Wings of War: The World War II Fighter Plane that Saved the Allies and the Believers Who Made It Fly

Wings of War: The World War II Fighter Plane that Saved the Allies and the Believers Who Made It Fly

Wings of War: The World War II Fighter Plane that Saved the Allies and the Believers Who Made It Fly

Wings of War: The World War II Fighter Plane that Saved the Allies and the Believers Who Made It Fly


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The incredible, untold story behind the rise of the P-51 Mustang, the World War II fighter plane that destroyed the Luftwaffe and made D-Day possible

Aviation buffs will cheer this high-flying saga.”—Publishers Weekly “[A] fascinating book about passion and innovation.”—Walter Isaacson• “An essential book for those who appreciate tales of military bravery, and also for all seeking understanding of decision-making under pressure. A major contribution.—E. J. Dionne, Jr.

When the P-51 Mustang began tearing across European skies in early 1944, the Allies had been losing the air war for years. Staggering numbers of bomber crews, both British and American, had been shot down and killed thanks to the Luftwaffe’s superior fighter force. Not only did the air war appear grim, but any landing of troops in France was impossible while German fighters hunted overhead. But behind the scenes, a team of visionaries had begun to design a bold new type of airplane, one that could outrun and outmaneuver Germany’s best.
Wings of War
is the incredible true story of the P-51 Mustang fighter and the unlikely crew of designers, engineers, test pilots, and army officers who brought it from the drafting table to the skies over World War II. This is hardly a straightforward tale of building an airplane—for years, the team was stymied by corruption within the defense industry and stonewalled by the Army Air Forces, who failed to understand the Mustang’s potential. But when squadrons of Mustangs were finally unleashed over Hitler’s empire, the Luftwaffe was decimated within months, clearing the skies for D-Day. A compelling, character-focused narrative replete with innovation, determination, and bravery, Wings of War is the never-before-told story of the airplane that truly changed the course of World War II.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781524746322
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 12/06/2022
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 36,726
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

David Fairbank White studied history at Harvard and worked as a reporter for The New York Times. He has written for national magazines including Fortune, New York, Parade, and Reader’s Digest. Margaret Stanback White received her BA from Harvard. Following a career as a research scientist, she began to freelance as a researcher and editor on nonfiction book projects about scientific breakthroughs and how they have changed the course of history.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1


It was high up in the sky, far above him, droning and gliding on, and at first the boy could not tell what it was and kept fixing the spot with a spellbound gaze. But then it continued, and yes, it was an airplane, a Wright Flyer on a course out of Germany, heading toward Russia. This was just a few years after the Wright brothers had first launched their primitive biplane off the beaches of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903. But it was a long way from the sands of the Carolinas' Outer Banks.

As the plane cruised above the ancient medieval town of Landsberg, it caught the eye, then the whole attention, then the rapt wonder of twelve-year-old Edgar Schmued. With dark hair and deep-set brown eyes, his neck cocked back and his gaze steady, Edgar was hypnotized by the sight. It was on this day in 1912, as he gazed over the rooftops of Landsberg, nestled on the banks of the Lech River in Bavaria, that Edgar's life was kidnapped by aviation.

He had no interest in schoolwork. Instead, he lived in a private world of daydream and fantasy about machines and how they worked. He imagined how paper was made, how gears engaged and meshed, how spinning machines spun thread. He whiled away his days studying pictures of the latest inventions, making sketches of transmissions, gears, engines. His father, an Austrian dentist, shared Edgar's passion for machines and bought his son every technical book he could find, spending hours explaining how dynamos and electrical circuits worked. But Heinrich Schmued was not always a good provider. With five children besides Edgar-Erwin, Erich, Eugenie, Elfriede and Else-the family sometimes went hungry, and poverty would soon shipwreck Edgar's hopes. Dr. Schmued had no money to send his son to university. When the time came, the most the father could do for the boy was to buy him the textbooks.

Forced to chart his own path, Edgar assembled a makeshift curriculum, setting for himself a rigorous course of reading about the machines that so captivated him. He apprenticed himself to a local engine factory, where he learned the skills of metalworking-milling, lathing, forging by hand. At the end of his two-year stint, he built his own motor. And all the while his spellbound fascination with flight burned on.

