In 1940 the British approached North American Aviation to license-build Curtiss P-40 fighters for the Royal Air Force. North American offered to design a better fighter, which flew as the NA-73X in October 1940. Production of the aircraft — named Mustang I by the British — began the following year.
In the summer of 1941, the USAAF received two Mustang Is under the designation XP-51. Although flight tests of the new fighter showed promise, the USAAF did not accept the first production P-51A fighters until March 1942.
Although excellent at lower levels, the P-51A’s Allison engines severely limited performance at high altitude. In April 1942 the USAAF ordered an attack version equipped with dive brakes and bomb racks, the A-36 Apache.
In the fall of 1942, Mustangs in the US and Great Britain were experimentally fitted with British Merlin engines. One in the US flew a remarkable 441 mph at 29,800 feet — about 100 mph faster than the P-51A at that altitude. Mass production of the Merlin-powered P-51B and P-51C soon followed (nearly identical, North American produced the “B” in Inglewood, Calif., and the “C” in Dallas, Texas).
In December 1943 the first P-51B/C Mustangs entered combat in Europe with the 354th Fighter Group “Pioneers.” By the time of the first US heavy bomber strike against Berlin in March 1944, the USAAF fielded about 175 P-51B/C Mustangs. Along with P-38 Lightnings, these P-51s provided sorely needed long-range, high-altitude escort for the US bombing campaign against Germany.
The P-51B Mustang “Berlin Express” achieved legendary status in an epic World War II dogfight in Paris in 1944, piloted by Bill Overstreet, who flew the aircraft under the Eiffel Tower in hot pursuit of a of a Luftwaffe Messerschmitt Bf 109. Overstreet eventually downed the German plane and eluded heavy enemy fire while escaping the battle with aircraft intact.
‘Bill was assigned to bomber escort missions with the 357th fighter group, and so he dubbed his plane the “Berlin Express,”’ Brian Burnett II, Tour Guide at National Museum of the US Air Force, explains on Quora.
‘One time, a squadron of Messerschmitt 109’s outside Paris made a pass at the bomber group, and the P-51’s were hell bent on shooting all of them down. Overstreet was caught in a dogfight with one until the pilot had had enough, but Overstreet was just getting warmed up. He threw that throttle forward and went after him, following him into enemy territory. In an effort to get him off his tail, the 109 made low passes over Paris to get help from Anti-Aircraft guns stationed in the city.
‘That didn’t help because our man Bill was like Daredevil, the man without fear. Between flying so low and dodging enemy fire, he still shot a few bursts of his guns and hit the 109’s engine. In a last-ditch effort, the 109 flew under the Eiffel Tower hoping Overstreet would avoid it — NOPE! Bill followed him under the tower, and, as the 109 pulled up, Bill sent him back down in flames. Afterwards, Bill went down to the river and followed it, barely above water level. Under the cover of the structures on either side, he made his way out of the city and back to base.’
Photo credit: Len Krenzler / Action Art, US Government Photographer
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