10 Best Fighter Planes of World War II

When the first airplanes were adopted into military service in 1911, air superiority became a necessity for military success.

During the first and second World Wars, countries around the world experimented with numerous aircraft designs. These designs allowed them to achieve the best possible advantage over their enemies.

The United States’ contributions to these advancements propelled the science of military aviation forward rapidly. During the war, the precursor to the United States Air Force saw its fleet of available aircraft expand and evolve exponentially.

From biplane fighters to heavy bombers, many different types of aircraft were used during the war. To determine the best fighter planes of World War II, the durability, speed, and armaments are a few of the factors to consider. 

Each fighter plane used during WWII had unique strengths. Although it would be a challenge to describe all of the fighter planes, this list of the 10 best fighter planes of World War II is based on their various traits and performance history. 

1. North American P51 Mustang

The P51 is often considered the best fighter plane of WWII and with good reason. Its high speed, massive effective range, decent armor, and heavy armaments helped to tip the scales in the allies’ favor over the course of the war.

After a mediocre initial outing with the British, the Mustang was retrofitted with a new engine and design modification. These changes allowed for more fuel to be stored on the fighter to help propel the fighter and the Allied Forces to greater levels of success. 

Unlike some of the other fighters during the war, the P51 was not as well armored. In fact, the level of fragility was its main weakness. However, the P51’s exceptional performance in all other areas, coupled with pilot skill, overshadowed any deficiencies it lacked.

The Mustang had a top speed of 440 mph and boasted an impressive effective range of 1650 miles. The effective range was achieved with the help of the fuel tank modifications it received.

The Mustang was also equipped with 6 Browning M2 machine guns, and several aircraft rockets, and could carry up to a 500lb bomb load.

2. Supermarine Spitfire

The Spitfire was a high-performance short-range interceptor type fighter primarily used by the British during the war. This fighter plane was the most produced British aircraft during the war.

The Spitfire gained its highly regarded reputation during the Battle of Britain where it achieved the highest kill-to-loss ratio of any other fighter in service. However, the Hawker Hurricane was used far more often in the battle and had more kills overall.

The Spitfire was a highly advanced fighter for the time and was the only British fighter manufactured throughout the entirety of the war. This plane had a top speed of 370 mph and an effective range of 479 miles, though its combat range was 248 miles.

The Spitfire came in many different configurations during the war, so the armament it received varied. It was most often equipped with .303 machine guns, .50 caliber machine guns, and 20 mm cannons.

3. Messerschmitt BF 109

The BF 109 was the foundational fighter for the German Luftwaffe. First pushed into service in 1936, the fighter was around until the end of WWII.

Being one of the longest-serving aircraft in the war, it had various levels of success in its role as a fighter plane. A small and lightweight design built around an incredibly powerful engine, it served well in its roles as interceptor and bomber escort. 

Its design allowed for the aircraft to flex into other roles such as ground attack and reconnaissance. The aircraft had a top speed of 375 mph and an effective range of 450 miles.

Due to its multi-role nature, it was outfitted with two 13mm machine guns, one hub firing a 20 mm cannon, and two underwing 20 mm cannons.

4. Focke-Wulf FW 190

The FW 190 was drawn up with an air-cooled engine and ordered as an insurance policy against potential shortages of liquid-cooled engines used in the BF 109. Eventually, the insurance policy overtook the mainstay and became the main fighter for Germany.

The FW 190 proved to be far more durable than the BF 109 and far more capable in most combat situations.

The armor of the plane provided ample protection for the pilot and the large, air-cooled, radial engine at the front of the plane could take far more damage than other engines.

The armor also offered protection to the pilot due to its durability. The FW 190 was highly maneuverable, easy to control, and heavily armed. 

It came equipped with two 13 mm machine guns, four 20 mm cannons, and the capability to load one bomb under the fuselage and 4 under the wings.

While the top speed of the aircraft was almost 440 mph, its speed, armor, and armaments made up for what it lacked in range as it topped out at 395 miles.

5. Mitsubishi A6M Zero

The Zero was Japan’s main fighter during the war. This plane was the first carrier-based fighter that performed better than its land-based opponents.

The design of the Zero sacrificed protection for superior speed, maneuverability, and range. The belief was the speed and agility of the fighter would function as defensive protection in their own right.

At the start of the engagement in the Pacific, the Zero proved a threat to American pilots as it easily outmaneuvered the heavier American aircraft. However, the lack of armored protection for the Zeros proved fatal since a single machine gun burst from an American plane could easily destroy the Zero.

