The Best Fighter Planes of World War II
The Bf 109, Spitfire, FW 190, P-51, Yak-3, A6M Zero, P-38, F4U and Ki-84
By Chuck Hawks
When I started this project, three methods of approaching the subject came immediately to mind. I could examine the aircraft by year (i.e.: 1939 = Bf 109, 1940 = Spitfire, 1941 = Zero, 1942 = FW 190, 1943 = P 47, 1944 = P 51, 1945 = Me 262), by country of origin (UK, U.S., Ger., Jap., Italy, U.S.S.R.), or by theater (European and Pacific). I chose the latter approach, further subdivided by "early" and "later" periods (Due to the rapid advance of technology, the best fighter early in the war was never the best fighter late in the war).
Some other criteria had to be imposed. To qualify as one of the very best, an airplane had to make a significant impact as an air superiority fighter. For example, the Me 262 jet fighter was arguably the best fighter plane of WW II, particularly deadly against American heavy bombers, but only small numbers ever saw combat and it became operational so late in the war that it had only a minimal impact. So I have chosen to leave it out.
The British Mosquito was built in numbers and had a significant impact on the war, but was most famous as a ground attack and reconnaissance aircraft, rather than as an air superiority fighter; ditto the Typhoon. Neither of those fine planes will be dealt with here.
So the fighters I am going to pick as "best" for their period and theater of war must have: (1) been built in significant numbers and (2) been dominant in the air superiority role. Here are my choices.
European Theater, Early Period
In the European Theater of Operations, early years, there were two absolute standout fighter planes. Both were severely limited in range, but in a dogfight they reigned supreme in the ETO. Of course, I am talking about the British Supermarine Spitfire and the German Messerschmitt Bf 109.
The former was designed by R. J. Mitchell and the latter by Willie Messerschmitt. They were the standout air superiority fighters of the early years of the war in Europe and the leading members of the cast that fought the most famous air battle of them all, the Battle of Britain (not to slight the Hawker Hurricane, designed by Sidney Camm, which actually out numbered the Spitfire on the British side of the famous battle and scored more victories over German airplanes.
Messerschmitt Bf 109
The prototype Messerschmitt 109 first flew in 1935. It was a low wing, all metal monoplane of the type that became the mainstay of all sides in WW II. The Bf 109 was basically the smallest airframe that Willy Messerschmitt could devise attached to the most powerful engine available. This proved to be a very successful formula that could be progressively upgraded.
However, the type was not without flaws. Notable among these were its cramped cockpit, restricted rearward visibility and narrow track undercariage that made ground handling tricky. Another problem that plagued the type throughout its production life was that its control forces became progressively heavier as speed increased. Manuverability was very good at low and medium speed, but deteriorated greatly at high speed. The type's short range was to prove its downfall on both the Western and Eastern Fronts, severely limiting its tactical utility.
The Messerschmitt 109 fighter was flown by many of the top scoring Luftwaffe fighter pilots during WW II. The top fighter pilot of all time, Erich Hartmann (352 victories), and the second highest scoring fighter pilot of all time, Gerhard Barkhorn (301 victories), both flew the Bf 109. So did the first "General of Fighters," Werner Molders (115 victories), and his famous successor in that job, Adolf Galland (104 victories). The top scoring German ace of the Western front, Hans-Joachim Marseille (158 victories), also flew the Bf 109.
By 1937 the Luftwaffe had been equipped with Messerschmitt Bf 109B models, the first production version. The "B" model had a top speed of about 290 m.p.h. It was powered by a 680 h.p., inverted V-12 Jumo 210 engine. The small, fast Messerschmitt fighter first proved its worth in Spain during the Civil War. There the Condor Legion's 109B's quickly proved their superiority over the Russian I-15 and I-16 fighters used by the Communists.
By 1938, the "D" model had arrived. This model had a top speed of about 304 m.p.h. at altitude. Before the end of that year, the German fighter squadrons were entirely equipped with "D" models. During the Blitzkrieg across Poland, Belgium, Holland and France in 1939-40, the 109D bore the brunt of the air fighting and proved to be more than a match for the first line fighters of those nations, quickly achieving aerial superiority. By then, the latest version of the 109D had received the long awaited DB 600 engine and top speed was up to about 320 m.p.h.
The Messerschmitt model that bore the brunt of the subsequent Battle of Britain was the Bf 109E. It started coming into service in 1939 and by 1940 was the front line Luftwaffe fighter. Power for the "Emil" was the Daimler-Benz DB 601A, a supercharged, 12-cylinder inverted Vee engine with fuel injection. It developed 1,100 hp at 2,400 r.p.m. This was one of the finest engines of its time and it gave the "E" a top speed of 354 m.p.h. and a best climb rate of 2,990 ft./min.
The 109E compared very closely in performance to the British Spitfire I and II, the premier British fighters of the Battle of Britain. Its main drawback as a bomber escort was its limited range, which led directly to the British triumph in the Battle. Purely as a fighter, the Bf 109E was second to none.
By the early part of 1941, German squadrons were receiving the Bf 109F, powered by the up rated DB 601N, which incorporated a power boost system for brief emergency use. This engine was nominally rated for 1,200 hp. The "F" model probably represents the high water mark for the 109 fighter. Its more streamlined nose, retractable tail wheel, rounded wing tips (rather than the traditional "clipped" tips of the earlier models), cantilever horizontal stabilizer and 900 r.p.m. 20mm cannon made it, briefly, the best fighter in the air. Maneuverability was enhanced and top speed was up to 382 m.p.h. at 17,000 ft. Best rate of climb was a sizzling 3,640 ft/min. The "F" model was Gerd Barkhorn's favorite model. He is quoted as saying that it was lighter than other 109 variants and could turn and climb "like hell."
