American Aviation, who were keen to see the results for themselves. There was, however, a significant problem looming on the horizon – the RAF could not proceed with the Mustang X programme, as all Rolls Royce Merlin engine production was allocated to existing designs. Not only were the engines needed for Spitfires, Hurricanes and Mosquitos, the decision to ‘up-engine’ the disappointing Avro Manchester to the four Merlin engined Lancaster had put even more strain on production. The answer lay with the Packard Motor Car Company in the US, who had a licence to produce the Merlin Engine in America. Work on the US built Merlin engines began immediately, along with the mass production of the superb North American Mustang.

Mustang fighters built for the USAAF were known as North American P-51B (aircraft built at Inglewood, California) and the P-51C (built at Dallas, Texas), with both aircraft being more or less identical. The combination of the Mustang airframe and the Packard Merlin engine transformed this promising aircraft into a world-leading fighter, which was to have a dramatic impact on the course of the Second World War. Able to fly faster and longer than any fighter that had gone before it, the USAAF now had the ability to escort their Flying Fortress and Liberator heavy bombers all the way to their targets and as a consequence, improve the strategic effectiveness of these devastating raids. Mustang ace Brigadier General Thomas L Hayes famously quoted “the Merlin powered Mustang possessed three qualities you need most, if you are going to escort bombers all the way to Berlin – range, range and range”. I think that you can deduce from this statement that not only was the Mustang a superlative fighting machine, but it also had impressive endurance.


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 Mustang 'Old Crow' in the colours of 357th Fighter Group

The combat introduction of USAAF Mustang fighters did not take place until late 1943, but they were to have an immediate impact on the European Air War. Bombers could now rely on fighter cover for the entire duration of their mission and any Luftwaffe fighters that did come to challenge them were to be destroyed in large numbers. The most significant period in the history of the Mustang came in early 1944, when US Eighth Air Force commander Lt. General Jimmy Doolittle instructed Mustang escort fighters to pursue the enemy, whenever possible, as opposed to simply protecting the bombers. This was exactly what the Mustang was made for and they began to take a withering toll of Luftwaffe fighters from this date forward. Historians generally accept that the Allies gained air superiority in the skies above Europe in the spring of 1944 and from this date, the Luftwaffe were literally strangled into submission.

The definitive version of the Mustang was the P-51D, which included a number of important improvements to the already successful design, such as better visibility for the pilot, greater fire-power and even longer-range fuel tanks. It was to make a significant contribution to eventual victory in Europe - indeed it was to destroy more enemy aircraft in air-to air combat than any other USAAF fighter in the European Theatre. What makes this statistic even more astonishing is the fact that the first Mustangs did not see combat until late 1943 – the Mustang proved to be a very special aeroplane indeed.


The North American P-51D Mustang in die-cast – a true classic

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Restored Mustang presented as 'Big Beautiful Doll'

Avid collectors of the Aviation Archive range will be fully aware that the classic North American P-51D Mustang tooling is one of the oldest models in the successful 1/72nd scale range. Way back in 2000, Corgi released Col. John Landers Duxford based P-51D ‘Big Beautiful Doll’, which for many, actually set us on the road to die-cast aircraft collecting. Since that date, there have been something like thirty Mustang releases, which is why the decision to re-tool the plane was viewed with some scepticism amongst collectors, particularly as it simply appeared in the current Corgi catalogue, without too much reasoning, or explanation. Perhaps it would be a good idea if we did that now.

The decision to make any new die-cast tooling comes at significant expense to the manufacturing company and with this in mind, you can be certain that there will have been a lengthy period of discussion and consultation, before proposed tooling progressed to manufacture. The original Corgi Mustang tooling is much loved by the die-cast collector, but with a high number of previous releases already in the range, why should a new Mustang model gain favour over an aircraft type not previously covered? I suppose that there are two answers to this question – firstly, innovation. The new model will be significantly better than the previous one, allowing new versions of the aircraft to be covered and thus providing the collector with new options. Secondly, collector requests – information will have been gathered, regarding the popularity of such an upgrade and obviously, potential commercial viability.

In truth, the original Mustang tooling was beginning to show its age a little and was in serious need of attention. The decision was taken to alter the original tooling, so that the model could be incorporated into the Corgi Flight range, which obviously meant that the premium range would be without a P-51D for the first time since ‘Big Beautiful Doll’, way back in 2000 – surely, this would not be wise!

Thankfully, significant advances in die-cast manufacturing technology over the last fifteen years meant that the new Mustang tooling will bring improved features for the collector and allow versions of the Mustang to be produced that had not been available previously. As well as being a much cleaner, more accurate model, with improved design and fit, the new model will incorporate a host of new options and features that will make it the definitive 1/72nd scale die-cast representation of this most famous fighter aircraft. Some of the most significant improvements are:

• The inclusion of new plug-in parts. There will now be the option to display the model with either flush fitting wing flaps, or to have the flaps in the lowered position, by the fitting of optional plug-in parts.

