A Brief History
On January 27, 1939, one of the great American fighter planes of World War II, the Lockheed P-38 Lightning, made its first flight. Appropriately named, the Lightning was the fastest fighter in the world at that time, being the first to exceed 400 mph in level flight. Far from an anomaly, the P-38 was not the only important twin engine fighter plane to grace the skies during combat operation in World War II and the Korean War, Today we look at 10 of the best 2 engine fighter aircraft from the peak of the piston powered era, the finest such airplanes designed or adapted mainly for air to air combat. Many lists of the “greatest” piston engine fighter planes do not even include twin engine fighters, although that second engine often gave its airframe longer range, higher speed, increased ability to carry heavy armament and electronics, a second crewman, and increased safety factor when flying over vast stretches of ocean. The second crewman and ability to carry extra electronics such as radar and spotlights made the twin engine “heavy” fighter the usual choice as night fighters. Drawbacks of the twin engine versus the single engine design often included decreased maneuverability and increased visual signature, as well as unit cost. Some of our entries on this list include planes that saw little if any combat but were of exceptional design and could have potentially made a serious difference in combat had the timing of their introduction been different. The advent of jet engines made the piston powered fighter obsolete soon after World War II and prevented some of the best designed piston powered fighters from achieving the success and glory they might otherwise have achieved. As always, let us know what planes we should have included on this list that were omitted, or tell us which entries you believe should not deserve a place on the list.
1. Lockheed P-38 Lightning.
The greatest of the daylight twin engine piston powered fighters, the Lightning was designed by the master aircraft architect Clarence Kelly Johnson Conceived as a high-speed, high-altitude (44,000 feet!) interceptor, at its introduction the twin-engine Lightning also had a greater range (1,300 combat miles) than any contemporary fighters. The long-range fighter could also be equipped with drop tanks giving it longer range than any Allied single engine fighters of the early World War II era, making its use in the Pacific Theater where long stretches of ocean lay between take off and landing quite desirable. It was in the Pacific that the Lightning really made its mark, being the fighter of choice for America’s top aces of World War II. The central nacelle (fuselage) containing the pilot and weapons was accompanied by twin booms that carried a turbo-supercharged engine on each side and connected by a common tail. The armament consisting of 4 x .50-caliber machine guns and 1 x 20mm cannon was clustered in the nose and gave the Lighting highly focused firepower instead of the spread of bullets fired from the usual wing-mounted guns of other Allied fighters. Although like most excellent fighter aircraft the Lightning was adapted for and performed admirably in the air to ground light bombing and strafing role, it was as a fighter that the Lightning made its real mark, enabling over 100 American pilots to achieve coveted status as an aerial “ace.” (The term “ace” is applied to a pilot that shot down 5 or more enemy planes.) Over 10,000 of these fine fighters were produced through 1945 at a cost of just under $100,000 each (or about $1.3 million in today’s dollars). The unmatched production numbers of the P-38 make it the most produced twin engine piston powered fighter of all time, a convincing clue as to why we consider this fighter the best of this particular bunch. The beautiful design of this fine fighter was the inspiration for the late 1940’s and early 1950’s Cadillac and Studebaker cars, notably the tail fin craze of the mid and late 1950’s. Drawbacks of the P-38 included unreliable compasses, cramped cockpits, a nasty habit of going into an unrecoverable dive when conducted at transonic speeds (later addressed with add-on kits) and a relative lack of maneuverability compared to single engine contemporary fighters. Of the mass produced twin engine piston powered fighters, no others come close to the impact of the P-38.
2. Grumman F7F Tigercat.
The first twin engine carrier based piston powered fighter adopted by the US Navy, it arrived too late to take part in combat during World War II, making this fine fighter a “what could have been.” With a top speed of 460 mph, it would have been competitive with the best of the land based fighters and armed with 4 X .50 caliber machine guns and 4 X 20mm cannons it could easily blast fighters and bombers out of the air in short order. Only 364 of these great planes from Grumman were built, with minimal combat experience in the Korean War, where Tigercats shot down only a couple of enemy bi-planes! A lack of opportunity rather than a lack of ability is what kept this plane from posting a more impressive combat record. Also, smaller US aircraft carriers were not made to accommodate the F7F and the plane saw limited carrier service. Introduced in 1944 the Tigercat was retired only 10 years later, replaced by jet fighters.
3. de Havilland DH.103 Hornet.
