A Brief History
On May 29, 1940, the F4U Corsair made its first flight, an event that spurred us to offer a list of the “10 Greatest Fighter Planes” on May 29, 2014. This year we counter that with listing 10 of the most under-appreciated, under-rated fighter planes of all time, planes that served well but did not get much press or credit for their contribution, or are often mentioned with caveats about being obsolete or with some deficiency or another. Here we attempt to list the best of that lot.
10. Mikoyan and Gurevich MiG-17.
A follow on to the MiG-15, the Mig-17 (Fresco to Nato) did not get much respect from Americans due to its modest high subsonic speed. Not even made to dogfight, the Soviet jet was designed to shoot down piston powered US bombers (B-29, B-50, B-36) but turned out to be quite a handful for American pilots when encountered in Viet Nam. Already somewhat dated when US pilots were fighting them (introduced in 1952) in the mid to late 1960’s, the Fresco proved a worthy foe for American jet fighters and fighter-bombers, even the supersonic Mach 2 capable F-4 Phantom and F-105 Thunderchief. A high ceiling of over 54,000 feet and heavy gun armament (1 X 37mm and 2 X 23mm cannons) made this a fearsome opponent, as did the addition of air to air missiles. In all, the MiG-17 shot down 32 F-4’s, 16 F-105’s and 11 Navy F-8’s during the Viet Nam war, with a total of 71 claimed US planes destroyed. The weight of a 2 second burst of gunfire from a MiG-17 was about 70 pounds of projectiles, about double that of the US 20mm equipped planes. With over 11,000 built and distributed to various Soviet bloc nations, this ubiquitous airplane was a major player during the Cold War, but without the fame and notoriety of the MiG-15, MiG-21 or MiG-25.
9. General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon.
Designed to be the “low” end of a “high-low” mix of fighters for the USAF, the F-16 did not receive the fame and glamour of the more capable and much more expensive F-15 Eagle, even though there have been over 4500 Falcons built and only around 1200 Eagles. Capable enough, this single engine jet is flown by more than 2 dozen air forces and was the first “fly by wire” fighter plane. Capable of ground attack or air to air combat, the F-16 is a (relatively) economical way to achieve first class performance. It is armed with the M61 Vulcan “gatling” type 20mm cannon and can carry a staggering 17,000 pounds of rockets and bombs. While achieving Mach 2 performance. It is still in production (export) an incredible 37 years after introduction to service (1978).
8. Nakajima Ki-84 Hiyate (Frank).
Although this fighter was probably the best Japanese fighter of World War II, it has a fraction of the fame of the Mitsubishi Zero. Fully the match of the best American fighters, the ‘Frank’ (as it was called by the Allies) could make 421 mph and high enough altitude to intercept B-29 bombers (38,000 feet). Well armed with 2 X 20mm cannon and 2 X 12.7mm machine guns, some versions had the machine guns replaced by 2 X 30mm cannons making them serious bomber busters. American pilots should consider themselves lucky only 3514 were produced from 1943 to 1945.
7. Bell P-39 Airacobra.
Not as well known by the American public as the more glamorous Mustangs, Thunderbolts, Lightnings, Hellcats and Corsairs, or even the P-40 Warhawk, there were 9588 of these sleek fighters produced during World War II. It was with the Soviets that this plane made its greatest impact, being used mostly in the air to air role. Its heavy 37mm cannon firing through the propeller is often mistakenly believed to have been used as a “tank killer,” but in fact the US never supplied anti-armor 37mm ammo to the Soviets and the weapon was used against airplanes or soft (unarmored) ground targets. The Airacobra was the most used American airplane by the Soviets and enjoyed a good reputation as a low altitude dogfighter. A further development of this fighter was the P-63 King Cobra, not used at all by the US but exported to the USSR. As many as 2600 of the 3300 P-63’s produced went to the Soviets. The P-63 version was faster (410 mph) and had better high altitude performance due to a supercharger for the motor.
6. Grumman F8F Bearcat.
Developed during World War II as a lighter weight answer to the workhorse F-6F Hellcat, the Bearcat was made to be lighter and smaller with the same engine as the Hellcat, meaning the ‘Bear’ could fly from smaller carriers and have superior performance. It was also the first carrier plane with a bubble canopy, giving great visibility. Armed with either 4 X .50 caliber machine guns or 4 X 20mm cannons, the Bearcat’s 2 main models had a top speed of 421 and 455 respectively. Only 1265 were built, as they came into being when jets were clearly the present and future of aviation. The Bearcat was pretty much the epitome of piston powered carrier fighters, narrowly missing the opportunity to rule the Pacific before V-J day. The Bearcat held several speed and climbing records and was often used in air races by civilian owners. A fascinating feature of the F8F was the outer wing (folding) portion was designed to snap off if the plane exceeded 7.5 G’s, leaving the aircraft still flyable.
