“As recently as the 1980s, the Pentagon considered bringing heavily modified variants of the legendary 1940s warbird back into service. Here’s the story.”
WHILE THE UNITED STATES AIR FORCE remains on the cutting edge of advanced fighter technology, when it comes to low-level ground attack and light reconnaissance, it has recently found itself looking to the past for inspiration.
During the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military discovered that many of its front-line warplanes were ill-suited for the task at hand. Super-sonic fourth and fifth generation fighter-bombers simply weren’t cut out for the sorts of low-speed, terrain hugging flying required to eyeball and destroy enemy insurgents, particularly those hiding on rugged landscapes. So in 2009, the Pentagon set out to find low-cost combat aircraft that could perform these roles on today’s (and tomorrow’s) battlefields. It became known as the Light Attack/Armed Reconnaissance (LAAR) and Light Air Support (LAS) program. Surprisingly, old-fashioned, propeller-driven aircraft seemed to fit the bill on all counts.
21st Century Turbo-Props
While aircraft like the OV-10X Bronco, Hawker Beechcraft T-6 Texan II and A-67 Dragon were all considered under LAAR/LAS, Washington eventually settled on the Brazilian-designed Embraer A-29 Super Tucanos. In fact, the first of 72 of the $14 million dollar turbo-props are being delivered to the USAF this year.
Yet as recently as 2008, one air force general publicly mused that even the World War Two-vintage North American P-51 might have been a contender for what was to become LAAR/LAS.
“All we need is you, you, you and you to go fly it into the threat zone,” he added jokingly as he pointed to the journalists present.
And while the idea of squadrons of P-51s roaring over the hills of Afghanistan or strafing ISIS insurgents in Iraq and Syria may seem far-fetched, as recently as the mid-1980s, the U.S. military actually did consider bringing heavily modified variants of the legendary 1940s warbird back into service. Here’s the story.
Meet the Enforcer
Dubbed the Piper PA-48 Enforcer, the single-engine turbo-prop was a direct descendent of the classic North American P-51.
The modernized Mustang was first conceived during the late Vietnam War-era as a low-cost, low-level ground attack aircraft. Piper hoped the tried and tested P-51 airframe, when retrofitted with newer Lycoming T55 turboprop engines, would make a formidable weapon in tree-top-level counter-insurgency operations.
With a 360-deg. high-visibility bubble canopy, six under-wing hard points capable of carrying 5,600 lbs. (2,500 kg) of bombs, rockets or gun pods and a cruise speed of just 250 mph (400 km/h), the Enforcer would certainly be at home in the low-intensity warzones of South East Asia. At least that’s what Piper thought when it partnered with Cavalier Aircraft in 1971 to produce the new plane.
Since 1957, Cavalier, originally known as Trans Florida Aviation, had been buying up surplus wartime Mustangs on the cheap and then converting them for the high-end civilian aviation market. The revamped luxury warbirds featured two-seat, leather cockpits, as well as upgraded avionics, fuselage luggage bays and colourful paint schemes. Sales were sluggish so by the late 1960s, Cavalier decided to re-militarize its civilian Mustangs and sell the enhanced aircraft as low-level fighter-bombers to America’s allies in the developing world. The company enjoyed moderate success. Bolivia ended up with nine models in 1967. Later variants were supplied to both El Salvador and Indonesia. The former even used Cavalier Mustangs in its brief 1969 conflict against Honduras (dubbed the Football War).
Piper saw promise in Cavalier’s concept and continued the development. By 1971, two heavily modified Mustangs, now dubbed PA-48 Enforcers were assembled. For the rest of the decade, Piper officials endeavoured to sell Washington on the plane as a close air support and ground attack platform – a role that was dominated at the time by the multi-million dollar A-10 Thunderbolt II.
The Piper PA-48 Enforcer
Wing Span: 41 ft.
Length: 34 ft.
Height: 13 ft.
Armament: GE GPU 30mm gun pods, MK-82 Snakeyes, GRV-7 rockets, CBU canisters and MK-20 Rockeye cluster bombs
Engine: Avco-Lycoming YT-55-L-9 turboprop of 2,445 hp
Max speed: 403 mph
Range: 921 miles
Service ceiling: 25,000 ft.
In 1979, Congress finally allotted Piper a $12 million budget to produce two new PA-48 demonstrators.
The aircraft, which upon completion had retained only about a tenth of their original P-51 Mustang airframes, were turned over to the U.S. military in 1983. For the next year, the curious-looking birds would be put through their paces at Elgin and Edwards air force bases.
Despite their solid performance in tests, the Pentagon eventually balked at the idea of the Mustang revisited — the Enforcer never went into production.
The two surviving prototypes would go on to become museum pieces. One resides in the Air Force Test Flight Museum at Edwards AFB. The other is part of the United States Air Force Museum at Wright Paterson AFB in Dayton, Ohio.