Clive James on the North American P-51 Mustang and Other Aircraft

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By Everard Cunion, December, 2009

Clive James is amusing because he asks questions that, for reasons unknown, nobody else asks, let alone attempts to answer. For example, why do so many people pronounce nuclearnucular’?

New Clear Days; Studio album by The Vapors, 1980

New Clear Days; Studio album by The Vapors, 1980

The following was broadcast in The Museum of Curiosity on BBC Radio 4, on the morning of December 25th, 2009. The recording of the programme has gone now, but Clive James’s part started about half way through.

Quoting Clive James from the BBC recording:

It was beautiful. Accidentally beautiful. And it was a war winner. In truth, no single weapon ever wins a war, but if ever there was a symbol of winning the war, it was the P-51. When it appeared over Berlin in 1944 (it wasn’t supposed to be there; no fighter aircraft was meant to fly that far) Goering was in front of the air ministry in the Wilhelmstrasse and he looked up and he saw it and he knew the war was lost.

Still from the movie Saving Private Ryan (1998)

In the 1998 movie Saving Private Ryan, a P-51 knocks out a tank on a bridge.

It came into being because the British purchasing commission showed up in America and said, “Look, Old Boy, we want a fighter a bit better than the Spitfire and the Hurricane. We’d like your Curtiss Tomahawk.” And the North American corporation said, “We can do better than that.” In 117 days they designed the Mustang and the first version of it was 15 miles-an-hour faster than the Spitfire, but, unfortunately only up to 15 000 feet. The second version, the one we’re talking about now; the P-51D (notice that D) it was fast all the way up to 30 000 feet because it had a two-stage supercharger. It had a British engine. The aircraft went faster than any British plane that had the Merlin because of the Mustang’s design. It had all kinds of stuff no aircraft ever had before. It had six 50-calibre machine guns on it that could tear a Focke-Wulf 190 in half. This thing could fly from East Anglia all the way to Berlin and back. The Germans were astonished.

Photo of a 1/48th scale P-51 'red tail'

I finished this 1/48th scale P-51 as a 'red tail' of the 332nd Fighter Group of the U.S. Army Air Corps. This example does not have the bubble canopy that Clive James mentions farther on.

It even dealt with German jets. Chuck Yeager was flying a P-51 when he shot down a Messerschmitt 262 twin-engine jet fighter. But not only did it astonish the Germans, it astonished Britain. And it was the beginning of the story of American technology taking supremacy; a subject we’re still dealing with, as a matter of fact, because the British found it very hard to match. But what fascinates me is it was a tremendous work of art – just by accident. If you set out to design the aircraft to do this job, it comes out looking like this poetic thing.

The P-51 got called Mustang because the British called it that and the Americans decided they would go along with it.

After interjection by the programme host, Clive James replies (as follows) during which the Radio 4 audience laughs continuously:

Let me tell you about the P-38 Lightning. It was a twin engined aircraft with Allison engines and it had a very high performance.

The Americans had three very high performance fighter planes. They had the P-38 Lightning, the P-47 Thunderbolt, and the P-51 Mustang. The Thunderbolt was very fast, as fast as the Mustang, especially going downhill because it was enormous, but it didn’t have the range of the P-51. It couldn’t go to Berlin. The P-38 could do everything, but it was too complicated. Two engines just meant twice as much trouble. But, if you want me to talk more about the P-38, I’m perfectly willing to…

Lockheed P-38J Lightning in flight

Lockheed P-38J Lightning in flight. The French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry ('Le Petit Prince', 'Flight to Arras', 'Wind, Sand, and Stars') was killed flying the photo recon variant of the P-38.

The programme host mentions his printed notes and he asks who was Dick Bong. Again, the Radio 4 audience laughs at Clive James’s reply:

Richard Bong was the top scoring US fighter pilot in the Pacific area…

The audience laughs again and applauds. The host says, “How does he know this?”

Bear in mind that the British public has never heard of Bong or, for that matter, any American pilot other than the Wright brothers and Neil Armstrong, who they always call Louis Armstrong in pretend confusion with the musician.

Clive James concludes:

I have little-known facts about all kinds of aircraft. When I was a child, I not only thought all this was fascinating, I made a huge mistake: I thought other people would find it fascinating too. Especially my mother, who I wore out. She was semi-conscious as she listened to all this…

I myself can’t fly, but I love being flown. I’ve been in many types of aircraft. The airliners are getting less interesting as they get better, as it were. The 747 is actually a beautiful aircraft. The 747 on the ground doesn’t look all that big because its proportions are so fine. It is actually proportioned like an F-86 Sabre jet. The F-86 Sabre jet was the jet that superseded the P-51 Mustang in first line service after World War Two. It too was built by North American and it has the same canopy. Very important to talk about the bubble canopy on the P-51…

Korean War mixed media image

My 1/48th scale North American F-86 Sabre; Photoshopped onto a backdrop based on one of my hang gliding aerial photos

2 Responses to Clive James on the North American P-51 Mustang and Other Aircraft

  1. Charles Bovill says:

    You quote this superb item from the BBC recording. Do you have the recording ? !

    • Update (August, 2014): The recording of The Museum of Curiosity episode 6 is here. Clive James is introduced 7 minutes and 50 seconds into the recording. He starts speaking at 8 minutes 10 seconds in. His talk about the P-51 starts at 11 minutes and 58 seconds.

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