Karen gets fascinating WWI and WWII aviation stories from the Vintage Aero Flying Museum as writer for the Great War Stories Gift Shop.
A Flight of P-51 Mustangs
Aircraft weight - why does it matter?
Some people spend a lot of time getting aircraft weight and balance just right. Of course first of all you don't want your plane to fall out of the sky, but if you're loading a lot of military equipment on a plane and the aircraft weight is even a little off balance, it can matter to fuel costs and maneuverability.
Well, this story is not exactly about aircraft balance, but it is about aircraft weight, specifically P-51 Mustang weight, and it is dedicated to those unappreciated people who figure out aircraft weight, to all the engineers who spend a lot of time thinking about things that seem too small to matter, and especially to Mary Feik.
Fuel is a lot of aircraft weight
There is a poem about a kingdom being lost because a horseshoe nail was missing. This story is the same idea, the other way around. This is about a war being won because of a different kind of aircraft rivet.
How far can an airplane fly? It depends a lot on how heavy it is and how much fuel it can carry. A very heavy plane will need a lot of power, and to run powerful engines for a long time, it takes a lot of fuel. To carry a lot of fuel, it will need a lot of space, and carrying a lot of volume of fuel makes it that much heavier.
In World War II, bombers had enough space for the fuel to get to Germany from England and get back. But the Germans didn't exactly want bombers over Germany, and shot at them! With airplanes, you don't bring along someone bigger to protect you, you bring along someone faster. That was the P-51 Mustang. But there was a slight problem; being smaller, the P-51s didn't have as much fuel space and couldn't get all the way to Germany. So that was almost no help at all to the bombers; they didn't need protection in England!
Details of air power
It's hard to remember today how short the reach of air power was in WWII. At the beginning of the war, stripped-down aircraft could be flown from the US to Britain, but only toward the end of the war could a bomber with a useful payload get from the US to Germany. European nations could reach other European nations with bombs all through the war, but the bomber was extremely vulnerable until fighters had drop tanks to let them fly far enough to escort bombers.
The P-51 was built in America, to British specifications, as part of the Lend-Lease Program. The British named it the Mustang; it was actually the American version that was the P-51 Mustang. The British name their aircraft; Americans number their aircraft.
George Seabrook Wing's idea
So...the bombers were too big to move as fast as German fighters. The English fighters, the P-51s, were too small to carry enough fuel to get far enough to attack German fighters. If the bombers were made smaller, they couldn’t carry bombs. If the fighters were made bigger, they couldn’t keep up with German fighters.
What could possibly be done? Well, there was an engineer, named George Seabrook Wing, who had started working on airplanes for the Martin company (now Lockheed Martin) when he was only 16. He had an idea for making better rivets. Rivets are the things that hold an airplane together, much as nails hold wood together, except that rivets aren't pointy-ended; they get hammered together. George Seabrook Wing called his rivets "Hi-Shear", and they worked better than the rivets that had been holding P-51s together, and weighed only 2/3 as much as other rivets.
The P-51 Test
How much weight in a whole lot of rivets?
1/3 of a rivet is not much difference in weight, the same way one nail is practically nothing to hold in your hand. A package of nails is a good solid weight, though.
There are a lot of rivets in a P-51. A whole lot more than there are nails in a package of nails. When the mechanics got done changing all the rivets in a P-51 to George Seabrook Wing’s rivets, the P-51 was a lot lighter. So much lighter that the P-51 manufacturers realized the P-51 could now carry a whole other fuel tank. So they gave it one. Now the P-51 could go further.
How much further? The P-51 was tested by flying it from Dayton, Ohio, to Albuquerque, New Mexico, and back. Without stopping. The not stopping part was important, because Dayton to Albuquerque was a test for London to Berlin. The Germans probably weren't going to be willing to refuel a P-51 landing in Berlin.
To make sure the test covered realistic flight conditions, the P-51 fired its guns over Albuquerque.
The P-51 Performance
The historical weight of a rivet
Because of a rivet, the P-51s could fly to Germany - and back.
Because of the P-51s the bombers could fly to Germany - and back.
Because of the bombers, bombs could land on Germany.
Because the bombs were landing on German factories and fuel lines and railway lines and things like that, the Third Reich eventually would surrender.
Because the Third Reich surrendered, Europe was saved.
And all because of an aircraft rivet.
Mary Feik and Charles Seabrook Wing
I heard this story from Mary Feik, whose own life would make a bunch of interesting articles. She overhauled her first engine at the age of 13 and taught aircraft maintenance to crew chiefs and mechanics in World War II; she was only a teenager but knew well what she was doing as her father was a mechanic. She earned the Charles Taylor Master Mechanic award, which is named for the Wright brothers' mechanic, who was doing his work only a couple decades before Mary Feik was born.
George Seabrook Wing kept inventing things, started several aerospace businesses of his own, won NASA's Apollo Achievement Award and even built his own sport airplane with a range of 1000 miles.
Questions & Answers
Question: How much did the p51 unpopulated airframe only weigh?
