The Super Warbirds of World War II
(Includes Bf 109K, F4U-4, FW-190D, Ki-84, P-38L, P-51D)
By Chuck Hawks
This little piece is about the late war "ueber" fighters. These are among the supreme air superiority fighters of the war. They are all fast with lots of power (generally around 2000 HP), good acceleration and a high sustained rate of climb. All accelerated very quickly in a dive, sometimes to speeds that approached the transonic and became dangerous for propeller driven aircraft. All provided a reasonable level of pilot protection with such niceties as bullet resistant windscreens, armored seat backs and self-sealing gas tanks, features lacking in several early war fighters. Pilot visibility is generally good to excellent across the board. Most of all, they all had to be handled with finesse; they tended to punish heavy-handed pilots in ways that lower performance aircraft did not.
The P-38, P-51 and Ki-84 added great range to their list of assets. They had the range to escort bombers on deep penetration missions or to appear in places where they were not expected, sometimes a great tactical advantage.
They all have good firepower, at least for shooting down other fighter planes. Germany, in particular, had to emphasize the ability to shoot down heavy bombers after about mid-1943. So did Japan, after the initiation of heavy B-29 raids on their homeland late in the war. Both Axis nations tended toward 20mm (and very late in the war, 30mm) canons for their primary interceptor armament, usually backed by a pair of .50 caliber machine guns. Blowing huge bombers out of the sky was not a primary consideration for most American fighter planes of that era, which settled on 6-.50 caliber machine guns as the de-facto standard fighter plane armament. This proved quite effective against all Axis fighter planes and there were no Axis heavy bombers.
These super fighters are rather evenly matched. Every one of the fighters mentioned in the title of this article would have been perfectly capable of shooting down any of the others in a favorable tactical situation and every one could fall victim to any of the others in an unfavorable tactical situation. They were all excellent fighters if handled well and fought intelligently. They are all modeled in the Warbirds simulator (www.totalsims.com), so you can discover this for yourself, at home, on your computer. They are, however, far from the easiest Warbirds airplanes to master.
No fighter plane is perfect, of course. All aircraft are a compromise, a blend of often-contradictory characteristics, and all successful fighter pilots must learn to fly within the performance envelope of their plane. You had to be careful diving some of these birds, particularly the P-38 Lightning models prior to the installation of dive brakes (P-38J-25-LO) and all Ki-84 versions. It was not fun to shed a wing or the tail in a high speed dive! The P-51 and Ki-84 were a little less resistant to damage than the others. The long-nose FW 190D, in particular, was no fun to take-off and land and the F4U Corsair was no fun to land on an aircraft carrier, although it was no harder to take-off and land on a runway than, say, a P-51. All of the super fighters except the P-38 had a lot of torque steer (2000 HP comes at a price), for which the pilot had to compensate for during takeoff or any sudden application of power.
Of course, any of these super fighters could fall prey to a less exotic, but usually more maneuverable, fighter in certain scenarios. The Mitsubishi A6M Zero, for example, remained a champion "turn and burn" dog fighter throughout the war. Even the pilot of a super fighter would want to avoid such a fight with a Zero. Another classic dog fighter was the Supermarine Spitfire, particularly the optimized Mk. V version introduced in 1941. Lightly wing loaded, these sweet handling, tight turning, "knife fight in a phone booth" type fighter planes lacked the top speed and sustained climb rate to rank as overall ueber fighters, but they were excellent in a dog fight.
The Japanese Ki-61 and Soviet Yak-3 deserve honorable mention for excellence in air-to-air combat. These were dangerous opponents for any pilot, even of a late war super fighter.
Following are some basic specifications for and comments about these ueber fighters.The specifications that follow were taken primarily from the books World War II Combat Aircraft (by Angelucci, Matricardi and Pinto), the Fighter Aircraft Pocketbook (by Cross) and The Complete Book of Fighters (by Green and Swanborough). As usual, the specifications from different sources contain differences, since all airplanes, even of the same model, are individuals. This is something we simply have to accept and live with.
Chance-Vought F4U-4 Corsair
The F4U was the fastest of the USN's fighters and among the fastest of all WW II piston-engined fighters. Like the Mustang and the Focke-Wulf 190 Dora, the Corsair could usually run away from trouble if the situation demanded. The F4U-4 was the fully developed version of the WW II Corsair, with a Malcolm type canopy and a four-bladed propeller. After the war, surviving Japanese fighter pilots voted the Corsair as the best all-around Allied fighter that they faced.
