The Very Long Range Escort Missions of the 7th Fighter Command
Don’t give me a P-51 / It was alright for fighting the hun / But with coolant tank dry / You’ll run out of sky / Don’t give me a P-51.Verse from “Give Me Operations” – Old AAF Ballad, Author Unknown
Very Long Range Indeed
On the 7th April, 1945 all six squadrons of the 15th and 21st Fighter Groups embarked on the first of would be fifty-one Very Long Range (VLR) missions completed by the 7th Fighter Command to the Japanese mainland from their base at Iwo Jima. The 15th and 21st were joined in May by the 506th FG, bringing the total deployed VLR force to nine fighter squadrons, each of 24 fighters. All nine squadrons flew the North American P-51D-20/25 Mustang, powered by a Packard Merlin and endowed with state of the art aerodynamics giving it sufficient range for their extraordinary mission.
Initially the VLR missions were in support of the B-29 bombing missions to strategic and military targets in preparations for the anticipated invasion of mainland Japan. Due to their success however, escort duties were soon augmented by ground attack duties and eventually, some VLR missions had no escort duties at all, ground attack being their only objective.
From the first VLR mission on the 7th April to the final one on the 31st August (which was after the cessation of hostilities and was simply a show of force; the mission was immensely unpopular with the pilots who saw no good reason to risk one more long trip over the Pacific), the pilots of the 7th Fighter Command claimed at total of 452 enemy aircraft destroyed in the air or on the ground for the loss of 130 of their own; 121 of their pilots were killed or captured.
Tamiya’s 1/48 P-51D Kit
Iwo Jima; 0630hr, 7th April 1945
After four days of rain, Iwo was wet but drying out. So were the men of the 7th Fighter Command on it; conditions were primitive on the island – it had been declared secure only a few days earlier. The pilots of the 21st Fighter Group were perhaps more grateful than most as their tents had finally arrived and perhaps they had enjoyed their first good night’s sleep since landing on the island a few weeks earlier. The mission today, the first VLR escort mission to Japan, is the 660NM to Tokyo to keep a watchful eye on the 108 B-29’s of the 73rd Bomber Wing whose task it was to attack the Nakajima aircraft engine factory to the west of the city.
All six squadrons of the 15th and 21st Fighter Group were putting up Mustangs; the 45th, 47th and 78th FS belonging to the 15th FG and the 72nd, 46th and 531st Fighter Squadrons from the 21st FG. All told, 108 Mustangs were scheduled to fly the first VLR mission, and for this first mission only those pilots with 600 or more hours was chosen to fly.
The sun rises at exactly 0630 on the 7th of April at Iwo Jima, and this morning the sun was greeted by the roar of a hundred Merlins starting. Each pilot climbed into their cramped cockpit, strapped in and began the pre-start checklist prior to engine start. Though in the first few flights to depart would likely have already had their engines run up to temp by their Crew Chiefs.
Each Pilot carefully followed his Mustang’s Pre-Start and Start checklists. Each had done this a hundred times or more, and each could recite it from memory with little effort. However, there was no margin for error this morning and each needed his aircraft to perform flawlessly if he was to return safely to Iwo some seven hours hence. Each checklist was followed to the letter;
- Ignition switch OFF.
- Set parking brake.
- Adjust seat and rudders for height and length.
- Bomb and gun safety switches OFF.
- Ensure that landing gear handle is in the DOWN position.
- Unlock controls and check for freedom of movement.
- Fasten safety belt and shoulder straps.
- Set altimeter to correct barometric pressure.
- Oil and coolant shutters to full OPEN as soon as battery cart is plugged in.
- Set trim tabs: rudder 5° RIGHT, elevator 2° to 3° nose UP (with 25 gallons or less in fuselage tank); elevator 1° to 3° nose DOWN (fuselage tank full); aileron 0° for takeoff.
- Release hydraulic pressure with wing flaps and flap handle to UP position
- Generator and battery switch ON, unless battery cart is being used, then battery switch OFF.