Answer: I'm sorry I don't have that information myself at the moment; Wikipedia says 7,635 pounds.
aethelthryth (author) from American Southwest on October 10, 2017:
Debbie Dina, thank you for commenting! I have sent your comment to Zola, though the address I have for her is a couple years old. I would love to hear more about George Wing, and though I don't know if I can handle writing another book right now, I want to, just so I can learn more about a fascinating man. If you would care to contact me, you also can reach me through the address at albiondesigncentre.com (I'm not posting the specific address here in an effort to avoid spam!)
Debbie Dina on October 03, 2017:
What a wonderful find! I loved reading this article about a good friend of my father and grandfather. George Wing became friends with my grandfather when he was just a young boy. I have several letters from George to my grandfather that were written during his years at Martin and later when he went out on his own at an office in San Diego. I see that Zola, George's daughter, also saw this article. I would very much like to locate the letters that my grandfather sent to George in response to his letters. My father worked for George his entire life and I had the opportunity to spend time with George on several occasions as a teenager and young mother. I even remember meeting Ms. Zola in State Line, MS when I was a little girl. George will always have a place in my heart because he meant so much to these two men in my family.
Zola, if you read this, I truly hope to speak with you or get in touch with you some way. Your father was a very gifted, interesting, loving man who loved Halloween so he could scare the kids...a funny story I would love to share with you.
aethelthryth, if you ever do a book on George Wing, I would be honored to share some of the stories from his early days that my father has shared with me.
aethelthryth (author) from American Southwest on December 10, 2014:
Hello Zola Wing Wheeler; I am privileged to meet you even virtually! I am sorry about the book; it was not where I got the information from but looked to me like a good book to recommend to people who are interested in P-51s. Actually, as I recall, Mary Feik started off her talk by saying that she was telling the story because there really is nothing out there about George Wing. But she thought there ought to be.
As far as I remember, all the information I found to use was from her talk and from obituaries I found for George Wing online.
I also would like to know more about George Wing, and I think a lot of friends of mine in engineering and aircraft maintenance would too. If there is information out there but nobody has actually written a book with it, I would be interested in writing a book about him. Except not anytime soon, as I am currently in the middle of trying to publish a book about an Iwo Jima veteran and hating this whole process! If you have any suggestions, you can contact me through the website albiondesigncentre.com.
Zola Wing Wheeler on December 08, 2014:
HI, I am George Wing's #3 daughter, and I was so excited to read your article about my Dad, and his contribution to the war effort.
I bought the book mentioned at the end of the article, and just received it. I was sad to see that my Dad isn't mentioned in the bibliography, and haven't been able to find where in the book it talks about the Hi Shear Rivet that he invented.
Could you please send me any info you might have about the book, and what page I can find my Dad's invention mentioned. I was planning on giving the book to my Grandson for Christmas, and would like to be able to show him in the book about his Great Grandfather.
Zola Wing Wheeler
aethelthryth (author) from American Southwest on October 18, 2013:
RonElFran - just another illustration of "every little bit helps", I guess! I thought it was a really interesting story and enjoyed sharing it here.
Ronald E Franklin from Mechanicsburg, PA on October 13, 2013:
What an interesting topic. Who would think that reducing the weight of a rivet by 1/3 could make a difference in the war. An informative hub.
aethelthryth (author) from American Southwest on February 05, 2013:
billd01603, it was good - it showed men who proved their superiority by excelling, and then graciously suggested they be treated as equals.
billd01603 from Worcester on February 04, 2013:
aethelhryth, I still haven't seen that movie, but I ordered it from Netflix and I'm looking forward to it.
aethelthryth (author) from American Southwest on February 04, 2013:
billd01603, thank you for the compliment and the comment. We were watching the Red Tails movie last night, and my husband pointed out you can tell the P-51s in some scenes are fiberglass fakes because they have no rivets.
billd01603 from Worcester on February 03, 2013:
Wow Aethethryth, Good Hub! I thought i knew all the pertenant facts about the P51, but I had never heard this one. Another weight saving move was to eliminate the paint. There were plenty of polished metal P51 and B29s later in the war
Voted up and awesome
aethelthryth (author) from American Southwest on September 05, 2012:
Kieran Gracie, great idea. Don't worry, I won't give you credit for it!
Kieran Gracie on September 05, 2012:
Hi aethelthryth, I love your approach to lawyers! You could develop some sort of magic printer ink that turned transparent as soon as a lawyer opened the document! Of course you could end up getting sued...
aethelthryth (author) from American Southwest on September 04, 2012:
Kieran Gracie, sounds like there is quite a story there; or actually all kinds of stories I would be interested to read about if you would write some articles about it.
I think the concept of fail-safe is one of those simple but brilliant and underrated things like standardized machine parts.
I recently read about the related concept of fail-to-deadly, useful mainly for its deterrent effect, in cases where you want the bomb to go off even if the bomb's controller is killed. It has its humorous side, for a technical writer who gets annoyed with writing safety instructions for lawyers rather than for people.