At one point in 1943, when the Luftwaffe was able to maintain air superiority against the American P-38's and P-47's over France and Germany and shoot down an unacceptable number of American daylight bombers, the very high performance of the F4U made the US War Department consider using it as a land based fighter in the European Theatre. The Army Air Force was not anxious to adopt a Navy fighter and declined the early F4U-1 model of the Corsair on the basis of restricted pilot visibility. Later models, such as the definitive F4U-4, had excellent visibility except for an arc directly aft. The Corsair did not have the extreme range capability of the P-38 and the P-51, but its blend of high speed and maneuverability would have made it difficult for the German FW 190 and Bf 109 pilots to handle.
The Corsair's high landing speed of nearly 100 MPH and 77 MPH stalling speed made it difficult to land on the aircraft carriers of the period, so the Marines got most of the early Corsairs, while Navy carrier based fighter pilots had to make do with F6F Hellcats until well into 1944. Late in the war, when the large Essex class aircraft carriers constituted the backbone of the fast carrier task forces, the Navy started re-equipping their carrier based fighter units with Corsairs. Landing on airfields was much less of a problem and, in fact, the F4U-4 was not particularly difficult for an experienced fighter pilot to get on and off the ground.
After the war, the Navy rapidly retired its other piston-engined fighters, but the Corsair remained in production for several years after the end of the Second World War and served throughout the Korean War, primarily as a fighter-bomber. In the latter role, the Corsair was considerably better than the USAF's Mustang fighters, which also served in Korea. The Corsair proved less vulnerable to ground fire and it could carry about 50% more ordnance.
Focke-Wulf FW 190D-9 (Long Nose Dora)
The Long Nose FW 190D was powered by an inline Junkers Jumo V-12 engine cooled by a circular radiator in the nose, giving the Dora an unusual nose profile. (The aft fuselage was also extended to balance the aircraft.) This engine gave the FW 190D greatly improved high altitude performance and increased top speed compared to the earlier, radial-engined FW 190 fighters, at some cost in maneuverability and handling ease. FW 190's were known for their very high roll rate, the highest of any of the WW II fighters. Handled well, this could make them difficult to nail, even when an enemy could get on their tail. Due to its very high top speed, the FW 190D pilot could usually disengage if the tactical situation deteriorated.
FW 190D's had restricted forward/downward visibility and high wing loading. This required a fast landing speed and a high stall speed, a bad combination for a tail dragger when landing. They also had plenty of torque steer on takeoff or at low flying speed. Still, most Luftwaffe pilots considered the FW 190D easier to handle on the ground than the Bf 109K, principally because of its wider-track landing gear track. On the other hand, the Bf 109K was easier to get on the ground (land). The other super fighters included in this article (except for the Bf 109K) also had wide-track landing gears and they were all easier to land and takeoff than the Dora.
The contemporary radial-engined FW 190's usually carried a very heavy standard armament of 4-20mm cannon. The Dora's firepower was reduced to 2-20mm wing mounted cannon and 2-.50 caliber cowl mounted machine guns, still quite equal to the task of shooting down enemy fighter planes. Late in the war, the Luftwaffe often used Dora's to defend their Me 262 fighter bases against marauding American and British fighters. I find this a curious choice, since the Dora was an energy fighter and much better equipped to bounce enemy planes from high altitude than serve in a rapid response, point defense role. Caught low and slow, such as soon after takeoff, the FW 190D was very vulnerable. Horizontal maneuvering was not its forte'.
Lockheed P-38L Lightning
The P-38L was the definitive version of the P-38 and the original Warbirds online super fighter. Its twin engines with counter rotating props eliminated torque steer. Since the engines were placed to the sides and a little behind the cockpit, pilot visibility forward for landing and takeoff was excellent, the best of the ueber fighters, and the P-38's tricycle landing gear is a big advantage for ground handling.
The big Lightning handled on a par with the smaller, single-engined ueber fighters, could out climb most of them and its counter-rotating propellers allow it to turn equally well to left or right, without torque effect. From the P-38J-25-LO onward, power boosted ailerons and electrically operated dive flaps were provided and internal fuel capacity was increased.
The P-38 was effective at both high and low altitudes. It was probably the easiest of the super fighters to fly in a fight. Its armament of 1-20mm cannon and 4-.50 caliber machine guns was mounted in the nose, giving it greater effect on target than wing mounted guns with their convergence problems. The cannon made it a more effective bomber destroyer than the F4U or P-51.
On the other hand, the P-38 was a complicated airplane, with twice the engine controls, gauges, etc. as single-engined fighters. While fast enough to out run most contemporary fighters in most situations, including all Japanese fighters, it usually could not catch (or run from) a FW 190D or a Bf 109K in sustained level flight. (It could, however, out turn them at low altitude!)
