The P-51 Mustang was one of the best, if not the best, single-engine fighter of WWII. It’s performance during WWII was legendary and is well-known even today in the general public. Less well known was the type’s use during the Korean War, and less known still, it’s overseas use after WWII.
Perhaps the least studied era of the Mustang was it’s use in Air National Guard (ANG) squadrons after WWII. These Mustang units filled an important niche in the American military system until sufficient jets were available. The Mustang’s service in the ANG was the last of it’s use in the USA, and was the end of the era overall for piston-engined fighters in American skies.
(A P-51 Mustang of the New Mexico National Guard after WWII, prior to the 1947 Army-Air Force split. The New Mexico state emblem is in place of the national insignia on the fuselage. In the mid-to-late 1940s, before peacetime organizational standards were made rigid, many state NG squadrons had unofficial emblems like this on the fuselage. The wing markings were left as the national insignia.)
Versions of the Mustang used after WWII
The early models of the Mustang, the P-51A, P-51B, and P-51C; were all discarded at the end of WWII.
The P-51D was the “main” Mustang version of WWII and the Korean War. It was 32’3″ long with a 37′ wingspan. It was powered by a Packard V-1650 liquid-cooled piston engine, a license-built variant of the Rolls-Royce Merlin. The armament was six AN/M2 .50cal machine guns in the wings, with a total 1,880 rounds of ammunition. A 500 lbs or 1,000 lbs bomb could be carried, and each wing had five pylons for T64 HVAR unguided rockets. The maximum speed was 380kts and the ceiling was 41,900′. The extremely maneuverable and fast P-51D was the first American squadron-level fighter to use a g-suit for the pilot, in this case the Berger-G model from 1944 onwards.
(One of the more famous individual P-51Ds during WWII, “Glamorous Glennis III” was the mount of Chuck Yeager.)
During WWII, a total of 11,503 of this variant were built. They were the most common American fighter in the early post-WWII era.
The P-51H was the ultimate development of the Mustang. It used a 1,900hp Packard V-1650-9 engine with methanol injection, and had every imaginable airframe improvement learned during the Mustang’s WWII career. The top speed increased to 425 kts, and the optional bombload was doubled. All would be built at North American Aviation’s Inglewood, CA factory, and the initial order was for 2,000 planes with an option for a further 2,000. Meanwhile NAA’s Texas plant received a 2,000 plane order for the nearly-identical P-51M model.
It had been planned that this version would debut during the late 1945 / early 1946 invasion of Japan, however WWII ended with the atomic bombings in August 1945. When the contract was cancelled in early 1946, a total of 555 of the P-51H model had been built. Only one P-51M had been built and that entire contract was cancelled as well.
Ironically, the P-51H was the best air-to-air version of the Mustang, but never scored a kill. During WWII, it was being held back for the final invasion of Japan which then never happened. During the Korean War, the US Air Force felt the P-51D model was tougher vs low-caliber AA fire in the ground attack mission, and the P-51H was not used there either.
Like any WWII fighter, the Mustang was slowly but steadily eclipsed by the faster postwar planes which followed it. A popular lore is that a P-51 could break the sound barrier in a steep dive. Chuck Yeager (obviously an export in both the P-51 and the sound barrier) has repeatedly said this was impossible and would likely end in a pilot fatality. The Mustang did, however, encounter high (Mach 0.9+) compressibility in high-speed dives (the Me-262 and Spitfire did as well) and it’s theoretically possible that Mustangs maybe briefly exceeded the mathematical figure for Mach 1, but certainly not in any controllable or useful way.
In April 1945, a P-51D was modified while under production for a liquid-fueled auxiliary rocket behind the radiator scoop. This was intended to help the Mustang close the nearly 100 kts speed gap between a standard P-51D and the Me-262. With Germany’s defeat a few weeks later, the idea was dropped as Japan had no operational jets.
In late 1945, a P-51D was modified with two Ford PJ-31-1 pulsejets. This engine was a near-copy of the Argus model used on Germany’s V-1 buzz bomb, and intended for the Loon missile. The problem with this set-up was the same as with every mixed-propulsion fighter ever tried; in that when the jets were shut off, they were just dead weight for the plane to lug around. The modified Mustang was grossly uncompetitive on it’s piston engine alone.
The idea itself was not as far-fetched as might be assumed today. In late 1945 the US Army had thousands of existing WWII-built Mustangs already paid for, and a speed boost would keep them competitive in the homeland defense role for years to come. The PJ-31-1 engine was incredibly simple, easy to maintain, and could be built dirt-cheap.
