A Brief History
On December 18, 1982, Germany’s greatest pilot of World War II died of a stroke. Hans-Ulrich Rudel was not one of Germany’s great fighter pilots, such as Baron von Richtofen or Erich Hartmann, the 2 highest scoring fighter aces of World War I and World War II respectively, but the ace pilot of a plane deemed by many to have been obsolete during the vast majority of World War II, the Junkers Ju-87 Stuka dive bomber. Today we discuss the Stuka and other military aircraft deemed obsolete that have filled a combat role with distinction past the time the aircraft were considered beyond their effective lives. As always, feel free to nominate other such airplanes to the list, or to take exception to any plane we have listed.
Questions for Students (or others): Which of these planes have you heard of? Of those listed, which planes do you think had the most impact on warfare? Which of these planes would you pick to have flown in combat? Can you predict any airplane of today that will someday become an obsolete aircraft that ends up doing stellar duty?
1. Junkers Ju-87 Stuka dive bomber.
Innovative in 1936 when it was introduced, the Stuka had a nifty automated bombing system that allowed the plane to pull out of a steep dive even if the pilot passed out from pulling G’s. Coupled with a whistle or siren to terrify the enemy, the Stuka did terrify the enemy with extremely accurate bombing, allowing for unprecedented assistance to ground troops in the attack during the Poland and France campaigns in 1939 and 1940. Carrying obsolete characteristics such as fixed landing gear that produced copious amounts of aerodynamic drag, and external struts on the tailplane, the Stuka even looked obsolete next to its contemporary fighter and attack aircraft. Despite engine improvements the top speed of the Stuka was only 242 mph, slow enough for it to be easily caught by fighter aircraft and destroyed whenever the Germans did not enjoy total air supremacy. The pathetic rear defense consisting of a single machine gun of 7.92mm caliber to the rear hardly discouraged attacking fighters. As better ground based anti-aircraft guns were developed, the slow speed of the Stuka made it easy pickings from the ground as well. Still, the Germans never did develop a suitable replacement, and the Stuka remained in front line service throughout the war, with reduced production maintained until parts ran out in December of 1944. By 1941 the German planners were well aware of the obsolescence of the Stuka but felt compelled to continue development as no alternatives presented themselves. Over 6500 Stukas were built, and despite having an operational life of only about 100 hours by late 1943 they continued to maintain effective ground attack despite the high level of danger to their crews. (The Fw-190F fighter was developed as a ground attack successor to the Stuka, but without the excellent dive-bombing accuracy of the older plane.) The Ju-87 fleet was used primarily as a night attack bomber late in the war. The aforementioned Hans Rudel demonstrated just how effective a Stuka in skilled hands could be, as he convinced his superiors in 1943 to develop under-wing anti-tank cannons for the Stuka to become an anti-tank attack aircraft. The modifications were made, and the anti-tank role became an important part of the Stuka’s mission. Being upgraded to a 2200 pound bomb load also helped extend its usefulness. Flying the vast majority of his missions in the Ju-87, Rudel is credited with destroying an incredible 519 enemy tanks (his main claim to fame) and a total of around 800 enemy vehicles. He also destroyed around 150 enemy anti-aircraft or artillery positions, 4 armored trains and enumerable other ground targets including bridges. While he was at it, Rudel also was the scourge of the Allied navies, with a cruiser and destroyer sunk, about 70 landing craft destroyed, and damaging the battleship Marat so severely the bow was blown off the ship and she settled in shallow water, later to be raised.
2. Grumman F4F Wildcat fighter.
Built to be rugged and fly off relatively short flight decks of aircraft carriers while packing a decent firepower package and providing armor protection for its pilots, the Wildcat became operational in December of 1940, unknowingly to its designers and American naval aviation planners that it was already obsolete by World War II fighter standards. While an improvement over the bi-plane aircraft carrier fighters it replaced, the Wildcat had a top speed of only 320 mph and was not particularly maneuverable, making it easy prey for Japanese Zero fighters until innovative tactics allowed the Wildcat to be competitive with the Zero. While no match for German fighters even early in the War, when the Wildcat was replaced by far more capable American carrier fighters such as the F6F Hellcat and F4U Corsair it remained in production for use on small “escort” carriers for use in convoy protection duties in the Atlantic, with over 1200 Wildcats serving with the British Fleet Air Arm in that role. Its small size and ability to take off with a shorter take off run than its more modern brethren, the Wildcat was ideally suited for use on tiny aircraft carriers and remained useful past the time one would think. ‘Convoys enjoyed protection against German long-range bombers and submarines courtesy of the Wildcat, called Martel by the British. Over 7800 of these rugged planes were built. With landing gear that had to be manually pumped to raise and lower and that were not covered by aerodynamic skins, the Wildcat had a decidedly obsolete look, but looks can be deceiving!
