When is a Mustang not a Mustang? When its an A-36 dive bomber!*
This certainly seems like an odd “what were they thinking?” sort of scenario. But after the jump, we’ll look at a clever improvisation that may have saved the Mustang program.
I’m sure many readers know the story of the Mustang’s British origins. When the British Purchasing Commission asked North American Aviation to produce the P-40 (Hawk 81) for them, North American President Dutch Kindelberger told them he could deliver something better in 120 days. They beat the deadline by 18 days.
Part of the deal the US Government had arranged with the British was that any new type developed for them, the US got the first two examples for testing. So in due time, two planes were delivered to Wright Field in Dayton for testing. At the time, much was being spent on getting P-38 Lightning and P-47 Thunderbolt production underway. Both types were new and expensive projects that required a lot of engineering and industrial effort. Two fighters of a new type for the British drew little official interest.
But apparently a few pilots who flew the new fighter were very impressed. In its early form, with an Allison V-1710 engine, the type was lacking in high altitude performance. But it was fast, maneuverable and long ranged. So a pilot or pilots whose names are lost to us brought it to the attention of 1st Lt Ben Kelsey, head of the Army Air Corps Pursuit Projects Office at Wright Field. Kelsey did something interesting, and I have seriously seen aviation writers praise him as important to American victory as Nimitz or Doolittle, or vilify him as one of the great idiots or obstructionists of all time (I lean towards important and heroic). But knowing how much money the military and congress were currently spending on fighter projects, Kelsey asked North American if they could re-work the type as a Dive Bomber.
I think this was brilliant. Britain had only ordered a few hundred of the new Mustang Mk Is, and without further orders, it seemed likely the type could slip into oblivion. When North American made a few tweaks, like adding heavier American machine guns, dive flaps, and bomb racks under each wing; Kelsey presented the type to his superiors as a new dive bomber/light attack aircraft. Congress would buy off on this. Thanks to the Stuka everyone knew the Army Air Force needed a state of the art dive bomber. So 500 were ordered as the A-36 Apache. If Kelsey were honestly not interested in the new type he could have simply ignored it like the rest of officialdom.
In time, fighter variants of the type would be ordered, and they would be given the name the British were already using. And later yet, when the superlative British Merlin engine entered production in this country by the Packard Company, it would be joined to the Mustang to solve its lack of high altitude performance.
With only 500 examples built it was hardly a major type; but it was used by the 27th Fighter-bomber Group and the 86th Bomb Group both based in the Mediterranean in 1943-44. The A-36, along with the P-51A, also equipped the 311th Fighter Group based in India through the end of the war.
But how exactly did the Mustang perform as a dive bomber? I know there’s at least one funny story about it. Apparently at a stateside training base there was an incident where the dive flaps on one Apache deployed in an uneven way, that made for a rough ride. So one or more Apaches at the training unit had their dive flaps wired shut. Somehow that story found its way into several post-war magazine articles and books, leaving readers thinking the type had serious deficiencies.
Meanwhile, pilots who flew the plane in combat seemed to love it. The type was rugged, capable for its mission, and provided its own fighter cover. Apparently combat pilots had never even heard of “wiring the dive flaps shut”, and they used them all the time. Apaches also scored 84 kills in air to air combat, including five by Lt Michael Russo of the 27th FBG, making him the war’s first Mustang Ace.
This is the Accurate Miniatures kit. This subject was based in Italy in early 1944 with the 27th FBG. The bomb markers on the side indicate this plane had seen a long combat career.
* – reader Tom Griffith has pointed out a factual problem with this. During the war, the Apache name was only officially assigned to a test version of the Mustang, not even the dive bomber. In June of 1942 the entire family was designated Mustang, so in spite of some alternate names still popping up (Apache and Invader), the entire NA73 family and its derivatives were only, officially, Mustangs. This aircraft is, technically, a North American A-36A Mustang.
At some point in the 1970s or ‘80s it became common for writers (and model companies) to use the name “Apache” for the dive bomber variant. Readers of this site may recall that I’ve used unofficial or popular names for aircraft on occasion (I just posted on the MXY-7 “Baka”!). So for now, I will leave the title as is. But if at some point I decide popular usage has changed (I start seeing the A-36 referred to as “Mustang” at other sites or books) I may retitle this and related posts.
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