- Open throttle 1 inch.
- Mixture control in IDLE CUT-OFF.
- Propeller control in INCREASED RPM.
- Supercharger switch in AUTOMATIC.
- Carburettor air control in RAM AIR.
- Turn ignition switch to BOTH.
- Fuel shut-off valve ON and fuel selector valve to fuselage tank (if full), or Left Main tank if fuselage tank not used.
- Fuel booster pump on NORMAL, check for 8-12 pounds of fuel pressure.
- Prime engine 3 to 4 shots if cold, 1 to 2 if warm.
- Clear the prop.
- Lift guard on starter switch and press switch to START. Caution in use of starter not to overheat.
- As engine starts, move mixture control to AUTO RICH. If engine does not fire after several turns, continue priming. WARNING: When engine is not firing, mixture control should be in IDLE CUT-OFF.
- Warm engine at approximately 1300 RPM. Check for constant oil pressure. If no oil pressure or low pressure after 30 seconds, SHUT DOWN engine.
- Check all instruments for proper readings.
- Check hydraulic system by lowering and raising flaps; loading 800-850 pounds and unloading at 1050-1100 pounds.
- Check communication equipment for operation.
- Uncage all gyro instruments.
- Check both LEFT and RIGHT MAIN and FUSELAGE fuel systems by rotating fuel selector valve with booster pump switch in EMERGENCY. Check for 14-19 psi. If drop tanks are installed, check fuel flow by rotating fuel selector control.
Nothing Looks More Like Metal Than Metal
Looks Great, Flies Like A Pig
The P-51-D Mustang is a state-of-the-art machine designed to out-fly and out-fight anything it will meet in enemy skies. Its range is remarkable and further testing by 7th Command pilots (and even – allegedly – by Charles Lindbergh) perfected its fuel management to give the range sufficient for each pilot to be confident that his Mustang could fly 660NM to Tokyo, have up to an hour of time on station, and fly 660NM back to Iwo Jima.
Take off was always at or close to full power, 40″ of manifold pressure, 3,000 RPM, and fuel mixture set at auto rich. Immediately after climb out though, each pilot set up his engine for minimum fuel consumption; set the fuel mixture was set to auto lean, the manifold pressure at 38″, engine RPM at 2,000. Then, slowly, each reduced his engine RPM until the engine cut out, which usually happened at 1,750 to 1,850 RPM, and then increase it again until the engine began running smoothly. Anyone who knows anything about internal combustion engines will know that settings like this lead to preignition and burnt pistons. Sometimes very quickly. It wasn’t unusual for engine to require complete overhaul after only one mission.
Yet another early challenge faced by the pilots that morning was the weight of their aircraft. Mustangs have fuel tanks in each wing with a total capacity of 185 gallons, the ability to carry 60 or 90 gallon auxiliary tanks under each wing, and a fuselage tank with a capacity of 85 gallons. The fuselage tank however, made the Mustang tail heavy in the air and difficult to handle in turns. Their pilots had to exercise extreme caution on the climb to the assembly points off shore if they weren’t to ground loop, fail to climb out or simply fall off one wing in a turn. There were lots of ways to not come home in a VLR Mustang.
A Brief Foiling Tutorial
Here’s how I applied the foil. I found that it’s not actually technically difficult, nor is it very fiddly. One does have to be patient however, and very methodical; if you can apply those attributes, you can apply foil.
The Long Haul North
The flight to the Japanese mainland was around three hours. For every minute of the flight the pilots were managing their engines, maintaining their concentration, fighting boredom in the radio silence, and all the while exposed to the roar of their Merlin engine’s twelve cylinders just a couple of metres in front of them. Pilots report though that they didn’t notice the noise after the first few flights. What they did notice though was a combination of the vibration and the sheer physical exertion required to fly their Mustang.
There was no auto-pilot of course. This in itself was only a major problem if the airplane wasn’t stable in flight and while the Mustang is a highly manoeuvrable fighter plane, it thankfully isn’t an inherently unstable aircraft. That having been said though, the pilots are unable to fly more than a few seconds at a time without having to make flight control adjustments to remain in stable, level flight.