5. SPAD S.XIII.
This French fighter of World War I was an evolution of earlier SPAD models that had been armed with a single .303 caliber machine gun and a 150 hp engine. This later model increased horsepower to 200 or 220, and added a second machine gun. It outflew its more famous contemporaries, such as the Sopwith Camel and the Fokker D.VII. With 8472 built, it was one of the most built fighters of World War I, and many more were on order when the Armistice came. This was the fighter that equipped American flying units during the war, including pilot Eddie Rickenbacker, the top US fighter ace of World War I. The SPAD S.XIII could zip along at 135 mph and reach a ceiling of almost 22,000 feet. For some reason the German Albatross and Fokker models along with “Snoopy’s” Sopwith Camel get all the press, while the SPAD was right up there in the thick of things, deserving of more mention and appreciation.
4. Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star.
America’s first operational jet fighter did not quite make it to combat in World War II, and was changed to the F-80 designation after the war. Criticized for its 6 X .50 caliber machine guns that were not effective enough against jet opponents (20mm cannons becoming the standard fighter fare after the war), the Shooting Star would have been a worthy opponent of the Me-262 had they fought, but by the Korean War the F-80 was outclassed by the Soviet MiG-15. Still, 1715 of these rugged planes were built and saw yeoman service in Korea as fighter-bombers. Perhaps its main value was in its 2 seat version (T-33) of which over 6500 were built, making it the most prevalent jet trainer aircraft in the West for many years. The F-94 Starfire was adapted from the T-33 as an afterburning all weather and night interceptor, taking that role from the F-82 Twin-Mustang. T-33’s were in active service into the mid-1970’s.
3. Yakolev Yak-9.
Despite being the most produced Soviet fighter of all time (16,769), this fine fighter is hardly mentioned in Western accounts of World War II. A development from earlier Yak models (Yak-1 on), this plane was lighter, faster, and more maneuverable than its predecessors. Faster than German fighters at the lower altitudes fought at on the Eastern Front, the Yak-9 was a qualitative match or better than the Bf-109 and Fw-190 they faced. A weakness was in armament, with regular armament consisting of a single 20mm cannon and a single .50 caliber (12.7mm) machine gun, although with such a large production run various other armament suites were tried. The Yak-9 was the first Soviet fighter to shoot down a jet in combat (Me-262) and the plane was used against UN forces in the Korean War. The Yak-9U could truck along at 417 mph, world class speed at the time. Versions included fighter-bomber, night fighter, recon, high altitude and 2 seat trainers.
2. Hawker Hurricane.
With a massive production run of 14,583 this fighter had a big impact on World War II. Although out flown and out produced by the Spitfire (over 20,000 built), there were more Hurricanes available during the Battle of Britain and the Hawker brand shot down 60% of the German planes lost during the battle. Equipped with the same engine and armament as the Spitfire, the Hurricane was just not the darling of the press and public with the glory and ink being spent on the Supermarine stablemate. An interesting use of the Hurricane was as a Lend-Lease export to the Soviet Union, with almost 3000 planes sent to serve with the Red Air Force, more than any other British plane. Normal armament was 8 X .303 caliber machine guns, spraying a considerable amount of lead. Other versions tried various armament suites (12 machine guns, or some heavier weapons) and ground attack became a normal mission as the war progressed. A notable variant was the Sea Hurricane built for carrier operations.
1. Curtiss P-40 Warhawk.
You will rarely if ever hear or read of this fine fighter without some reference to it being obsolete or under performing right from the start. Actually, at lower altitudes it performed quite well and only suffered at higher altitudes. When equipped with 6 X .50 caliber machine guns (most of them) it was well enough armed (same as the Mustang) and was rugged enough for heavy use as a fighter bomber. Its superior speed in a dive was used to foil Japanese lightweight fighters in the Pacific theater, and a whopping 13,738 were built (that is what is known as “a clue”). Post war analysis of combat records indicate the P-40 was much more successful in the air to air role than is generally reported, with most accounts sniffing that the plane was good for ground attack alone. Although originally designed as a ground attack plane, the ability of the P-40 to turn tightly at high speed was superior to that of the flimsy Japanese fighters that could out turn the Warhawk at lower speeds. Exploiting the difference in dive speed and high speed performance made all the difference in the hands of pilots trained properly. The P-40 was considered superior to the Hurricane in the Mediterranean Theater and also by the Soviets, who received over 2400 Kittyhawks and Tomahawk models.
Question for students (and subscribers): Which planes would you nominate to this list? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Johnsen, Frederick A. and Rikyu Watanabe. F4U: Corsair. Random House Value Publishing, 1988.
Laurier, Jim and Edward M. Young. F4U Corsair vs Ki-84 Frank: Pacific Theater 1945 (Duel). Osprey Publishing, 2016.
Sullivan, Jim. F4U Corsair in Action – Aircraft No. 220. Squadron/Signal Publications, 2015.