Several years ago I lived in an apartment no more than a mile from a suburbia airport north of Dallas. It is the home of a vintage flight museum I have visited countless times and volunteered two or three times just to touch and be near the famous warbirds. Like a boy loves his dog or a little girl loves her favorite doll, I marveled at the history, pilots, and flying machines of World War II. Some days I would utterly frighten my son and daughter by suddenly dropping whatever I was doing and run out the door as fast as I could. Seconds later they would hear what I already heard. Sometimes the windows and knickknacks on the mantel or shelves would vibrate. Turn your volume up as loud as is appropriate to get the full effect and play this 30-second clip:
My kids would chase after me, sometimes out of breath because I would keep moving around in order to see as much sky as I could watching the spectacle arrive and depart. “How can you always tell the difference between modern planes and the old ones!?” my daughter would ask. “That is amazing!” as she shook her head bewildered. As I have gotten older, been to many airshows, and gotten more informed and educated on EVERYTHING World War II Aviation, a few of those traumatic surprises would start with pumped adrenaline, then goose-bumps, and then tears. My son, always emotionally connected to me since his first breath, upon seeing my tears would ask “Why are you crying Dad?” And this is how I would describe to him my joyful tears.
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I love almost all of the WWII planes whether they were combat or cargo, they all had a vital importance to the war effort. Their pilots were some of the bravest heroes under the most extraordinary circumstances. All of our veterans from any war or combat service are and will be heroes. However, if I had to choose just one WWII plane to love most, I know exactly which one she would be.
If you are not aware or cannot remember, at the onset of the Second World War the Allies were grossly unprepared to fight Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan. Both Axis nations had a big head start in fine machinery and experienced well-trained pilots. In the first 24 to 30 months of combat, most air battles were won by Germany and Japan with much better maneuverable faster planes and better pilots. Losses due to combat or dogfights were often staggering for the Americans and British. Plain and simple, the German Messerschmitts and Folke-Wulfs, and the Japanese Mitsubishi Zeroes were flat-out better machines. Any high-ranking general will tell you every time, if you don’t control the skies, you either will not win or you might win but at astronomical losses in men and materials. In 1942 and ’43 the war in both theaters was very uncertain for America and Britain. The Germans controlled the skies over Europe and the Japanese controlled them in the Pacific.
The Allies desperately needed an edge in the skies!
The primary reason Great Britain thwarted Hitler’s Luftwaffe (air force) in the Battle of Britain was because of their Spitfire and Hurricane pilots. Spitfires could handle the Messerschmitts while the Hurricanes could take out the bombers. The problem was that Britain could not quickly replace losses; both in planes or pilots. The Spitfire housed one of the most superb engines ever built: the Rolls-Royce Merlin V-12. The Americans had a few good fighter-designs but most of them at the time were under-powered and couldn’t match the high-altitude performance of the German engines. Finally, with British ingenuity and American manufacturing, emerged a single fighter-plane that would change the course of the air war in Europe and the Pacific…
The North American P-51 Mustang.
You might ask how can just one fighter plane change the course of a war? Simple, the P-51 D Mustang saved thousands of American bomber crews from their deaths. From 1942 to early 1944, American bomber losses were intolerable because the bombing raids required deeper penetration into Nazi Germany. In the Pacific air war, vast oceans with few islands also required long-range aircraft. The Allies had no such fighter plane capable of escorting bombers all the way to their target and back until the P-51 Mustang.
Not only did the Mustang, with its high-performance high-altitude Rolls-Royce Merlin engine, match and exceed those of its enemy fighters, but it was also highly maneuverable and lethal in the hands of a good pilot. To put it in perspective just how much the P-51 Mustang changed the air war, the survival rate of American bomber crews in Europe prior to its introduction was 1-out-of-3 crewmen killed from 1942 to late 1943. After the winter of 1943-44 when Mustangs flew escort, the survival rate rose to 67% after 25 missions flown, then 81% by 1945 and the end of the war. The P-51 Mustangs were quite literally their knights-in-shining-armor for bomber crews, or “Angels on our wings” as many bomber pilots and crewmen would describe. The Mustang helped turn the tide of war and bring it to a quicker end.
That is the historical impact of the Mustang. Now I want to describe from a boy’s perspective the emotional impact of this gorgeous mighty bird.
Leave it to Steven Spielberg to capture the moment perfectly how it feels for a boy. His 1987 film Empire of the Sun starring a young Christian Bale, tells the story of a small British boy fascinated with flight and “the brave daring pilots” of the Japanese Zero fighter. He gets separated from his parents in Shanghai, China at the outbreak of war with Japan. Though his captors are brutal to him and his “new” British prison-family, Jim (Christian Bale) worships the Zero pilots and their magnificent planes throughout the first half of the war.
After they are moved late in the war to an airbase to build a runway for the Zero fighters, Jim hears rumors about a new fighter plane called the Mustang, the Cadillac of the Skies. He eats breaths and reads everything he can get his hands and ears on. I relate completely to Jim’s obsessions of flying and the machines these brave pilots fought in.
And then one morning while paying his respect and admiration to the Kamikaze pilots and planes, Jim’s whole world and those of the planes and pilots he worshiped so long are turned upside down. Apologies that this heart-wrenching scene is broken up into two clips – blame YouTube!
It is hard to put into words how the flight, the speed, the beautiful lines of a P-51 looks and feels to a young heart. There is no other sight or sound in this world like the air being sucked into the intake whistling at a high pitch as it dives toward you, and a second later the reverberation of that V-12 roaring by as it climbs away at over 4,160 feet per minute! “Go P-51…Cadillac of the Skies!” As Jim screams, “HORSEPOWER!“
Since I was a boy I have always dreamt of flying in this mighty magnificent warbird. To feel the immense rumble of that Rolls-Royce Merlin engine supercharged and forcing me back into my seat. That would absolutely be one of the best days of my life!
For a few very lucky months the software company I use to work for had their offices at the end of the runway. Every two or three weeks the owner of the flight museum and the P-51 D Mustang would take it out for some fly byes. On one particular occasion he throttled it out on take off. Just over halfway down the runway he had enough airspeed to lift-off and put this beautiful bird into a 35-40 degree climb with ease, banked it, and then leveled off about 600-700 feet at cruising speed. It seemed effortless. I thought to myself, so that’s how it must have looked and sounded back in 1940’s Europe and China. Imagine if you were Japanese or German what it meant watching the Mustangs fly by and listening to that whistling horsepower. Imagine how it felt if you were British or American back then: finally, the beginning of the end. Wow! I still get chills up and down my spine every time I hear that distinct engine and watch it zip from one horizon to the other.
Some of man’s creations are works of beauty and timeless. Today my son no longer has to ask why I have goose-bumps and tears watching famous warbirds; he gets it…just like I did when I was his age.
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