Discovery Channel-Great Planes: North American P-51 Mustang (1989)

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Released 12-Mar-2003

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Documentary Main Menu Audio
Rating Rated E
Year Of Production 1989
Running Time 58:33 (Case: 60)
RSDL / Flipper No/No Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 4 Directed By None Given
Studio
Distributor
Discovery Channel
Magna Home Entertainment
Starring None Given
Case Amaray-Transparent
RPI $19.95 Music None Given


Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame Full Frame English Dolby Digital 1.0 (128Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio None
16x9 Enhancement No
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 1.33:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles None Smoking No
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

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Plot Synopsis

    Here is a simple task for you: name the greatest fighter plane of the Second World War.

    Well, there are plenty of contenders, but at the end of the argument I believe that it boils down to a choice of six aircraft: the Focke-Wulf Fw190, the Messerschmitt Bf-109, the Supermarine Spitfire, the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt, the Vought F-4U Corsair and the North American P-51 Mustang. Beyond that there is going to be a lot of argument! However, I make no bones about the fact that in my opinion there is only one contender for the title: the beautiful and deadly P-51 Mustang. It was a fighter like no other and represented the epitome of the piston-engined fighter. So it is that I come to perhaps the second most eagerly awaited DVD in the Great Planes series: Great Planes: North American P-51 Mustang.

    As it happens, this is one aircraft that I do know a lot about, having researched and built dozens of models over the years, as well as being an aircraft that I can see on a fairly regular basis during the summer months. I happen to live near Jandakot Airport south of Perth and in residence at that airport is one of the examples of this great aircraft that still fly around the world. This particular P-51D, the classic variant of the aircraft, is owned by local businessman Bill Wylie, and you can if you like take a ride in the aircraft - if you can ante up the $1,400 for the flight. I have not yet been able to afford to do so - and I doubt that I could actually get in the cockpit of the plane anyway . So I have to content myself with just watching the aircraft. Just sitting watching this magnificent aircraft do circuits of the airport is enough to bring tears to the eyes. The aircraft has a sound that is so unique that it is easy to know when it is in the circuit and when she goes over the house at under 1,000 feet you get for some fleeting seconds the impression of what power this plane can unleash. That gorgeous growl of the Rolls Royce Merlin engine is something that you can never forget. It is an awesome, magnificent, beautiful machine.

    Yet the story of the P-51 Mustang could have been so different, and indeed non-existent. In 1940, the Royal Air Force was desperate for any fighter aircraft, the British Government having left it too late to re-equip in the face of Nazi expansionism in Europe. Accordingly, they wanted the Curtiss P-40 Kittyhawk in big numbers, the best and most readily available American fighter at the time. Curtiss were not in a position to supply the sort of numbers that the British wanted, so another source had to be found. North American Aviation was a relatively new company at the time, best known for its high quality of production. The RAF already knew well the AT-6 Harvard and B-25 Mitchell that the company built, and so approached North American to build the P-40 under licence. North American was quite happy to do so, but made another suggestion. How about we design and build you a better fighter - all within the 120 days it would take us to tool up and start producing the P-40? The offer, as ridiculous as it might have sounded, was accepted.

    True to their word, 102 days later the prototype North American NA-73X was finished - but it had to wait twenty more days for its engine. So 122 days after the acceptance of the offer by the British, the aircraft made its first flight on 26th October, 1940. On 9th December, 1940 the British advised North American that in accordance with standard policy, the aircraft had been assigned a name - Mustang. Despite the shortness of the design and development phase, the Mustang was quite a radical aircraft. It featured a laminar flow wing, the first of its kind, with the thickest part of the wing as far back as possible to minimise drag. From the moment the aircraft took to the air, it was a winner. However, the Mustang Mk 1 (as it was known in RAF parlance) had some quirks that limited its role as a fighter: the Allison engine gave it exceptional low level performance, with a speed of around 380 mph, but this tapered off rapidly at higher altitudes. This made it unsuitable for fighter combat against the better German fighters of the day. The Mustang, however, was put to great use as a tactical support aircraft, especially in the tactical reconnaissance role. With the benefit of the British experience, the US Army Air Corps acquired 500 cousins that went by the designation of A-36A Apache, purely for the tactical support role, along with P-51A Mustangs for more traditional fighter roles as well as F-6B dedicated tactical reconnaissance versions. Notwithstanding the fact that the inherent vulnerability of the air-cooled engine made the aircraft prone to destruction by even small arms fire from the ground, the aircraft demonstrated excellent value in all these roles. However, the engine situation needed to be rectified and so it was eventually decided to fit the aircraft with the Rolls Royce Merlin engine that was used by the Supermarine Spitfire. The rest, as they say, is history.