The cancellation of the remainder of the Loon contract would have greatly pushed up the price of each Ford pulsejet. Because of this and the inherent performance limitations of the scheme itself, the idea was dropped in 1946.
There was one last attempt to mate the P-51 with jets. In 1946 a P-51D was modified with Marquardt XRJ-30-MA ramjets on each wingtip in streamlined, low-drag nacelles. A ramjet differs from normal jets in that there is no compressor at all; air compression being achieved by the engine’s forward motion. The basic limitation of ramjets is that they can not “start from zero”; to start the engine the plane has to already be moving very fast. It was planned that the Mustang would enter a high-speed dive to start the auxiliary engines for combat use only. After they were started, the process was self-sustaining until the jets were shut off.
During an August 1948 test flight, one of the ramjets exploded. The pilot successfully bailed out, but the plane was destroyed and so was any further chance of Mustangs being retrofitted with jets.
Mustangs on active US Army / US Air Force duty after WWII
September-December 1945 and 1946
When WWII ended, the US Army Air Corps had four main types of single-engine fighters in use: The P-39 Airacobra, the P-40 Warhawk, the P-47 Thunderbolt, and the P-51 Mustang. The P-40 was retired immediately, and the P-39 was pushed to bottom-tier status to be retired within two years. The P-47 was selected as an “interim standard” type with service expected to last until sufficient jets were available (no later than 1949), leaving the P-51 Mustang as the sole standard single-engine daylight fighter for the post-WWII era.
Some squadrons operating the P-51 served in the immediate postwar occupation forces, flying out of former German and Japanese airbases. Four P-51 fighter wings were assigned to the American sector of occupied Germany.
(P-51D Mustangs of the 20th Fighter Group at Shaw Army Airfield in November 1946. The one in front still has patriotic markings from WWII.)
Other units rotated back to the USA but remained on active duty. An example was the 20th Fighter Group, which had taken on the Mustang in Europe in 1944 during WWII, and continued flying it on active duty at Shaw AFB, SC until February 1948.
Many legendary Mustang pilots of WWII themselves continued in active duty. Clarence “Bud” Anderson, who had shot down 16 planes during WWII, continued flying the Mustang and then other types as a test pilot. Robin Olds, who had shot down 12 planes during WWII, continued flying P-51s until 1946 when he became one of the first squadron-level jet fighter pilots.
Whereas most WWII-veteran fighters went to one of the postwar ‘boneyards’ or direct to scrap, the Mustangs were collected at the San Antonio Air Materiel sub-facility of Kelly AFB. There, they were maintained and allocated back out to reserve and ANG squadrons.
(WWII-veteran Mustangs at the San Antonio facility await reassignment to post-WWII reserve and ANG squadrons.) (Zenith Press photo)
1947 and 1948
Even as the number of active duty fighter squadrons using the Mustang continued to shrink, the P-51 (changed to F-51 that year) continued in both fighter and test use in 1947. As a type with all it’s bugs worked out, the Mustang made an ideal candidate for high-speed flight research in a time when jets were still a precious commodity.
(A F-51H being used by NACA, the forerunner of NASA, in 1947.)
(A Mustang which made a successful emergency belly landing at Clark AFB, Philippines, in 1948. The F-51 was still a key component of active-duty US Air Force fighter assets in southeast Asia at the time.)
This was the final year of peacetime active service (prior to the Korean War which started the next year) for the Mustang. All remaining active duty squadrons converted to jets.
(A F-51H fitted with target sleeve towing equipment at Selfridge AFB in 1949.)
(A pair of F-51H Mustangs at Grenier AFB, NH in 1949.)
(A F-51D of the 3595th Fighter Pilot Training Wing at Nellis AFB in early 1950. Just prior to the start of the Korean War, this was at the time one of the few Mustangs still in active duty regular US Air Force use.)
The Air National Guard
For non-American readers unfamiliar with the USA’s military system, the National Guard is the modern descendant of Revolutionary War-era state militia units. Each state’s National Guard is part of the overall USA military, but, during peacetime controlled by the state’s governor. Members are part-time. National Guard units can be “federalized”, that is, rolled into the direct national chain of command.
(A 1947 recruitment ad for the Army National Guard featuring the P-51 Mustang. Even as millions of WWII veterans were mustered out in 1945 and 1946, at least a small number of new recruits were needed to avoid logjams down the road when the WWII generation retired. At the time of this ad, there were only 48 states. Hawaii was still a territory but had a National Guard, as did the commonwealth of Puerto Rico, but the territory of Alaska at that time did not.)