Further exacerbating the physical toll on the pilots was the sluggish performance of their heavily loaded fighters; every adjustment to the flight controls fought the heavily laden aircraft’s tendency to fall off one or the other wing. It wasn’t only flight controls that accomplished this though, pilot are constantly managing their aircraft’s fuel loading to maintain its centre of gravity. And yet, there was one further aspect of the Mustang’s flight characteristics to manage; the extraordinary amount of control stick heaviness in even the simplest of attitude adjustment.
A modern fighter jet such as the F-16 requires up to approximately 12kg of control stick pressure to achieve any significant flight manoeuvre, whether at 1G or 9G. The P-51 Mustang requires of its pilots anything up to 40kg in 4-5G turn at maximum speed in level flight. Test pilots had observed earlier that “the D Model Mustang is a two-handed airplane in which prolonged hard maneuvering is extremely tiring”.
On that initial VLR mission the now 94 Mustangs and their pilots (there were 17 aborts that morning, including mission commander Col. James Beckwith (link) whose Mustang developed oxygen system problems) en route to Japan were flying heavy, unbalanced, unstable and physically demanding aircraft over 660NM of open ocean while managing a high performance engine running at the edge of its performance envelope with a finite fuel capacity calculated on a range margin of error measured in minutes.
All this before they faced a determined enemy defending their homeland and committed to stopping them at any cost.
Patience Is The Key
Kozo Rock, Rendevous Point
At 1020hrs the Mustangs joined the B-29’s off the coast of Japan at Kozo Rock. Those Mustang pilots who had managed their fuel consumption and fuel tank distribution well were now in control of a formidable flying machine with its fuselage fuel tank less than a quarter full and its centre of gravity restored; the auxiliary tanks on its wings would also have been more or less empty too, ready to be jettisoned at the first sign of enemy aircraft. The internal wing tanks should be enough to get them home. Now, after three hours in the air, most of which was spent wrestling their Mustang to maintain straight and level flight, it was time to fulfil the purpose of going so far from base.
The bombers were at 15,000′ and the 15th took position above and on their right, the 21st above and on their left. Ten minutes after rendezvous the formation reached the coast and soon after that the first enemy interceptors were spotted. Over the next hour or so, as the waves of bombers attacked their target, each of the escorting squadrons became engaged with successive attacks by enemy fighters as they attempted to bring down the bombers.
Over on the eastern side of the formation the 15th FG were the first to see action. Successive elements of the 45th, 47th and 78th squadrons engaged multiple Ki-44’s, Ki-45’s, Ki-61’s, Zero’s, and even a C6N reconnaissance aircraft. Initially, perhaps as a tactic to draw the fighter escorts away from their bombers, most of the enemy broke away when pursued by the P-51s. However, demonstrating their mission discipline the Mustangs returned to their station with their B-29 charges instead of following the enemy down and away. Soon though, the action began in earnest when Capt. Bob Down and 1Lt Dick Hintermeier of “Green” flight of the 47th both engaged an attacking Ki-45 sending it down in flames and claiming the first Japanese aircraft loss by USAAF fighters over Japan. There would be more.
The 78th FS were on the right front quarter of the formation and was by now also in action. Maj. Jim Tapp scored four victories in quick succession on his first contact with enemy fighters that day, the first a Ki-64 Hein. He followed that up with another two single engined fighters and a twin engined enemy aircraft making him the highest scoring pilot of the day.
The 21st FG on the west (left) side of the formation was less engaged as most of the enemy had approached from the east. Nevertheless, its three squadrons all saw action and engaged those enemy fighters that passed through the B-29 formations; pilots from both the 531st and 72nd FS claimed enemy victories on the day with Capt. Harry Crim, CO of the 531st FS scoring two in close succession. He later remarked on how the Japanese aircraft simply exploded when struck, having no armour or self sealing fuel tanks to protect themselves.
