P-51 Mustang

A P-51 Mustang performs an aerial act in preparation for the Shaw Air & Space Expo at Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Madeline Herzog)

The North American Aviation P-51 Mustang is a vintage long-range fighter aircraft that witnessed significant combat during World War II and the Korean War alongside some other conflicts. In its heyday, it reigned supreme, once rated as “the most aerodynamically perfect pursuit plane in existence” by the Truman Senate War Investigating Committee.

The P-51 made a recent appearance in a blockbuster movie; Top Gun: Maverick, a fictional depiction of one of the U.S. Navy’s top aviators, Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, training a group of Top Gun graduates to perform a daring mission. To the unaware, Top Gun is the nickname for the real-life United States Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program, a special program that teaches fighter and strike tactics to select naval aviators and flight officers who, in turn, return to their assigned units as stand-in instructors.

The P-51 Mustang that appeared in Top Gun: Maverick is owned and piloted by the superstar actor and main character Tom Cruise.

The P-51 was originally designed for the British Royal Air Force (RAF) in the 1940s. The RAF approached North American Aviation (now part of Boeing) to license existing fighters but the company offered to design a better one that first flew in 1940 and entered production in the following year. It took less than 150 days from the signing of the contract to the P-51’s first flight, an impressive development speed.

In the summer of 1941, the United States Air Force (USAF) received two P-51 Mustangs and conducted flight tests but did not immediately place an order. After some haggling, it later retained 55 Mustangs from a British order and accepted the first production units the following year. The initial batch was employed in the China Burma India Theater (CBI) during World War II, where the majority of combat occurred at low altitudes.

In 1942, the US Air Force placed an order for over 300 P-51s to serve as bomber escorts in raids over Germany or as fighter-bombers and reconnaissance aircraft. They performed their job well, helping to weaken the Luftwaffe’s air fleet. Successful operations were aided by the decision of Major General James Doolittle to give fighters the permission to break from a close formation with bombers and attack the Luftwaffe wherever they saw an opportunity.

A P-51 Mustang flies alongside a modern F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter jet. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Carl Clegg)

The Mustang also proved itself worthy in the war between North Korea and South Korea from 1950 to 1953, with the United States providing support to the latter side. Then redesignated as the F-51, it was used mostly for ground attacks and photo reconnaissance instead of as interceptors and typical fighters.

The British Royal Air Force retired the Mustang in 1947 and the US did the same in 1957. Other countries that purchased it include France, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the Dominican Republic. Also, the Republic of China and Germany used captured Mustangs in military operations.

The P-51 was truly one of a kind in its time, giving its operators a great advantage in various wars. Though over 15,000 units were built, the number flying today is less than 200, and many are privately owned (including by Tom Cruise). About 100 others are on display in global museums.

Fast Facts about the P-51

  • First flight – October 26, 1940
  • Wingspan – 37 feet
  • Top speed – 703 km/h
  • Cruise speed – 443km/h
  • Range – 1,000 miles
  • Ceiling – 41,900 ft