Edgar Schmüd was born in Hornbach, Germany, on 30 December 1899. His father Heinrich Schmüd was an Austrian, so Edgar inherited Austrian citizenship until he would finally adopt the American one. At the age of eight, he first saw an aircraft in flight and decided that aviation was to be his life's work. Edgar embarked early on a rigorous program of self-study to become an engineer and later served an apprenticeship in a small engine factory. In his spare time, he continued the self-study of aviation. In World War I, he served in the Austro-Hungarian Aviation Troops as a mechanic. Schmued left his native Bavaria for Brazil in 1925, seven years after World War I had shattered the German economy.
His experience in Germany led to employment with General Aviation, the air branch of General Motors Corporation in São Paulo, Brazil. In 1931, he was sponsored to move to the United States through his excellent work for General Motors in Brazil (immigration rules were extremely strict at that time - he was one of 794 people admitted in the quota) and went straight to work for Fokker Aircraft Corporation of America, an aircraft company that was owned by General Motors and based in New Jersey. There he began his career as an aircraft design engineer. General Motors later sold its air arm and it became the forerunner of North American Aviation.
The talented and inventive Schmued, by now a citizen of the United States, was employed by North American Aviation (NAA) in Dundalk, Maryland. In 1935, North American was relocated to Los Angeles, California, by General Motors. When his wife Luisa proved reluctant to relocate from the East Coast, Schmued joined Bellanca but his time there was short-lived. While travelling to California to work again for North American, the Schmueds were involved in a head-on collision on Route 60. Schmued's wife was killed, while he himself was seriously injured.
After recovering, Schmued went to work for NAA's President James H. "Dutch" Kindelberger in early 1936 as a preliminary design engineer. He was involved in the XB-21 (designing the front turret), creating the NA-50 single-engine fighter for Peru then going on to design work on the NA-62 (later the B-25 Mitchell). Schmued later became Chief of Preliminary Design.
During his long tenure at NAA, Schmued contributed greatly to the design of many aircraft. By far his most famous design was the highly successful P-51 Mustang of World War II. The legend began with a British procurement commission asking NAA to build Curtiss P-40 Kittyhawks under license for the Royal Air Force. Kindelberger asked Schmued "Ed, do we want to build P-40s here?" Schmued had been long awaiting a question like this. His answer began the design process, "Well, Dutch, don't let us build an obsolete aircraft, let's build a new one. We can design and build a better one." His adaptation of the then-new laminar flow wing and other innovations made the P-51 performance outstanding in all respects and its flying qualities superb.
This aircraft was still winning races and setting speed records for piston engine-powered aircraft decades after its production had ended. Although he was renowned as a workaholic at North American, Schmued undertook the design of the Morrow 1-L Victory Trainer in 1941 on an independent contract; it was dubbed the "Mini-Mustang" because of its close resemblance to the P-51.
Fueled by both a striking similarity of the early Mustang and the German Messerschmitt Bf 109 – pilots and ground crews of both sides confused the two aircraft – and Schmued's German origin, an urban legend has grown up, claiming he had once worked for Willy Messerschmitt and that the Mustang was heavily influenced by the Bf 109. Neither claim is true but the urban legend persists. Another myth claims that the abortive Curtiss XP-46 was the basis of the P-51 design.
Schmued was employed by North American Aviation for 22 years. During his tenure, Schmued also designed the F-82 and, the other iconic NAA designs, the F-86 Sabre and F-100 Super Sabre.
After leaving North American in August 1952, Schmued spent five years as Vice President of Engineering for the Northrop Corporation. At Northrop, he recruited a top engineering team he used to develop the successful F-5 Tiger supersonic light fighter and the closely related T-38 trainer.
For these aircraft, Schmued emphasized not only performance, but simplicity, safety, low cost, and long service life. The resulting F-5 Tiger was not only the most cost effective U.S. supersonic fighter, but likely also the most combat effective U.S. air-to-air fighter design in the 1960s and early 1970s. The well regarded and long-lived F-5 and the T-38 aircraft remain in active service as of 2018. The F-5 serves as an adversary aircraft for the US Air Force and Navy in fighter combat training, as well as a front-line fighter in the air forces of more than 20 nations. The T-38 has served as the primary advanced/supersonic trainer for the US Air Force for more than 50 years, a record unequalled by any other aircraft of this class.
Edgar Schmued continued his aircraft design work as an independent consultant following his retirement from Northrop in October 1957. He consulted for the US Department of Defence, allied nations, private companies, and the film industry making aviation-related movies. He worked actively until shortly before his death from a heart condition on 1 June 1985.