In 1947, the US Air Force became independent from the US Army. Army National Guard squadrons thus became Air National Guard squadrons. The new US Air Force changed the old Army designation system, with the P-__ (pursuit) category becoming F-__ (fighter).
Mustangs in the ANG
(P-51D Mustangs of the Texas National Guard overfly USS Texas (BB-35). It was not uncommon early in the post-WWII era for state units to fly Mustangs with cowling markings of their former WWII squadrons, as seen here. In April 1948, an act of Congress transferred USS Texas from the US Navy to the state of Texas for preservation as a museum ship.)
Texas was the largest state at the end of WWII (Alaska was still a territory) and not surprisingly, it was a major user of the Mustang after WWII.
(F-51D of the Texas ANG at Ellington AFB in 1948)
The 111th Fighter Squadron was a very old American warplane unit, dating to World War One. In 1923 it became the first air unit of the Texas Army National Guard. During WWII, it was federalized and flew A-20 Havoc attack planes and P-51 Mustangs, including the reconnaissance versions.
(A former Texas ANG Mustang receives Costa Rican markings when the plane was sold to that country after Texas retired it.) (photo from Life magazine)
On 24 May 1946, the squadron returned to Texas state control. It was equipped with P-51D Mustangs and flew out of Ellington Army Airfield near Houston. The squadron was assigned air defense of the eastern USA-Mexico border. At the start of the Korean War in 1950, the squadron was again federalized. It flew Mustangs until early 1951 when it converted to the F-84 Thunderjet.
(F-51D Mustangs of the Utah, California, and Nevada ANGs in 1948. Administratively, the state squadrons were controlled as a fighter wing out of California.)
The 191st Fighter Squadron of the Utah National Guard was established at Salt Lake City in November 1946. It was equipped with F-51D Mustangs. The squadron was federalized for the Korean War and flew it’s F-51s in combat there in the ground attack role.
The Salt Lake City region has a large population of Church of Latter-Day Saints members, and this was reflected in the squadron’s manpower. Above is Roland Wright, who flew the “Mormon Mustang” over Europe during WWII. After the war he was instrumental in establishing the Utah ANG. He continued flying Mustangs for several years and then moved on to the jet F-86 Sabre, at the same time he also mastered post-WWII transport planes. Wright, who had enlisted as a buck private in the Army in 1944, retired as a US Air Force Brigadier General of the Utah ANG in 1976.
In June 1955, the Utah ANG converted to the F-86 Sabre.
(District Of Colombia ANG F-51Hs in formation in 1949.)
The District Of Colombia ANG’s use of the Mustang was unique in several ways. For obvious reasons, it is the only ANG based entirely outside of it’s home territory, flying out of Andrews AFB, MD. As the District has no civilian government higher than Washington’s mayor, the D.C. ANG is answerable to the President himself in peacetime, yet, it is not regarded as a national unit unless federalized.
On 24 May 1946, the 121st Fighter Squadron was established, inheriting the traditions and colors of a WWII A-24 Banshee squadron. Initially equipped with P-47 Thunderbolts, the 121st was the first ANG squadron to switch to jets, converting to the F-84 Thunderjet in December 1949. During the changeover, F-51 Mustangs were introduced as a temporary gap-filler. Due to the Korean War, in 1952 the Thunderjets were pulled from the unit and the squadron, now seven years after the end of WWII, was made an all-Mustang unit.
Because of the high number of WWII veterans in the Norfolk-Washington-Baltimore corridor, finding talented Mustang pilots was never a problem. Besides normal duty weekends, the D.C. ANG of that era operated on almost a library-like system, where pilots could freely show up and “check out” a F-51. The squadron was supported by active duty mechanics at Andrews, and it’s F-51s were always in top shape. Quite possibly, in the early 1950s, the D.C. ANG was the most effective piston-engined fighter squadron in the world. The D.C. ANG flew the F-51H until August 1954 when they were replaced by F-86 Sabres.
(P-51D of the Kansas National Guard before the 1947 Army / Air Force split.)
