The Naval Mustangs
During the months of September and October 1944, Lt. Elder made nearly
150 simulated launches and landings with the ETF-51D. Sufficient data
concerning the Mustang's low speed handling had to be gathered before
carrier trials could begin. The Mustang's laminar-flow wing made for little
drag and high speed but was relatively inefficient at low speed, resulting
in a high stall speed. As the arrester cables could not be engaged at
more than 90 mph, Elder reported that “from the start, it was obvious
to everyone that the margin between the stall speed of the aircraft (82
mph) and the speed imposed by the arrester gear (90 mph) was very limited.”
By late October 1944, Elder had amassed enough data and was confident the ETF-51D could enter the next stage: live carrier operations at sea. The ETF-51D was transferred to the USS Shangri-La (CV-38), a newly-launched Essex class carrier undergoing her shakedown cruise off the coast of Virginia. On 15 November, Elder made the first P-51 carrier landing. This is the extract from the ship's log:
NOV 15, 1944 1220hrs
It is interesting to note that 15 November was a special day for the Shangri-La. It was the day flight operations began on the ship. Also, on the same day, the PBJ (the US Navy version of the B-25 bomber) made its first carrier landings and launches from it.
Bob Elder “made all carrier landings at the speed of 85 mph. Luckily, the Mustang reacted well, even in the most delicate situations. One just had to use the throttle wisely.” Elder reported that speed control on the ETF-51D was excellent. He also stated that “the forward visibility was good and never gave me any problems. In fact, fighters with radial engines such as the F4U or F6F were worse than the P-51 in that respect.” The aircraft also behaved well during catapult launches.
But everything was not perfect. As previously mentioned, the margin between stall speed and maximum engagement speed was small, too small for safety. Rudder control at low speeds and high angles of attack was inadequate. In addition, landing attitude had to be carefully controlled to avoid damaging the airframe upon landing.
One of the handling quirks of the Mustang was also potentially dangerous. During a missed approach or a wave-off, power has to be re-applied gently. If not, the aircraft could roll rapidly, or even snap-roll. At such low speed and altitude, the result could only be fatal.
The carrier suitability trials were rather short: only 25 landings and launches were made. Elder wrote “Although I had “premiered” many US Navy aircraft carrier landings, no such experience had been as interesting as with the Mustang”. Nevertheless, he did not think the Mustang had its place in naval operations.
By early 1945, the islands of Okinawa and Iwo Jima were conquered. Their airfields were immediately taken over by US forces, providing fighter units with bases from which they could escort bombers to mainland Japan. The navalized P-51 was no longer needed and the program never went any further.
However, North American Aviation did not forget about the ETF-51D experiments. It later presented another navalized Mustang project to the Navy. This project, NAA-133, was based on the P-51H, the last Mustang model to see production.
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