3. Curtiss P-40 Warhawk fighter.
Developed from 1938 to 1940, the P-40 was the premier American fighter when it went into operational service in 1940, though its initial iteration lacked the armor, self-sealing fuel tanks and heavier armament that future models would bear. The extra weight of armor and guns (in the P-40C model, the first “combat ready” version of the fighter, which weighed over 8000 pounds, an increase of 800 pounds over the B model) reduced performance somewhat, and the P-40 went to war at a disadvantage to the German Bf-109 which was lighter and more maneuverable. I have often read and heard that the P-40 was “obsolete” already when it was introduced, but that assessment is not really true. A rugged and reliable design, the P-40 was lacking mainly in high altitude performance as problems with turbochargers resulted in the Warhawk being supplied with a supercharger instead. (Turbochargers are air compressors powered by engine exhaust, while superchargers are also air compressors powered mechanically by gears or belts.) The P-40 also lacked the agility of the Bf-109 and the Japanese Zero (A6M), its primary opponents early in World War II. The P-40 was quickly eclipsed by the rapid rate of fighter evolution during World War II, surpassed in performance in almost every parameter by newer models of existing planes such as the bf-109 and the Supermarine Spitfire, as well as American models such as the P-38, P-47, P-51, F6F and F4U. Despite being slower, less maneuverable, having poorer high-altitude performance and less range than these newer American fighters, the P-40 stayed in mass production until 1944 with a total of 13,738 of these rugged fighters built! The P-40 held its own quite well against the nimbler but more lightly constructed Japanese Zero and had the firepower (6 X .50 caliber machine guns) to tear up Japanese bombers. In the European/North African Theater of Operations, the P-40 performed well against German and Italian aircraft in the low and medium altitude combat zones and was pressed into service as a rugged and reliable fighter bomber and ground attack plane. This allegedly obsolete airplane continued in service in other countries, last serving in Brazil until 1958.
4. Douglas Dauntless SBD dive bomber.
When the US was thrust into World War II by the Japanese attack of Pearl Harbor, the SBD was the primary carrier borne dive bomber in the US Navy. Capable of a top speed of 255 mph, the SBD was called “Slow But Deadly” in comparison to modern fighter planes it had to contend with that all surpassed 300 mph in top speed. Armed with 2 X .50 caliber machine guns firing forward, but only a pair of .30 caliber machine guns for rearward protection, the SBD was highly vulnerable to attack from enemy fighters, especially from below and behind. Capable of a considerable bomb load of 2000 pounds, the SBD was scheduled to be replaced by the much more capable (on paper) Curtiss SB2C Helldiver in 1942, a bomber capable of 295 mph and carrying up to 3000 pounds of bombs. Despite the 1942 introduction of the Helldiver, the Dauntless remained in production through 1944, with a total of almost 6000 built, half of which were the definitive SBD-5 model. About 1000 of the type configured for the US Army Air Forces were delivered for land-based use. Even after being superseded by the SB2C (7140 built), the SBD was often preferred by pilots due to the more friendly low speed flight characteristics of the SBD, essential in making safe carrier landings. The greatest contribution of the SBD type came in the Battle of Midway in 1942 when SBD’s sank 4 Japanese aircraft carriers and thus turned the tide of the War in the Pacific.
5. Junkers Ju-52 Tante Ju transport.
Also referred to affectionately as “Iron Annie,” the Ju-52 was an older aircraft when World War II started, first fielded in 1931. Capable of carrying 4000 pounds of cargo and/or passengers (or 18 soldiers or 12 litter patients), its initial models had a top speed of only 121 mph! Even the latest models only increased the top speed to 168 mph, making the type incredibly vulnerable to interception by fighter aircraft and to ground based anti-aircraft fire. Original service ceiling was only about 11,000 feet, with the maximum of later models reaching only 18,000 feet. Even the combat range of only 540 miles would seem to limit the usefulness of the Ju-52, and yet the plane remained useful throughout World War II and beyond, incredibly staying in production until 1952 (Spain) and some are still flying in actual commercial use! Aside from use as a cargo and troop transport, the Ju-52 was used to tow gliders (2 each), deliver supplies via parachute, executive transport, medical evacuation, limited reconnaissance, and even a brief stint as a light bomber. A seaplane version was built using floats, and a device fitted underneath to explode magnetically triggered naval mines was deployed. Despite efforts to develop a more capable replacement for the Ju-52, the Germans never did come up with a mass produced cargo/transport plane to take over the load from the reliable and sturdy “obsolete” Iron Annie. About 4885 of the type were built, more than all other German cargo-transport aircraft that served in World War II.