Historically, the P-38 was the most successful Army Air Force fighter in the Pacific Theatre and the two top ranking American aces of the war (Dick Bong and Tommy McGuire) flew P-38's. Its long range and twin-engine reliability made it ideal for long, over-water operations, as Admiral Yamamoto, CIC of the Japanese Combined Fleet, fatally discovered when P-38's shot down the GM4 (Betty) medium bomber in which he was a passenger far behind Japanese lines. After the war's end, Japanese fighter pilots voted the P-38 their most dangerous high altitude opponent.
Messerschmitt Bf 109K-4
This was the last production version of the famed Me.109 and the final attempt to "clean-up" and optimize the design. (The first such effort resulted in the excellent Bf 109F.) The 109G models progressively added bigger motors, heavier armament and more equipment to the slender "F" airframe, with the result that it grew bulges in strange places that had a negative effect on aerodynamics. Late in the war, the Bf 109G airframe was redesigned, resulting in the "K" model that restored the 109 to equality with the best Allied fighters. Deliveries of the Bf 109K-4, the only 109K version to reach series production, began in October 1944 and ended with the surrender of Germany in the spring of 1945.
This optimized Me.109 featured the "Galland" cockpit hood for improved visibility and a powerful DB 605D engine that developed 1,800 HP at take-off and 2,000 HP with methanol-water injection. That is a lot of power for such a small airframe and the 109's top speed jumped to 452 MPH at 6,000 meters. Best climb rate was a blistering 4,820 ft./min. No Allied fighter could climb with a 109K. It also accelerated rapidly in a sustained power dive and could achieve transonic speeds, with consequent loss of aileron and elevator response. Pulling out of a high-speed dive with heavy, lethargic controls was a leisurely affair and required plenty of room.
The 109K-4 featured a pressurized cockpit for the pilot. It was intended to be a high altitude, air superiority fighter and it had no peer among piston-engined fighters in WW II for fighting in the vertical. It was also reasonably maneuverable, but pilots had to beware of shedding too much energy turning and getting caught at low speed, where the 109K became easy prey for less sophisticated fighters.
Standard armament was two 13mm cowl-mounted machine guns and one engine mounted 30mm cannon firing through the propeller boss. A bomber destroyer version, the K-4/R4, added two 20mm cannons mounted in gun pods below the wings.
The powerful engine and small, light airframe meant lots of torque steer on take-off and the narrow track landing gear caused problems in ground handling. However, all 109's flew predictably and forward visibility was about average, so they were no more difficult than other fighters, and easier than some, to land.
Nakajima Ki-84-1a Hayate (Allied code name Frank)
The Ki-84 probably had an edge in a "fair" (meaning tactically equal at the start) turning fight against any of the other super fighters, because of its relatively light wing loading (about like that of a Spitfire). It was perhaps the best of the super fighters if it had to fight in a low speed, low energy condition. It also had a high sustained climb rate and excellent acceleration, making it a serious threat in either a "turn and burn" or a "boom and zoom" fight. As operated during the war, its top speed was 388 MPH, making it slower than a Corsair or a P-51, but faster than a Hellcat or a P-40. A teardrop canopy allowed very good visibility in all directions.
Some 3,514 Ki-84's were built between March 1943 and June 1945. There were three major production versions, the first being the Ki-84-1a (modeled in Warbirds), with a 1,900+ HP (WEP) engine and armed with 2-wing mounted 20mm cannons and 2-cowl mounted .50 caliber machine guns. The Ki-84-1b carried 4-20mm cannons and the Ki-84-II (bomber interceptor version) was armed with 2-20mm cannons and 2-30mm cannons. Its engine was rated at 1990 HP at take-off.
The Ki-84-1a's high altitude performance fell off above about 20,000 feet due to the limitations of its single stage supercharger; the best high altitude fighters had two-stage superchargers or turbo-superchargers. However, a high altitude interceptor version that was not mass-produced due to material shortages and the end of the war, the Ki-84N, was provided with a 2500 HP engine.
A captured Ki-84 was brought to the US after the war (1946) and thoroughly tested. Using 100-octane aviation gas (unavailable to the Japanese during the war) and properly maintained, the Air Force found the Ki-84 to be slightly faster at 20,050 feet (426 MPH) than either the P-51D or P-47D.