The next version, the "G" or Gustav, first appeared at the end of 1942. This was to became the most numerous ME 109 model of all, produced in many variations, but the basic design was starting to show its age. Performance was again up (max. speed slightly over 400 m.p.h. at altitude), but the addition of bigger machine guns and their ammunition, as well as other various improvements for which the airframe was not designed, caused bulges to appear in unlikely places on the cowling of the aircraft (hence its slang name "the bulge"). Power was provided by a bored out DB 601 called the DB 605 and this engine, which had some early reliability problems, was rated at 1,475 hp at takeoff. The Gustav was used on all fronts for the rest of the war, although later models did appear. Not only an air superiority fighter, the Gustav also performed ground attack, bomber destroyer and photo recon missions.
The final Messerschmitt production variant was the "K," deliveries of which began in September of 1944. The "K" was powered by an 1,800 hp DB 605D engine (2000 hp with methanol-water injection) that gave it a top speed of 452 m.p.h. at 19,685 feet. Best climb rate was a sensational 4,820 ft./min. Armament was two 13mm cowl mounted machine guns and one engine mounted 30mm cannon firing through the propeller boss. Two additional 20mm cannons were mounted beneath the wings in the K-4/R4 variant.
The "K" was the final effort to clean up the aerodynamics of the Bf 109 and standardize the factory and field improvements that had appeared in previous models. In this it was similar to the previous "F" model, which it resembled. Gone were the unsightly cowl bulges of the Gustav. The most numerous variant, the "K-4," of which over 700 were produced, featured a pressurized cockpit and the improved visibility "Galland" canopy. It was a formidable fighter, comparable to the best Allied fighters of the period. The "K" was to outlive the Luftwaffe, serving in the Spanish Air Force into the 1960's (by which time it had been re-equipped with Rolls Royce engines!).
The basic specifications of the Bf 109E follow (from The Fighter Aircraft Pocketbook by Roy Cross. For the sake of consistency, subsequent specifications will also be taken from this same source whenever possible).
The other "best" fighter of the early period of the European war was the Spitfire. The Spitfire proved, like the Bf 109, to be a very adaptable airplane and in various versions it served throughout the war. Naturally, most of the famous British aces of WW II flew the Spitfire. These included the top scoring British ace of the war, Group Captain "Johnny" Johnson (38 victories), and the legless ace and hero of the Battle of Britain, Douglas Bader. Bader flew with two artificial limbs and he scored 9 of his 20 kills from a Spitfire cockpit, the balance in Hurricanes.
The prototype Spitfire was built in 1936. Like the Bf 109 and all of the other "best" fighters I will discuss, the Spitfire was an all metal stressed-skin monoplane. This was new technology at that time and many production problems had to be solved, which resulted in considerable delays before the new fighter began reaching RAF squadrons.
The Spitfire was a low drag design that could be progressively improved to keep pace with foreign developments. By all accounts, it was a real pilot's airplane. She proved easy to fly and forgiving, a fighter without vices. This was an important consideration during the war, when pilot training was put into high gear and "stick time" in training reduced.
The first production version of the Spitfire was the Mk. I, which entered squadron service in mid-1938. When the war came in 1939, the RAF insisted in holding the bulk of their modern monoplane fighters in Britain. No Spitfires were sent to France. This proved to be a good decision as, after the fall of France, RAF fighter command could still deploy about 620 Hurricanes and Spitfires to meet the Luftwaffe's 800 Bf 109s.
The main variant of the Spitfire Mk. IA was powered by the famous Rolls Royce V-12 Merlin II engine. This produced 1,230 hp and drove a two bladed wooden propeller, giving the early Spitfire a top level speed of about 360 mph and a best climb rate of 2,530 ft./min. By the time of the battle of Britain, a three-bladed constant speed propeller, which markedly improved climb and acceleration, had been fitted.
Typical armament for this period was 8-.303 cal Browning machine guns, four in each wing. Some Spitfires were armed with a 20mm cannon in each wing, plus a couple of machine guns. These were called Mk. IB's.
Either way, their performance was closely similar to that of the Bf 109E, with the Spitfire being perhaps slightly faster and a little more maneuverable and the Messerschmitt being faster in the dive and with a superior roll rate. The 109 held a performance edge above 20,000 feet.
In 1940 the Mk. II began to appear, replacing the Mk. I in early 1941. The Mk. II was powered by a 1,240 h.p. Merlin XII that gave it a top speed almost identical to the Mk. I (354 mph at 17,550 ft), but a higher rate of climb (3,025 ft./min).
It is worth mentioning that the early Spitfires had SU carburetors, not fuel injection, and the engines would quit for lack of fuel (followed immediately by flooding) if the aircraft pulled negative g's during a maneuver or was flown upside down. This problem was not fully solved until improved pressure carburetors were adopted in 1943 for the late production Mk. V and subsequent models, although the stop-gap "Tilly Orifice," a simple flow restrictor invented by Miss Beatrice (Tilly) Shilling, was retrofitted to ameliorate the problem in early 1941.
Mk. II's were armed with either eight machine guns, or a mix of four machine guns and two cannons. All Spitfires of this period had the signature elliptical plan wings and were (in my opinion) among the most graceful of all fighter planes.
History records that the Spitfires (and Hurricanes) prevailed in the Battle of Britain. Their primary shortcoming was their short range. This was not a problem while they were serving in the interceptor role during the Battle of Britain, but it became a serious fault when the RAF went over to the offensive.
