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Warbird Stories: P-51 Mustang ‘Berlin Express’

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The P-51 Mustang is one of the most recognizable aircraft in military aviation history, and the story of “Berlin Express” illustrates just how far the Mustang’s legacy reaches.

The warbird’s story begins with American World War II aviator William B. “Bill” Overstreet who hailed from Clifton Forge, Virginia. After enlisting following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Overstreet trained with the U.S. Army Air Corps and was eventually deployed at Raydon Airfield in England. There he joined a squadron of the Eighth Air Force flying Republic P-47 Thunderbolts from RAF Leiston. As the AAF transition to the newer Mustang, Overstreet got his first opportunity to pilot a P-51 on January 30, 1944.

Overstreet named his first P-51, which he received in February 1944 “Southern Belle.” However, the aircraft was lost while being flown in combat by a different pilot a couple of weeks later, causing him to rethink the name. At the time, his squadron was assigned to bomber escort missions with the 357th fighter group regularly flying sorties to Germany, and thus the “Berlin Express” was born. All his subsequent planes went by the same moniker.

The “Berlin Express” P-51B Mustang achieved legendary status during an epic World War II dogfight in Paris in 1944, when Overstreet flew the aircraft under the Eiffel Tower in hot pursuit of a German fighter. Overstreet eventually downed the German Messerschmitt Bf 109G and eluded heavy enemy fire while escaping the battle with the “Berlin Express” intact. This victory was later immortalized by Len Krenzler in a painting of the “Berlin Express’” Eiffel Tower victory.

“Our man Bill was like Daredevil, the man without fear. Between flying so low and dodging enemy fire, he still shot a few bursts of his guns and hit the 109’s engine. In a last-ditch effort, the 109 flew under the Eiffel Tower hoping Overstreet would avoid it — NOPE!” recalled Brian Burnett II, Tour Guide at National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. “Bill followed him under the tower, and as the 109 pulled up, Bill sent him back down in flames. Afterwards, Bill went down to the river and followed it, barely above water level. Under the cover of the structures on either side, he made his way out of the city and back to base,” continued Burnett.

Today, the restored Mustang “Berlin Express” is based on the remains of the P-51B 43–24837. This Mustang flew with the 9th Air Force’s 363rd Fighter Group out of RAF Staplehurst in Kent, England. It crashed in Beckley on June 10, 1944, after the pilot was forced to bail out during a training exercise. Sporting a “Malcolm Hood” canopy and wearing the markings for “Berlin Express,” its paint scheme models the 357th Fighter Group Mustang that Overstreet made famous.

The modern day “Berlin Express” also made a historic transatlantic flight from the U.S. to England with U.S. Air Force Heritage Flight alumnus Lee Lauderback in the cockpit, following the same route it took in 1942 as part of the military troop buildup in the United Kingdom during WWII. The four-day, 5,470-mile journey began June 28, 2017, in Texas and culminated with its landing at Duxford Airfield in England on July 4.

Nearly 80 years after its original landmark moment, the “Berlin Express” will take to the skies with the Horsemen Flight Team in honor of the Italian Air Force’s centennial celebrations in Rome from June 16–18.

Dan Friedkin, who owns “Berlin Express,” will fly the historic aircraft and perform in the Pratica di Mare Air Show on the right wing alongside his longtime Horsemen Flight Teammates Jim Beasley, Jr. and Ed Shipley.

“The ‘Berlin Express’ is an iconic aircraft that symbolizes a defining period in the history of aerial combat,” said Dan Friedkin, chairman and CEO of The Friedkin Group, Horsemen Flight Team member and AS Roma football club president and owner. “It’s an honor to fly in the Pratica di Mare Air Show as we pay homage to the brave men and women who have shaped the course of military aviation. We’re excited to offer people around the world the chance to celebrate Aeronautica Militare’s memorable history and look forward to flying our routine for the first time in Rome, a city that holds a special place in my heart.”

Via: Horsemen Flight Team

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