    The Merlin engine, coupled with a new four-bladed propeller, raised the top speed of the aircraft to 440 mph, by far and away the fastest Allied fighter. Other redesign features also improved the vulnerability situation a bit, but by far the biggest gain was the fact that the Merlin reduced fuel consumption. This, combined with the large fuel tanks of the aircraft (it was the same size as the Spitfire but weighed twice as much owing to the fuel load it carried), meant that the Allies at last had a true long range escort fighter, good news for those crews of the long range bombers of the RAF and USAAF flying over Europe, and not so good news for those Luftwaffe pilots who had made mincemeat of the bomber formations. The P-51B and P-51C were put into production at Inglewood, California and Dallas, Texas immediately (the designations indicated where they were built by the way). They had an immediate effect in just about every theatre of the war, but none more so than in Europe where they finally took on the Luftwaffe in defence of the bombers, whilst also parlaying their long range and exceptional tactical support skills to maraud targets at will as they returned to their bases in England. There was still one slight issue with the aircraft however, and that was rectified temporarily in a retrofit to existing aircraft - the canopy was replaced with a bulbous effort similar to the Spitfire. The next marque of the aircraft, however, was to incorporate a redesign of the canopy, and thus was born the very best piston-engined fighter aircraft of all time - the P-51D Mustang.

    The P-51D Mustang appeared in 1944, the year in which North American built over 9,000 Mustangs alone. The appearance of the P-51D virtually sounded the death knell of the Luftwaffe, for the only aircraft that could exceed its abilities were the Messerschmitt Me-163 rocket plane (a brutish little thing that could attain 600 mph but was a b**** to fly and had limited defensive use, especially when the rocket ran out of fuel and the 'plane became a glider) and the Messerschmitt Me-262 (the Allies should be forever grateful that the Nazi hierarchy prevaricated over this 'plane so long that by the time the go-ahead was given it was way too late). In a similar way, once Iwo Jima fell to the Allies in the Pacific, the P-51D Mustangs stationed there dealt the final death blow to the now ineffective Japanese Air Force. Basically, the P-51D came, she saw, and she conquered. The Axis never had a real answer to her, and even the last missions of the Second World War on 14th August, 1945 were not to see the end of the mighty Mustang. After the war she continued in service with the USAF and the Air National Guard. When the Korean War commenced, the Mustang went back into front-line use - with the Royal Australian Air Force leading the way with its Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation-built Mustangs flying their first missions on 2nd July, 1950. Despite the advances in jet aircraft in those years since the Second World War (and the North American F-86 Sabre was one of the best jet fighters of the Korean War), there remained no better aircraft than the obsolete Mustang in the tactical support roles. The Mustang served again in the Desert War of 1956 as the primary fighter aircraft of the fledgling Israeli Air Force.

    In the final analysis, she served with over fifty different armed forces around the world, some up to the late 1970s and early 1980s. She served with distinction in every theatre of the Second World War and was a vital tool for the Allied forces in Korea. In all there were 15,386 built in the United States, but the honour to be the last built was the last of some 200 or so built in Australia by Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation. She flew over 213,000 sorties during the Second World War and was responsible for the destruction of over 4,950 Axis aircraft in the air, and a further 4,831 on the ground. All told, 2,520 were lost in combat due to all reasons, including just being abandoned on the ground and (rarely) pilot error. So excellent was she as a tactical support fighter that even into the 1980s there were plans mooted to put the aircraft back into production just to serve this role that no other aircraft had really been able to do as well. Of all the old warbirds, she remains the prize for many civilian pilots and is probably the most preserved aircraft of her generation. There are probably 150 still airworthy around the world and whereas they used to be bought for a few thousand dollars at war surplus auctions, they now fetch up to $1,000,000 apiece. A whole industry of replica parts has grown up around these aircraft to keep them flying and people still seek out rusted hulks for full restoration to flying condition. She is one of the most beautiful aircraft ever to grace the skies.

