A Brief History
On May 29, 1940, the F-4U Corsair made its first flight. The Corsair would go on to great success in its combat career, shooting down 11 Japanese airplanes for every Corsair shot down. Here we list the 10 best fighter airplanes of all time, from World War I to today. As always, we welcome your opinions as to what other fighters deserve mention. So, as a question for my students (and subscribers), which fighter plane do you think is the best of all time? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
10. Vought F4U Corsair, 1942.
Built from 1942 to 1953, a longer production run than any other piston engine American fighter, 12,571 of these great planes were built. Some were still flying in front line duty until 1979. Of all the planes listed here, the Corsair was probably the best fighter bomber of its era, while also being the unmatched champion of the Pacific during World War II.
9. North American F-86 Sabre, 1949.
In service until 1994 the 45 year lifespan of this great fighter jet speaks for itself. America’s first swept wing jet fighter, the F-86 was the premier fighter of the Korean War, reported to have a 10 to 1 kill ratio over Soviet produced MiG-15’s. Later scholars found the real ratio to be around 2 to 1, perhaps due to the inexperience of Chinese and Korean pilots. The F-86 had a production run of 9860 planes, the most of any Western fighter jet. The arch enemy of the F-86 was the MiG-15, and the merits of each were and are hotly debated. Distinct advantages of the F-86 were its dive speed, control at max speed, and air brakes.
8. Fokker D VII, 1918.
Although introduced late in the war, 3300 were built, and if Baron Manfred von Richthofen had not died he would have flown this fighter in combat. Clearly the best all around German fighter of the World War I, the allies were eager to commandeer all that remained at the end of the war. The 750 D VII’s built with the BMW engine had more horsepower and better performance than the Mercedes engined planes. This fighter replaced the Fokker Triplane (Dreidecker) as the premier German fighter (only 320 Triplanes had been built).
7. Sopwith Camel, 1917.
Technology was moving way too fast for any World War I era fighters to have a long production run, but the Camel was around long enough for almost 5500 of them to be built. The Camel had 2 machine guns firing through the propeller, a huge advantage over previous fighters that often had 1 machine gun mounted on the top wing, awkward to aim, reload, and clear jams. The Camel shot down more enemy airplanes than any other allied fighter, making it the king of the allied WW I fighters.
6. Mitsubishi A6M Zero, 1940.
British and American military officers made the same mistake military men have been making throughout history, that of underestimating the enemy. Japan was not thought to be a high tech country capable of making a fighter as capable as the Zero, but in fact, they were. Japan built almost 11,000 of the light and fast Zero fighters that were highly maneuverable compared to American fighters with excellent range and heavy firepower (2 X 20mm cannons and 2 X .30 caliber machine guns). Unfortunately, the Zero was lightly armored, thus being likely to suffer fire or severe damage if an allied pilot managed to hit one. The next generation of American fighters (Hellcat, Corsair, Mustang) were too much for the out numbered Zeros.
5. Supermarine Spitfire, 1938.
Introduced just in time to be on hand for the start of World War II, the British built over 20,000 of these fine fighters, ending production in 1948. Like its main adversary listed below, the Spitfire was given constant improvements as the war went on and the final product was far more capable than the original. The Spitfire is often referred to as the most beautiful of fighter planes. Because early Spitfires in the mid-1930s were armed with only .30 caliber guns and no cannon, the Spitfire made up for light bullets by having 8 machine guns. Only starting in 1939 were Spitfires fitted with a 20mm Hispano cannon in each wing. Overall, multiple variants of the Spitfire existed with different armaments.
4. Messerschmitt Bf-109, 1937.
The most produced fighter of all time, the Germans built 33,984 of them, while Czechoslovakia and Spain also built a few hundred more until 1958. The main German fighter of the pre-war period and early in the war, it was to be superseded by the more modern and more heavily armed FW-190, but the ease of manufacture and maintenance kept the Bf-109 in production during the entire war. Constantly updated and refined, the aging airframe remained competitive with allied fighters throughout the war. Many German pilots preferred it over the FW-190. Its main deficiency was its short range, one thing Germany never corrected. Another problem was its narrow undercarriage, causing many inexperienced pilots to crash their plane upon landing. Of all the fighter planes used by Germany during World War II, 57 % were Bf-109’s.
3. McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle, 1976.
With a top speed of Mach 2.5+ this is the fastest fighter on the list. With a kill ratio of 100+ to 0, it has no peer. The F-15 never got to face the best of the Soviet fighters and pilots and only 1198 were built, keeping it out of the top 2 spots. The F-15 was designed from the start as a fighter pilot’s dream, ultra maneuverable and breathtakingly fast. With a power to weight ratio of 1.07 to 1, it could actually point its nose straight up and climb, the first production airplane ever to do so.
2. MiG-15, 1949.
Like the Japanese Zero before it, the MiG-15 stunned American pilots when they first encountered it. Faster, more maneuverable, and heavier hitting than the F-80 and F-84 US fighter jets, let alone the Mustangs and Corsairs flown by the US in the Korean War, the appearance of the MiG-15 necessitated the deployment of the F-86 to Korea to counter it. With 18,000 of these jets made, it is the most produced fighter jet ever. The MiG-15 continues in service to this day in a training role. Cracked fact: The MiG-15 would not have achieved its world beating performance without the gift to the Soviet Union from the United Kingdom of a Rolls-Royce jet engine that was much more advanced than the engines produced by the Soviets at that time.
1. North American P-51 Mustang, 1942.
Over 15,000 of these sleek machines were built, and with good reason, serving until 1984. Having the longest range and the best overall performance of any piston engine fighter of World War II the Mustang was a fundamental reason for winning the air war over Europe. Its long range also made it the only fighter capable of escorting B-29’s over Japan as well. Even the early models with the Allison engine were faster than other fighters at low altitude, but the fortuitous addition of the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine with supercharger made the Mustang a war winner. As with many of the great fighter planes, the Mustang was also a fearsome fighter-bomber and it terrorized anything that moved in occupied Europe, later serving capably in that role during the Korean War. 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. 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 and making the inboard wing common to both, as well as the same with the horizontal tail plane.
For more information, please see…
Crosby, Francis. The World Encyclopedia of Fighters & Bombers: An Illustrated History of The World’s Greatest Military Aircraft, From the Pioneering Days of Air and Stealth Bombers of the Present Day. Southwater, 2010.
Jackson, Robert. 101 Great Fighters (The 101 Greatest Weapons of All Times). Rosen Pub Group, 2010.
The featured image in this article, U.S. Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation photo No. 2011.003.272.003 of the U.S. Navy Vought XF4U-1 Corsair prototype (BuNo 1443) in flight in 1940, is a work of a sailor or employee of the U.S. Navy, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, it is in the public domain in the United States.
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