Kieran Gracie on September 04, 2012:
Very true, aethelthryth. I vividly remember the case of a cargo Boeing 707 that crashed in Africa in the '70s. Unfortunately all 3 crew were killed but, because it was 'only' a cargo plane and the crash not sensational enough for the media, it got very little publicity. However, behind the scenes, Boeing took a huge interest and - ultimately - the whole concept of fail-safe design emerged. I would say that all modern airframe design developed from that crash, and many lives have been saved as a result.
aethelthryth (author) from American Southwest on September 03, 2012:
ThoughtSandwiches, I suspect there are a lot of aircraft maintainers who could tell interesting stories of things that affected aviation history. Some of them are probably better left unknown for the peace of mind of the flying public....
GetitScene, what a great compliment! Thank you.
Dale Anderson from The High Seas on September 02, 2012:
Stunning article, incredible hub. I rarely share anything on facebook but this article has been passed along to all my friends. Well done.
ThoughtSandwiches from Reno, Nevada on September 01, 2012:
Astounding! In all my reading of the air war against Germany, the P-51 has had a prominent place in that eventual victory for the reason (as often stated) because it had the range...never once was a rivet even mention!
aethelthryth (author) from American Southwest on June 04, 2012:
Thank you, old albion. If you ever get a chance to hear Mary Feik speak (I think she speaks to Civil Air Patrol groups occasionally), she's the one who's interesting!
Graham Lee from Lancashire. England. on June 03, 2012:
Hi aethelthryth. An absolute masterclass in logic. Great research shows. Presentation is first class, truly an interesting subject.
Voted up / Awesome.
aethelthryth (author) from American Southwest on May 24, 2012:
Thank you Bill Akleh. Mary Feik said she thought more people ought to know this story, and so here's my contribution to making it known, which seems to be timely as P-51s have been in the news recently.
Bill Akleh from Vancouver on May 24, 2012:
Wow - really interesting article. Glad I hopped around and found it. Voted up.
aethelthryth (author) from American Southwest on May 23, 2012:
Miked, thank you for the clarification and the interesting factoid. I didn't really know who did which part.
So what's with Germans and North American? Okay, Anthony Fokker was Dutch, but he certainly had some German connections, and his company somehow got merged in there. But I guess you couldn't be too suspicious of people of German ancestry in those days - there probably weren't a whole lot of Americans (including my family) who weren't partly German.
David Hunt from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on May 23, 2012:
Thanks for the correction, Miked. I inferred from the fact that it was built to British specs that they designed it-- my mistake. And thanks for the additional info. I can now honestly say "I didn't know it was designed by a German (at North American Aviation):.
Miked on May 23, 2012:
To "UnnamedHarald", The P-51 was NOT designed by the British. It was designed by the North American Aviation Company in Southern CA. The P-51 Mustang was initially produced for Britain as an alternative to the Curtiss P-40, which North American had declined to produce under licence. As an interesting factoid, the P-51 was in fact designed by a German! (Edgar O. (Ed) Schmued.
aethelthryth (author) from American Southwest on May 01, 2012:
Kieran Gracie, I enjoy these descriptions of an aircraft's personality. A little poetry helps those of us who started from thinking "they all look the same" to come to appreciate how different aircraft really are.
While I don't think of myself as old, I am the sort for whom the Lysander was called the "old lady's airplane" because even old ladies could identify it. My education by certain friends and relatives continues.
Kieran Gracie on May 01, 2012:
Yes, I agree with you, aethelthryth, about the Spitfire but not all marks had the pure lines of the early ones such as the Mark V. I think that the Griffon-engined ones were not so lovely, nor the clipped-wing photo recce ones. Seeing that elliptical wing soaring into a loop, with that marvelous Merlin growl, is still a thrilling experience.
OK, now back to the P-51 ....!
aethelthryth (author) from American Southwest on April 28, 2012:
Kieran Gracie, thank you - it is the highest praise for a technical writer to be told that something is clear, simple, AND approved of by an engineer.
TJIC - You got a response, but not from me: "Everyone agrees the Spitfire is the most beautiful fighter."
TJIC on April 28, 2012:
Of course, as I think I likely told you 20+ years ago, the P-51 is a nice plane, but not nearly as beautiful as the P-38 !
Kieran Gracie on April 28, 2012:
Great story, aethelthryth. You have put the never-ending fight against aircraft weight into clear and simple terms. Voted up and interesting.
aethelthryth (author) from American Southwest on April 27, 2012:
UnnamedHarald, I vote your comment as very interesting too.
David Hunt from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on April 27, 2012:
Absolutely fascinating perspective on the Mustang-- full of information I was unaware of, especially the P51 Mustang being designed by the British. Funny thing about rivets: the Germans, when trying to keep their pocket battleships (Graf Spee, et al) under the 10,000 ton Versailles Treaty limit, switched from rivets to welded plates. They ended up having to lie about the weight, but they would have been a lot heavier with the rivets. So yes, those damn rivets are heavy! Voted up, awesome, interesting and shared.