    By whatever measure you choose to use, not only is the North American P-51 Mustang a truly Great Plane, she is the best fighter that ever saw service in the Second World War - and arguably of all time. What would have happened if North American Aviation had simply built those P-40's under licence?

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Transfer Quality

Video

    Whilst the programme does start and finish with some footage of restored aircraft, the bulk of what we see here is archival material. Even so, some of it is surprisingly quite decent stuff, as well as being historically very important. Not only do we get a chance to see the P-51 in action, but there is some rather excellent (and quite rare) footage of the Messerschmitt Me-262 jet fighter to be seen. The equally rare footage of the Messerschmitt Me-163 rocket plane is not quite so good!

    The transfer is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 and it is not 16x9 enhanced.

    Like many of the releases we have seen so far in the series, the transfer is somewhat variable in quality with some stuff that is decidedly ordinary, even allowing for nearly sixty years having passed, and other stuff that is rather good despite the same issue. In general, considering the age of much of the material, the transfer is quite reasonably sharp and rather well detailed. The only time I really might have qualms was during some of the gun camera footage, but obviously we cannot expect brilliance from this sort of source material! Whilst clarity was at times a bit on the average side, and grain did present itself on more than the odd occasion, the overall definition was quite acceptable. Shadow detail is not much of an issue and there seemed to be little evidence of problems with low level noise.

    With a nice mixture of black and white and colour footage (far more of the latter than I was expecting from the war), the colour is pretty much of the highly variable nature. Some very good, some rather ordinary, but nothing that I would have reason to d*** the programme for.

    MPEG artefacts did not seem to be an issue here, and significant film-to-video artefacts were also nicely absent. The age of the material is at times reflected by the copious amounts of film artefacts to be seen, but that unfortunately has to be expected of some quite rare material that could hardly have been well stored over the years.

    This is a single sided, single layered DVD. There are no subtitle options to accompany the narration.

Video Ratings Summary
Sharpness
Shadow Detail
Colour
Grain/Pixelization
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts
Overall

Audio

    There is just the one soundtrack on the DVD, being an English Dolby Digital 1.0 soundtrack.

    The narration comes across very well and is easy to understand.

    The musical accompaniment to the programme is not credited, although on a number of occasions the source of the music was just about being dragged from the dim dark recesses of my memory.

    There is nothing really wrong with the soundtrack, which again does enough to carry the narration and little else. It is reasonable clean and clear, with the usual lack of the underlying aircraft dynamic. It remains very similar in style to the previous DVDs reviewed from the series.

Audio Ratings Summary
Dialogue
Audio Sync
Clicks/Pops/Dropouts
Surround Channel Use
Subwoofer
Overall

Extras

    The usual menu audio that is consistent across this series.

Menu

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

    It would appear that this DVD has not yet been released in Region 1 - although this is by no means certain.

Summary

    Great Planes: North American P-51 Mustang was eagerly awaited by me and this did not let me down. Whilst I have seen a lot of footage of Mustangs, and seen more than the odd one or two at air shows and museums around the world, there was still footage here that I had not seen before. Some of it was of surprisingly good nick, too. Whilst a good couple of hours more of footage of restored aircraft would have been very nice, I enjoyed this a lot and will be returning to it again.

Ratings (out of 5)

Video
Audio
Extras
Plot
Overall

© Ian Morris (Biological imperfection run amok)
Thursday, July 17, 2003
Review Equipment
DVDDenon DVD-1600, using S-Video output
DisplaySony Trinitron Wega (80cm). Calibrated with Video Essentials. This display device is 16x9 capable.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver. Calibrated with Video Essentials.
AmplificationYamaha RXV-795
SpeakersEnergy Speakers: centre EXLC; left and right C-2; rears EXLR; and subwoofer ES-12XL

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