Later marks of Spitfire included the Mk. V of 1941, which for the first time introduced the "universal" wing that could accommodate either machine guns or cannons in various combinations and the option of clipped wing tips to increase the roll rate. The Mk. V had a top speed of up to 374 mph and the best rate of climb was 2,900 ft./min. The Mk. V was produced in large numbers, but was hard pressed by the improved Bf 109F and the new FW 190A. It was a very nice airplane to fly, adequately powerful and responsive; it probably represents the high water mark of Spitfire development.
The next big production model was the Mk. IX, a Mk. V airframe with a new two-stage, two-speed supercharged Merlin 70 engine that developed 1,655 h.p. at 10,000 ft. This new engine was really intended for the new Spitfire Mk. VIII airframe, but the press of events forced its adoption in the older airframe. The result, however, was quite satisfactory. Top speed was raised to 415 m.p.h. at 27,800 ft. The sustained climb rate to 20,000' jumped to 3,509 ft./min.
The Mk. IX started to enter service around the middle of 1942 and proved able to meet the improved German fighters on an essentially equal footing. The Mk. IX was approximately contemporary to the Bf 109G series and, like that fighter, served for the rest of the war.
The Mk VIII finally came along in 1943, incorporating many detail improvements, including better streamlining and a fully retractable tail wheel. Best climb rate was 3,790 ft./min. This version was used mostly in the Far East.
The final major models were the Mk. XIV of 1944 and the Mk. 22 of 1945. The Mk XIV was a Mk VIII airframe with a Rolls Royce Griffon 65 engine, developing 2,050 h.p., good for a top speed at altitude of 448 mph. It drove a five bladed propeller and gave the Mk. XIV an improved service ceiling and enhanced high altitude performance. Best climb rate was up to over 5,000 ft./min. Later Mk XIV's also had a "teardrop" style canopy to improve all-around visibility.
The Mk. XIV was, however, less maneuverable than the earlier models and more of a handful to fly. During Israel's War of Independence against the Arab League in 1948, Israeli fighter pilots flew both Mark IX and Mark XIV Spits and they preferred the Mark IX, because of its superior dog fighting ability.
The Mks. 21, 22 and 24 were the last Spitfires. These were fitted with a teardrop canopy and for the first time the wing was redesigned. The new wing was similar in plan, but was stronger, carried more fuel, housed a longer landing gear (which allowed a larger diameter propeller) and carried four 20mm cannon. Speed was up to 450 mph and best climb rate up to 4,900 ft./min. The Spitfire had reached the end of its long career. The future would belong to more modern fighters, but by this time the war was ending and the jet age had begun. For more about the Spitfire and the Royal Navy's similar Seafire, see my article "The Supermarine Spitfire and Seafire."
Following are the basic specifications for the Spitfire IIA of September 1940.
European Theater, Later Period
After the first couple of years, in the European theater, things become more complicated. During the 1939, 1940, and 1941, the Spitfire and Messerschmitt Bf 109 were clearly the dominant fighters. However, as the war wore on, many new designs entered combat.
In 1942 (really beginning late in 1941) the Focke-Wulf 190 appeared in numbers and immediately established a measure of superiority over the Spitfire Mk. V, already hard pressed by the Bf 109F. In 1942, the first year of the war for the U.S., American P-39 and P-40 fighters were generally out performed by the German Messerschmitt and Focke-Wulf fighters and things looked a bit bleak for the Allies. However, when the Spitfire Mk. IX and the P-38 started to make their presence felt, things began to improve for the Allies.
In the Spring of 1943, the P-47B went into operation in England. The Focke-Wulf 190, up until now the premier fighter in the theater, was suddenly hard pressed by the big American fighter, particularly at high altitude. In mid-1943 the much improved P-38J started to arrive and the pressure on the Germans increased. The arrival at the end of 1943 of the P-51B, the long range escort fighter the Americans so desperately needed, marked the beginning of the end for the Luftwaffe. Able to escort the bombers all the way to Berlin and back, the Mustang left the Luftwaffe no place to regroup and train. The P-51 did to the Luftwaffe what the Bf 109 did not have the range to do to the RAF earlier in the war.
So while all of the above fighters played an important part in the war, it was the P-51 that turned out to be decisive. The Americans could have won their daylight air war over Germany with the improved P-38J and L or P-47D, both of which appeared in 1944, but in fact it was the P-51, more than any other single fighter, that did it. So it seems only fair to examine first the FW 190 and then the P-51 Mustang, as the two successive "bests" of the later part of the European war.
Focke-Wulf FW 190The Focke-Wulf 190 was designed by Kurt Tank and was a nasty surprise to the RAF in September 1941. Only a little over 200 were completed in 1941, but in 1942 1,850 were built, which amounted to about 40% of German single seat fighter production.
The new fighter was powered by a BMW 14-cylinder twin row air-cooled radial engine. This engine put out 1,760 hp and, coupled with the aircraft's forgiving handling qualities, gave the early FW 190A models a measure of superiority over the RAF's Spitfire Mk V, particularly in speed at low and medium altitudes.
Many German aces flew the FW 190. An example would be Gunther Rall, the 3rd highest scoring ace of the War (275 victories). Between 1939 and 1945, Rall flew the Bf 109, the FW 190, the "long nose" FW 190D and the Me 262 jet.
The FW 190 was known as a "pilots airplane," meaning she was a sweet ship to fly, light and easy on the controls (unlike the Bf 109, which was reputedly a handful). Its speed, climb, dive and roll rate were superior to the Spitfire Mk V. There was also excellent armor protection for the pilot. It had a wide track landing gear, which made it much less prone to ground loops than the Bf 109.
