A Brief History
We previously told you about the AC-130 Spectre, the highest evolution of the cargo plane converted to gunship, in use from Viet Nam through today. Here we look at ground attack aircraft throughout history and list what may be 10 of the greatest examples of that type of airplane. The order listed is roughly our idea of “best,” although that is quite subjective and open for debate. Please feel free to make the case for your favorite ground attack plane and the order you would list these fearsome aircraft. (Honorable mention to the Hawker Siddley, later McDonnel-Douglas, AV-8 Harrier.)
10. Douglas A-1 Skyraider, 1946.
Designed as a massive single engine carrier attack plane, this brute was too late for World War II, but saw extensive use during the Korean War and Vietnam War by both the US Navy and the US Air Force. Rugged and capable of carrying as many bombs as a B-17 (remember, 1 propeller driving engine!) the “Spad” (as it was affectionately called) had 4 X 20mm cannons and carried 8000 pounds of rockets and bombs. Despite its bulk (loaded weight of up to 25,000 pounds) the A-1 could zip along at over 300 mph. This rugged beast served America’s allies until 1985.
9. Messerschmitt Me-262 Sturmvogel (Warbird), 1944.
Although as a bomber killing interceptor this first operational jet fighter in the world would have been of critical use to Germany, Adolf Hitler foolishly demanded it be developed as a ground attack jet, delaying production and distribution. Still, the sleek jet was indeed a great ground attack plane with unprecedented speed, making it extremely difficult for Allied ground to air defenses to target the jet. With 4 X 30mm cannon, rockets and up to 2 X 500 kilogram bombs the Sturmvogel packed a tremendous punch for a small airplane. The fact that so few saw service in this role (only some 1400 odd were made and only a fraction of those saw combat) makes this plane considered here for its potential rather than its actual service. (Note: My uncle was in an M-4 Sherman tank attacked by an Me-262 and was stunned at the speed of the jet.)
8. Republic P-47 Thunderbolt, 1942.
Despite its chunky appearance (leading to a nickname of “Jug”) this was a high performance fighter and interceptor with a powerful suite of 8 X wing mounted .50 caliber machine guns. With its 2000 hp radial engine, the P-47 was the most rugged US fighter of World War II and could take tremendous punishment and continue to fly. Adapted for ground attack by adding rockets and bombs, the P-47 proved to be the most prolific tank killer in the US arsenal. Per Wikipedia, “from D-Day until VE day, Thunderbolt pilots claimed to have destroyed 86,000 railroad cars, 9,000 locomotives, 6,000 armored fighting vehicles, and 68,000 trucks.” No other Western Front attack aircraft comes anywhere near these numbers. Over 15,000 Jugs were built and were in service until 1966.
7. Hawker Typhoon, 1941.
Britain’s entry into this genre was designed as a high altitude interceptor, but found its true calling as a low altitude ground attack gem. Its original 12 X .303 caliber machine guns were replaced with hard hitting armor defeating 4 X 20 mm cannons and loads of rockets and 2 X 1000 pound bombs made this high performance fighter hell on ground and sea targets.
6. Douglas A-26 Invader, 1944.
Although this plane missed a large chunk of World War II, its performance was so terrific it has to be listed here. Capable of 355 mph and carrying 6000 pounds of bombs and rockets (could be overloaded with more than this), the A-26 had 8 X forward firing .50 caliber machine guns and could be equipped with another 8 for massive strafing effectiveness. It also boasted dorsal and ventral turrets with 2 X .50 caliber machine guns each for self defense. Incredibly, the A-26 did all this with a crew of only 3 men! So sound was the platform, A-26’s (later designated B-26, causing confusion with the WWII era B-26 Marauder) served until 1980 and saw combat during the Vietnam War.
5. Junkers Ju-87 Stuka, 1936.
Designed for the Luftwaffe as a dedicated ground support dive bomber, the Stuka was high tech when introduced, but by the 1940’s was almost obsolete due to lack of speed and poor self-defense. Nonetheless, this feared war bird was incredibly accurate with its precision bombing and was up gunned from only 2 X forward firing 7.92mm machine guns and 1 X rear facing self-defense 7.92mm machine gun to having 2 X 20mm cannons and a defensive twin 7.92 machine gun mount. Bomb load was increased from 1100 pounds to 4000 pounds, and the ability to carry rockets was added. Extra armor plate and more powerful engines were developed, and wing guns grew to 30mm cannons and finally 37mm cannons. (The latest versions were said to be inspiration for the A-10 Thunderbolt II.) Rugged and reliable, easy to service in rough conditions, the fixed landing gear could be jettisoned for belly landing if one of them had been shot off.
