In May 1940, British war planners asked North American Aviation to design and build a fighter-bomber with firepower, climb, speed, agility, and range sufficient to carry the fight to Berlin and back. By September, the firm had a prototype for what became one of the war’s most recognizable silhouettes.
Debuting in combat with RAF pilots on the stick, the Mustang by late 1943 had become the escort of choice for Allied bombers over Europe and, in time, Japan. Pilots hailed the elegant machine’s robust, durable design, which evolved through multiple variations. Of 15,000-plus produced, more than 8,100 were P-51Ds, introduced in mid-1944. Auxiliary fuel tanks stretched the P-51’s range to 1,650 miles; a pilot could cross the Channel into European air space, tangle with Luftwaffe fliers, and return to England. Critics sniffed at a P-51’s inability to turn like a Spitfire, Messerschmitt, or Focke-Wulf—but no rival could match a Mustang for range and ceiling. A dogfighter’s dream, able to catch and kill V-1 buzz bombs, the P-51 achieved permanent iconhood.