Brought to you by the British folks that produced the Mosquito light bomber (and sometimes fighter), the Hornet had terrific performance for a piston powered fighter, a top speed of 475 mph and taking only 4 minutes to reach 20,000 feet of altitude. A range of 1480 miles and a ceiling of over 41,000 feet made this plane a terrific interceptor. A gun armament of 4 X 20mm cannon in the nose gave the Hornet a concentrated firepower sufficient to knock down tough opponents, and a folding wing version for aircraft carrier service gave the plane a naval purpose, Introduced in 1946, this terrific plane made largely of plywood was retired in 1956, the victim of jet engine powered technology. A total of 383 of the Hornets were built, giving it a similar life span, production record and performance envelope to the American Tigercat. Since the Hornet was a purpose built fighter, we are using it to represent the British entry in this genre of fighter plane and leaving the Mosquito in its primary role as a bomber, as well as being the inspiration for the Hornet. British also ran versions of the twin engine piston powered fighter include the Westland Whirlwind (only 116 made and served only from 1940 to 1943) and the Bristol Beaufighter, a multi-role aircraft that largely served as a light bomber/attack and maritime attack aircraft as well as service as a night fighter where its limited top speed (320 mph) was not quite so much a liability. The Beaufighter served from 1940 to 1960, though of course not as a fighter after its early days.
4. North American F-82 Twin-Mustang.
A fascinating development of the P-51 was the F-82 Twin Mustang, an all weather long range night fighter/ interceptor capable of flying 482 mph (not combat loaded). An F-82 with drop tanks was flown from Hawaii to New York non-stop, an incredible achievement. The Twin Mustang was made by taking 2 Mustangs (P-51H models) and making the inboard wing common to both, as well as the same with the horizontal tail plane. Rather than use the Packard built version of the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine that powered the P-51D during World War II, the F-82 used an improved version of the Allison engine that put out 2550 horsepower each. Introduced in 1946 to replace the P-61 Black Widow night fighter with a higher performance alternative, the F-82 missed out on combat in World War II but did see service during the Korean War, including shooting down the first 3 enemy planes of that conflict for the US. Only 272 were built and the planes were retired in 1953 as jet engine night fighters became available. Armed with 6 X .50 caliber machine guns, all in the inboard section of the wing, the Twin Mustang could gallop along at a highly credible 461 mph (service version) with an exceptional range of 2240 miles, making it ideal for bomber escort or long range interception.
5. Messerschmidt Me-110/210/410 Destroyer.Germany realized the limitations of their short range single engine fighters for use in World War II and sought a longer ranged heavy fighter using 2 engines as a solution as a bomber escort. The result was the Me-110, a terrific disappointment and failure that instead of being canned received seemingly endless attempts to rejuvenate and refurbish the performance of this loser aircraft to some semblance of effectiveness, including developing 2 other new models (Me-210 and Me-410) to replace the Me-110. Also known as the Bf-110, a total of 6170 of these planes were built, and the type had some early success despite its terrible reputation. A top speed of just under 300 mph at low altitude and of 336 mph at high altitude made it slower than enemy single engine and twin engine opponents (close to 100 mph slower than a P-38!) and a lack of maneuverability made the type a poor dogfighter. The Destroyer was of some use if proper tactics were employed, and service as a night fighter became its most notable role. At first the Me-110 was put into the night fighter bomber interceptor role with no special equipment, relying on the eyes of its 3 man crew and ground direction to targets, but was later equipped with on-board radar systems of its own. Armament varied up to as many as 4 X 20mm cannon and 5 X. 7.92mm machine guns. Its range of only about 500 miles was not that much better than the single engine fighters. Only a few hundred Me-210’s and less than 1200 Me-410’s were built as developments of the Me-110.
6. Dornier Do 335 Arrow.
On October 26, 1943, what could have been a fantastic advantage in the German air war against Allied bombers in World War II first took to the air, with the first flight of the Dornier Do 335 Pfeil (Arrow). A 2 engine heavy fighter, the Pfeil was powered by propeller driving engines in the front and the back of the fuselage, a push-pull arrangement unlike any other World War II fighter plane. The different requirements of various resources of men, equipment and materials cut deeply into the development of the Do 335 and only 37 of these terrific planes ever entered service. Heavily armed with a single 30mm cannon firing through the front propeller hub and 2 additional nose mounted 20mm cannons, the Do 335 would have quickly blasted Allied bombers from the skies over Germany. The German bureaucracy lacked some of the focus needed to most efficiently allocate funds and materials for research and development of weapons, and as was often the case, the potential of the Do 335 as a ground attack plane detracted from its intense development as a pure fighter. Capable of carrying external rockets, bombs and fuel tanks, the Do 335 would have been a versatile combat plane had it been developed more quickly. Capable of 475 mph, it was faster than any of the Allied fighters in the European theater that actually saw combat. Introduced in 1944 and retired in 1945, it is unknown if any Do 335 ever actually engaged in combat. Really, really big for a 1 man fighter of the time, the Arrow weighed more (21,000+ pounds loaded) than double the weight of a Mustang or Fw-190.
