A Brief History
On May 15, 1941, the Gloster E.28/39 jet powered fighter prototype made its first flight. This first of the Allied jet powered aircraft would be further developed into the first operational Allied jet fighter, the Gloster Meteor. The test aircraft could only make 338 mph, much slower than piston engine propeller driven fighters, but the Meteor was superb for its day when it was introduced in July of 1944, later variants capable of 600 mph. Although with limited combat experience, including no air to air combat (except against V-1 cruise missiles) the Meteor joined the War too late to have any influence on the fighting, which was also the fate of several other excellent airplanes that just did not make it to the Big Show in time to make their mark. Here we list 10 of those would have been great planes.
1. Gloster Meteor.
With 3947 of these jets built, their numbers are testament to the quality of the design of this pioneering jet fighter. Used against V-1 flying bombs over England and in minor ground attack roles in Europe, reluctance to allow the plane to fly over German or Soviet held territory limited its combat experience to minimal contact with the enemy. A ceiling of 43000 feet put it higher than almost any piston fighter and heavy armament of 4 X 20mm cannon made it well armed. Meteors served with many different countries into the 1960’s and 1970’s, retiring from service with the UK as target tugs in 1980.
2. Dornier 335 Arrow.
A large, unique heavy fighter, the Arrow (or Pfiel in German) was introduced in 1944, but with a total of only 37 aircraft built never made a bit of difference in the War. Too bad for Germany, because the big fighter could zip along at 475 mph and with its 30mm cannon and 2 X 20mm cannons could have torn bomber formations to shreds. Sleek and deadly looking, the Pfiel had 2 engines, one in the nose and one in the tail, each turning its own propeller. Trouble with the landing gear was a major problem in developing the plane, as was Allied bombing of German factories.
3. Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star.
Although early models were rushed over to Europe before the end of hostilities in that theater, the few P-80’s that made it “over there” failed to see any combat, although it was hoped they could be used to intercept German Aradao 234 jet bomber/recon aircraft. The Shooting Star was the first operational US jet warplane, and 1715 were built. More importantly, the 2 seat version used as a trainer (and in third world countries as a fighter) called the T-33 Shooting Star was built to the tune of 6557 copies, training an entire generation or 2 of jet pilots around the Allied world. Supposedly capable of 600 mph (actual pilots told me this was optimistic), the P-80 should have been a match for the Me-262 had they met. Used in the Korean War, the P-80 (F-80 by this time) was outclassed by the MiG-15 and was relegated to fighter bomber status. These planes saw active service into the 1970’s.
4. Grumman F8F Bearcat.
The US Navy saw a need for a high performance fighter that could fly off the smaller decks of Escort type aircraft carriers, something the larger F6F Hellcat and F4U Corsair could not do, leaving only the obsolete F4F Wildcat available for this duty. Thus was born a smaller, lighter version of the Grumman straight wing radial engine archetypical naval fighter plane, capable of 421 mph (next model 455 mph), almost 100 mph faster than a Wildcat and 40 or more mph faster than a Hellcat. Armed with only 4 X .50 caliber machine guns to save weight and balance (later changed to 4 X 20mm cannons), the Bearcat was operational by May of 1945, but did not see combat in World War II. If it had, it would likely have outclassed Japanese fighter opponents. Some of the 1265 of these highly capable fighters were still serving until 1963.
5. Grumman F7F Tigercat.
The first US Navy twin engine carrier fighter plane, the Tigercat was considered “introduced” in 1944, but was not deployed in any combat units before the end of World War II. A heavy fighter, the F7F was well armed with 2 X 20 mm cannons and 4 X .50 caliber machine guns making it one of the most heavily gunned fighters of its day. Capable of 460 mph, the F7F was more or less at the peak of piston engine propeller driven capabilities, though early troubles with suitability for carrier use stalled its deployment, relegating early models to ground bases. Only 364 were built, and the type served until 1954. Had the plane seen combat in the Pacific, it may well have been the premier destroyer of Japanese Kamikaze aircraft with its heavy guns.
6. General Motors P-75 Eagle.
The Eagle would have, could have been the Big Daddy of single engine piston powered fighters of World War II, with a 2600 horsepower engine, top speed of 433 mph, a superb long range of over 2000 miles, and a terrifying array of 10 X .50 caliber machine guns. Developmental snags spelled doom for the Fisher Body designed fighter as Air Force brass deemed production of P-51 and P-38 long range fighters was sufficient to win the war, another expensive project (the P-75) being superfluous.
7. Convair B-36 Peacemaker.
During the dark early days of World War II, US war planners realized they might have to fight Germany from North America if Britain fell to the Germans. Thus, an ultra-long range bomber with heavy defensive armament and a stupendous load was needed. Enter the Convair B-36, one of the most criticized aircraft programs of its day. The largest production plane in the world when introduced, it was at first powered by 6 rear facing pusher propeller piston engines, with an additional 4 turbojet engines added to increase performance. Using all the latest technology of the day, including pressurized crew compartments, remote control computer aided guns and boasting a price tag of $4.1 million each (scandalous in those days), the B-36 did not make it into the air until 1946. Capable of 435 mph the B-36 was fast enough to deal with piston powered fighters, but not the jets it would have faced after 1945. In service from 1948 to 1959, the 384 planes produced never saw combat, although they did their job by providing a 4000 mile combat radius to deliver every model of US nuclear weapon available during its service life. Originally equipped with 16 X 20mm cannons in twin mounts, later revisions kept only the 2 cannon in the tail. A bomb load of 86,000 pounds was mind numbingly huge for its time (and even today), and the big bomber could carry the 42,000 H-Bomb when no other plane could.
8. Consolidated Vultee XP-81.
This plane is another one that would have been superior to anything other than jet aircraft, largely because it too, was a jet aircraft, but with a twist. The XP-81 was powered by both a turbojet and a turboprop, an interesting hybrid that took advantage of 2 related technologies at a time when American jet engines were not up to world beater status alone. Armed with a heavy suite of 6 X 20mm cannons, the 507 mph fighter had a range of 2500 miles, plenty for its intended role as a long range escort fighter. First flight took place in February of 1945, too late for production to start before the end of World War II.
9. Nakajima Kikka.
Using German supplied technical information, the Kikka was developed by the Japanese as their version of the Me-262 jet fighter, albeit highly modified. Only 10 were built and only 1 flight took place before the end of the war, but the performance of this little jet would have had profound impact against US airpower had the war continued longer. Capable of 432 mph and with a ceiling of almost 40,000 feet, the Kikka’s twin 30mm cannon could well have devastated B-29 bombers sent over Japan. Further development of the jet engines would likely have resulted in increased performance as well, as these developments were underway when the war ended.
10. Arado 234.
Introduced in September of 1944, the 214 copies of this twin jet powered bomber entered service too late to make a difference for Germany in World War II. Designed with 2 X 20mm cannons in the tail, the guns were omitted in combat aircraft, as the bomber’s 461 mph speed was sufficient protection against Allied piston powered fighters. Flying high and fast, the Aradao 234 was basically impossible for the Allies to intercept, and usually its flights were not even detected. Used almost exclusively for reconnaissance, the limited bomb load of 3300 pounds was a drawback, but had the plane been built earlier and in numbers it could well have spelled trouble for the Allies.
Question for students (and subscribers): What planes would you add to the list? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Berliner, Don. World War Two Jet Fighters: Scale Reference Data. Kalmbach Publishing Co., 1982.