All told, the 15th and 21st Fighter Groups were in action for around 50 minutes over the target area; now it was time to head to the RP and thence home to Iwo, 650NM to the south.
Setting Up The Finish
Homeward Bound, Running on Fumes
An essential part of the VLR planning was the support provided to the fighters. Flying that far, on one engine, combat in the middle part of the flight with its potential for damaged aircraft, all coupled with low fuel and pilot fatigue was a recipe for unsustainable and unnecessary losses on the return. There were several safeguards in place to help make sure the men and machines got home.
First, was the provision of “Boxkite” B-29s for navigational help; B-17 “Superdumbo” Air Sea Rescue aircraft with their payloads of life rafts and rations to be dropped close to ditched pilots; and even P-61s as navigational aids and insurance in case enemy aircraft were following the returning Mustangs who would be low on fuel and lower on ammunition and perhaps unable to defend themselves.
That morning the Mustangs had been led out by P-61s from the 548th and 6th Night Fighter Squadron and then, at the limit of the night-fighter’s range, the Mustangs were handed over to B-29s to guide them the rest of the way to the DP (Departure Point, rendezvous with the bombers).
The return was similarly organised, and even when it wasn’t, the attacking B-29’s often picked up stragglers and guided them home, as one named “Cloudhopper Charlie” did for 1Lt Frank Ayers of the 47th FS; at least, up until his full ran out some 200NM short of Iwo.
Myers was then a grateful recipient of another of the precautions set in place for the returning airmen, an ASR (Air Sea Rescue) “Bird Dog” Destroyer (in Frank’s case, it was DD Cassin) of the USN. Destroyers and submarines were stationed along the flightpath ready to pick up airmen and should they have to ditch.
As they left the RP, another three hours or so of flying now awaited the already tired pilots. From the escort fighters’ perspective the mission had been a huge success thus far; only three bombers had been lost over the target, two to flack and one to a Ta-Dan aerial bomber. Only one fighter pilot had been lost when 1st Lt. Anderson’s 531st FS Mustang inexplicably shed its wings and exploded during a roll while engaging an enemy “Tony“. Otherwise, all were returning home, some with damage, some with less fuel than they’d like but nevertheless, on their way home.
If the three hours outbound had been fatiguing, the return must have been doubly so. The physical exertion and cumulative stress of the combat had left the men completely drained. It must have been a long flight home indeed. To make matters worse, the weather was closing along the way with overcast skies.
In the end though, only one Mustang didn’t make it back to Iwo Jima, that belonging to Frank Ayers of the 47th who was picked up by the Cassin soon after bailing out. As the weather had closed in somewhat, both he and “Cloudhopper Charlie” had to let down as low as 100ft in order to get a visual on the Cassin – it was exactly where it was supposed to be. Ayers buzzed the destroyer very low and shed his canopy as he passed by to ensure they had seen him, and to let them know he was in trouble before climbing to 2000′ and bailing out. The Navy came through and picked him up soon after, though the now growing sea swell made climbing on board physically harder than Frank would have liked after everything the day had thrown at him. The Navy looked after him well, and delivered him back to his unit the next day.
Bringing It Home
By 1445hrs the last of the Mustangs had returned to Iwo Jima. Many of the pilots needed help to exit their aircraft, and most required help getting to their quarters. Their fatigue was tremendous and later a system of debrief, hot baths and massage was instituted to help the men recover from the physical toll the VLR mission took of them.
The mission had been an undoubted success though. The two Fighter Groups were credited with a total of 26 Japanese aircraft destroyed. They had lost one pilot, Lt. Anderson of the 531st and another aircraft on the return due to fuel exhaustion. Of the 108 B-29 Superfortresses that set out that morning, the losses were three, none to enemy aircraft.