The FW 190 was also heavily armed. Typical armament, beginning with the FW 190A-3, was two 7.9mm machine guns in the engine cowling, two Mauser 20mm cannon in the wing roots (each of which could fire 700 rounds per minute, much faster than the equivalent British cannon), plus two slower firing (450 rounds per minute) Oerlikon 20mm cannon farther out in the wings. The total of two machine guns and four 20mm cannon represented a lot of firepower, the most of any contemporary fighter.
The first production Models were the FW 190A-1 and A-2. The FW 190A-3 of early 1942 basically standardized the engine and armament. This was the model that made the FW 190's reputation as a world class air superiority fighter.
Later in 1942 the A-4 model came along. This model had a methanol-water injection system for the engine which boosted power for a 10 minute period on demand and substantially improved performance at the lower altitudes. A new radio was also fitted. Other A-4 models included a night fighter version, and a ground attack version. There was also an extended range version with racks under the wings and fuselage for drop tanks or munitions
The 1943 version was the FW 190A-5. The main change was to move the engine 6 inches foreword in order to allow more flexibility for under wing stores. The primary variants of the A-5 included air superiority, bomber destroyer and ground attack versions. War emergency horsepower was up to 2,050 in the 801D engine.
The A-6 version got a new wing structure and replaced the slower firing outer wing cannons with faster firing Mauser cannons. Performance remained about the same as the A-5. The A-7 again increased firepower by replacing the .32 caliber (8mm) nose machine guns with more powerful 13mm (.51 cal) machine guns.
The FW 190A-8 of 1944 incorporated other improvements, including increased fuel capacity for longer range and an improved power boost system to improve high altitude performance. Speed was 405 m.p.h. at best altitude. Best climb was down to 2,756 ft./min. at 16,100 ft. The basic BMW radial engine had clearly reached its maximum performance limits. What was needed was a new power plant to keep the FW 190 competitive with the latest Allied fighters.
Experiments mating the FW 190 airframe with liquid-cooled Daimler Benz and Junkers inverted V-12 engines had started back in 1941. By 1944 the need for more performance was acute and the FW 190D was the result.
This much altered fighter used the standard Focke-Wulf wings and tail plane with an extended rear fuselage and a longer and heavier Junkers Jumo 213 engine. This brought the top speed up to 436 m.p.h. in the D-9 model (best climb rate was up to 3,642 ft./min.), and 458.5 m.p.h. (at 38,080 ft!) in the D-12 model.
These "long nose" models were reportedly more of a handful to fly, but still handled fairly well. They kept the Focke-Wulf competitive in performance with the best Allied fighters until the end of the war. For more information about the FW 190-series, see my article "The Focke-Wulf FW 190."
The following Specifications are for the famous FW 190A-3 model, of early 1942.
North American P-51 Mustang
Many top E.T.O. aces flew the P-51 Mustang. These included Captain Don Gentile (35 victories), Captain John Godfrey (31 victories), Colonel Eagleston (23 victories), Major James Howard (the only American ace in both theaters of the war--6 victories in China flying P-40's and 6 victories in Europe flying P-51's), Chuck Yeager (who later became the first man to break the sound barrier) and Colonel Donald Blakeslee (15 victories and C.O. of the famous 4th Fighter Group). The 4th FG destroyed over 1,000 German aircraft, more than any other American fighter group in WW II.
The Mustang story began in 1940 when the British contacted North American Aviation with a request to build fighters for the RAF. North American was willing, and they offered to design and build a new fighter that would meet British requirements, and be easy to mass produce. In only 100 days NAA rolled out the first prototype Mustang. By November 1941 the first of over 600 aircraft produced under British contract were delivered to the RAF.
The new fighter incorporated some advanced ideas, in particular a laminar flow wing of thin cross section, which allowed the Mustang to avoid most of the "compressibility" dive problems that plagued many other high performance fighters of the time. Two of the first ten Mustangs built were taken to Wright Field, at Dayton Ohio, for testing by the AAF, which designated them XP-51.
The 1,150 hp. Allison F-series V-12 powered the early Mustang models. This resulted in poor high altitude performance, so the RAF used their Mustang I (P-51) and II (P-51A) models for low altitude ground attack and reconnaissance duties.
The Mustang I had a top speed of 370 m.p.h. at 15,000 ft. Best climb at 11,300 ft. was 1,980 ft./min. An assortment of .30 and .50 caliber machine guns were carried, but the Mustang IA was armed with 4-20mm cannon. Handling and maneuverability were good. Like the FW 190, the P-51 was a pilot's airplane.
P-51A (Mustang II) production was divided between America and Britain. This model standardized armament as 4-.50 cal MG. (two per wing). There were ground attack versions of the P 51A in U.S. service, designated A-36A, which served the AAF in the North African campaign. There were also specialized photo reconnaissance versions of all major Mustang models, the F-6 series.
The decision was made to mass produce the outstanding Merlin engine under license in the United States. The P-51B and C models (Mustang III's in Britian), which entered service in December of 1943, were powered by the new Packard-built version of the Merlin V-12, driving a four bladed propeller. At the same time, the airframe was strengthened, the radiator was re-designed, the ailerons were improved, and racks for long range drop tanks or bombs were added under the wings.
The 1,450 hp. Packard/Merlin engine (1,595 hp. war emergency rating) gave the P-51B-7 a top speed of 445 m.p.h. Best climb was 3,320 ft./min. at 10,000 ft. The new Mustang carried 4-.50 caliber MG (two per wing), and up to 1,000 lbs. of external stores. Its range was an astounding 2,200 miles with two 150 gal. drop tanks. Endurance with drop tanks was 8.7 hours.
