We’ve already looked at several candidates for the worst aircraft of World War II, so what about the other side of the question? What aircraft really stand out for excellence and overall impact?
After the jump, another of my pointless essays, this time I’ll try to pick some “Best” aircraft of World War II.
I think this is an even more difficult topic than “The Worst” was. Its not just a matter of finding types ill-suited to combat. There are so many aircraft that were well designed, effective and important. Especially among the bigger powers, aircraft design, selection and manufacture was taken very seriously and a lot of thought went in to it. So I am sorry in advance if I fail to mention your favorite type, but there truly is a lot to choose from.
I’m looking for types that were not only excellent at their role, but had an impact on the War in more than just a purely tactical sense. I admit to being an American fan boy which will influence my choices; and given that the allies won the war, I think its only natural to find more of strategic impact there. An obvious problem I run into, types that were important both tactically and strategically at the start of the war were often eclipsed by the end. I will try to make some allowance for that. Another issue, far more so than with the “worst” side of this discussion; there’s likely to be few real surprises here. Most of the “best” aircraft are well known types. I think that’s reasonable, but it takes a little of the fun out of it for me.
So let’s start with the runners up. An obvious candidate for this list is the Messerschmitt Bf109. A high performance single seat fighter, just entering service in its well refined “E” model (“Emil” to its crews), the Bf109 dominated opposition over Europe at the start of the war. Later variants “Friedrich” and “Gustov” improved aerodynamics and added power. This was the mount of most of Germany’s great World War II aces who ran up staggering kill totals, including the world’s ace of aces Eric Hartman who scored all of his 352 kills in this type. Late in the war, the 109’s performance was not quite so extraordinary, but the type was undone more by Nazi Germany’s inability to compete on an industrial scale than shortcomings of the aircraft. By the end of the war, inexperienced German pilots were shot down easily and in large numbers, but those aces who were still active were always a threat in this type. Its biggest deficiencies were range and firepower.
The obvious next runner up is the Spitfire. This was the only airplane that could face the Bf109 on equal terms. And like the Bf109, the Spitfire would be updated as the war progressed, going from Mk I to Mk XVI. The British never had the super aces like Germany, in part because they used a tour of duty system that rotated experienced pilots back to pass on their knowledge to a next generation. The plane itself went from having just over 1000 hp at the start of the war, to nearly 2000 at the end. Top speed, payload and firepower all increased; and a late war Spitfire was still as good as any piston engine aircraft in the world.
Another of the great aircraft with long service is the Mitsubishi A6M Zero. And this is the first aircraft I’ll mention that impacted strategy beyond just its great performance. With almost a 2000 mile range, the Zero could seemingly be everyplace at once. Aircraft based in Formosa and Saigon could control airspace from the Philippines to the Malay Peninsula. This had an effect on war planning before the decision was even made to go to war. And its been rumored that the Zero is THE weapon that gave Admiral Yamamoto the confidence to plan the war in the first place.
So far I’ve mentioned only fighters. There were certainly other types that were excellent in their role and had a strategic impact. I think an obvious choice is the Douglass C-47 Dakota (DC-3 in civilian service). This is another of those immediately recognizable aircraft. Its performance was in no way “outstanding”; but it was a dependable, well made, mass produced aircraft gave the allies, especially US and Great Britain, strategic flexibility of a sort the axis envied. We could drop entire divisions of paratroopers, supply remote bases, even operate airfields behind enemy lines (done in Burma and Thailand). More conventional things, like getting supplies to fast moving units and med-evac were comparatively easy for the western allies thanks to this aircraft. It was never the only transport in use, but it was the most useful and prolific. Its also worth mentioning that due to pre-war licences, the C-47 was produced by the Soviet Union (as the Lisonuv Li-2) and Japan (as the Showa L2D Tabby). Obviously the type stayed in service with military and civil operators long after World War II. Some small operators still have commercial DC-3s flying cargo. As they say, the only replacement for a DC-3, is another DC-3!
The last runner up I think is the Boeing B-29 Superfortress. This aircraft was not as well loved by its crews as most of the other types I mentioned. Early versions in particular were troublesome. The aircraft was so complex, with pressurization, “computerized” central fire control and state of the art avionics it was bound to be troublesome. The R-3350 engines in particular were prone to over-heating and fire. But through massive effort, this most expensive allied weapon system of the war became the strategic decision maker. From the Mariana Islands B-29-s were able bomb the Japanese Islands to destruction, and with mine laying they shut down Japanese shipping. Later, by employing the second most expensive weapon of the war, the Atomic Bomb, they brought an end to the long war.
So what do I think was the “best” airplane of World War II? Hmmm… what really important type haven’t I mentioned yet? How about the North American P-51 Mustang. This really isn’t close as far I’m concerned. That may be why I find this topic a little less interesting than the “worst aircraft” topic. The Mustang was a great fighter. This is well known. The British Merlin engine paired with the American airframe and laminar flow wing were a terrific combination. So much so, that compared to the Spitfire Mk IX that used the similar Merlin 60 series engine, the Mustang was 20% heavier, but 20kts faster with three times the range. Of course the Mustang was heavier and less maneuverable; but faster, much better dive speed, heavier fire power, more rugged construction; all made the Mustang a deadly hunter and escort fighter. And its that escort fighter role that makes the Mustang so strategically important. It meant we could put a high performance single engine fighter over Berlin from a base in England. Supposedly Herman Goring, the head of the Luftwaffe, said he knew the war was lost the day he saw Mustangs over Berlin. It was that important. And even longer range missions would be performed in the Pacific, after the fall of Iwo Jima we based Mustangs there to join up with the B-29s coming up from the Marianas and give escort anywhere in Japan. These Very Long Range, or VLR escort missions were among the war’s most difficult to fly; 8 hours in a single seat fighter meant pilots routinely had to be carried from the cockpit when they returned to base.
Before I end this, I do want to mention a few other important types. There are so many planes that performed well and were important to their user’s war effort. But its hard to ignore the trio of American fighters that used the Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Engine; Thunderbolt, Hellcat and Corsair. All three were hugely important weapons and helped turn the tide against the axis. The German Focke-Wulf Fw190 caused a sensation when it first appeared and almost chased the British from any operations over the continent for a period. The Avro Lancaster, Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress and Consolidated B-24 Liberator were all instrumental in a strategic bombing campaign that ultimately denied fuel to the European axis. The Yakovlev Yak-9 and Lavochkin La-7 were the Soviet fighters that could fight the Luftwaffe on equal terms.
Less glamorous types matter a lot too. The Boeing Stearman (pictured above) was described as the trainer that was easy to fly, but hard to fly well, that may have made it an ideal primary trainer (fewer fatal accidents, but easy to spot problems). The North American AT-6 Texan was no less important as an advanced trainer. Or the Consolidated PBY Catalina that could fly over 24 hours for long range patrols or to skirt around enemy held airspace. The Junkers Ju52 had a reputation similar to the C-47, and had Germany won the war it likely would have been the transport known to posterity.
And of course there were revolutionary aircraft like the Messerschmitt Me262 and Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star that couldn’t quite have a decisive impact on World War Two, but were clear indicators of where aviation was heading next.
This has been a lot of fun. I would love to hear from readers with their own thoughts on what was best, important or just plain cool.
Up Next: Grumman F5F Skyrocket