Edgar's impromptu education and apprenticeship were unfolding in the contrail of developments that were transforming the globe. The Industrial Revolution had ushered in a new age of steam and steel. The Bessemer process for purifying and producing steel from iron ore in 1856, Thomas Edison's development of cheap electricity for the masses in the 1880s, reciprocating engines, telephones linking distant continents, the exploding artillery shell and more-all would alter the world like a wave rushing across the surface of the sea. This vast metamorphosis was transforming ships with propellers, mail with telegraph, horses with motorcars. And the first forays into manned flight were just capturing the public's imagination.

The spectacle of birds gliding free of the earth, unbounded in the open sky, had mesmerized since ancient times. The fantasy of men soaring through the air had lured inventors and scientists in the earliest fables of Greek myth, when Icarus was said to have flown too close to the sun, melting his wings of wax and feathers. And now the beginnings of manned flight, a brave new science that would soon open an uncharted wilderness around the globe, were quickly morphing from one form to the next toward that ethereal goal of soaring.

Aeronautics was so young that its few practitioners were practically celebrities. The very first manned ascent-by the French Montgolfier brothers in their hot-air balloon in 1783-and Sir George Cayley's first manned flight in 1853 opened the atmospheres to the wing, and these milestones still stirred the imagination in the early 1900s when Edgar was a boy.

Cayley, often known as the father of aviation, was an English aristocrat growing up on his father's estate in Yorkshire when he became fascinated by stories of early balloon flights. From his daydreams of lighter-than-air rides in hot-air balloons, he began to think about how to keep aloft a machine that was heavier than air. By observing birds in flight, and systematically experimenting with different shapes of wings, Cayley was able to describe the problems of "lift" and "drag" as key to soaring. He realized that the streamlined shapes of creatures in nature-birds moving through the air, fish moving through water-minimized drag and would be ideal for a flying machine. In one dramatic inquiry, he sliced open a trout crosswise into sections and studied the streamlining of the body of the fish. By 1809 he already had the basic shape of an airplane's wing.

The German Otto Lilienthal, too, was mesmerized by birds. In the late 1800s Lilienthal also believed bird flight and anatomy held the formula for heavier-than-air flight. Known as the Birdman, Lilienthal concluded that "cambered" or curved wings were the best shape to produce lift. His "ornithopters" were flimsy cotton-and-bamboo structures that he flew with great showmanship by flexing and twisting the birdlike wings. The Wright brothers would soon develop wings that flexed and twisted, too-the forerunners of modern flaps and ailerons.

Lilienthal soon went on to build gliders, which he piloted by throwing himself around to compensate for shifting and often treachero's air currents. He would make more than 2,000 flights in his various contraptions, the longest 1,150 feet. The last, when his glider caught a gust of wind, would kill him in 1896.

And so manned flight staggered and lurched ahead, but powered flight was still a fantasy beyond reach. The late 1800s brought steam, but steam-powered engines were heavy and bulky, useless for soaring. The Frenchman FŽlix du Temple de la Croix had briefly lifted off in a steam-powered "air car" in 1874-but the vessel had fallen back to earth. In 1896, Samuel Pierpont Langley, the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, experimented with steam-powered "aerodromes." When those failed, he began to experiment with gasoline engines for his machines. Percy Sinclair Pilcher, an Englishman, was the first to fit an internal combustion car engine to his "bat glider" in 1899. Pilcher was killed in a crash during a test flight, but he had found the propulsion for all future airplanes: gasoline.

As the century waned, no one asked if men would fly, only when.

And then, in 1903, the Wright brothers made their historic flight from the bare, windswept beach at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. On the morning of December 17, Orville Wright took his position on the bottom wing of the flimsy wood-and-cloth biplane the brothers had made in their bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio, facing into the chilly winter wind. Behind him two propellers were connected to a 12-horsepower engine by chains and pulleys. As Wilbur ran alongside, the machine lifted ten feet into the air and flew for twelve seconds. Orville made three more flights in the fragile biplane that day; on the last sortie, the craft actually flew for 59 seconds, covering 852 feet. Manned, powered flight on a piloted, heavier-than-air machine was born.

