When the editors of Flight Journal asked me to write about all the great WW II fighters and to choose one as “the best,” I thought, “What an ego trip!” The selections would be easy to dig out of my dusty flight-report files (which document my evaluations of WW II fighter types) and out of books in my aviation collection.
I test-flew several versions of these fighters during the Joint Army/Navy Fighter Conference at NAS Patuxent in October 1944 and also fighters that had been passed between Navy and Air Corps contractors for test-pilot evaluations: the F4U-1, F4U-1D, F4U-4 Corsair; P-51B, P-51D, H Mustang; P-38D, M Lightning; P-47B, P-47D, N Thunderbolt; P-40N Warhawk and P-39 Airacobra; P-63 King Cobra; F4F Wildcat; F6F Hellcat; Supermarine Seafire (a carrier version of the famous Spitfire); the Mosquito and the Japanese A6M5 Zero.
These flight evaluations weren’t merely joyrides to add hours to my logbook; they had been set up to investigate the fighters’ known good and bad flight characteristics and performance capabilities during simulated gunnery runs against other fighters and during dive-bombing runs against targets. I wrote a comprehensive report on every fighter so that Grumman engineers would be able to incorporate—or steer clear of—these features in future designs.
Picking the “best” fighter, however, went way past my experiences as a test pilot. It involved the consideration of a very complex series of operational factors. On top of that, the land-based war in Europe and the island-hopping war in Japan, in which carrier-based aviation played such a vital part, would have to be considered separately.
“BEST FIGHTER” SELECTION CRITERIA
CONSTANT PRODUCTION IMPROVEMENT IN COMBAT CAPABILITY
Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, the famous southern Civil War cavalry officer, uttered, “Git thar fustest with the mostest.” That combat axiom had probably been defined in many other languages for eons before he said it, but it’s succinct, and it happens to be the prescription. For that reason, I have limited the contestants by selecting only fighters that were built in quantities of more than 10,000; during such a production run, they will have seen many improvements and will then meet Gen. Forrest’s criterion of “mostest.”
My principal selection criterion was that a fighter must have made a continuous contribution to the destruction of the enemy ground and air forces in four tactical roles: fighter-to-fighter, air-to-ground-troop support, bomber protection and photo recon missions. Comparing them only in the exciting, ace-making fighter-to-fighter role would omit three quarters of their capabilities, which were tactically and strategically necessary to win the war. Most of the combatant WW II air force pilots had been trained in all of these roles, and most fighters could fly all missions to some degree.
During WW II, it was almost useless to design a superb airplane that required an experienced pilot. Experienced pilots didn’t fight wars; hastily trained fledglings who eventually become experienced pilots fought them. For that reason, planes had to be comfortable enough for a 200-hour, wartime-trained pilot; they had to have docile flight characteristics, high performance, good cockpit design and outside visibility, comfort, armored/ self-sealing fuel tanks and a resulting low accident rate.
U.S. flight records from the European theater were easy to obtain and clearly showed what each fighter type contributed. Records from the Pacific theater were more difficult to come by. For British, German and Japanese fighters, I found very little hard data on the number of sorties, tons of bombs dropped, aircraft shot down, locomotives and rail cars destroyed, and that made comparing their operations difficult.
BEST FIGHTER EUROPEAN THEATER
Let’s go through the seven most numerous WW II European theater of operations (ETO) fighters and see how they compare as we work up to number one. I have ranked them in increasing order of the importance of their contributions (from 7 to 1).
7 LOCKHEED P-38 LIGHTNING
Lockheed’s twin-engine Lightning had the potential to be the number-one fighter. It first flew on January 27, 1939—early enough to have been deployed before Pearl Harbor. It had more horsepower than any previous fighter, and its tricycle landing gear greatly simplified pilot training. Its five centerline guns, unhampered by converging wing-gun aiming problems, made gunnery much less difficult for its pilots. Its turbo-supercharged engines gave it a great altitude advantage over enemy aircraft. It had many combat assets, and it was the first twin-engine fighter ever put into service by the USAAC. It was the first fighter designed for top-priority mass-production by Lockheed when it was already embroiled in design and manufacturing problems with other military aircraft, and it had a very large backlog of unfilled contracts. The P-38’s engines and turbo superchargers had not completed their military acceptance programs by the time it was put into service. The massive P-38 program requirements dictated that Lockheed expand its manpower and manufacturing space in Los Angeles—a city already so overloaded with top-priority military programs that the P-38’s production rate suffered. It was larger and required two engines, so it took longer to produce and required more maintenance-support hours than single-enginefighters. The number of Lightnings deployed was therefore 20 percent fewer than the P-51 and 56 percent fewer than the P-47.
