Relative Cost of WW2 US Fighters

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Figure 1: P-51 Mustang.

Figure 1: P-51 Mustang was a relatively low-cost aircraft (photo: Wikipedia).

A reader of this blog mentioned in a comment that cost might be a big reason for the US Army Air Corps (USAAC) switchover to the P-51 from P-38s and P-47s. I thought I would put together a quick report on the relative cost of the three main USAAC fighters. The cost of these fighters by year was available in the Army Air Forces Statistical Digest (Hyperwar Site). The approach to Extracting, Transforming, and Loading (ETL) the data are the same as I used to determine the on-hand numbers of aircraft (link). For those who are interested in the details, my workbook is available here.

Since the cost of these fighters reduced each year, I compared the cost of the P-47 and P-38 to the P-51 costs by year. Table 1 shows my results. Note that no costs were listed for the P-38 in 1945.

Table 1: Relative Unit Costs of the Major USAAC Fighters (P-51 Basis).
Type and Model 1942 1943 1944 1945
P-38 2.05 1.79 1.88
P-47 1.80 1.77 1.66 1.63
P-51 1.00 1.00 1.00 1.00

The P-38 unit cost was approximately twice the unit cost of the P-51. This makes intuitive sense because a P-38 looks a bit like two single-engine aircraft glued together. Note that the P-47, a single-engine aircraft, also was a very expensive aircraft relative to the P-51.

So cost could have been a serious issue when it comes to large deployments. Ultimately, cost should reflect the resources required to build something. For the same resources, you can build many more P-51s than either the P-38 or P-47. Since quantity has a quality all its own, the transition to the P-51 made sense. Also, it was arguably the better fighter.

I leave you with a photo of the p-38 (Figure 2). It sure was a beautiful aircraft.

Figure 2: P-38J (Wikipedia).

Figure 2: P-38J (Wikipedia).

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2 Responses to Relative Cost of WW2 US Fighters

  1. Patrick L Boyle says:

    I was the reader to brought up price. I'm glad to see you refined my point. I also noted that the P-51 didn't use the strategic material tungsten that the P-38 and P-47 did because of turbocharging. And the P-38 took more training to get everything out of it. Altogether an expensive machine.

    What is also interesting is that P-38 was designed to be a high speed fast climbing interceptor to defend against high altitude bombers. But of course Germany and Japan never mounted a bombing campaign against the US so it would have seemed that it wouldn't have been needed. It was repurposed for many roles and succeeded at most of them.

    The great movie screen writer William Goldman famously said " Nobody knows nothing". This meant that when making a movie no one involved in it has any idea if it will be a hit. For example no one on the set of Casablanca had any idea it would become a classic.

    The same sort of thing seems to be true in WWII fighters. There were many designs but only a handful that proved to be stars - and often this wasn't clear to anyone at the time.

    • mathscinotes says:

      There are so many things that go into making any system a winner. For example, the P-40 did a great job in the China theater, but less so in Europe. It was a combination of tactics (Chennault knew how to use the P-40), the operational environment, and the particulars of their opponent. P-38 was superb in the Pacific but had some issues in Europe. In that case, there were some teething pains (e.g. pilot training/experience, compressibility) coupled with a cold, high-altitude environment that might not have been its forte. Same with the P-39.

      As far as things not being clear at the time, look at the history of the P-51. The Brits were looking to buy P-40s and North American convinced them to try a new design. The P-51A (Allison engine) was still not quite what they wanted and the Brits made a big improvement by moving to the Merlin engine with the P-51B. It ended up being a game-changer.

      You mention William Goldman, one of my favorite writers. He won me over with Temple of Gold when I was a kid.


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