The new engine completely changed the character of the Mustang, turning it into a high altitude fighter suitable for bomber escort missions. It came at a crucial moment for the AAF daylight bombing campaign. Luftwaffe fighters were taking such a toll of un-escorted heavy bombers that the losses were becoming unsupportable. The great range of the P-51B-7 allowed it to escort the heavy bombers all the way to their targets deep inside Germany. In March of 1944, Mustangs went to Berlin. Eighth Air Force bomber losses plummeted, while Luftwaffe fighter losses skyrocketed.
Later in 1944 the famous P-51D model arrived. It sported a "tear drop" canopy for better all around vision and a more powerful 1,790 hp. version of the Packard/Merlin engine, along with many detail improvements. The armament was increased to 6-.50 caliber wing MG and all manner of external stores could be carried. Recognition of the D model is easy because of its teardrop canopy and the large fillet fin added in front of the vertical stabilizer. For the Luftwaffe, the end was at hand.
The final major production version of the Mustang was the P-51H. This re-designed model incorporated major improvements, as extensive in scope as those incorporated into the FW 190D or Spitfire Mk. 22.
In the H model, the structure was increased in strength by 10%, to allow higher "g" loads in combat maneuvers. No structural part was left in common with earlier models. Streamlining was improved to increase speed and stability was increased. A new version of the Packard/Merlin, incorporating water injection, delivered over 2000 hp. These changes resulted in the finest American fighter of the war. Speed was 486 m.p.h. at 30,000 ft. best climb rate was 5,350 ft./min. at 5,000 ft. Service ceiling was 41,600 ft.
Unlike most other American piston engine fighters, which were withdrawn from service soon after the end of WW II, the Mustang fought on, doing valuable ground support work in the Korean War. It was adopted by many other nations, too numerous to list here, and remained in service in some countries into the 1960's. For more information about the Mustang, see my article "The North American P-51 Mustang." The following specifications are for the famous D model of 1944.
The final "best" air superiority fighter of the later period of the war in Europe was the Yakovlev Yak-3. Many top Soviet aces flew the Yak series of fighters, which started with the rather primitive Yak-1 and evolved into the Yak-3 air superiority and Yak-9 general purpose fighters. (See the article "The Yakovlev Yak-9" for more details about the latter model.) The Yak-9 was produced in greater numbers than any other Allied fighter of WW II, but it is the contemporary Yak-3 that was regarded as the best dogfighter on the ETO Eastern Front.
Although a program to develop the smallest and lightest fighter possible around the proposed 1,600+ hp M-107 V-12 engine was begun in 1941, due to delays in engine development and shifts in Soviet priorities, the Yak-3 did not enter service until mid-1944. Compared to the original Yak-1, the new fighter incorporated reduced drag, an all-around vision canopy, a structurally improved airframe and a new wing of reduced span and area. In the event, the intended M-107 motor was not available in time, so the 1,300 hp M-105 was substituted. Nevertheless, the Yak-3 was about 30 mph faster than the contemporary (and heavier) Yak-9.
The Yak-3's greatest asset was its tight turning radius. It was a highly maneuverable fighter that offered excellent performance below about 20,000 feet and it could turn inside of a Bf 109 or FW 190; at one point the German fighter command issued a directive instructing their fighter pilots not to dogfight with Yak fighters lacking an air scoop under the engine. (The absence of this front scoop being the key Yak-3 recognition feature.) The Yak-3 was not a particularly difficult fighter to fly, but it required a skilled pilot to take full advantage of its fighting potential. In such hands, it became an air superiority fighter second to none.
By the time production ceased in May 1945, 4,848 Yak-3 fighters had been built. Following are specifications for the Yak-3.
Pacific Theater, Early Period
We now turn our attention to the best fighters in the Far East/Pacific theater of the War. In the early years, there can be only one choice. The Japanese "Zero", officially the Mitsubishi A6M5, or Imperial Japanese Navy Type 0 carrier-borne fighter.
Mitsubishi A6M Zero
At the beginning of the Pacific War no Allied fighter was a match for the Zero. The best of the early American Army fighters was probably the Curtiss P-40 and the early models of this fighter were distinctly inferior to the Zero.
Most of the Imperial Navy's top aces flew the Zero. Prominent among them is Saburo Sakai (with 64 victories), the top scoring Japanese ace to survive the war and Hiroyoshi Nishizawa (actual total of victories unknown, but 104 confirmed), perhaps the greatest of them all. Shoichi Sugita had 120+ victories, Tadashi Nakajima 75+ and Naoishi Kanno 53.
Not only could the Zero out fight any Allied fighter, it also out-ranged them. Many people do not realize that the Zero was the world's first long range escort fighter. Zeros flew long range bomber escort missions during the war in China, before the Pacific war even began. If the Germans had the long range A6M2 Zero instead of the short range Bf 109E, the outcome of the Battle of Britain might have been very different. As well known as the Zero is, its importance is still under rated by most people.
The Zero was designed by Jiro Horikoshi to fulfill Japanese Navy requirements for great range, rapid climb, high speed, and above all superior maneuverability. In order to get them, the Zero was designed with a very low wing loading; pilot armor and self sealing fuel tanks were dispensed with to save weight. Japanese fighter pilots gladly gave up such safety features in order to achieve a fighter with superior agility.
The Zero's performance fell off at high altitudes, but early in the war the American fighters that opposed it were even worse in that regard. At low and medium altitudes, nothing could touch the Zero.
