Aviation History

The “Seahorse:” the P-51D Carrier Testing and why the Mustang was found unsuited for service aboard US Navy flat tops

A modern aircraft carrier

By the 1920s, the quest for a modern aircraft carrier was underway in three powerful countries, each surrounded by vast oceans. Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States separately had projects underway to apply a “flat top” to one or more ships.

Technical progress continued, and the climax came on Dec. 7, 1941, with the devastating Japanese Imperial Navy attack on Pearl Harbor.

Naval warfare was forever changed.

Battleships, previously the naval symbol of national might, were henceforth obsolete. No further dreadnoughts were built after World War II. Aircraft carriers were thereafter the measure of projecting national naval power. An amazing number of countries dabbled with an aircraft carrier (or two), but it was only the United States that fielded significant numbers of these giant floating airbases and the flotilla of escorting vessels that protect them.

P-51D Mustang Carrier Testing

As told by Mark A. Frankel in the book North American Aviation Jet Age The Columbus Years 1941-1988, three components of flight testing include a location, one or more pilots, and an airplane. Mustin Field (1926-1963) was adjacent to the naval aircraft factory at Philadelphia. The object under evaluation was a barrowed P-51D Mustang bearing the tail number 44-14017. The date was October 1944, and Allied forces were finally starting to make headway in a two-front global war.

North American P-51D-5-NA Mustang s/n 44-14017 is lowered to the hangar aboard the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Shangri-La (CV-38) during a test flight on Nov. 15, 1944.

Areas on the runway were marked out, simulating the deck of an aircraft carrier. The simulation was made more realistic with installation of catapult and arresting cables. Unlike an aircraft carrier at sea, an airfield cannot maneuver into the wind (or accelerate) to gather additional headwind.

Robert M. “Bob” Elder

Seasoned Navy combat pilot Lt. Robert M. “Bob” Elder (1918-2008) was at the controls as over and over he rehearsed landings and takeoffs from the painted outline. Elder was born in Canada and attended the University of Washington in Seattle on a naval ROTC scholarship. Naval aviator wings were earned at Pensacola. Bob Elder became a champion of naval aircraft development, initially while still serving in uniform, and then as an aerospace executive later in life. His thumbprint remains on naval aviation to this day.

The ability of the B-25 Mitchell to take off from an aircraft carrier was demonstrated with Doolittle’s audacious raid on Tokyo in April 1942. When asked about the source of the attack, President Roosevelt responded with his biggest grin and a whimsical reference to “Shangri-la.” The warlords of Japan had picked the wrong Navy to embarrass in December 1941. By 1944, the US Navy fearlessly told the world the source of the Tokyo raid. Further, pending unconditional surrender, the empire of Japan should expect hell on earth, with ongoing mayhem on a massive scale.

Elder was not told of the purpose for this apparently dubious exercise. We know of it because of a typewritten report submitted to Los Angeles headquarters by the North American Aviation (NAA) Philadelphia factory field service representative. The event was further corroborated by photographs and an entry into the ship’s log of Shangri-La which was without air wing and on sea trials from Norfolk on Nov. 15, 1944.

The Seahorse

Two aircraft participated. This time, the B-25 landed and brought a small team aboard the aircraft carrier. A tight-lipped Navy admiral observed the testing but said nothing.

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

Ship’s log- Shangri-La:

15 November 1944, 1220 hours
Lt, Robert M. Elder, USN, made the first carrier landing
of P-51 type fighter plane #414017, followed by three
landings and four takeoffs all successful.

The arresting cables were utilized for the gentle (low speed) landing. Takeoffs were without catapult assist. This Mustang, now dubbed “Seahorse” by the sailors, was taken below deck by elevator, and crew members were invited to take a closer look (Seahorse saw postwar service with the Pennsylvania Air National Guard).

P-51D carrier testing: why the Mustang was found unsuited for service aboard US Navy flat tops

An entirely new airplane, the ultra-long-range P-82 Twin Mustang, was in development at North American but behind schedule. Later in life, Elder postulated that the Mustangs aboard aircraft carriers were being evaluated to escort B-29 bombers over the Pacific on their way to Japan. This proved unnecessary, because close-in islands were captured and airfields hastily carved out; however. equipped with drop tanks and the aft fuselage fuel tank modification, the Mustang could fly unrefueled for 7.5 hours. Others speculate the Mustang was needed by the Navy because the early jets were fuel hogs lacking in combat range. In any case, as built, the P-51D Mustang was unsuited for service aboard an aircraft carrier.

The wings did not fold, a catapult connection was lacking, the airframe and systems were vulnerable to salt- induced corrosion, and the aft fuselage was insufficient to absorb arrested landings; however, after the deteriorating relationship with Curtiss, Navy brass were becoming enamored with a new provider. Jets were in the offing, and the North American-built solution was to be the FJ Fury.

North American Aviation Jet Age The Columbus Years 1941-1988 is published by Schiffer Publishing and is available to order here.

North American P-51D-5-NA Mustang s/n 44-14017 takes off from the US Navy aircraft carrier USS Shangri-La (CV-38) during a test flight on Nov. 15, 1944.

Photo credit: U.S. Navy

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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