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Helped Turn Tide of World War II : Fighter Plane’s Inventor Feted

Times Staff Writer

To retired pilots, war veterans and aerospace engineers, the sound of a passing P-51 Mustang can be awe-inspiring. The rumble from the engines rolls by in waves, suggesting strength and speed.

“That was the sound of World War II,” said an observer at a Saturday afternoon gathering honoring Edgar Schmued, the plane’s designer. “The (P-51) is Schmued’s legacy. God knows how many lives it saved.”

Schmued, 85, died June 1 in Oceanside after more than 50 years in the American aerospace industry. A German immigrant who left his homeland after World War I, he is best known as the father of a fighter plane that helped turn the tide of World War II by out-flying and out-fighting every German plane in the air.

‘Missing Man’ Formation Tribute

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On Saturday, a runway at Van Nuys Airport was filled for a time with the roar of that legacy as Schmued’s peers and relatives gathered to pay their respects.

The ceremony in the hangar of the Clay Lacy Aviation complex ended as five of the Mustang fighters swooped low over the airport, with a sixth abruptly pulling out, creating a “missing man” formation. A few minutes before, the pilot of the “missing” plane had scattered Schmued’s ashes over the Pacific Ocean.

The ceremony was organized by a local chapter of the Confederate Air Force, an international flight organization largely devoted to the preservation of aging fighter planes. It was staged with the help of six current owners of the now-classic planes.

Beginning about 1 p.m., a crowd of 150 gathered in a hangar at the complex, where a series of speakers talked about the designer and his work. The speakers included engineers who had worked with Schmued in early 1940, when he labored to find an antidote for the vaunted Nazi Luftwaffe, pilots who had tested the plane and others who had flown it in combat.

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“It was the best airplane in the skies, anywhere in the world, during World War II,” noted test pilot Chuck Yeager wrote in a letter read at the ceremony. “There are a lot of us who owe our necks to the design and performance that Ed put into that airplane.”

Team Worked Feverishly

There was talk of how Schmued and his design team worked feverishly to complete plans for the plane, while Luftwaffe bombers threatened to destroy Great Britain. Rushed into production in barely four months, the plane quickly became England’s main line of defense and later a leading escort plane on Allied bombing runs.

Fittingly, the tributes were delivered in view of six of the Mustang fighter planes, all but one of them painted with American insignias and bearing nicknames like “Minuteman” and “Man-O-War.”

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“It’s hard to believe they’re more than 40 years old,” said retired fighter pilot Donald Rodenwald, as the ceremony ended. “It makes me giddy to hear them. We thank God Schmued was around to do it.”


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