7. Junkers Ju-88.
Developed as a medium bomber capable of carrying out level or dive bombing attacks, or even dropping torpedoes, the Ju-88 was a highly versatile aircraft adaptable to an incredibly wide range of missions, including as a “heavy” fighter (bomber destroyer/interceptor) and as a radar equipped night fighter. Originally lightly armed with machine guns for defensive purposes and capable of carrying 3100 pounds of bombs internally, or up to 6000 pounds of ordnance externally, the fighter/bomber versions employed a variety of forward firing auto-cannon and machine guns while retaining the ability to carry bombs. The night fighter and heavy fighter versions concentrated an effective suite of aircraft destroying forward firepower such as twin 37mm cannon carried in a ventral forward firing pod or a single 50mm or 75mm forward firing cannon for effective bomber destruction. Other fighter versions carried 20mm or 13mm forward firing guns, while retaining some of the defensive machine guns. With a top speed of about 290 mph, the Ju-88 was not fast enough to compete with Allied fighter planes head to head in its original form, though they were effective at intercepting Allied bombers and cargo aircraft or even shooting down Allied night fighters. The definitive fighter versions of the Ju-88G models could zip along at as much as 389 mph, plenty fast enough for a night fighter. Over 15,000 Ju-88’s were built between 1939 and 1945, though the type went out of service by 1951. At least 9000 of that production number were pure bombers, although the exact number of Ju-88’s made strictly as air to air fighters is harder to determine. In any case, the type was certainly among the most important of the twin engine piston powered fighters. The Germans also adapted other twin engine bombers as heavy fighters, though not as successfully as the Ju-88.
8. Kawasaki Ki-45-KAI.
Of course the Japanese would also come up with the idea of a powerful twin engine heavy fighter for intercepting bombers, and the best of their efforts was the Ki-45. Introduced in 1942, the Ki-45 had a production run of over 1600 examples, leaving service at the end of World War II. Capable of 340 mph, top speed was on par with that of the more famous A6M Zero fighter. Heavy armament of 2 forward firing 20mm cannons and 2 forward firing .50 caliber machine guns was supplemented by a rear defensive .30 caliber machine gun. Armament suites varied, and later versions added a single shot 37mm cannon for even more effective use against large bombers. Like other twin engine fighters of World War II, the Ki-45 was adapted as a night fighter and some were equipped with a pair of semi-automatic 37mm cannons in the forward firing mode as well as 2 upward firing 20mm cannons (a configuration also used by some of the German night fighters). A range of 1200 miles made this type excellent for use in the Pacific theater.
9. Petlyakov Pe-3.
The Soviet candidate for the top twin engine piston powered fighters is another plane built in limited quantities, in this case 360 of them. Powered by twin engines only capable of 1100 horsepower each, the Pe-3 could only rumble along at a comparatively pedestrian 330 mph. An adaptation of a dive bomber platform to serve as a heavy fighter and night fighter, the Pe-3 was also modestly armed compared to some of our other planes listed, with a single 20mm cannon and twin .50 caliber machine guns firing forward, though protected by a single dorsal turret mounted .50 caliber machine gun and a tail mounted .30 caliber machine gun. Another Soviet light bomber adapted for use as a night fighter bomber interceptor was the Tupolev Tu-2, made in much larger numbers than the Pe-3 (over 2557) though most were of the bomber version. Additionally, the Tu-2 managed to stay in service much longer (retired 1970’s), though not in the fighter mode. The Tu-2 fighter version was equipped with 2 X 20mm cannon in the wings along with 3 X defensive .50 caliber machine guns.
10. Northrop P-61 Black Widow.
Notable as the first purpose designed and built American night fighter and the first American airplane designed from the start to be radar equipped, the Black Widow was a striking looking airplane with a twin boom layout similar to the P-38, though much larger. Serving from 1944 to 1954, over 700 of these black beauties were built, heavily armed with 4 forward firing 20mm cannons and another 4 X .50 caliber machine guns mounted in a remote controlled dorsal turret with an oblong, flat profile that was quite different for its day. With powerful engines capable of producing 2250 horsepower each, the 23,450 pound (empty weight) monster could sail along at 366 mph with a 1350 mile range. While adequate speed for intercepting piston powered bombers, the new jet bombers that appeared late in World War II and soon afterwards made this plane quickly obsolete. With a crew of either 2 or 3 men, the P-61 was also adapted to carry rockets and bombs, as were just about all other fighter planes of the era.
Question for students (and subscribers): What is your favorite twin engine piston powered fighter plane? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Bodie, Warren. The Lockheed P-38 Lightning. Motorbooks Intl, 1991.
Crosby, Francis. The World Encyclopedia of Fighter Aircraft: An Illustrated History from the Early Planes of World War I to the Supersonic Jets of Today. Lorenz Books, 2020.
The featured image in this article, a U.S. Air Force photograph of a Lockheed XP-38A (S/N 40-762, modified YP-38) in flight, is a work of a U.S. Air Force Airman or employee, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image or file is in the public domain in the United States.