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Aces of Aviation

North American P-51B Mustang of Dominic S. Gentile

North American P-51B Mustang of Dominic S. Gentile

North American P-51B Mustang from the 336th Fighter Squadron of the 4th Fighter Group of the USAF (United States Air Force), piloted by Captain Dominic S. Gentile in April 1944.

Wingspan: 11.89 meters.

Length: 9.83 meters.

Height: 2.64 meters.

Engine[s]: Packard Merlin V-1650 of 1400 horsepower.

Maximum speed: 708 kilometers/hour.

Service ceiling: 12800 meters.

Range: 3540 kilometers.

Armament: Four Browning M2 12.7-millimeter machine guns; maximum bomb load of 907 kilograms.

"Don" Gentile, one of the most colorful American pilots of the Second World War, was officially credited with a combat record of 28 German aircraft destroyed (which includes some grounded aircraft). Born the 12th June 1920 in Piqua, Ohio, from Italian parents, Gentile learnt to fly an aircraft while he was still in the school. He arrived to England in September 1940, when the Battle of Britain was in progress, to join the Royal Air Force as an enthusiastic but inexperienced volunteer.

Thereafter Gentile was sent to Canada to receive additional training, returning to England in December 1941 and being destined, six months later, to the 133th "Eagle" Squadron based in Debden. Piloting the Spitfire Mark V, he took part in aerial skirmishes during the Landing of Dieppe, the 19th August 1942, claiming the destruction of a Junkers Ju 88 and a Focke-Wulf Fw 190, albeit it seems that this latter managed to flee. Gentile was then awarded the British Distinguished Flying Cross.

After the incorporation of the three Eagle Squadrons into the United States Air Force - where they became the 334th, 335th and 336th Fighter Squadron of the 4th Fighter Group -, Gentile was part of the 336th Squadron. He did not achieve any confirmed victory while piloting the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt (except one shared with another pilot in the destruction of a Junkers Ju 88 in December 1943) until the 5th January 1944, when his machine guns downed a Fw 190 over Netherlands. The 14th January he downed another two Fw 190 over Compiègne, but all of his future victories would be achieved while piloting the North American P-51B Mustang, the fighter with which the 4th Fighter Group began to be re-equipped the following month.

Gentile's P-51B was nicknamed "Shangri-La" and became one of the most famous aircraft of its type, as its flamboyant pilot began a personal crusade to beat the record of 26 victories established in 1918 by Eddie Rickenbacker. His first victory with the "Shangri-La" fell upon a Fw 190, downed the 25th February during an incursion over Germany, while American bombers attacked Augsburg, Regensburg and Stuttgart. During March Gentile accumulated more than half of his total record, beginning with the downing of a Dornier Do 217 and a Messerschmitt Bf 109 between Berlin and Hamburg. The 8th day he downed four Bf 109 and another aircraft, whose victory was shared, during a long round trip flight to Berlin. Then he claimed a Fw 190 the 18th day, two Bf 109 the 23rd day, over Braunschweig, and two Fw 190 and a Bf 109 the 29th day, again over Braunschweig.

During April more German fighters fell victim of Gentile's machine guns: a Bf 109 the 1st April and two Fw 190 one week later. The 11th April General Eisenhower visited Debden and awarded the United States Distinguished Flying Cross to Gentile and to Colonel Donald J. M. Blakeslee. That day, the 4th Fighter Group became that with the highest record of the United States 8th Air Force, with a total of 405.5 victories, being Gentile the recordman.

However, two days later Gentile committed a capital sin, as he performed forbidden ground-skimming acrobacies over Debden, while his Group Commander witnessed the reckless action. The Mustang aircraft hit the ground and broke its dorsal part, but Gentile was fortunate enough to escape the accident on his own feet. As Gentile was summarily tried by Blakeslee and sent to his country, he would never again take part in a combat. After the war, he continued his career as a Test Pilot, but found his death the 28th January 1951 when his aircraft, a Lockheed T-33 turbojet trainer, crashed near Andrews airbase, in Maryland.

In the following photograph "Don" Gentile poses with his legendary P-51B "Shangri-La", which he piloted from February to the 13th April 1944, when the aircraft was broken while performing the aforementioned forbidden acrobatics over Debden airbase, which were meant to be filmed by the cameras of a newsreel. While piloting this aircraft Gentile was credited with 16.5 victories. The count is depicted beneath the canopy as little Iron Cross symbols.

North American P-51B Mustang of Dominic S. Gentile