On 24 May 1946, a WWII liaison squadron was reformed as a fighter unit attached to the Kansas National Guard, equipped with P-51D Mustangs. The 127th Fighter Squadron flew out of an Army airstrip near Wichita (today, McConnell AFB) and operated the P-51D until 1950, when it was federalized for service in Europe to relieve other squadrons for the Korean War, and re-equipped with F-84 Thunderjets. When the unit returned to Kansas state control in June 1952, it lost it’s jets and was again equipped with Mustangs. The Kansas ANG flew F-51Ds (taken from other states ANG units converted to jets) for another two years, before switching back to jets again in 1954.
(F-51H Mustang of the Maine ANG during the state’s brief use of the plane in the early 1950s.)
In May 1946, the WWII 528th Fighter Squadron was redesignated 132nd and assigned to the Maine National Guard, flying out of Dow Army Airfield (today Bangor AFB). Like a number of other states, the Maine ANG initially flew P-47 Thunderbolts, then switched to jets when federalized for the Korean War, then lost their jets when returned to state control.
Maine’s experience with the Mustang was thus brief. In 1952 the 132nd switched to F-51H Mustangs, before converting to the F-94 Starfire jet in 1954.
(F-51D of the Rhode Island ANG, last user of the D model.)
The National Guard of Rhode Island, the smallest American state, had a somewhat bizarre story with the Mustang after WWII. It’s squadron was the 152nd Fighter Squadron, flying F-51Ds out of Warwick. The Mustang’s speed and range were far greater than required to patrol Rhode Island’s airspace and the type was also tasked with airspace patrol over Long Island Sound.
By 1956, the 152nd was the last unit anywhere still using the F-51D model and the US Air Force announced plans to convert the Rhode Island ANG to jet fighters. However the civilian side of T.F. Green Municipal Airport (where the unit was based) objected to the introduction of high speed jets. Due to Rhode Island’s size, there were no suitable substitute locations. Therefore in 1956, the US Air Force completely stripped Rhode Island of it’s squadron; planes, ground equipment, and unit designation; transferring them to the Arizona ANG where they converted to jets. After some deliberation, it was decided that it would set a bad precedent to have a state without an ANG, and a transport unit was formed in Rhode Island.
(South Carolina ANG Mustang.)
The 157th Fighter Squadron of the South Carolina ANG flew F-51D Mustangs out of Richland County Airfield (today, McEntire NGB) starting in 1950. It had a higher than normal concentration of the reconnaissance version. The unit was federalized for the Korean War and sent to West Germany to relieve other aircraft for Korean service. After returning to state control in 1952, the squadron upgraded to the F-51H model. In 1954, these were replaced by F-80 Shooting Star jets.
(The military side of Imeson Airport near Jacksonville, FL; which closed in 1968 and has since been completely torn down.)
The 159th Fighter Squadron of the Florida ANG was established in 1946. Like many ANGs, Florida had two “tours of duty” with the Mustang. From 1946 to 1950, the F-51D model was operated. When the 159th was federalized for the Korean War in 1950, it upgraded to the F-80 Shooting Star, but upon returning to state control in 1952, reverted back to the Mustang, now the F-51H model, drawn from other states retiring the type. In the early 1950s, the 159th was an odd squadron, jointly flying not only the Mustang but other WWII-legacy types including the B-26 Invader bomber and C-45 Expeditor transport. In 1955, the Mustangs were retired and replaced by jets.
(F-51H Mustang of the Illinois ANG.)
In May 1946, the 169th Fighter Squadron of the Illinois National Guard was formed at Peoria Airport. It flew the F-51D model until January 1953, when it switched to the F-51H. In 1956, the weary Mustangs were grounded for safety’s sake and for several years the Illinois ANG was without fighters, until the F-84 Thunderstreak entered service.
(Nevada National Guard P-51 before the Army-Air Force split in 1947.)
The 408th Fighter Squadron, which had flown homeland defense P-39 Airacobras in California during WWII, was renumbered 192nd Fighter Squadron in 1946 and assigned to the Nevada National Guard. Flying out of Reno, it used F-51D Mustangs until November 1954 when it converted to the F-86 Sabre.
(Lineup of Mustangs at Burlington, VT in the early 1950s.)
The 134th Fighter Squadron was assigned to the Vermont National Guard in 1946. It initially flew P-47 Thunderbolts but converted to the F-51H Mustang in 1950. In June 1953, the Vermont ANG switched to the F-94 Starfire.
(F-51D Mustangs of the Wyoming ANG in 1948. The lead plane has a local emblem in place of the national insignia, which was tolerated until the end of the 1940s in ANG units; meanwhile the second plane in still has rudder markings from it’s former squadron during WWII.)
