A Brief History
On June 21, 1944, the US Navy was basking in the glow of an enormous victory over the Japanese Imperial Navy in the Battle of the Philippine Sea. Yesterday we told you about this battle (The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot) in which we suggested the US aircraft were superior to the Japanese aircraft at this time. US aircraft developed during the war much faster than did those of Japan, changing the qualitative edge from Japan to the US. Meanwhile, the Royal Navy was also developing improved models of their own naval aviation planes, though they had used “string bag” bi-planes to successfully attack the mighty Bismarck in 1941. Today we look at the fighter type of naval aircraft.
Grumman F4F Wildcat (US Navy and Royal Navy):
320 mph (Top Speed); 6 (or 4) X .50 MG (Armament); 7885 manufactured; Tough and rugged, with heavy firepower. Tactics resulted in 6.9:1 kill ratio v A6M. Even after the vastly superior F6F Hellcat and F4U Corsair made the scene, the Wildcat was still in production and found a home on small aircraft carriers such as “escort” or “Jeep” carriers converted from merchant ships as the more powerful planes were larger and needed a longer flight deck. As with many good fighter designs, the Wildcat was also quite useful as a light bomber and attack aircraft.
Grumman F6F Hellcat (US Navy and Royal Navy):
380 mph (Top Speed); 6 X .50 MG or 2 X 20mm + 4 X .50 MG (Armament); 12,275 manufactured; Dominated the Zero with better speed, armor, and guns (13: 1 kill ratio). The Hellcat was designed from the beginning with a single purpose, which was was to provide American naval aviators with a fighter that would defeat the Japanese Zero. The Hellcat did just that in magnificent fashion. Like its little brother, the Wildcat, the Hellcat was a rugged beast.
Vought F4U Corsair (US Navy and Royal Navy):
417 mph (Top Speed); 6 X .50 MG or 4 X 20mm (Armament); 12,571 manufactured; Highest performance of carrier World War II (WWII) planes.(11:1 v A6M). Probably the highest performance air to air naval fighter of World War Ii, the Corsair also excelled in the fighter bomber role in support of US Marines both in World War II and later in Korea.
Supermarine Seafire (Royal Navy):
359 (Top Speed); 2 X 20mm + 4 X .303 MG (Armament); 2334 manufactured; Naval Spitfire, not as good as land based. Certainly competitive with the Japanese Zero, the Seafire was not up to the land based standards of fighters in the European theater.
Hawker Sea Hurricane Royal Navy):
342 (Top Speed); 8 X .303 MG (Armament); 1190+ manufactured; Mostly catapult launched. Mostly retired 1943. Rugged and reliable, the Sea Hurricane was not particularly high performance, but was quite capable of defending convoys against German U-boat attacks, being catapulted from the decks of merchant ships. Unfortunately, this left the pilot no where to land, so he would have to ditch in the sea and hope to be picked up!
Hawker Sea Fury (Royal Navy):
460 mph (Top Speed); 4 X 20mm (Armament); 864 manufactured; Introduced October 1945, too late for WWII. Had the Sea Fury made it to the show in time to engage in combat, it would have dominated Japanese carrier aircraft and been competitive with all land based propeller driven fighters. Developed from the high performance land based Hawker Tempest, the Sea Fury served until retirement in 1956.
Fairey Fulmar (Royal Navy):
272 mph (Top Speed); 8 X .303 MG (Armament); 600 manufactured; Not a contender. Introduced in 1940, the Fulmar was already obsolete. Its virtues were ruggedness and reliability, and a range of 780 miles, superior to most European competitors. In the maritime recon and patrol mode, it could also carry a pair of 250 bombs.
Fairey Firefly, (Royal Navy):
316 (Top Speed); 4 X 20mm (Armament); 1702 manufactured; Produced until 1955. Despite its disappointing top speed, the all cannon armament made this 2 seat recon and patrol fighter a potent surface attack aircraft and capable of shooting down intruding bombers. Larger than the other naval fighters listed here, the second crewman was valuable in the recon mode with the extra set of eyeballs to scan the ocean and the skies, and the maximum bombload of 2 X 1000 pound bombs was heavy indeed for a naval fighter aircraft.
Mitsubishi A6M Zero (Imperial Japanese Navy):
331 (Top Speed); 2 X 20mm + 2 X 7.7mm MG (Armament); 11,000 manufactured; Later w/13.2mm MG in place of 7.7mm. Great range and handling. No armor. In the early stages of World War II, the Zero stunned Americans with its high performance and maneuverability. Despite minor improvements, the rapid advance of American naval aircraft technology quickly superseded that of the Zero and Japanese pilots were at a great disadvantage after the F6F and F4U appeared.
Grumman F8F Bearcat (US Navy)
421 (Top Speed); 4 X 20mm (some w/.50 MG’s) (Armament); 1265 manufactured; Operational during WWII but never in combat in WWII. Designed to be a high performance fighter that was small enough to fly from smaller aircraft carriers, the Bearcat had the unique feature of wingtips that were designed to break off under heavy G loading!
Question for students (and subscribers): Which of these planes were the best? You can decide for yourself, but we gave you some information about the notable carrier borne fighter aircraft to help you decide. Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Brown, Eric M. Duels in the Sky: World War II Naval Aircraft in Combat. Naval Institute Press, 1988.
Dempsey, Harry and Jon Guttman. Naval Aces of World War 1 part 2 (Aircraft of the Aces). Osprey Publishing, 2012.
The featured image in this article, a photograph of a U.S. Navy Douglas SBD-5 Dauntless of bombing squadron VB-10, Carrier Air Group 10 (CVG-10), based on the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CV-6), in 1944, 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.