There were some remarkable stories to tell back in the mess. One of the last P-51s to return was flown by 1Lt. Charlie Heil of the 78th FS. Heil was nominated a substitute pilot for the mission and was the last of the substitutes sent aloft to cover mission aborts. Getting airborne as rapidly as possible, he was nevertheless a long way behind his squadron mates heading North. When Charlie broke through the cloud cover on his long climb to cruising altitude, he found the skies around him were empty. He pressed on regardless. Some time later he spotted a formation of B-29s and after identifying himself as a friendly, he joined them on their flight north. He soon noticed however that he was in fact their lone escort; these bombers were on a separate, unescorted mission to Nagoya. Having no other option though, Heil stayed with them providing a bonus fighter cover for the bombers while they in turn provided navigational help all the way to Japan, and then, all the way back. Presumably, both were equally grateful for the other.
The 7th of April mission was the final proof of concept of the VLR’s effectiveness in flying fighter escorts to the Japanese mainland. It worked so well that the next was already in planning, and would be launched only five days later on 12th April. There would, in the end, be another fifty VLR missions. Not all of them would be as successful, and not all would end with such light losses. One of them, on the 1st June, became known as “Black Friday” and saw the single largest loss of pilots of the entire VLR campaign; made worse perhaps because on that day, none were lost to enemy action.
In addition to the VLR missions, there would be countless missions to Chi Chi Jima in a ground attack role, most focused on a radio installation. At the end of the war the radios were still there, not everything was a success.
Seven hours, covering 1300NM over open ocean, limited fuel, one engine, enemy fighters; there were few missions more relentlessly hazardous, nor with so many different hazards to face. The men of the 15th, 21st and later, the 506th Fighter Groups did that, and did it well.
Another Mustang Complete
The 15th Fighter Group Gallery
In what will be the first of three galleries for the VLR Fighter Groups, below are representations of the three Fighter Squadrons belonging to the 15th Fighter Group.
The 45th Fighter Squadron
The 47th Fighter Squadron
The 78th Fighter Squadron
References and Credits
- “Very Long Range P-51 Mustang Units of the Pacific War” by Carl Molesworth (link). There is an excellent description of the combat over Tokyo on the 7th April VLR mission within its pages and I highly recommend the book for anyone interested in learning more on this topic.
- “The Pineapple Airforce” by John Lambert. The definitive reference book for all things 7th Fighter Command
- https://www.flyingmag.com/aircrafts/pistons/jet-jockey-flies-p-51-mustang/ An excellent description of what it’s like to actually fly a P-51-D Mustang
- http://aerofiles.net/checklist-p51.html – for the P-51 start and pre-start checklists
- http://liberation.3945.free.fr/page/reportage/mesreportages/aviation/aviation.html – for the definitions of several code words
- http://www.7thfighter.com/ The 7th Fighter Command Website. As a condition of the use of some of the materials from this site, the following disclaimer is included. Permission to use, copy and distribute documents delivered from this Worldwide Web server and related graphics is hereby granted, provided that this notice appear. All other rights reserved. The name of “7th Fighter Command Association” may not be used in advertising or publicity pertaining to distribution of this information without specific, written prior permission. Mark Stevens and the 7th Fighter Command Association makes no representations about the suitability of this information for any purpose. It is provided “as is” without express or implied warranty. Mark Stevens and the 7th Fighter Command Association disclaim all warranties with regard to this information, including all implied warranties of merchant-ability and fitness. In no event shall Mark Stevens or the 7th Fighter Command Association be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other action, arising out of or in connection with the use or performance of this information.
- Mark Stevens; the 7th Fighter Command Association webmaster for his original permissions in the piece on Col. James Beckwith and “Squirt” (link) and which is placed here as a continued acknowledgement of same.
A print based on this article is available through the Shop Making-History page.
Copyright: I claim original work and Copyright 2020 for the text on this page and the photos of the model(s) except where explicitly noted (typically, italicised text denotes quoted content). I am indebted to the authors of the listed reference sites and books for their research. Except where explicitly noted otherwise, I sourced all other images and photos from the general internet and are used under fair-use policy. Any copyrighted images will be removed or credited forthwith upon request by its rightful owner with my thanks.