30,000 feet over Nazi Germany every day was D-Day.
I’m a writer, and books are great. I enjoy writing them and I enjoy reading them. In fact, I’m writing one right now – Non-Player Character, the sequel to Multiplayer. Books focus the mind and engage the soul in a way that nothing else does, forcing you to examine your most deeply held beliefs, and often leaving you with a changed world view. That’s why I write them. But there is another medium that hits us in a different though no less influential way, and that is film. If books engage the intellect, movies viscerally hook us through our senses even more powerfully.
My first screenplays were studies into the structure of story when I was learning to write novels. What most people don’t realize, since they are consumers and not producers, is that ‘story’ is filled with structure. From books, to movies, to television we’ve been immersed in story all our lives, probably more so than any society in history. In fact, the better the story, the more elegant the structure even if we don’t see it. Like a bridge that is also a work of art, we gaze at the beauty without thinking about the engineering, but as with a bridge the structure in a good story is by design. Screenplays, for a variety of reasons, are even more deeply structured than novels, and studying them proved to be very helpful. However, it also left me wanting to write one! But what to write it about?
One of the constants in my life has been a love of history, particularly military history. It should come as no surprise. My grandfather was an ace in World War II flying F4F Wildcats in the Pacific. My father did multiple tours as an aviator in Vietnam. I grew up watching touch-and-goes with the smell of jet fuel in my nostrils and have worked for the Defense Department as a physicist and rocket scientist. I built war models as a kid. Read the books and watched the movies. Listened to the grizzled vets tell their stories. Studied the engineering. In the end it’s hard to say why a writer settles on any one idea and devotes years of his life to it, but the screenplay I ultimately wrote and finished is called Mustangs, and is the story of the P-51 fighter plane’s development and introduction to the European Air War.
So why the Mustang when my family was navy? It is hard to describe how passionate I am about this subject. From a purely aesthetic point of view aircraft are among the most beautiful machines ever constructed, and among aircraft, few can compete with the P-51 in it’s various forms. Ultimately it is like comparing one supermodel to another, but the Mustang, Spitfire, Me-109, A6M Zero, Corsair and other warbirds of that vintage hold top honors, and probably will forever. But beyond the perfection of the lines, consider the sound of the Merlin Mustang. Not even a Spitfire running the same huge V-12 sounds like a Mustang. And a big radial just sounds like it’s coming apart. Beyond sound, a Merlin powered Mustang is an experience that makes your blood boil. Recordings and descriptions do not do it justice.
But unlike supermodels, beauty here is more than skin deep. The Mustang was an engineering marvel with performance beyond anything else of the day. Built at North American Aviation (at the current site of LAX in fact) which at the time had some of the world’s leading aerodynamicists, it was the first production aircraft to use a thin, laminar flow wing resulting in low drag and high speed. The power plant used in the Mustang was the most advanced of the day, a 1,380 horsepower, 1,650 cubic inch V-12 with four valves per cylinder, two-speed / two-stage intercooled supercharger, sodium-cooled exhaust valves, and water-methanol injection that required 100+ octane fuel to run. Production cars didn’t regularly get four valves per cylinder until the nineties. And try finding 100 octane gas! Amazingly, and this would be impossible today, North American rolled the prototype airframe out just 102 days after the production contract was signed. You can’t even get a contract signed in 102 days now!
Then, of course, there is the Mustang’s legendary war record. The Mustang’s performance was equal to anything the Germans could put in the air and accounts for more destroyed Luftwaffe aircraft than any other Allied fighter. But more importantly, and for reasons that are still not fully understood, it had incredibly long range. High performance fighter planes of the day generally had a range of less than 500 miles. The Mustang had a range over double that. For the first time it became possible for fighters to escort bombers all the way to their targets in Germany and back. It was a turning point in the war. When Goering looked up and saw Mustangs over Berlin he said, “The jig is up.” Heavy bomber losses went from dozens per mission, along with their 10 man crews, to half that. The Mustang allowed precision daylight bombing to continue, destroyed Hitler’s Luftwaffe, and thereby allowed D-Day to happen. It saved untold lives and shortened the war by years.
But none of this makes Mustangs an interesting story. The war record of the P-51 Mustang is well known. Its beauty is widely appreciated. Even Tom Cruise owns one. What makes Mustangs worth telling, and why the son and grandson of naval aviators is writing about an Army aircraft, is the story behind the P-51 Mustang: In 1943, thousands of allied aircrew were dying every month when their un-escorted heavy bombers were felled by Luftwaffe interceptors. It was Saving Private Ryan at 30,000 feet. I’ve flown in a B-17. It wasn’t at 30,000 feet and no one was shooting at me, but I can’t imagine dying there. A long-range escort fighter was needed. So why did the army brass do everything it could to kill the Mustang? The fighter plane that ended World War II almost never was.