In 1904, the Wright brothers stayed aloft for five minutes. In 1905, they made a flight of 38 minutes, covering 20 miles; in 1908, after a Paris demonstration of their machine, Wilbur made a flight of two hours and 20 minutes and set a new altitude record, climbing to 360 feet. He carried, on various trips, a total of 60 passengers-hinting at the immense possibilities for airline passenger travel. By 1910, the Wrights were among the most famous men in the world, their achievements galvanizing the public.

Alberto Santos-Dumont, a Brazilian living in Paris, was first in flight in Europe, his box-kite aircraft, the 14-bis, traveling 722 feet in 21 seconds in 1906. He was at once a French national hero. And then, in the still air of a summer's day in 1909, the great French aviator Louis BlŽriot became the first man to fly across the English Channel, staying aloft for 36 minutes at an average 40 miles an hour, and claiming a fat £1,000 prize offered by the British Daily Mail.

As Edgar grew up, the magic of flight hijacked the boy's imagination. A voracious reader, he studied every text on aviation he could find. One of his favorite books was The Resistance of the Air and Aviation Experiments by Gustave Eiffel-the famed Frenchman who had built the Eiffel Tower in Paris for the World's Fair in 1889. Edgar saw an early copy in 1911.

Eiffel was looking into a horizon as wide as the wind and altitude, into the barely born field of aeronautics. Fascinated by the effects of wind on the structures he had built, Eiffel was among the first to explore drag and lift, Cayley's twin riddles of flight. He experimented by dropping objects from railway bridges, viaducts, even the Eiffel Tower itself. He built the world's first wind tunnel to test the properties of "airfoils," or wings. Observing the Wright brothers and the Frenchman BlŽriot, Eiffel showed for the first time that lift is the result of reduced air pressure above the wing, not of increased air pressure below it. Lift made flight possible-not flapping, riding on the air, gliding or floating. This was a stunning new concept in 1911. Eiffel was sketching the first laws of aerodynamics, and the young Edgar drank them down like a heady draft of gin. He began thinking about how to reduce pressure above the wings of an airplane. The question would stay in his mind for many years.

Aviation soared into the open sky. Soon it would become a big business. Two French brothers, Gabriel and Charles Voisin, would start up the world's first airplane factory at Billancourt on the outskirts of Paris in 1906. By 1911, no fewer than eight aircraft makers had sprung up in France. Before long the Wrights were also manufacturing their airplane in Europe. In 1912, Vsevolod Abramovich, a 22-year-old Russian test pilot for the Wright brothers' subsidiary in Germany, flew one of the early Wright Flyers to a competition in St. Petersburg.

It was this plane and this pilot, on this day, that the boy Edgar Schmued saw overhead. Abramovich could not have known he had a vicarious passenger traveling with him through the clouds.

World War I broke out in folly and waste that would cost 8.5 million lives in pitiless trench warfare and devastating artillery barrages. It also brought the horrors of modern combat to what had been the rowdy carnival of aviation.

As the war began, naval fleets dominated. The airplane was no more than a toy, a delicate wood-and-wire experiment piloted by men in goggles and leather helmets who were largely daredevils and thrill seekers. The first planes carried no guns-no weapons of any kind. They were reconnaissance aircraft used to pinpoint targets for artillery and report on enemy-troop concentrations. But flying soon lost its innocence. First, pilots began taking pistols and rifles up into the air with them; then machine guns were mounted on fighters. The key leap forward was the invention of the "interrupter," which synchronized the timing of machine guns so they could shoot through the gaps between whirling propeller blades. This 1915 breakthrough was made by Anton Fokker, a charismatic Dutchman who would soon play a pivotal role in Edgar Schmued's life.

Fokker made aerial gunnery possible, and the airplane charged into war.

New planes invaded the skies over Europe-the British Spad XIII and Sopwith Camel, the French Nieuport Type 17 and Morane-Saulnier Model N, the German Albatros D.III and Fokker Dr.I, all fighter planes and all armed. By the end of the war, bombers would appear over Allied cities, and the Germans would use giant zeppelin airships to raid London-but the fighters still took center stage. The spectacular gladiatorial exploits of the famed fighter aces were the most celebrated actions of World War I.