In August 1946, the 187th Fighter Squadron was assigned to the Wyoming National Guard. Flying out of a small airfield near Cheyenne, the squadron was lucky to be near Warren AFB which it would have operated from during a national emergency. During the Korean War the squadron was re-equipped with jets.
(New Jersey ANG F-51H at Newark in 1948.)
The New Jersey ANG’s 119th Fighter Squadron is one of the oldest American air units, being formed during the First World War. It was stood down during WWII but reformed in 1945, and returned to state control in 1946. At the time it was equipped with P-47 Thunderbolts, and flew out of Newark Municipal Airport (today Newark Liberty International AP). In 1947, the 119th converted to the F-51H Mustang, which it flew until 1955 when it converted to the F-86 Sabre.
(P-51D of the Ohio National Guard in 1947, prior to the Army-Air Force split. It has the whole National Guard abbreviation ahead of the fuselage roundel, and the serial number on the starboard wing. After WWII, there was initially little markings standardization from one state to another.)
Mustangs were very common over Ohio after WWII, with three squadrons of the Ohio ANG flying the type. The 166th Fighter Squadron of the Ohio National Guard became active on 24 May 1946, flying P-51D Mustangs out of Lockbourne Army Airfield (today Rickenbacker AFB). The vast majority of this squadron, both pilots and groundcrew, were WWII veterans familiar with the Mustang and this squadron was highly-rated. In October 1948, the F-51Ds were exchanged for the F-51H model and the squadron was integrated with ground-based radars. This squadron flew Mustangs until mid-1950 when it converted to the F-84 Thunderjet.
A second ANG squadron in Ohio was the 162nd, which flew P-51Ds out of Cox Airport near Dayton from 1946 onwards, later switching to the F-51H model. It converted to the F-84 Thunderjet in 1955. The squadron was temporarily relocated to Wright-Patterson AFB for a while as the runways in Dayton were at that time too short for jets.
The third Ohio ANG Mustang squadron was the 164th, which flew both F-51Ds and F-51Hs from 1946 to 1953, when it converted to the F-80 Shooting Star.
(Georgia ANG F-51H Mustang in the early 1950s.)
In 1946, the WWII 351st Fighter Squadron, which had flown P-40 Warhawks and P-51 Mustangs over Europe, was renumbered 158th Fighter Squadron and allocated to the Georgia National Guard. The squadron was initially equipped with P-47 Thunderbolts, until being federalized for the Korean War. When the squadron was returned to Georgia state control in 1952, it was converted to the F-51H – thereby returning to the Mustang after a seven-year hiatus. The squadron was assigned homeland defense for a region that included Georgia, South Carolina, and part of Florida. The Mustang’s “second tour” with the squadron only lasted about a year until it converted to jets.
(F-51D of the South Dakota ANG with a local wolf logo in place of the national insignia.)
The South Dakota National Guard’s 175th Fighter Squadron began flying P-51s out of Sioux Falls in May 1946. In 1953, the unit was still operating F-51Ds and had a pair on constant runway alert, a Cold War activity more often associated with US Air Force high-performance jets. In late 1954 / early 1955, the unit converted to the F-94 Starfire.
(One of the North Dakota ANG’s ‘Happy Hooligans at Hector’ in 1950.)
(A pilot of the North Dakota ANG in 1953, wearing Korean War-era helmet and flight suit.)
On 1 February 1947, the 1178th Fighter Squadron was formed at Hector Airfield near Fargo (today Hector International AP) as the first unit of the North Dakota ANG. The squadron flew F-51D Mustangs until 1954 when it converted to the F-94 Starfire jet.
(P-51 Mustangs of the Colorado National Guard in 1946.)
The 120th Fighter Squadron had originally been a WWII reconnaissance unit assigned to patrol the USA-Mexico border during WWII. On 30 June 1946 it was reformed as a fighter unit of the Colorado National Guard, based at Lowry Army Airfield (later Lowry AFB) in Denver, equipped with P-51D Mustangs. With the independence of the US Air Force shortly thereafter, it transferred as the first unit of the Colorado ANG. A unique aspect was that the squadron had it’s own aerobatics team, the Minutemen, the only ANG squadron in any state to have a team. In 1951 the squadron was federalized for the Korean War. It converted to F-80 Shooting Star jets in 1952.
(P-51 Mustang at Lincoln Airport, NE in 1946.)