The P-38 suffered many “growing pains” when it was first deployed to Europe, and its range—at that time—wasn’t sufficient for the needed bomberescort missions. Unfortunately, it was also the first fighter to encounter the unexpected and destructive compressibility regime in dives; this phenomenon caused the loss of several prototypes and early squadron aircraft; and it slowed its progress in the field. The P-47 and P-51 soon replaced them. The Lightning did, however, show its magnificent combat abilities in the African and Pacific theaters in air-defense, fighterbomber and photo recon missions.
Pilots who flew the Lightning in combat quickly became accustomed to its twin engines’ excessive thrust, and they appreciated its single-engine safety potential. When the P-38 was equipped with hydraulicboost ailerons, it demonstrated a much greater combat advantage over enemy fighters; and when it at last had dive-recovery flaps installed, pilots no longer feared over-diving the P-38 into compressibility.
6 MESSERSCHMITT BF 109
Between July 1937 and 1939, in the Spanish war against Russian fighters, 29 Messerschmitt Bf l09Bs were blooded by two combat squadrons in JDG Group J/88; thus, it saw duty before WW II. More were produced—and without interruption—than of any other fighter; it was manufactured right up to the end of the war and was a most promising fighter, but 11,000 of the 33,000 built were destroyed during takeoff and landing accidents— one third of its combat potential! I was amazed when my friend and 176-kills ace the late Gen. Johannes Steinhoff told me this. It seems incredible that the primary cause of this outrageous statistic—a splayed-out wheel landing gear known to have incorrect geometry—was not rectified immediately by the powers that be. Chief aerodynamicist for the Messerschmitt Me 163 rocket fighter, Josef Hubert, who came to Grumman in 1946, told me that Willi Messerschmitt had adamantly refused to compromise the Bf 109’s performance by adding the drag-producing wing-surface bumps and fairings that would have been necessary to accommodate the wheels with the proper geometry. This would have reduced its accident rate to within expected military-fighter ranges and made it a world standard!
Steinhoff also related the story of ferrying 200 Bf 109s from Germany to France just before D-day in June 1944. Because of poor weather, a lack of training and operational problems, only 23 made it to their destination—177 aircraft lost out of 200 sent!
As a fighter-bomber, the Bf 109F-l/B was a borderline failure. It could barely carry enough external stores to justify the risk. The best it could do was to sling a single 500-pound bomb on a centerline rack. There’s a good reason why you seldom see a picture of a 109 carrying bombs: it was an inferior fighter-bomber.
Throughout the war, the Bf 109 made hundreds of high-scoring aces, including top scorer Erich Hartmann (352 kills). It was considered to be an outstanding defensive and offensive fighter, but with a mediocre fighter-bomber capability and a high accident rate designed into it, it could never be rated as the best.
5 RUSSIAN YAK-1 AND YAK-9
In 1938, 32-year-old Alexander Yakovlev won the contract to build a line of very simple, straightforward Yak fighters that would provide more than 30,000 fighter aircraft for the USSR air forces during the war.
The Yak-1 started with wooden wings and steel-tube and fabric fuselage and tail surfaces. After being moved east from Moscow to Kamensk/Uralsk, Yakovlev’s first aircraft rolled off the lines three weeks after the arrival of the jigs and tools. This was an amazing feat! The Yak-l was powered by one 1,100hp M-l05Pa engine that took it to 311mph at sea level and 363mph at 16,000 feet. Its range, however, was limited by a fuel capacity of only 107 gallons. The Russians quickly learned their lesson, and the Yak series was continually redesigned and improved.
As its designations moved forward—and backward, (the USSR had a strange model-numbering system)—it became faster and more lethal and carried heavier bomb loads. The Yak-9M’s primary role was to support the ground forces and keep the air clear of Luftwaffe fighters and bombers. It also escorted Il-2 and Pe-2 bombers on runs over Luftwaffe airfields. It could easily out-climb the Messerschmitt 109, and later models had enough range to escort Allied B-17 shuttle bombers from Britain over Russia to Italy.
There is no question that the Yak-1, -3, -7 and -9 series of continuous fighter development contributed
Later-model Yak fighters had a greater fuel capacity for an ultra-long range of 1,365 miles; they escorted USAAF bombers on shuttle raids between Britain, Russia and Italy. They also flew out of Bari, Italy, in support of Yugoslavian partisans. (Photo courtesy of author)
greatly to the Soviets’ winning their part of WW II. It was a run-of-the-mill aircraft that was designed to use the materials and labor available. All Yakovlev fighter models had many attributes in common: they could be mass-produced and continually developed to stay ahead of the enemy; and excellent stability and controllability at high angles of attack were combined with extremely pleasant handling capabilities.
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