GEAR & TECH

This was the dive-bomber version of the famed Mustang

The P-51 Mustang is best known as a long-range escort fighter that helped the bombers of the Eighth Air Force blast Germany into rubble. But this plane's first combat experience came in a very different form – as a dive bomber.


North American A-36 Mustang. (Youtube Screenshot)

The United States Army Air Force didn't originally buy the Mustang as a fighter, but as a dive bomber, according to aviation historian Joe Baugher. A 1995 Airpower Magazine article reported that the decision to buy a dive-bomber version was made to keep the line open because the Army Air Force had drained its fighter budget for 1942.

The A-36 was officially called the Mustang to keep the Germans from knowing about the dive-bomber variant. Some sources reported the plane was called the Apache or Invader – even though the latter name was taken by the A-26 Invader, a two-engine medium bomber. No matter what this plane's name was, it could deliver two 500-pound bombs onto its target.

A-36s on the production line that later turned out P-51s. "You see, we had two accounts, one to pay for fighters, one to pay for attack planes. The fighter budget for this year ran out, but we want this line open, so can you make attack planes?" (Library of Congress photo)

According to an Air Force fact sheet, the A-36 was equipped with an Allison engine similar to those used on the P-38 Lightning and P-40 Warhawk fighters as opposed to the Rolls Royce Merlin. This plane had a top speed of 365 miles per hour and a range of 550 miles. It also had same battery of six M2 .50-caliber machine guns that the P-51 had. The guns were in a different arrangement (two in the fuselage, four in the wings) due to the bomb shackles attached to the wings of the A-36.

This photo shows one of the 177 A-36s lost to enemy action during World War II. (US Army Air Force photo)

Only 500 of these planes were built, and 177 were lost to enemy action. This is because, like the P-51, the A-36's liquid-cooled engine was easier to disable than the air-cooled engine used on the P-47 Thunderbolt and F4U Corsair. However, the A-36 did score 101 air-to-air kills. This was despite being the Mustang with the "bad" Allison engine. One pilot, Michael T. Russo, achieved the coveted status of "ace" in the A-36, scoring five kills according to MustangsMustangs.net.

Pilots in front of a North American A-36 Mustang. (U.S. Army Air Force photo)

Ultimately, the A-36 saw some action in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations and in the China-Burma-India Theater of Operations. It eventually was retired and replaced, but in one ironic twist, eventually, the P-51, intended as a long-range escort, was equipped to carry the same two 500-pound loadouts the A-36 could carry. You can see a World War II-era newsreel on the A-36 below.

While it's not a bad plane, for ground-attack missions, the P-47 and F4U were probably better planes for the job.