Student Interest

The Most Iconic American Fighters in WWII – The Corsair and the Mustang

American Workhorses of the Sky

The United States during the Second World War faced a different battle when compared to its European contemporaries. While countries like France, Britain, Russia, and even Germany were facing enemies within their own continents, the United States fought on both sides of the world. All the way from the islands of Southeast Asia to the heart of Western Europe, American warbirds soared through the skies.

The United States relied on two different types of aircraft. The Corsairs were aircraft made for the sea, while Mustangs were aircraft designed for galloping over land.  In Europe, the allies provided plenty of land to launch operations into  the mainland, but the Pacific was a very different story. As a result of the vast, unforgiving ocean, most battles were fought off of aircraft carriers and small islands, which called for a much different approach to aircraft combat and subsequent fundamental design.

The Pacific’s Fearful Pirate

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States wasted no time in mounting a counterattack, declaring war on the Japanese empire. The United States went into war with outdated and perhaps inadequate aircraft, which included but were not limited to P-36s, F2As, and dive bombers such as SBDs. While these aircraft were capable on their own terms, they did not provide enough firepower to combat Japan’s attack aircraft and more advanced fighters. At this point it was clear that the Americans needed an upgrade.

Similarly to other fighters and military vehicles of the time, development for the Vought F4U “Corsair” had started years before the war in 1938, as a new high performance, carrier based fighter aircraft. During the testing phase there were two main prototypes, the A model and the B model, both of which were equipped with different engines from Pratt & Whitney. The A model produced about 1000 horsepower, which was very close to the early spitfires. However, the heavier airframe and larger size of the Corsair preferred the larger and more powerful engine installed on the B model. Production began in mid to late 1941, but the production model’s first flight did not happen until the summer of 1942.

The picture above shows an F4U-5N, a later variant of the Corsair at the Geneseo Airshow in 2006. It formerly belonged to the Honduran Air Force.

Although late, the introduction of this fighter turned the tide of the war. The previously invincible Mitsubishi A6M “Zero” fighters from the Japanese were easily taken down by the Corsair. The legend of this fighter was further cemented by Marine Attack Squadron 214, also known as VMF-214, this squadron was known for lacking equipment, being understaffed, and having inexperienced pilots. However, under the leadership of Colonel Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, the squadron quickly became a prominent figure in the war. As a result of this performance, the Corsair gained further cultural significance, as its depictions in the 1970s televised show “Baa Baa Black Sheep” further increased its popularity and bolstered its identity as an iconic American fighter aircraft.

An F4U-1 belonging to VMA-214, widely known as the “Black Sheep Squadron” resting at an airfield in Cape Espiritu Santo, Philippines.

The European Theater’s Eagle

The F4U “Corsair” developed by Vought was a success in the Pacific Theater. However, the European Theater required faster and better performing aircraft. The Germans and Italians had developed advanced aircraft such as the Messerschmitt 109 and the Focke Wulf 190 were proficient fighters against the underdeveloped British and French aircraft. Although these nations had already developed advanced aircraft by the time the United States joined the war, in order to maintain a competitive edge, new developmental projects were created.

The P-51, more widely known as the “Mustang” was a V12 powered fighter aircraft equipped with six .50-caliber machine guns. These guns delivered both accuracy and destructive power, and were the main type of armament used for offensive purposes. Despite being known as an exclusively American aircraft, its development depended on the RAF. The earliest versions were equipped with British “Hispano” Mk. II cannons and a Rolls-Royce Merlin engine, the latter of which we discussed in the previous article considering the most iconic British fighter during WWII. These individual enhancements gave incentive for further development on the aircraft, which finally resulted in the creation of the P-51D, an airframe powered by a Packard-1650-7, a license-built Merlin 66, which allowed it to directly compete and in some cases outperform its German counterparts. However, the engine was not the main advantage of the Mustang. Despite being from the 1940s, this pony’s main advantage was its fuselage design. The slick, aerodynamic, yet composed structure allowed it to reach and exceed speeds of up to 800 kph during dives, all while maintaining control. As a result, it was also a main contender for the air-speed record of a manned craft years before jet-booster technologies were an effective choice.

A surviving example of the P-51D, “Lady Alice” during the Chino Airshow in 2014.

The P-51 is known for its outstanding performance during the war, however, its popularity stems from widespread media presence, much like other iconic aircraft of the time. In recent times, Red Tails (2012) is perhaps the most recognizable example of this aircraft. Throughout this exciting adventure, the P-51 is depicted as a staple for the US Airforce near the end of the war. Consequently, in one of its battle sequences, it faces experimental german jet aircraft, which outperformed the P-51 in every way. However, the aircraft prevails thanks to its outstanding properties as an aircraft of its time. Furthermore, the Mustang is one of the most commonly used airframes for developing stunt aircraft. Among these aircraft, “Precious Metal” and “Grim Reaper” are iconic and recognizable planes that survived the war and are now, despite being heavily modified, stunt planes.

 “Precious Metal” is an iconic stunt plane based on the P-51H, a post-war variant of the P-51 with an even more powerful engine and optimized control surfaces. It is equipped with contra-rotating propellers, but its fuselage and overall airframe are identical to its factory status. The picture in black and white shows the state of this aircraft in 1976, before it received its extensive modifications.

 

All in all, the P-51 is a popular and iconic US fighter aircraft which received an abundant amount of support from British engineers. However, its most compelling and important characteristics were its fuselage and wing design, which were exclusively US-made. The P-51 today is an icon of American ingenuity when it comes to aircraft. Its title is well deserved as a plane with extreme capabilities, as it even claimed the title of “Fastest Production Aircraft of WWII”.

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