An early mustang on a test flight in 1942

How a World War II Plane Could Easily Defeat the Joint Strike Fighter

P-51 Mustang vs. Twenty Years of Bureaucracy 

The Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is facing delays, again. Aviation Week & Space Technology says the schedule for the newest fighter of the skies is slipping due to continued software problems, weapons integration issues and complications with good old fashioned aerodynamics.

It’s useless to try and figure out where the delays begin and end for the perennially plagued program as there appears to be delays in announcing delays. But 73 years ago today, a team of engineers, designers and craftsmen were busy building a fighter aircraft that could easily defeat its technologically superior cousin of today simply by showing up early to the fight.

In April of 1940, with a world war just beginning, the British Royal Air Force signed a contract with North American Aviation to develop a new fighter aircraft. But the order for 320 airplanes came with a strict caveat, the prototype must be delivered in 120 days.

After 117 days a new airplane designated the NA-73 rolled out of North American’s California factory. Unfortunately it arrived before the engine maker was ready, but by late October the airplane made its first flight. It would take two years to complete flight and operational testing. But not long after it entered service for both Britain and the United States, the renamed P-51 Mustang began helping change the tide of the war.

Lockheed Martin’s F-35A Joint Strike Fighter

Using a similar starting point of a contract signed with the United Kingdom in 1995, the X-35 made its first flight five years later in 2000. Today after 13 years of flight and operational testing, there appears to be no end to the delays. Many of the problems are in offices, not the cockpit. There’s little doubt that if desperately needed, the F-35 could have been pressed into service much earlier. As it stands in the current atmosphere, the Pentagon hopes the first JSF version will be combat ready with the Marines by the end of 2015.

When the F-35 is finally given the go ahead to fight, it will have been at least 20 years from concept to combat ready.

To be fair, the P-51 Mustang was developed in an obviously different era. First off there was a pressing need for the airplane to be ready. And the airplane had none of the electronics and software issues plaguing the F-35. Electricity flow was pretty much limited to the starter motor, a few instruments and the simple radios used for communication and navigation.

But the Mustang did come with a range of innovative new technological features despite the time crunch in which it was produced. It’s laminar flow wing was one of the first and meant less drag as it moved through the air, giving the airplane an advantageous top speed. Even more impressive was the radiator used for the liquid cooled engine. Normally a large source of drag as it scoops up air, the P-51 used an idea developed by a British engineer known as the Meredith Effect to offset much of the drag. A few hundred pounds of thrust is generated simply by carefully ducting the heated, expanding air downstream of the radiator.

Both of these innovations were developed independent of the Mustang. They were “open source” type ideas, developed through government research or published in academic journals. But due to a combination of the right solutions, at the right time in an era of tremendous need, a somewhat accidental success story was born.

It’s a stretch to really think the P-51 Mustang could ever defeat the Joint Strike Fighter in air-to-air combat. But it could win simply by flying and being ready to fight years ahead of the F-35. All the technology in the world won’t save you in a dogfight if you’re still defenseless and bogged down in bureaucracy on the ground.