• Importantly for any Mustang fan, to allow the early P-51D model to be produced, for the first time. The new model will have alternate tooling options for propellers, spinners and canopies, as well as offering the early tail unit design, without the addition of the tail fillet stabiliser – we will look at this in more detail later.

• Significant construction improvements. These will allow for a much cleaner casting, better overall fit of parts and a much improved model profile.

• More detail incorporated into the undercarriage parts and a moving radiator exhaust flap.

• A wide array of optional weapon and drop tank options.

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 Early P-51D Tail Profile

Perhaps the most interesting feature of the new model, will be the ability to produce the early versions of the P-51D Mustang, which do not have the tail fillet modification applied and really do make the aircraft look distinctly different. It will also allow some very famous Mustangs to be produced, which will certainly enhance any WWII aviation collection.

As good as the Mustang design was, there were some low speed handling characteristics that were very much a cause of concern. In certain situations, but usually at low speed, the Mustang could flick into an involuntary snap roll, which resulted in a number of crashes. The answer was to strengthen the horizontal stabilizer with the addition of a dorsal fillet, at the base of the stabilizer. This improvement was immediately incorporated on all production Mustangs (D and K) and a kit was produced for overseas units, so the modification could take place in the field. There are a number of very famous USAAF wartime photographs, which show some of these early ‘fillet-less’ Mustangs in all their glory and whilst it may seem like a minor addition to the newly announced Corgi tooling, it really is a big deal for any self-respecting Mustang fan – there are some beautiful new P-51s to come!


A new die-cast aviation tooling takes flight

I am sure that most die-cast collectors would assume that the production of any new model is a long and arduous undertaking and they would not be wrong in that assumption. I have been speaking to my colleagues in the design and development department at Corgi and it is fascinating to hear just how complex a process this actually is and how it can take many months before you even see a metal sample of your proposed new model. A typical new die-cast model tooling project would begin like this:

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Development CAD images

A CAD file would be produced for the new model.

  • This information would be sent to the production facilities in the Far East, so that a unit cost can be obtained. This is of critical importance to any future model, as the project must come within strict financial parameters and be commercially viable.
  • Having reached agreement on costing, the project advances to the production of a 3D stereo mock up, where the new model really begins to take shape.
  • The next stage is where things start to get a little more exciting. The model tooling moulds are produced and the first metal shots from this tool are closely checked for accuracy – alterations and modifications are authorised at this stage.

Once the Corgi Research & Development team receive their first metal sample of the new model, it is thoroughly inspected for accuracy, before finally being signed off for production. Then we just have the small matter of realising that things can easily go wrong at any stage between the UK and Far East production facilities – oh the joys of working with die-cast!

Once all these arduous tasks have been completed, the team will then decide which liveries the model will be produced in completing the associated research. Whilst it is accepted that you will never be able to please every enthusiast with a particular selection, they have to come up with schemes that will have popular collector appeal, across the board. The first livery for the new 1/72nd scale Mustang tooling is a USAAF 357th Fighter Group machine ‘Butch Baby’ and it is worth having a closer look at why this particular model was chosen.

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Mustang Stereo sample


Mustangs of the ‘Yoxford Boys’

The USAAF 357th Fighter Group are inextricably linked with the superb North American P-51 Mustang fighter. They arrived in the UK at the end of 1943 and took up residence at the newly constructed RAF Raydon airfield (USAAF Station 157), in Suffolk, where they began transition training with their new Mustangs. Originally assigned to the 9th Air Force, the unit quickly transferred to the 8th Air Force, as there was a pressing need to use their Mustangs for long-range bombing escort support missions – the 357th Fighter Group became the first P-51 Mustang equipped unit in the 8th Air Force. This transfer also necessitated a change of base and in early 1944, the unit moved to Leiston airfield (USAAF Station 373) and immortalised the group in USAAF history.

The arrival of the 357th Fighter Group and their new Mustangs did not escape the attention of the Germans. Soon after their arrival at Leiston, the base was subject to an attack by the Luftwaffe and although the bombs fell to the north of the airfield, the Americans were to receive their ‘official welcome’ the following day. In one of his regular broadcasts, infamous British traitor and German propagandist William Joyce, who was more colloquially known as Lord Haw-Haw, welcomed the group to their new home. He said, ‘we gave those ‘Yoxford Boys’ a good welcome last night’, before going on to inform the American pilots of the hideous fate that awaited them in the days to come. Although their base at Leiston was actually some distance from the village of Yoxford, they rather liked the name they were given and they proudly took it in to battle with them – Lord Haw-Haw’s speech only served to bolster the resolve of the Americans and before long, it was the Luftwaffe who were suffering at the hands of the ‘Yoxford Boys’.