The first production version of the Zero was the A6M2 Model 11, of 1940. This had a Nakajima Sakae 12 engine, a 14-cylinder air cooled radial that developed 950 hp. at 13,800 ft. The A6M2 had a top speed of 316 m.p.h. at 16,400 ft., and a range of 1,265 miles on internal fuel. With an under fuselage drop tank, the range was extended to 1,930 miles. The standard armament was 2-7.7mm MG in the engine cowling, and 2-20mm cannon in the wings. Wingspan was 39 ft. 5 in.
The similar Model 21 had folding wing tips for aircraft carrier use. This was the model on board the Japanese carriers at the beginning of the Pacific War on December 7, 1941.
The next main version of the Zero was the A6M3, which appeared late in 1942. This version was powered by an up rated 1,130 hp. Sakae 21 radial engine, with a two stage supercharger that improved high altitude performance. Top speed was increased to 336 m.p.h. at 19,865 ft. Best climb rate was 4,500 ft./min. Armament and range remained about the same.
The A6M3 Model 32 had clipped wing tips, achieved by removing the folding wing tips of the carrier model. This was intended to improve the roll rate, which was inferior to that of American fighters. This model also had reduced internal fuel capacity (down to 134 gal. from the 156 gal. capacity of the A6M3 Model 22). The Zero was beginning to show its age, and its performance was being eclipsed by the latest Allied fighters.
The reduced wing span (36 ft. 2 in.) of the Model 32 was carried over to the next model, the A6M5 of 1943. This model had the improved Sakai 31 engine with ejector exhaust stacks to augment thrust, the reduced wing span of the Model 32 (but with the familiar rounded shape of earlier Zeros), plus heavier wing skin. Speed was now up to 358 m.p.h. and dive limit speed to 410 m.p.h. Best climb rate was 3,340 ft./min. The A6M5a had an improved wing cannon, carried more ammunition and the dive limiting speed was raised to 460 m.p.h. These models still lacked any protection for the pilot, or even an emergency release for the canopy.
The A6M5b of 1944 finally addressed some of these problems. It had an armored glass windshield, automatic fire extinguishers for the fuel tanks and 12.7mm MG replacing the previous 7.7mm MG. By this time the overall performance of the Zero had fallen well below that of its major adversaries, the P-38J Lightning, P-47 Thunderbolt, F6F Hellcat, P-51 Mustang and F4U Corsair.
The final version of the Zero was the A6M8c of 1945, which just reached production as the war ended. A new 1,560 hp. Kinsei 62 radial engine provided a top speed of 355 m.p.h. at 19,680 ft. and an improved climb rate.
By then, the Zero had fallen hopelessly behind in overall performance and more modern Japanese fighters were at last in production. However, the Zero remained the ultimate "turn and burn" dogfighter of the war. A total of 10,936 Zero fighters of all types were produced. More of the Zero story can be found in my article "The Mitsubishi A6M Zero." The specifications that follow are for the A6M5 Model 52 of 1943.
Pacific Theater, Later period
During the latter half of the Pacific War, as has already been alluded to, American fighter planes caught and then surpassed the Japanese Navy's A6M Zero fighter (and also the Japanese Army's equivalent Ki-43) in most performance parameters. However, the Imperial Army introduced one of the outstanding fighters of WW II in response to a specification issued in 1942 for a fast, long range fighter to replace the Ki-43. The result was the Nakajima Ki-84 Hayate, produced from April 1944 until the end of the war.
The top land based U.S. Army Air Force fighter in the Pacific was the Lockheed P-38 Lightning. This big twin engine fighter had the range, firepower, and speed to dominate the skies in the theater. The number one American ace, Major Richard Bong (40 victories), flew the Lightning, as did the number two American ace Major Thomas McGuire (38 victories). The P-38 also made a major contribution in the European theater, but the extremely high altitude combat taking place over the continent was not really the best environment for the P-38's Allison engines. In the Pacific, the Japanese did not normally operate at extreme altitudes, and the P-38 really came into its own.
U. S. Navy and Marine pilots flew different airplanes, of course, and they had two of the best in the Pacific. One of these was the Chance Vought F4U Corsair. (The other, of course, was the Hellcat, which is covered in a separate article.) The Corsair is the famous fighter with inverted gull wings. The German Stuka dive bomber also had inverted gull wings, and it is the only other famous combat aircraft of WW II I can think of that did. The Corsair was so big and fast that until the end of 1944 the Navy used it entirely as a land based fighter. Finally, though, it was approved for carrier operations. By then aces like Marine Major "Pappy" Boyington (28 victories, and the first man to break Eddie Rickenbacker's WW I record of 26) had made the Corsair fighter famous.
Lockheed P-38 Lightning
Let's take a look at the P-38 Lightning first. The P-38 shot down more Japanese aircraft than any other USAAF fighter in WW II. It was flown by both of the top American aces of the war. Its incredible range became legendary, and its twin engines particularly suited it for long over water flights.
The P-38 story started in January 1937, when the Army Air Corps issued a specification for a new pursuit plane for the "interception and attack of hostile aircraft at high altitude". The government anticipated an order for a maximum of 50 planes, so suitability for mass production was not a consideration. Lockheed was one of the companies that entered the competition to design and build the new fighter.
H. L. Hibard and Clarence "Kelly" Johnson were assigned the job of primary design. Johnson realized that no existing engine could provide enough power to meet the government specification, and began a series of single seat, twin engine fighter designs. The new Allison V-1710 engine was chosen by the Lockheed design team to power the new fighter.