North American P-51D Mustang
The Mustang was the USAAF's most successful air superiority and escort fighter in the ETO. When Luftwaffe chief Hermann Goering first saw P-51 fighters flying over Berlin on a long-range bomber escort mission he commented, "The jig is up" (or words to that effect). More than any other day fighter, the P-51 broke the back of the Luftwaffe fighter force and gained air superiority over the Western Front.
The P-51D model was the fully developed version of the Mustang. It had both a bubble canopy for excellent all-around pilot visibility, probably the best of the ueber fighters, and the famous Packard-built version of the Rolls Royce Merlin engine, making it a formidable foe for any fighter plane in the world in 1944.
The Mustang was a very good high altitude fighter and had good high-speed agility. As long as the pilot kept his energy up, a Mustang could duel with the best of them. However, it became vulnerable to slower, more maneuverable fighters at low speed, low altitude and low energy. Mustang drivers considered it a pilot's airplane, without handling vices even when pushed to the limits of its performance envelope. With moderate wing loading, a wide-track landing gear, excellent four-stage flaps and decent forward pilot visibility, it was relatively easy to take-off and land.
After the war, the P-51D Mustang remained in service and served with distinction in the Korean War in the ground attack role and as a counter to Soviet Yak fighters before being retired from front line service in the 1950's. This was dangerous work for a P-51D. Designed for the air superiority role and comparatively lightly built, it could not take many hits; the Mustang was perhaps the most vulnerable to battle damage of the late war American fighters and, along with the Ki-84, the most vulnerable of the super fighters to enemy fire.
Too Little, Too Late
Perhaps conspicuous by their absence from the title of this article are the Messerschmitt Me.262A-1a, Kawanishi N1K1 Shiden, Focke-Wulf Ta 152C, Hawker Tempest V and Grumman F8F-1 Bearcat. Super fighters without question, they appeared in squadron service so late in the war that they had relatively little (or no) opportunity to engage in air superiority combat.
With a top speed of some 540 MPH at 19,685 feet (6000 meters), the twinjet Messerschmitt Me.262A-1a was the fastest fighter plane of WW II. It was purely an energy fighter and the best bomber interceptor of the war, the appropriate response to the American B-29 Super Fortress, which was ultimately used against Japan, but not Germany. Initial climb rate was 3,937 ft./min. The Me.262A-1a was armed with four 30mm nose mounted cannons and its high speed made it a very difficult target for a bomber's defensive gunners. It handled predictably, but despite its great speed, it was lacking in range, maneuverability, acceleration and, most of all, numbers. Only 1,430 Me.262's of all types (divided between the A-0 pre-production series [23 total], A-1a day fighters, A-2a bombers, A-3a tactical support aircraft, A-5a reconnaissance fighters, B-1a two-seat trainers and B-1a/U1 night fighters) were built between April 1944 and the end of the war.
Kawanishi's N1K1 Shiden (violet lightning) was a land based IJN fighter. Some 1,007 were produced before the end of the war. It was designed as a high altitude, radial-engined (1,990 HP) fighter with a top speed of 362 MPH at 19,360 feet and automatically adjusting combat flaps that gave it excellent maneuverability. It was very well armed with four cannons and two 7.7mm machine guns, but came too late and in too small numbers to have any impact on the outcome of the war in the Pacific.
The Focke-Wulf Ta 152C, named for Focke-Wulf head designer Kurt Tank, was a redesigned and improved version of the FW 190D built around a DB 603 engine. Its top speed was as high as 467 MPH with MW 50 power boost. Only 67 Ta 152's were built before the end of the war and they saw almost no combat.
The British kept most of their Hawker Tempest V fighters, which entered service in April 1944, in England. They had sufficient speed to engage the German V1 cruise missiles, shooting down many of the infamous buzz bombs. Very late in the European war, Tempests stationed in liberated Western Europe were occasionally able to engage the German jet fighters. After the war, Me.262 pilots stated that the only Allied fighter that worried them was the speedy Tempest. Only about 800 Tempest V fighters were built through August 1945. The top speed was 435 MPH at 17,000 feet and the initial climb rate a sensational 4,700 ft./min.
The Grumman F8F-1 Bearcat was designed to be the ultimate ship borne air superiority fighter, emphasizing speed and maneuverability, but the first prototype did not achieve its first flight until the end of August 1944. The war ended before the F8F-1 became fully operational and the contracts for its production were immediately cut back at war's end. 654 F8F-1's were delivered to the Navy. The F8F-1 had a top speed of 428 MPH at best altitude. Armament was rather light at 4-.50 caliber machine guns, although later (post-war) models carried up to 4-20mm cannons.
Copyright 2009 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.