Building an Air Force Fighter: Why a WWII Mustang Outpaces the Raptor

As a life-long aviation enthusiast, I was thrilled to see the U.S. Air Force’s F-22 Raptor “in action” at last week’s Freedom Fair in Tacoma, Washington. I was duly impressed with its maneuverability and power, and an added treat was seeing it fly in formation with a P-51 Mustang.

It was an awesome display. However, the more I consider those two sleek fighters flying a few feet apart, the more I realize they have very little in common other than being the premier fighters of their respective generation.

Contrast the history of the P-51 with the story of the current undisputed top fighter in the world, the F-22, and you get a sense of the technological dichotomy between them.

Many Americans know the P-51 as the U.S. Army Air Force’s top fighter of World War II, but they probably don’t realize that it was originally designed in North America for the British. Even more interesting is that it only took 120 days from the time the contract was signed for the first aircraft to be designed, built and flown.

The engine in the aircraft made it a very good ground-attack fighter below 15,000 feet, so that is what the British used it for. The Americans also used the P-51 as a ground-attack aircraft. In the early part of the war, both countries realized pairing the airframe with a more powerful engine would enhance capabilities. As a result, later versions of the aircraft became the high-performance, long-range aircraft needed to escort heavy bombers deep into Germany.

While several versions of the aircraft were produced, the most famous and numerous was the P-51D with six 50-caliber machine guns and a 1700 horsepower engine. A total of nearly 15,000 P-51s were built—at a cost of less than $60,000 each—and they accounted for nearly 5,000 German fighters destroyed and the success of the daylight bombing campaign in Europe.

The technological dichotomy comes to light when you compare 120 days from design to first flight of the P-51 with over 10 years from request for proposal (Air Force asking industry to design a new fighter) to first flight for the F-22. And it was another 5-plus years after that before the first production version of the F-22 was delivered to the Air Force.

While nearly 15,000 P-51s were built, fewer than 200 F-22s came off the line. The production rate is also a stark contrast in numbers. During the height of production, North America produced over 700 aircraft a month; Lockheed Martin two per month! Cost: less than $60,000 for each P-51 compared to $150 million per F-22.

To be fair, the world was a much different place in the 1940’s. The threat in 1940 was obvious and ominous, and required the mass production of war material to ensure success. The Mustang was a product of that period. A powerful, long-range, agile fighter that could stand toe-to-toe with the enemy and come out on top.

Today, the F-22 is in its own category. No real threat to the Raptor currently exists. Its stealth capabilities coupled with state-of-the-art weapons and radar systems make it a superior fighter without peer. The maneuverability I witnessed last week was extremely impressive but in reality this aircraft was designed to defeat aircraft beyond visual range.

The F-22 has many detractors but I am not one of them, because despite our ability to turn out next generation iPhones every couple of years, it takes us literally decades to produce high-performance combat aircraft, and until we can solve that technology dichotomy, I would rather have one “on the ramp” than on the drawing board.

Photo Credit: Flickr, F-22 Raptor & P-51 Mustang by Howard Brier (CC BY 2.0)

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2 thoughts on “Building an Air Force Fighter: Why a WWII Mustang Outpaces the Raptor”

  1. flyopia says:

    Love the comparison, although the level of complexity has changed so exponentially I don’t think it’s entirely apples to apples despite the 50 year difference. You can compare all the physical attributes that made each plane superior, but the addition of software inserts an unfair disadvantage to the F-22 in R&D time. And cycle time can’t really be related to churning out iPhones because we can’t build these things in Chinese sweatshops. Of course as you noted the Raptor is certainly in its own category. A few Mustangs were actually shot down, whereas I think the only thing that will bring down an F-22 is pilot hypoxia.

    1. John Pardo says:

      Great comments. While it was fun comparing the two aircraft, you are right that it was a bit like apples and oranges. And while the manufacturing process–to include advanced avionics–takes longer today, another factor I didn’t even get into was the bureaucracy associated with government/military procurement.

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