Nebraska was an early adopter of the Mustang. The 173rd Fighter Squadron began flying P-51Ds in February 1946, initially operating out of one old hangar at Lincoln Airport. Like some other state’s early ANG units, it was an odd squadron, flying 22 fighters, 7 medium bombers, 2 transports and 3 trainers. The Nebraska ANG was one of the first to convert to jets, switching to the F-80 Shooting Star in 1948. However with the start of the Korean War, jets were needed in the active Air Force and the unit switched back to the F-51. In it’s “second tour” in Nebraska, the Mustang was operated until 1953 when it again became a F-80 squadron.
(F-51D of the 103rd squadron, Pennsylvania ANG in 1954.)
The story of the Mustang in Pennsylvania was unusual. The 103rd Observation Squadron was an “original” air guard unit. In 1924, it was formed by the Pennsylvania Army National Guard flying old JN-4 Jenny aircraft of World War One fame. In 1941 the squadron was federalized as part of President Roosevelt’s defense buildup and moved to Harrisburg Airport. During WWII, this national guard unit flew P-40 Warhawks, P-39 Airacobras, and P-38 Lightnings against the Japanese over India and Burma.
At the end of WWII this squadron returned to Pennsylvania state control and equipped with WWII-surplus B-26 Invader light bombers. In 1950 the squadron was again federalized for combat in the Korean War. With the B-26 becoming obsolete, the squadron returned to Pennsylvania in 1952 and temporarily re-equipped with F-51D Mustangs in the fighter-bomber role. This was unusual in that the unit did not fly Mustangs directly after the end of WWII, but, started seven years after the end of WWII. The service of the Mustang in the 103rd was brief. In 1955, it switched to F-84 and F-94 jets.
(For several years after it’s official retirement from use, the Pennsylvania ANG kept on hand one ‘off-the-books’ (note no serial number on tail) Mustang for hack use and display at airshows. The plane is pictured here in 1957 at Reading, PA.)
Another unit of the Pennsylvania ANG, the 193rd Fighter Squadron, flew the Mustang after WWII, becoming operational in 1948. It was unusual in that some of it’s Mustangs were based at Reading in eastern Pennsylvania, and the others way on the other side of the state in Pittsburgh. This squadron was federalized during the Korean War and assigned to Dover AFB, MD where it received F-84 Thunderjets for homeland protection missions. In November 1952, it returned to Pennsylvania state control however it was stripped of it’s Thunderjets, and was issued F-51 Mustangs drawn from other ANG units. One of these was painted bright red and used as a ‘referee’ in training missions. In the F-51’s “second tour” with the 193rd, the Mustang served until 1956 when it was converted into an airlift unit.
(Kentucky ANG F-51D Mustang.)
Beginning in June 1947, the 165th Fighter Squadron of the Kentucky ANG flew F-51D Mustangs out of Standiford Airfield. In 1951 the squadron converted to F-84 Thunderjets.
(F-51 Mustang of the West Virginia ANG in the late 1950s. The 0- prefix to the serial number was used in the US Air Force at that time on aircraft 10 or more years old.)
West Virginia was one of the first to introduce the P-51 into Guard service, and the last state to retire the Mustang. The 167th Fighter Squadron was established in 1946, flying a mixture of P-47 Thunderbolts, P-51 Mustangs, and T-6 Texan trainers out of Kanawha Airport near Charleston. Many of the Mustangs assigned to the West Virginia ANG had previously belonged to the 352nd Fighter Group, a collection of three squadrons based in Great Britain during WWII which racked up an impressive tally of 776 Luftwaffe planes shot down, including eleven Me-262 and one Ar-234 jets.
One of the factors that gave the Mustang a long life in West Virginia was that, as late as the mid-1950s, Kanawha Airport lacked the ability to land jets. In December 1955 the 167th moved to newly-expanded ANG Base Martinsburg, but continued flying F-51s while it’s jet successor was selected by the Pentagon. In 1957 the squadron (the final American unit still operating the WWII Mustang) converted to the F-86 Sabre.
(Missouri National Guard P-51D Mustang in 1946, still awaiting the application of state markings.)
The Missouri ANG’s 110th Fighter Squadron activated on 15 July 1946, flying out of a military section of Lambert International AP in St. Louis. This squadron flew F-51D Mustangs in the ground attack role until 1953, when it temporarily became a bomber squadron.
(F-51H Mustang fighters of the Maryland ANG in 1952.)
