The North American P-51 Mustang earned its reputation by being arguably the best fighter plane of World War II.
The North American Aviation P-51 Mustang is an American long-range, single-seat fighter and fighter-bomber used during World War II and the Korean War, among other conflicts.
Propellor planes were being phased out by the end of WWII in favor of jet-powered aircraft but there were still many devout followers of the P-51 Mustang.
Not wanting to let a good thing go, the P-51 underwent a revamp during the Vietnam War returning as the PA-48 Enforcer.
Had life worked out differently, the Mustang could also have fought in Vietnam and flown against a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. In fact, it might even have replaced the A-10 Warthog.
The Piper PA-48 Enforcer was a modernized version of the P-51. It was the brainchild of David Lindsay, founder of manufacturer Cavalier Aircraft, who bought the rights to the Mustang in 1956.
The P-51 eventually became the Turbo Mustang III. But in 1968, in response to an Air Force search for a counterinsurgency (COIN) aircraft to fight in Southeast Asia, Lindsay moved the Turbo Mustang III and himself over to Piper Aircraft, maker of popular aircraft such as the Piper Cub. What emerged in 1971 was the PA-48 Enforcer, Piper’s bid for the COIN contract.
Designed as a counter-insurgency aircraft the PA-48 Enforcer’s lower speeds allowed it to have more loiter time to attack ground targets.
They were a cheaper alternative to jet-powered aircraft and could be produced with relative ease to suit the numbers of an ongoing war. The Enforcer carried a powerful payload of missiles that were comparable to fighter jets of that era.
The PA-48’s arsenal and loiter time made it a strong candidate for the role of Air Force’s close air support plane, but that role eventually went to the A-10 Thunderbolt when it debuted. In the end, only four PA-48s were built and the airframe had been changed so much in the design that barely 10% of it was from the original P-51.
This fighter represented a venture into the nostalgia of WWII but simply couldn’t keep up with modern planes.
While fast combat jets are sexier, the idea of a propeller-driven aircraft for COIN work makes sense: their slower speed allows them to loiter over the jungle to provide air support or spot guerrillas. Prop jobs are also cheaper and require less maintenance.
A P-51 cost $51,000 in 1945, or about $675,000 today. The Enforcer would probably have cost around a million dollars. The A-10 Warthog cost almost $19 million a piece.
Re-engined with the Lycoming T55, which powered the CH-47 helicopter, as well as an ejection seat and other upgrades, the PA-48 may have looked like a Mustang, but most of its components were new.
It had a maximum speed of 345 miles per hour, almost a hundred miles per hour slower than P-51. Then again, it would have been strafing Viet Cong, not dogfighting Messerschmitts over Berlin.
While the P-51 had a bomb load of a thousand pounds, the PA-48 could carry a respectable six thousand pounds of bombs or rockets, which is more than some modern fighter jets carry.
Incredibly, through the 1970s, Lindsay and Piper pitched the Enforcer not just as a COIN aircraft, but also as America’s primary ground-attack plane. That role happened to be fulfilled by the A-10.
It’s one thing to offer a prop job for a niche role like bush wars, but quite another to suggest it should replace a jet as a primary ground-attack aircraft.
Not surprisingly, the Air Force said no thanks. But Lindsay, who had been a newspaper publisher, persistently lobbied Congress until the Air Force awarded Piper an $11.9 million contract in 1981 to build two prototype PA-48s for evaluation.
War is Boring’s Joseph Trevithick obtained a copy of the Air Force test report through the Freedom of Information Act. While the testers found the Enforcer easy to operate and maintain, they also concluded it was underpowered, lacked maneuverability with a full bomb load and was too fragile.
On the other hand, compared to a heavily armoured A-10, almost any aircraft would look fragile. But the air defense environment has become only more hostile since World War II. Not only are nations like Russia deploying more sophisticated surface-to-air missiles, like the S-400, but even irregular armies and terrorist groups like ISIS and Hezbollah are well equipped with antiaircraft missiles and guns. Combat missions for the F-35 will be challenging enough, even with stealth. The skies would be absolutely lethal for a 1945 aircraft.
True, the PA-48 would have been cheaper, but this virtue is rooted in a time when human life was cheaper. America lost almost forty-four thousand Army Air Force (the precursor to the U.S. Air Force) aircraft overseas during the Second World War, plus another fourteen thousand in training accidents in the United States. More than forty thousand airmen were killed in combat theatres, and that figure was even worse for the Germans and Japanese. The P-51 was considered high-tech for its time. But World War II aircraft and their pilots were essentially flying bullets, to be expended like so much ammunition in a massive war of attrition. Even Operation Rolling Thunder in Vietnam cost more than nine hundred aircraft.
Today’s pilots are extensively trained and politically expensive to lose. A pilot lost over Serbia or Syria has major diplomatic repercussions, which is why drones are becoming the aircraft of choice. The Air Force does like its high-priced jets, and the cost is a lingering issue for hundred-million-dollar aircraft like the F-35. But while a propeller-driven aircraft might be useful to organizations like Special Operations Command that fight small wars in remote locations, America is not about to send upgraded Second World War aircraft against China or Russia.
In fact, the U.S. Air Force did eventually buy a propeller-driven counterinsurgency plane. Brazil’s A-29 Tucano was selected in 2011 for the new Light Air Support contract. There are twenty aircraft on order.
But Americans won’t be flying them into combat. The planes are for the Afghan Air Force