The final layout of the new twin engine fighter (called the Model 22 by Lockheed) incorporated turbo superchargers, counter rotating props, twin tail booms, and a central fuselage for the pilot. It also had a tricycle landing gear and a control wheel (later yoke) instead of a stick.
The nose of the central fuselage was used to mount the very effective armament of 1-20mm cannon and 4-.50 cal. MG. There was no need for an interrupter gear to shoot through a propeller and no need to "converge" wing guns.
In June 1937, the Army notified Lockheed that their design had won the competition, and authorized Lockheed to build one prototype airplane, designated the XP-38. In late December 1938 the prototype was ready to fly. It was the most streamlined plane ever seen, built with flush riveted external panels butted together. Stainless steel was used extensively in its construction.
That first XP-38 proved to be capable of a level speed of 413 m.p.h. and had a terrific climb rate. Unfortunately, the first prototype crashed only 16 days after its first flight. It was written off during a record setting cross-country flight that ended with the AAF pilot landing short of the runway. Tony LeVier (Lockheed Chief Test Pilot) later estimated that disaster set the P-38 program back nearly two years.
In April 1939 the Air Corps ordered 13 YP-38 airplanes for testing. In September 1939, the Army ordered 66 more for service. In August 1940 over 600 more P-38s were ordered. At that time, Lockheed had not even delivered the first YP-38!
As alluded to earlier, the P-38 was not designed for mass production. Many serious engineering and production problems had to be solved before the Lightning could be produced in quantity.
The P-38 was one of the first airplanes fast enough to encounter "compressibility" (more properly called shock stall) problems in the high altitude, high speed dive. The basic problem was that in a sustained dive from high altitude, speed quickly built up to the point that the airflow over parts of the airplane (such as the upper surface of the wing) reached supersonic speeds. A shock wave is formed. This destroys the lift over that part of the wing. It also causes the air flowing off the wing to affect the tail in an unusual manner: it increases lift at the tail.
This loss of lift from the wings, coupled with increased lift from its tail, causes the nose of the airplane to go down. This increased dive angle causes the speed to increase farther. And so on, in a vicious and often fatal circle.
The P-38 was not the only American fighter to encounter this effect in dives from very high altitudes (where the air is thin), the P-47 and F4U both suffered the same problem. But the P-38 was different. The big radial engine fighters would dive uncontrollably toward the earth until they reached the thicker air at lower altitudes. There two things happened: 1. The speed of sound goes up as the altitude gets lower; 2. The increased drag of the thick air on their large frontal surfaces would tend to limit further speed increases. Finally the pilot would begin to regain some control and, pulling back as hard as he could on the stick, would typically wind up in a screaming zoom climb.
The P-38 differed because of its extremely streamlined design. Its drag was so low that the thicker lower air often did not have enough effect for the pilot to regain control in time: the P-38 just dove straight into the ground.
Lockheed and the Air Corps lost a number of test pilots and aircraft trying to understand and solve these problems. The P-38 had taken them into flight regimes at best poorly understood at that time. The eventual solution included counter balancing and raising the tail of the airplane some 30 inches, and developing high speed dive flaps to control the rate of descent.
Lockheed produced dive flap kits to retro-fit to planes in the field, but it was not until they began producing the P-38J-25-LO model that dive flaps were incorporated in the new aircraft coming off the assembly line. A brief description of four of the major P-38 combat models follows.
The P-38F went into production in March 1942, and into combat in the Pacific in December, where it reversed the fortunes of AAF fighter pilots facing the previously unbeatable Zero. The "F" had a 1,325 hp. Allison engine. Top speed was 395 m.p.h. at 25,000 ft.
P-38G models had strengthened Fowler flaps which could be used at combat speeds up to 250 m.p.h. to tighten the turning radius. The engines developed an extra 100 hp. Production began in August 1942.
The P-38J went into production in mid-1943. It incorporated many improvements, including more powerful engines, improved superchargers, relocation of the intercoolers from the leading edge of the wings to beneath the nose of the engines, a bulletproof windscreen, and, at the J-25-LO model, the factory installed dive flaps. Speed was up to 426 m.p.h., and best climb to 3,900 ft./min. The "J" would climb to 20,000 ft. in 5.9 minutes.
The P-38L of 1944 was the final and best Lightning, a world beating fighter. It incorporated many of the improvements of the "J" and "K" models. For more information about the P-38, read my article "The Lockheed P-38 Lightning." Specifications of the P-38L-5-LO follow.
Chance Vought F4U Corsair
The Chance Vought F4U Corsair is my other "best" Pacific theater fighter. This big, fast, Navy and Marine fighter was designed in 1938 around the new Pratt and Whitney R-2800-2 Double Wasp engine, which promised to be the most powerful in the world at that time. It was a twin row 18 cylinder radial engine that produced some 1,850 HP in its initial version.
The most distinctive feature of the Corsair is its "cranked" or inverted gull wing. This feature was designed to raise nose of the airplane higher off the ground without unduly lengthening the undercarriage. The reason was to allow the use of the largest possible diameter propeller in order to make most efficient use of the engine's high power. It also allowed the wing's hinge point to be a little closer to the ground, and the tips consequently a little lower when folded, giving a little more hanger deck roof clearance on board aircraft carriers. The propeller selected was a three-bladed Hamilton-Standard Hydromatic constant speed model.
The prototype XF4U-1 was delivered to the Navy in 1940, where it became the first Navy fighter to exceed 400 MPH in level flight and also to encounter shock stall, as described in the P-38 section above. This insidious problem affected the first generation of fighters to achieve high mach numbers in a dive, including the P-38, F4U and P-47.