Later in the war, this proved an issue as it could no longer dogfight as effectively. So the fighter became primarily used in kamikaze attacks with unskilled pilots.  

The fighter was quite nimble, reaching top speeds of 350 mph with an effective range of almost 1200 miles. Its armaments included two 7.7 mm machine guns and two 20 mm cannons as well as space for two 130lb bombs or one 550lb bomb for kamikaze attacks.

6. Grumman F6F Hellcat

The shock that American fighter pilots felt at dealing with the Zero in the Pacific was alleviated with the introduction of the F6F Hellcat. In fact, the Hellcat was commissioned by US high command as a direct response to the effectiveness of the Japanese Zero against American pilots.

The Hellcat was America’s foray into carrier-based fighters. It had the ability to fold its wings, allowing more fighters to be transported through the pacific. 

The Hellcat was not as agile at slower speeds as the Zero was. It could not climb quite as fast, however, it was faster at all altitudes, more heavily armored, and more heavily armed than the Zero.

The Hellcat was capable of reaching speeds of 380 mph and was equipped with 6 wing-mounted 50 caliber machine guns.

Though it was a late introduction to the war, the Hellcat was able to claim the overwhelming majority of air-to-air kills in the Pacific while also being incredibly difficult to take down. Only 270 Hellcats were lost in aerial combat.

7. Republic P-47 Thunderbolt

The Thunderbolt was the largest, heaviest, single-engine fighter used during WWII. Though it was hefty, its size and weight did not hamper its speed since the aircraft could reach speeds of almost 430mph.

The Thunderbolt would excel at any mission and was capable of filling multiple roles. It was a good dogfighter and bomber escort, and it was excellent at ground attack. 

The aircraft was well-armed as it was equipped with 8 Browning M2 machine guns and could carry a bomb load of up to 2500lbs. The armor of the Thunderbolt allowed it to take large amounts of damage and still continue with its mission.

The Thunderbolt’s only weakness lay in its poor ability to turn, though the American pilot’s ingenuity used maneuvers such as rolls and dives to help alleviate the issue. 

8. Chance Vought F4U-4 Corsair

Though the Corsair was in service from 1942, it was a later entry to the Pacific theater. It was primarily designed to take on the role of a carrier-based fighter-bomber to help combat the Japanese A6M Zero.

The Corsair performed well and eventually became regarded by the Japanese as the most formidable fighter they faced during the war. Its aviators boasted an impressive 11:1 kill ratio. 

However, logistical issues and technical problems with carrier landings allowed the Corsair to be overtaken by the F6F Hellcat.

The Corsair was a formidable opponent to the Japanese with a top speed of 440 mph and a range of almost 1000 miles. It was equipped with six Browning M2 machine guns, four AN/M3 cannons, and the capability to hold a combination of high-velocity aircraft rockets or a 4000lb bomb load.

9. Lockheed P-38 Lightning

One of the more unique aircraft to fly during WWII, the Lightning’s twin-boom engines and heavy armament set it apart from other WWII fighter planes.

Though the Lightning served in all theaters of the war, it struggled early on against its German opponents but found more success out in the Pacific. Like its other fighter plane brethren operating in the pacific, it had difficulty turning and could not outturn the Japanese Zero. 

The Lightning could out dive and out climb the Zero, which would allow the pilot to disengage his opponent at will. These tactics, coupled with the heavy armament in the nose of the plane, were what allowed the P38 to effectively rip apart the lightly armored Japanese Zero.

The P38 had a top speed of 415 mph and an effective combat range of 1300 miles. It was outfitted with one 20mm cannon and four Browning M2 machine guns and had the capacity for a large combination of bombs and rockets.

10. Curtiss P-40 Warhawk

The Warhawk had a prewar design many nations at the time used as their standard fighter. It is often derided as inferior to many other planes that saw service in the war.

Other fighters did outclass it in many ways. Its lower speed relative to newer models and lack of ability to maintain speed at altitude hindered it against the BF-109 and the Zero.

However, in medium to lower altitudes, the Warhawk’s abilities shined. In these ranges, it could in fact turn faster and outrun both the BF-109 and Zero.

The Warhawk managed to hold its own throughout the war thanks to its strengths within its niche. It also had a maximum speed of about 340 mph and an effective range of 716 miles. This plane was outfitted with six Browning M2 machine guns and could be fitted with 250lbs to 1000lbs of bombs.

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