Aviation History

The real secret behind P-51B/C/D Mustang range

The P-51 Mustang

Controlling the air proved key to controlling the ground. The long-range P-51 Mustang fighter was invaluable to the Allied victory, enabling resumption of strategic bombing after heavy losses suffered by unescorted bombers in 1943. Developed for export to Britain, models modified by the British to use Rolls-Royce Merlin engines became America’s most capable wartime fighters.

In fact, in December 1943 the first Merlin-engined P-51B/C Mustangs entered combat in Europe. These P-51s provided sorely needed long-range, high-altitude escort for the US bombing campaign against Germany.

The P-51D arrived in quantity in Europe in the spring of 1944, becoming the USAAF’s primary long range escort fighter.

Thanks to its ability to excel in long-range escort duty, the Mustang was the first single-engine plane based in Britain to penetrate Germany, first to reach Berlin and first to go with the heavy bombers over the Ploiesti oil fields in Romania.

How was the iconic Mustang able to perform such long-range escort missions? Not because of its drop tanks.

The secret behind P-51B/C/D Mustang range

‘Lots of planes could carry drop tanks: P-47, P-40, P-38, etc.,’ says James Gibson, former MP&P Engineer at Boeing, says on Quora.

‘The real secret to the Mustang’s range was not the laminar flow control wing, or the Merlin engine. It was the addition of a fuselage tank behind the cockpit halfway through production of the P-51B. This additional internal tank increased fuel capacity by 85 gallons: original P-51Bs only had 184 gallons in the wings. The addition increased total fuel to 269 gallons or some 30%. Further adding two 75 gal drop tanks you reached 419 gallons. The later D&H models carried 110 gal drop tanks for 489 gallons.

‘But when you carried so much fuel you had to be aware of which tanks you were using at which point in the flight. On take-off you used the rear fuselage tank. This tank effected the center of gravity of the plane. You didn’t want to tangle with a 109 or a Focke Wulf when carrying fuel in the rear tank. So you burned it first and then switched to the drop tanks about halfway to Berlin.’

Gibson concludes;

‘You would then burn off the drop tanks, hopefully before engaging enemy fighters. But if they struck early you could drop those tanks and thus be clean and maneuverable. This was the fight profile that allowed the Mustangs maximum range and best performance when over target.’

This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET  YOURS. P-51D Mustang “Dorrie R” – 44-63422 / 134, 15th FG, 78th FS “Bushmasters” – 1945

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force


Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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