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In combat, the red and yellow nosed Mustangs of the 357th Fighter Group were to take a withering toll of Luftwaffe fighters. They were to record the second highest aerial victory score in the 8th Air Force, despite their relatively short time in combat. The unit produced more ‘Aces’ than any other unit in the entire USAAF in WWII (forty-two aces) and achieved a faster rate of aerial victories than any other 8th Air Force group, in the final year of the war.

The 14th January 1945 was to be a significant day in the history of the 357th Fighter Group. Flying a bomber escort mission over Germany, a huge force of 200 Luftwaffe fighters was seen approaching the formation at height – Me 109’s were flying top cover for heavily armed II/JG300 Sturmgruppen Focke Wulf Fw 190 bomber killers, which were flying eight abreast and already lining up on the B-17’s. The Mustangs immediately attacked and a huge dogfight ensued. Over the next 30 minutes, the 357th FG claimed 56.5 enemy fighters destroyed, which was by far the largest single day kill total of the war, by an 8th Air Force group.


 

New Corgi Mustang – ‘Butch Baby’

Without doubt, some of the most interesting aircraft of WWII are the fighters and bombers of the mighty USAAF Eighth Air Force. Operating from bases right across Southern England, they gave some quintessentially British villages a distinctly American flavour and brought their B-17s and Mustangs with them. Seemingly brash and over-confident, the Americans were not shy about decorating their aircraft in flamboyant schemes and they simply captivated their more conservative hosts.

The first North American P-51D Mustang release from this new Corgi tooling marks an aircraft of one of the ‘Yoxford Boys’, flying from Leiston airfield, towards the end of the war in Europe. Lt. Julian H Bertram flew his P-51D Mustang ‘Butch Baby’ (G4-V, 44-14798), in the classic colours of the 362nd Fighter Squadron / 357th Fighter Group. His aircraft carried the name ‘Butch Baby’ on both sides of the fuselage (which was unusual) and it was painted using RAF dark green and medium sea grey, as these were the colours that most closely matched USAAF olive drab and neutral grey. There is some conjecture regarding the painting of natural metal Mustangs in Europe. The lack of US paint stocks in theatre dictated that a closest match policy was often used, if an aircraft was to be over-painted. In England, this meant RAF dark green and medium sea grey, although the lack of accurate records and very few surviving colour photographs of the period dictate that this cannot be conclusive for individual aircraft. A noted 357th Fighter Group historian and former Yoxford Boy recommends that if in any doubt, you should use RAF colour references!

Interestingly, Lt. Bertram was neither the first, nor the last pilot to use this particular Mustang (44-14798) in the colours of the famed 357th Fighter Group. The aircraft was to enter theatre in natural metal finish and was painted green and grey by Major Joseph E Broadhead and given the name ‘Master Mike’. Broadhead was to end the war as an eight victory ‘ace’, by the time he was repatriated back to America, in February 1945.

ImageK_AA27701_'Butch_Baby'_in_flight1

His aircraft was then transferred to Lt. Julian H Bertram, who renamed the Mustang ‘Butch Baby’.

Mustang 44-14798 remained on charge with 357th FG, but passed on to Lt. James C McLane Jr. The aircraft was returned to a natural metal finish and named ‘Dainty Dotty’ after the pilot’s wife. McLane’s most memorable mission was flying as wingman for famous USAAF triple ace Leonard ‘Kit’ Carson, as they hunted for Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighters, in the last days of the war.

North American P-51D Mustang 44-14798 was to survive the war, only to be scrapped in June 1945, following a landing accident at its home base of Leiston. This new Corgi Mustang tooling will be a superb representation of this most famous fighter and will help to preserve the history of the ‘Yoxford Boys’ of the USAAF 357th Fighter Group.


Although the new Mustang AA27701 was included in the January to June 2015 catalogue, it had been subject to some of the delays often associated with completely new die-cast models. Originally scheduled for an October 2015 release, ‘Butch Baby’ is now expected to arrive in December, but thankfully, collectors can now place their pre-order for this exciting new model.

I would like to end this second edition of Aerodrome by thanking the very many people, who took the time to comment on this new feature for the Corgi website – I am most grateful. We have got some big plans for Aerodrome in the future, so please keep an eye on us! Keep the comments coming on the new Aerodrome Forum, or on the Corgi Twitter feed using #corgiaerodrome.

Thank you for reading

 

Michael

 

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