The Corsair F4U-1 was ordered into production in the Autumn of 1941. It reached the Marines fighting to hold Guadalcanal, in the Solomon Islands, in February of 1943, where it went operational for the first time with Marine Squadron 124.
The Marines found that the big Corsair at last gave them superiority over the Zero, as long as they did not try to turn with the lighter Japanese fighter. The Corsair was much faster than the Zero, had a better roll rate, and could dive away to safety when necessary. Corsair pilots established a very satisfactory kill ratio and helped turn the tide of war against the Japanese. The F4U-1 had a top speed of 393 m.p.h. at 25,000 ft. Water injection was eventually added to the engine, raising the top speed to 415 m.p.h.
The Corsair was continuously modified and improved. By 1945 over 3000 minor and major improvements had been made. The definitive Corsair was the F4U-4.
Major improvements evident in the F4U-4 included a four-bladed Hamilton Standard Hydromatic propeller, a new cockpit layout, a clear view sliding hood, a two stage turbo-supercharged engine, and under wing attachment points for rockets or bombs.
Unlike most American piston engine fighters, the Corsair continued to serve long after the end of WW II. Production did not finally end until 1953, by which time about 12,500 F4U's of all types had been built.
Interviews conducted after the war revealed that Japanese fighter pilots considered the Corsair to be the best all-around American fighter. The Corsair subsequently served in the Korean War, and with the French in Indochina (Vietnam). It also served as a carrier based fighter with the British Royal Navy during and after the war. For more information about the Corsair see my article "The Chance Vought F4U Corsair." Specifications for the F4U-4 follow.
Nakajima Ki-84 Hayate
Generally considered the best Japanese fighter of the war and equal or superior to the best Allied fighters, the Ki-84 Hayate (Hurricane or Storm) was Nakajima Hikoki KK's response to a set of specifications promulgated early in 1942 by the Imperial Japanese Army for a fast, long range, multi-purpose fighter to replace the increasing obsolescent Ki-43 and the later Ki-44. A top speed of 640-680 km/hr (398-420 mph) was desired, along with substantial endurance, a stronger airframe, pilot armor, self-sealing fuel tanks and a heavy armament of 2-20mm cannons and 2-.50 caliber machine guns. The power plant was to be the Nakajima Ha-45 19-cylinder radial engine, expected to develop around 1,800 HP.
Nakajima accepted the challenge and the result was the prototype Ki-84, which appeared in March 1943. The Ki-84's big radial engine was closely cowled and the prop was fitted with a large spinner, rather like the FW-190, with a large oil cooler carried in a fairing beneath the engine cowling. The engine's 18 cylinders had individual, thrust augmenting, exhaust stubs. The two .50 caliber machine guns were located in the cowling above the motor and the 20mm cannon were mounted in the wings outside of the propeller arc. In addition, hard points allowed for carrying extra fuel in drop tanks or a 550 pound bomb beneath each wing. The pilot benefited from excellent all-around vision provided by a streamlined greenhouse canopy. A wide-track landing gear that retracted inward simplified take-offs, landings and ground handling.
The potential of the new fighter was immediately realized and the Army ordered a large number of pre-production aircraft for in-service testing. By April 1944 the Ki-84 was in series production as the Army Type 4 Fighter Model 1A (Ki-84-1a), replacing the earlier Ki-44 on the assembly lines. A total of 3,514 Ki-84 fighters were completed by the end of the war in two Japanese and one Manchurian factory. Manchurian production amounted to something like 94 aircraft, all built in 1945, and these were labeled "Ki-84-1s." Deleting the 12.7mm machine guns and increasing the armament to 4-20mm cannon resulted in the model Ki-84-1b. A further increase in armament to 2-20mm and 2-30mm cannon, designed to counter the B-29 heavy bombers that were by then pillaging Japan, became the Ki-84-1c. Few of the 1b and 1c models were ever built, the great majority of production being the Ki-84-1a variant.
In service, production Ki-84's were hampered by shortages of raw materials (particularly lightweight metals), shoddy assembly, poor quality control (Japanese aircraft production facilities were by then under unrelenting attack by American air power and few skilled workers remained), shortages of high octane gas, a lack of well trained pilots and poor maintenance in the field. Even so, the Ki-84 (code named "Frank") was highly respected by the Allied fighter pilots who faced it in the skies over Manchukuo, China, Formosa, Okinawa, the Philippines and Japan.
After the war a captured K1-84-1a was brought to the U.S. and extensively tested. Air Force pilots found that this aircraft, properly maintained and supplied with good aviation gas, was capable of 426 mph at 20,050 feet carrying a full fighter load of 7,505 lbs. This was slightly faster than either the P-51D or P-47D tested in identical conditions, the fastest American piston-engined fighters of the war. However, the Ki-84's performance fell off at high altitudes. This aircraft was eventually returned to Japan, where it is now on display.
Compared to the other great WW II propeller driven fighters, the Ki-84 was an excellent air superiority fighter that could match the best in the world at low and medium altitudes. It was competitive with the best energy fighters in "boom and zoom" and capable of winning dogfights ("turn and burn") against the Ki-44, Raiden, Bf-109, FW-190, P-51, P-47, P-38, La-5, La-7 and Corsair. It generally out-performed the fighters equal or superior to itself in maneuverability (principally the Ki-43, Zero, Spitfire, Hurricane, P-40, Wildcat, Hellcat and Yak 3), making it a difficult antagonist for any contemporary piston-engined fighter. Specifications for the Ki-84-1a follow.
That's it, my picks for the best fighter planes of World War II. Nine excellent air superiority fighters that saw widespread sevice.
Copyright 1997, 2016 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.