Propulsion Into The Jet Age - Part VI
Mustangs had been supporting the Allied effort in the Pacific since the P-51D fighter models became available. As early as April 1945, single pilot Mustangs were fighting 1,500 mile round trip missions over the skies of Japan. There were never enough aircraft early in the Pacific war but after VE Day (Victory in Europe) – WWII turned its full attention to the Pacific theater. More pilots and their aircraft could be made available to fight long, problematical battles. These Pacific theater missions pushed the pilots and aircraft to the point of fatigue even though at a moments notice a pilot and aircraft needed to be fresh for combat. The distances between battle zones were calculated in several hundred, not a thousand plus miles, usually over the endless expanses of ocean. The margin of error was so narrow for a squadron of P-51’s setting out for a raid to Japan that the Air Force had B-29 Bombers assigned to provide navigation. Now the fighters could avoid getting lost over the Pacific Ocean but the bomber crew wasn’t able to solve the fatigue of flying a powerful and demanding fighter more than eight hours.
The Mustang was so successful in Europe that it created a new requirement – the need for a standard long range, high altitude escort fighter. It was just a few years earlier that the Air Force didn’t anticipate that escort fighters were needed at all. But now, after the experience of the European air war, the importance of fighter escorts was part of the strategy of a complete air supremacy plan.
In January, 1944 North American Aviation, the builder of the Mustang, began development of an even longer range, more destructive model. They anticipated the Pacific theater military needs and to save development time while capitalizing on the success of the P-51 Mustang airframe they extend its capabilities one more time. They dubbed their new, ultra long range fighter the P-82 and it made its first flight in April, 1945. Volume production of the aircraft started too late to have any significant impact on WWII. Only twenty were delivered before the war ended of the original order for 500. The contracts initially canceled for further deliveries but later restarted.
The new P-82 fighter looked considerably different, yet strangely familiar to previous Mustangs. It was effectively two modified P-51H WWII fuselages combined into a twin-boom configuration with a dedicated stabilizer. It vaguely looked similar to a P-38 Lightening. Each fuselage initially carried a fully configured cockpit and allowed its two pilots to share the tasks of flying and fighting. Yet each pilot could fly the aircraft individually. Producing a new propeller driven aircraft was a climactic development effort since the world had progressed to the jet age. As America learned about German jet fighters and from our own research, government contracts for jet fighters were taking the aviation industry by storm. If the new P-82 had not been part of the Mustang heritage it may never have reached production. Its performance was impressive. Powered by two Packard built, 1380 hp Rolls-Royce Merlin V1650-23 engines, the initial P-82 Mustang’s would have a maximum range of 2,600 miles. Later models featured engines that developed over 2,200 hp.
The twin Mustang P-82 joined the Air Force as the F-82 escort fighter also serving as a night fighter. As Korean War clouds formed, F-82 production was resumed, eventually building a total of two hundred and fifty aircraft. Many people wondered, why the United States would build a propeller driven aircraft when the early jets were faster and perceived as a modern technology. The choice was easy; the twin Mustang was almost as fast, covered a much longer range and flew on an airframe whose characteristics were well known.
An early model F-82B flew 4,968 miles on February 28th 1947 setting a non-stop fighter flying record. It was piloted by Lt. Col. Robert Thacker who was the senior pilot flying a course from Honolulu to New York City and averaged almost 342 mph completing the trip in less than fifteen hours. The F-82 continued to be developed through to the “G” model and went on to a successful combat career in the Korean War. Reaching a top speed of 475 mph and with drop tanks, the F-82 had over twice the range of a comparable jet fighter with significantly more armament. The twin Mustang was a long distance war horse.
Carrying six proven and deadly.50 caliber machines guns in its wings the F-82 could add even more fire power in a special low hung, center section gun nacelle. A similar gun mount was later used on the F-4 Viet Nam era jet fighters. The twin Mustang could deliver even more. When it was fitted with five rocket launchers each carrying five rockets the Mustang brought devastating firepower with the flexibility of air mobility equal to a light cruiser’s broadside barrage. Stop and think about that a moment. The aircraft proved to be even more versatile. It could carry 7,200 pounds of bombs or a 2,000 pound torpedo and various other nacelle’s for radar or rocket guns. The cockpit was redesigned with the F and G models which carried a radar airman in the right fuselage instead of a co-pilot. The left cockpit always featured a full complement of instruments while the right cockpit carried only the base instruments to fly, offering a break to the primary pilot. The F-82 even offered a tilting, adjustable seat to the pilot, a feature not found prior to the F-82 in fighter aircraft.
The fighter is rarely seen today. There are a couple of Korean War movies that feature the aircraft flying but it’s a rare bird. Contact the Atlantic Flyer though the web site “contact us” button and correctly identify the reason why the record breaking non stop flight to New York features an aircraft christened Betty Jo and you will be entered to win an 11x14 photograph of the aircraft. A tip – Petty Coat Junction’s, pretty Betty Jo wasn’t on the air in 1949.