A Brief History
On July 10, 1942, an American pilot spotted an intact Japanese Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter downed on Akutan island. The Zero was recovered and restored to flying condition by the Americans and provided information needed to develop American fighters and tactics to cope with the Zero’s great performance. Here we list 10 of the most formidable fighter planes American pilots have had to face in combat.
10. Mikoyan and Gurevich MiG-29.
Inflicting (disputed by allies) rare air to air kills on a British Tornado and an American B-52 during the 1991 Gulf War, the MiG-29 was a victim of surprise strikes on its airfields and attacks against its radar controllers ground sites. Despite its lack of success against the US in actual combat, it would have been a fearsome opponent if flown by better trained and equipped enemy forces such as the Soviets.
9. Nakajima Ki-84 Hayate.
Often overlooked in the face of overwhelming American numbers and a lack of adequate Japanese pilot training, Japan produced some excellent fighters that were a match for the best US planes. The Ki-84 is often cited as the best of the Japanese fighters of World War II that actually saw extensive combat, with over 3500 built. Armed with 2 x 30mm and 2 x 20mm cannons, this swift fighter was capable of going after B-29’s even at high altitude, causing the US to change tactics to low level night bombing. Most models were equipped with 2 x 20mm cannons and 2 x 12.7mm machine guns, and could zip along at 426 mph.
8. Mikoyan and Gurevich MiG-25.
The only mach 3 aircraft American aviators have had to face, this immensely powerful jet was actually able to out run missiles fired at it by Israeli F-4 Phantoms. During Desert Storm in 1991, a MiG-25 was the only Iraqi jet to score an air to air kill on a US jet when an MiG-25 shot down an F-18 Hornet. Cracked fact: The MiG-25 was built specifically to shoot down US B-70 bombers, a plane we never produced. The MiG-25 was made of 80% stainless steel, 11% aluminum and 9% titanium.
7. Focke Wulf Fw190.
Armed with machine guns and 20mm cannons, this heavily armed fighter was the successor to the Bf-109 and had the fastest roll rate of all World War II fighters. Made in large numbers and updated throughout the war, it remained on par with the best American fighters of the war and was a premier bomber killer.
6. Messerschmitt Bf-109.
The most produced fighter plane of all time (34,000), this was the German fighter most likely to be encountered by American pilots. Despite being old by World War II standards, the Bf-109 was updated throughout World War II and remained a worthy opponent until the end. It actually stayed in production after the war (in Spain until 1958) and served in Spain until 1965. The Bf-109 shot down more aircraft than any other fighter in World War II, and was flown by the 3 top aces of all time.
5. Fokker D VII.
As the US entered World War I late in the war, the Germans had time to develop a truly impressive fighter plane, the D VII. Fortunately for American flyers, it came too late and in too few numbers to sweep the skies as it otherwise may have.
4. Mikoyan and Gurevich MiG-21.
The first Soviet mach 2 fighter, this small but powerful delta winged fighter was the most advanced enemy fighter of the Viet Nam War. Much lighter than the F-4 Phantoms flown by the Americans, the restrictive US rules of engagement required visual confirmation before firing on an enemy plane, negating the long range radar and missile advantage of the Phantom. In a dogfight, the MiG-21 ran circles around the Phantom which was not designed to dogfight. The F-15 Eagle was given a superb dogfighting capability because of this experience.
3. Mitsubishi A6M Zero.
For some reason (probably racism) US military strategists did not think the Japanese were capable of making such a good fighter plane, and flying it with such skill and courage. Not until the F6F Hellcat, F4U Corsair and P-38 Lightning appeared did the US have a qualitative advantage over the Zero. The P-40, F4F, Brewster Buffalo and P-39 had a terrible time coping with the nimble and well armed Zero.
2. Mikoyan and Gurevich MiG-15.
Clearly superior to the American F-80 and F-84, in the early part of the Korean War the MiG-15 slaughtered US fighters and B-29 bombers. It proved a worthy opponent to the premier US fighter, the F-86, and the debate still rages over which fighter was better. The evolutionary successor to this plane, the MiG-17, proved quite a handful for much more powerful US fighters in the Viet Nam War.
1. Messerschmitt Me-262.
The most capable fighter of World War II, and the first jet fighter to see combat, its main fault was lack of range and lack of numbers. Had it been produced earlier and in greater numbers, it would have annihilated Allied fighters and bombers. The only realistic way to defeat this plane was to destroy it on the ground or shoot it down as it was landing low on fuel.
Question for students (and subscribers): What fighters would you add to the list? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Batchelor, John. Axis Fighter Planes of World War II. Dover Pubns, 1996.
The featured image in this article, a photograph of an Imperial Japanese Navy Zero fighter that crashed on Akutan Island, Alaska on June 4, 1942 being loaded onto a ship by U.S. military forces for shipment to Seattle, Washington in July 1942, is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person’s official duties under the terms of Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 105 of the US Code.