Highest scoring was the great German ace Baron Manfred von Richthofen, the "Red Baron," who led the tally with 80 enemy planes shot down. A Prussian nobleman who had ridden in the cavalry and was an avid hunter, von Richthofen was known for his caution, consummate discipline and studied dislike of the French. His fighter wing became known as von Richthofen's "Flying Circus."

The top American gunslinger was Eddie Rickenbacker. As a race car driver in his youth, he had four times driven in the Indianapolis 500 and set a land speed record of 134 miles per hour in a Blitzen Benz. Rickenbacker shot down 26 planes in only two months of combat, a monthly average far higher than von Richthofen's. These duels were fast, acrobatic and deadly. In one action, Rickenbacker ran into six German fighters over ƒtain, France. He closed on them, climbed swiftly into the sun unnoticed, got behind the German Fokkers and charged, attacking the nearest one. He fired one fast burst at the Fokker, scoring a hit and sending it down. Then Rickenbacker dashed toward an LVG, another German plane, homing in. With some aerial maneuvers he hit the LVG, too, and watched it fall from the sky and crash in a trail of black smoke. Rickenbacker had bagged two Germans in one day.

Edgar escaped the destruction of World War I. His obsession with flight became his guardian angel, sparing him from the battlefield. Assigned as a mechanic in the Austro-Hungarian Air Service, he spent the war repairing and maintaining the new military biplanes and triplanes-Aviatics, Hansa-Brandenburgs, Lloyds, Ufags and Fokkers. When the war ended in 1918 and peace settled over Europe, Schmued, now 18, went home to Landsberg.

There in his father's house, with the wartime airplanes he had worked on still vivid in his mind, he set out to build his first flyer from scratch. The original Schmued avian was a biplane; Edgar built it in his father's study. Dr. Schmued even bought a small three-cylinder Belgian engine for Edgar's first machine. When it was finished, the dentist, an amateur inventor himself, knocked down one wall of his study so he and his son could roll the wings and fuselage into the light of day. But before it could be flown, politics doomed the homemade plane. The terms of the Versailles Treaty had required Germany to deliver to the Allies "any aeronautical material including aircraft engines." The Allied Control Commission confiscated Edgar's creation. Thus ended Schmued's first attempt to build an aircraft-but his sister Else remembered that he never stopped drawing them.

Edgar's fascination with aviation would soon pull him much farther from Landsberg than he might ever have imagined. Within a few years this impoverished boy, with his makeshift training and limited horizons, would leave Germany to chase his dream of designing airplanes.

Table of Contents

Prologue: The Landmarks of a Nightmare 1

Part 1 The Plane in the Dream

Chapter 1 Hypnotized 9

Chapter 2 Flugzeug Konstrukteur 18

Chapter 3 100 Days 30

Chapter 4 Death from Above 42

Chapter 5 A Turbine like a Typhoon 49

Chapter 6 The Butcher Bird 55

Chapter 7 High Noon 61

Part 2 Bird in a Cage

Chapter 8 The Best Sport in the World 71

Chapter 9 A One-Man Crusade 83

Chapter 10 A Cross-Country Shuttle 98

Chapter 11 Cash and Corruption 104

Chapter 12 Huddle in the Orange Groves 118

Chapter 13 Picked Off like Geese 126

Chapter 14 Black Thursday 142

Part 3 Hawk of Heaven

Chapter 15 A Maverick Fighter Ace 157

Chapter 16 The Jig Was Up 165

Chapter 17 Death of a Jockey 181

Chapter 18 An Endless Roar Overhead 189

Chapter 19 Big Brother, Little Friend 199

Chapter 20 Oil Run 209

Chapter 21 A Perfect Show 225

Chapter 22 Closing the Ring 234

Chapter 23 Buzz Bombs and Doodlebugs 242

Chapter 24 Fighter Boys 251

Chapter 25 A Last Throw of the Dice 258

Chapter 26 Twilight for the Reich 265

Epilogue: The Bells Toll 276

Appendix A Dates on Which Fighter Groups Acquired P-51s 283

Appendix B Mustang Production: Mustangs Accepted by the U.S. Army Air Forces 285

Acknowledgments 287

Notes 291

Bibliography 307

Index 315

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