The Maryland ANG’s 104th Fighter Squadron flew F-51H Mustangs out of Baltimore from 1952 to 1956. Maryland was the second-to-last state to retire the Mustang; just before West Virginia. One of the reasons was that the unit’s runway at Baltimore was very short and for a while, the squadron flew out of the Martin Aircraft Company’s factory airstrip. Oddly enough, Andrews AFB (which is in Maryland) did not host the Maryland ANG squadron, but did host the F-51s of the District Of Colombia ANG.
(Montana ANG F-51D Mustang in 1953.)
After WWII, the wartime 404th Fighter Squadron was renumbered 186th and assigned to the Montana National Guard. Activated on 24 May 1946, it flew P-51D Mustangs out of Gore Airfield near Great Falls. In 1951 the squadron was federalized for the Korean War and re-roled as a ground attack unit, still flying F-51Ds. Ten Mustangs of the Montana ANG flew missions in Korea. In November 1952 the squadron was returned to Montana state control, upgrading to the F-51H model. In 1955, the 186th converted to the F-86 Sabre.
(F-51H Mustang of the Arizona ANG.)
The Arizona ANG flew F-51H Mustangs out of Phoenix from 1946 to 1954. This squadron was controlled by Air Defense Command, guarding a sector of the USA’s airspace that included Arizona, the southern tip of Nevada, and a chunk of southeastern California. Assuming an alliance with Mexico during any future war, it would have also protected Mexico’s Baja Norte state. The Arizona ANG converted to the F-86 Sabre in 1954.
(F-51D Mustang of the California ANG in 1948. The ordnance appears to be a M38 training bomb, a WWII item used well into the Cold War.)
(In the post-WWII era, it was not uncommon for state ANG fighter squadrons to also have their own training and transport aircraft. Here is a T-6 Texan trainer of the California ANG’s 195th Fighter Squadron in the late 1940s.)
(F-51H of the California ANG in 1953, the last year that it flew the type.) (photo by Al Hamblin)
The 410th Fighter Squadron operated P-47 Thunderbolts in Europe during WWII. After Germany’s May 1945 surrender, the squadron briefly served in the occupation garrison, flying out of US Army Storck Barracks (the former Luftwaffe airbase at Illesheim). This squadron was earmarked for transfer to the Pacific for the final late 1945/early 1946 invasion of the Japanese home islands. With Japan’s sudden surrender, this was cancelled and the squadron was instead renumbered 195th Fighter Squadron and allocated to the California National Guard, flying out of Burbank Airfield (today Bob Hope Airport). In 1946 the squadron switched to the F-51 Mustang, which it flew until 1953. That year, for several months, the 195th operated as a composite propeller / jet squadron, not standing down as it converted to the F-86 Sabre.
(F-51D Mustang of the New Mexico ANG being refueled.)
The 188th Fighter Squadron had flown P-39 Airacobra and P-47 Thunderbolt fighters during WWII; on 24 May 1946 it was transferred to Kirtland Army Airfield in New Mexico, and redesignated the 188th Fighter-Bomber Squadron of the New Mexico National Guard. This unit was somewhat unique; it had a half-dozen B-26 Invader light bombers, twenty-five P-51D Mustang fighters, two or three trainers, and a handful of WWII-era transports. One of the unit’s first leaders was David Tallichet, who had been a B-17 Flying Fortress copilot during WWII but was also qualified on the C-47 Skytrain transport, P-51 Mustang fighter, and other types. He reportedly once said that the military could send whatever they wanted to New Mexico and he’d fly it; and he was probably right.
When the US Air Force became independent in 1947 the 188th’s Mustangs were redesignated F-51, and the base became Kirtland AFB. The unit was federalized during the Korean War to relieve more modern units for combat. It was assigned homeland protection duties over the western part of the USA’s southern border before being transferred back to New Mexico state control. The 188th flew Mustangs until 1953 when it converted to jet F-80 Shooting Star fighters.
(Minnesota ANG F-51 Mustang.) (Zenith Press photo)
Two squadrons of the Minnesota ANG flew F-51D Mustangs, the 109th out of the Twin Cities and the 179th out of Duluth. Both became operational with Mustangs in 1947. Previously the 179th had flown P-47 Thunderbolts during WWII, while the 109th was a “new” unit granted the traditions of the 109th Reconnaissance Squadron of WWII. These two Minnesota units flew the Mustang in challenging conditions common to the state; severe cold and blizzards in winter and frequent thunderstorms in summer. The 179th was federalized during the Korean War but never sent to Korea and reverted to state control. Both squadrons flew F-51D Mustangs until 1955, when they converted to F-94 Starfires.