Honorable mention: The Douglas C-47 Skytrain, the military version of the DC-3 Dakota airliner, a twin engine cargo/transport used by the United States and its allies during World War II. Developed for military use in 1941 from the civilian airliner that was introduced in 1936, the C-47 was mass produced in 10,174 copies. Its performance greatly exceeded that of the Ju-52, with a top speed of 224 mph and a range of 1600 miles, about triple that of the Iron Annie. The C-47 could haul 6000 pounds of cargo or carry 28 combat troops. Not only did it serve every role that the Ju-52 served, it remains in service to this day (in third world countries). A remarkable use of the C-47 was during the Vietnam War when the type was converted to gunship status, called the AC-47 Spooky, a massively gunned plane that spit lead from 3 X General Electric mini-guns (7.62 caliber rotary/Gatling type machine guns capable of 2000 rounds per minute each) onto the enemy. The air forces of Columbia and El Salvador still employ the Spooky.
6. Boeing B-52 Stratofortress bomber.
Introduced in 1955 this large, heavy swept wing 6 jet engine bomber was designed to fly higher and faster than contemporary fighter planes, though by the time it reached service those goals were already a pipe dream. Capable of carrying an devastating nuclear bomb load (including the huge H-bombs of the day), the B-52 was readily adaptable to carrying a large load of conventional bombs, up to about 75,000 pounds. By the late 1950’s Soviet anti-aircraft missile technology made high altitude bomber penetration problematic, and the role of the B-52 was changed to make its penetrating runs at low altitude, tremendously taxing on the airframe that was not built for that purpose. Still, despite the advent of supersonic fighters that could easily catch the B-52 at any altitude and the development of supersonic bombers (such as the B-58 Hustler and F-105 Thunderchief, and later the FB-111) the exemplary range (4480 combat radius without refueling, and unlimited with aerial refueling) and payload of the B-52 kept it in service. The large size of the airframe allowed the addition of all sorts of defensive electronics and adaptability to using precision guided munitions and cruise missiles. Incredibly, of the 744 B-52’s built from 1952 to 1962, 58 remain in active front line service with the US Air Force, with another 18 in reserve. The “youngest” of these planes are now 56 years old, older than any of their pilots! Hard to believe these massive bombers could still be an important part of American air power in the face of more modern bombers such as the B-1 Lancer and B-2 Spirit (stealth) bombers, including outliving the supersonic B-58 and the supersonic FB-111. The prospect of having a B-52 drop 100 or 120 bombs on you is terrifying to enemy troops, as proven in both Gulf Wars.
Honorable mention: The Soviet (now Russian) Tu-95 Bear bomber, a large 4 engine turbo-prop bomber built from 1952 to 1993, an incredible production run for a front line bomber airplane. In service since 1956, the Bear is often compared to the B-52 as its Soviet/Russian counterpart. Over 500 of these big planes have been built, capable of 575 mph, an extremely high speed for a propeller driven airplane. The Bear can haul 33,000 pounds worth of attack missiles, both for attacking ground and naval targets. Its unrefueled range of about 9400 miles is unmatched, making it a potent threat in the patrol mode. Much like the B-52, the Bear has outlived follow on designs that came later.
7. Douglas A-26 Invader, attack.
Designed as an upgrade replacement for the Douglas A-20 Havoc ground attack plane during World War II, the Invader boasted greatly increased speed (355 mph vs.317) with a 1400 mile range (vs. 945 miles for the A-20) and capable of carrying 6000 pounds of bombs and rockets (vs. 4000 pounds for the A-20). First flown in 1942, over 2500 of these great planes were built, some armed with as many as 20 (!) .50 caliber machine guns, providing an incredible punch for strafing (16 of the machine guns forward facing). Despite the proliferation of jet and turboprop powered aircraft after World War II, the A-26 (later designated B-26 by the US Air Force, creating confusion between it and the Martin B-26 Marauder of World War II), the A-26 powered by piston engines stayed in front line service in many of the Cold War actions that followed in the 1950’s and 1960’s, including service in the Vietnam War. The type was upgraded in 1964 to the B-26K (Counter-Invader) as a Counter Insurgency (COIN) aircraft, and by 1966 was again given the A-26 designation. The model served on active duty until 1980 with the Columbian Air Force.
