Friday, October 26, 2018

The Mustang's Last Chance

Image courtesy of the Doug Price photo collection

October 1950. Suwon, Korea.  Here, in all its shabby-chic glory, is a U.S. Air Force North American F-51D Mustang. It is returning from a sortie during which the pilot apparently found no targets worthy of the HVAR rockets affixed to the underside of the plane's wings. The pilot taxis his aircraft, serial number 474385, across a rutted, unimproved field lined by make-shift tent facilities. The aircraft itself shows evidence of replacement parts and some rough handling.

The Mustang was arguably the paragon of piston-engine fighter planes.  Designed and built for World War II, the Mustang excelled in air-to-air combat over Europe and the Pacific.  By 1950, however, new jet technologies yielded fighters with performance that eclipsed the prop-driven Mustangs.  The USAF began to systematically cast off its once-numerous fleet of Mustangs; some were exported to foreign air forces while others eased into retirement by serving with Air National Guard units. Just as many went to the scrap heap.

With the outbreak of war in Korea, the U.S. Far East Air Force (USFEAF), based in Japan, was in the midst of its transition from prop- to jet-powered fighters.  Consequently, the command lacked sufficient numbers of either type.  Within days, it was clear to U.S. military planners that an infusion of air power would be critical to thwarting the North Korean invasion. About 30 Mustang air frames awaited scrapping in Tachikawa, Japan; these would enjoy a reprieve. The existing cadre of USFEAF fighter pilots easily retrograded from their jet-powered F-80 Shooting Stars to the trusty Mustang. 

As the magnitude of the Korean conflict grew during July, the need for additional Mustangs was evident. An order from USAF headquarters initiated the recall of Mustangs from state-controlled Air Guard units.  This requisition had unfortunate consequences.  Military culture is such that when a unit is ordered to relinquish a portion of its assets - be it materiel or personnel - that unit will likely select the dregs of its inventory.  The USAF subsequently gathered a fleet of 145 Mustangs for shipment to Korea in July 1950, a move which allowed Air Guard units to part with many of their maintenance headaches.

Thus was the lot drawn by USFEAF pilots winging over Korea in the Mustang.  The sleek fighter was beloved by many pilots for its handling and performance, but age was taking its toll. No Mustang airframe was less than five years old (geriatric in the era of rapid aviation technology change). If it was stored in Japan, the Mustang's liquid-cooled Merlin engine typically suffered from deteriorated fuel hoses and couplings.  Failure of these components brought a number of pilots and their planes to grief.  When employing an Air Guard cast-off, the pilot risked lapses in reliability that were extremely inconvenient when navigating over and around Korea's mountainous terrain.  And all of this was aside from the enemy's voluminous anti-aircraft fire.

Although tired, the Mustangs delivered bombs, rockets, napalm, and machine gun fire against enemy targets. Pvt. Philip Hughes and the other ground soldiers in Korea cheered all the air support they could get as they faced a numerically superior enemy.  The venerable Mustang could not fight the war single-handedly, but it probably played an instrumental role in preventing the collapse of the United Nations' defense of South Korea during the summer of 1950.

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