(A Mustang of the Wisconsin ANG along with three of the Michigan ANG in 1947. This shows the variation in marking systems; with one of the Michigan F-51s awaiting repainting. The Michigan plane lacking markings is a good example of how Mustangs were shuffled around in the ANG. Built in 1945, it had served with the US Army in California in the closing weeks of WWII and thereafter in the Army Reserve; then in the Washington ANG, then as shown here in the Michigan ANG, and later in the North Dakota ANG.)
On opposite sides of Lake Michigan, the Wisconsin and Michigan ANGs both flew the Mustang after WWII. Michigan operated the F-51 from 1947 until 1954, and Wisconsin from 1947 until 1949. Both states had two Mustang squadrons. In Wisconsin, the 126th flew out of Mitchell International AP in Milwaukee and guarded both that city and the northern approach to Chicago, IL; while the 176th flew out of Madison and guarded the rest of the state.
End of the line
By the Korean War, the Mustang was (while still a very competitive propeller fighter) outclassed by the Soviet-made MiG-15 jet. At the end of the war in 1953, the need for ground attack planes was much less. None the less, for Air National Guard units, the F-51 was ideal for homeland air defense missions.
In 1954, that changed as the USSR introduced the high-altitude, jet-powered Tu-16 “Badger” bomber into squadron service. This type exceeded the Mustang in both speed and ceiling, and could carry nuclear weapons. Some existing ANG F-51 airframes were eight, nine, or even ten years old at this point as well.
Another less tangible factor was the human element. Even in the National Guard, the fighter community is extremely competitive. In the late 1940s, the Mustang was viewed as a prime mount. By the mid-1950s, flight hours accrued on piston-engined fighters were no longer impressive in terms of career development and in the eyes of some pilots, were becoming a negative to their promotion goals.
(A lonely Mustang of the Montana ANG sits on the apron in October 1953. At the time, the Montana ANG was completing the conversion to jet fighters.)
In September 1955, the US Air Force issued a ‘flush order’ which was a forcewide effort to quickly get rid of any and all remaining WWII fighters, in all squadrons; active duty, reserve, and ANG. Thereafter remaining Mustang squadrons began to rapidly convert to jets.
Illinois grounded it’s F-51Hs for safety in 1956. Rhode Island (the last operator of the F-51D model) retired it’s Mustangs in 1956. Pennsylvania and Maryland got rid of their last F-51H Mustangs at the end of the year.
(The last F-51 Mustang in American military service after it’s final flight in January 1957.)
(The West Virginia ANG pilot with the final Mustang after it’s last flight. A F-100 Super Sabre is next to it.)
By 1957, the last American piston-engined fighter squadron was in the West Virginia ANG. On 27 January 1957, a F-51, serial number 0-472948, of the West Virginia ANG was the final individual Mustang on duty anywhere with any American unit. It flew from the West Virginia ANG base at Martinsburg to Wright Patterson AFB, OH where it, and the P-51 overall, were ceremonially retired; 11 ½ years after the end of WWII.
(The F-80 Shooting Star was a typical replacement for the WWII Mustang in ANG units; in this case Maine.)
The Cheyenne project and the PA-48
Ironically, the last formal American military use of the Mustang was by it’s original operator, the US Army. In 1968, the Army acquired an unarmed P-51D to use as a chase plane for flight tests of the YAH-56 Cheyenne attack helicopter. It was found that the maneuverable and fast Mustang made an ideal plane for this task. Later that year, two more Mustangs were bought from Cavalier Aircraft in Florida, which had bought the design rights to the P-51 after the last Mustang left ANG service in the 1950s. These two planes were originally P-51D airframes, heavily modified, with all weapons removed and two 110gal fuel tanks fitted on the wingtips. These two planes served throughout the rest of the Cheyenne project (which was ultimately cancelled) and one was later used in June 1974 to test the feasibility of the M40 recoilless rifle in an air-to-ground role.
The very last foray of the Mustang into American military use was the Piper PA-48 Enforcer. This plane was loosely based on the P-51 layout but powered by a turboprop engine and was the losing entrant into the 1972 competition which was won by Rockwell’s OV-10 Bronco. During the Reagan-era defense buildup, the Air Force again studied the type as an ultra-cheap counter-insurgency plane which might make use of still substantial P-51 spare parts from WWII. Despite the emotional interest of seeing the Mustang return to service, by 1984 only 10% of the Enforcer’s components were cross-compatible with the P-51 and the idea was dropped.