P-51 and P-39 Dive Difficulties

North American P-51 Mustang compressibility dive tests were made at Wright Field in July 1944 in response to fighter pilot reports from combat theaters. Captains Emil L. Sorenson and Wallace A. Lien and Major Fred Borsodi were the pilots in these tests (Chilstrom and Leary, 1993). The P-51 was climbed to an altitude of 35,000 feet, then power-dived to reach Mach numbers where compressibility effects on stability and control were found. Using a newly developed Mach number meter, the onset was found to be at a Mach number of 0.75. The tests were carried out to a Mach number of 0.83.

Longitudinal trim changes and heavy stick forces were encountered, but for the P-51 Mach number increases beyond 0.83 were limited by heavy buffeting. So many rivets were shaken loose from the structure that the airplane was declared unsafe, and the tests were concluded. It was on this series of dive tests that Major Borsodi saw the normal shock wave as a shimmering line of light and shadow extending spanwise from the root on the upper

surface of the wing. Skeptics were silenced only when photos taken by a gun sight camera on later flights showed the same thing.

The Bell P-39 Airacobra was dive tested a few years later at the NACA Ames Laboratory L. A. Clousing was the pilot, a flyer who had a strong interest in stability and control theory. The P-39 had a fairly thick wing; the NACA 0015 at the root, tapering to the NACA 23009 at the tip. Nose-down trim changes and increased stability were encountered in dives up to a Mach number of 0.78. Compressibility effects were a bit obscured by fabric distortion on the airplane’s elevator.

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