4. North American B-25 Mitchell, 1941.
Designed as a heavily armed medium bomber meant to carry medium sized bomb loads at medium altitude and relatively long range, the Mitchell was adapted for and used as a ground attack airplane of extraordinary magnitude. Modified for ground attack, the front glazing was replaced with a solid nose of 8 X .50 caliber machine guns clustered together, with another 2 X .50 calibers machine guns on each “cheek.” Combined with the top turret’s twin .50’s, this allowed as many as 14 forward firing .50 caliber machine guns at the same time, an incredible amount of firepower. Also carrying rockets and bombs, B-25 tactics were adapted for anti-ship use by skip bombing (kind of like skipping stones) which proved deadly. A version mounting a forward firing 75mm cannon was the most powerful airplane gun of World War II. Having 8 .50 caliber machine guns in addition to the forward firing guns gave this plane better self defense than any of the other planes listed here. The Mitchell served until 1979 (in Indonesia).
3. Lockheed AC-130 Spectre, 1966.
A giant turbojet cargo plane seems unlikely as a ground attack platform, but this fantastic airframe has proven capable of dropping the largest bombs the US has ever made (bombs too big even for a B-52!) and mounting an incredible array of guns, including the 105mm cannon, the largest gun ever mounted on an airplane. These planes have been updated and are still in use. The latest version, the AC-130W Stinger, is armed with a rapid fire 30mm cannon and a 105mm howitzer, forgoing the previous smaller caliber guns. It is also equipped to fire the Griffin or Viper Strike missiles from internal launch tubes, as well as Hellfire guided missiles and bombs from under-wing racks. (The earliest versions used 7.62mm and 20mm Gatling type rotary guns.)
2. Fairchild-Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II, 1977.
Designed as a Cold War tank buster to break up massive Soviet armored assaults, this twin jet purpose built ground attack plane was designed around its giant tank killing 30mm Gatling Gun that stitches through tanks like a sewing machine through cloth. Also capable of carrying a wide array of rockets and bombs (including “smart bombs” and guided missiles) this ungainly looking beast has a payload of 16,000 pounds. Another 1200 pounds of titanium armor protect the pilot and vital avionics. It is the toughest airplane ever built, capable of withstanding incredible firepower and damage and is the descendant of the P-47 Thunderbolt and the F-84 Thunderjet, both fighters adapted for ground attack. Not expected to stay in service this long, the A-10 (usually called the Warthog) is still flying.
1. Ilyushin IL-2 Sturmovik, 1941.
The fact that over 36,000 of these rugged machines were built is testament to how important and how effective they were. These heavily armored “flying tanks” could take a legendary amount of enemy fire and continue flying, dealing death and destruction to armored vehicles and other ground targets. Usually armed with 2 X 23mm cannons, 2 X 7.62mm machine guns, and a rear facing 12.7mm machine gun, the Sturmovik also carried bombs and rockets up to 600 kilograms. All that armor meant a top speed of only 257 mph and a ceiling of only 18,000 feet, but for attacking the ground those factors were not so important. This is without question the greatest of the single engine ground attack planes, and maybe the best overall. The Il-2 is the most produced warplane of all time.
Question for students (and subscribers): Which plane do you consider to be greatest ground attack aircraft? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Burns, David M. Spectre Gunner: The AC-130 Gunship. iUniverse, 2013.
Couvillon, Michael. Grenada Grinder: The Complete Story of AC – 130H Spectre Gunship Operation Urgent Fury. Deeds Publishing, 2010.
Fitzpatrick, Kevin J. Flying Gunship: The Ac-130 Spectre (High-Tech Military Weapons). Childrens Pr, 2000.
The featured image in this article, a photograph by U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Julianne Showalter of an AC-130H gunship from the 16th Special Operations Squadron, Hurlburt Field, Florida, jettisoning flares as an infrared countermeasure during multi-gunship formation egress training on August 24, 2007, 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.