8. MiG 17 Frescoe fighter.
Built as an evolutionary improvement to the famous MiG-15 Soviet jet fighter, the MiG-17 was only marginally better than the MiG-15, though somewhat safer for the pilots to fly. It’s top speed (712 mph vs. 688 mph at altitude), ceiling (54,000 feet vs. 51,000 feet), armament (same, 1 X 37mm and 2 X 23mm cannon) and range (1255 miles vs. 1565 miles) were quite similar to the MiG-15, though the high speed handling was better with the MiG-17 as was the climb rate (65 m/s vs. 55 m/s). By the time the MiG-17 was ready for production, supersonic fighters were already being designed, and mass production was delayed to favor the continued production of the MiG-15. Still, over 10,000 of the MiG-17 type were built in the USSR and China, and although front line service with those 2 countries (now Russia instead of the Soviet Union) is long gone, other countries retain some MiG-17’s in limited service. Despite being an antique by the time of the Vietnam War, the MiG-17 was pressed into service against more modern American fighters and fighter bombers such as the F-105, F-8 and F-4 supersonic jets. Fighting at high subsonic speeds and with the Americans limited by rules of engagement that allowed firing on the enemy only after visual confirmation, the long range missile capability of the American planes was moot, and dogfights instead took place at close range and at subsonic speeds, which fit right into the capabilities of the MiG-17 which was smaller, lighter and much more maneuverable than its American counterparts. Additionally, the gun armament of the MiG-17 was superior at very close range than the missile armament of the hulking American F-4, then the highest performance fighter in the world but a design that did not include an internal gun. The Americans were humiliated by losses to the MiG-17, a fighter type of 2 generations older than the cutting-edge F-4. During the Vietnam War the MiG-17 type fighter downed 28 American planes, including 11 F-4’s.
9. Fairey Swordfish torpedo bomber.
Introduced in 1936 this aircraft carrier based torpedo bomber was pretty much obsolete by the time it went into service. Completely outclassed by monoplane types, the old fashioned bi-plane constructed of a metal airframe covered in fabric instead of aluminum (as almost all other military planes of the time were) the Swordfish was called the “Stringbag” by its crews. Able to speed along (we jest) at 143 mph unloaded, the Swordfish could only lumber along at 124 mph when carrying an aerial torpedo and boasted only 2 X .303 caliber machine guns. And yet, the Swordfish remained in production through nearly the entire World War II period (until 1944), with nearly 2400 examples built. Compared to its American and Japanese counterparts (US TBF and TBM Avenger torpedo bombers capable of 275 mph and carrying 4 machine guns, the Japanese B5N capable of 235 mph) the Swordfish was hopelessly obsolete, and yet the type accounted for a greater loss of Axis shipping than any other allied torpedo bomber! The Swordfish stayed in front line service right up to the end of World War II, a time when Germany, t he UK and the US all had jet powered fighters already in service. Even the American Douglas TBD Devastator torpedo bomber was capable of 206 mph and it was considered obsolete by 1942.
10. Polikarpov Po-2 ground attack and utility.
Introduced into service in 1929, the Po-2 was another bi-plane from a bygone era by the time World War II started. Between 20,000 and 30,000 of these dependable planes were built, and they served a myriad of roles, from crop dusting, liaison, reconnaissance, psychological warfare, and even as a light bomber. Armed with only a single machine gun, the Po-2 could carry a load of 6 X 110 pound bombs, rather modest it would seem, except at night when the engine was turned off and the antique plane would silently glide over German troops and drop its bombs undetected, creating terror on the ground below it. Was the Po-2 (the bomber version, the utility version was called U-2) obsolete by World War II? It’s top speed (if you can call it speed) was a paltry 94 mph, and it cruised at only 68 mph! The type was famously flown by women pilots of the Soviet Air Force, women the Germans called “Night Witches.” The fabric construction made detection by radar difficult, and the extremely low speed made it hard for German fighter planes to attack them, as well as the tactic of flying at treetop level. Much as the Soviets had spread terror and disrupted the sleep of Germans at night during World War II with the Po-2, the North Koreans used the same plane and tactics against UN (i.e., American) troops during the Korean War (1950-1953), earning these Po-2 night harassment missions the nickname, “Bed check Charlie.” Amazingly, the Po-2 is the only bi-plane in history to get credit for downing a jet fighter when a USAF F-94 Starfire tried to shoot down a Po-2 and stalled trying to match the slow speed of the old plane!
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For more information, please see…
Chant, Christopher. World’s Greatest Aircraft. Chartwell Books, Inc, 2011.
Newdick, Thomas. The World’s Greatest Military Aircraft: An Illustrated History. Amber Books, 2015.
Phelps, Mark. Flight: 100 Greatest Aircraft. Weldon Owen, 2013.
The featured image in this article, a photograph of a Junkers Ju 87 “Stuka” dive bomber with 3.7 cm anti-tank guns under the wings, was provided to Wikimedia Commons by the German Federal Archive (Deutsches Bundesarchiv) as part of a cooperation project. The German Federal Archive guarantees an authentic representation only using the originals (negative and/or positive), resp. the digitalization of the originals as provided by the Digital Image Archive. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany license. Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-655-5976-04 / Grosse / CC-BY-SA 3.0.
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The aircraft, Hans-Ulrich Rudel’s, is being started with a hand crank.