Top Five Fighter Aircraft of All Time

Editor’s Note: Please also see the Top Five Naval Battles of All Time.

What are the five greatest fighter aircraft of all time? Like the same question asked of tanks, cars, or rock and roll guitarists, the answer invariably depends on parameters. For example, there are few sets of consistent parameters that would include both the T-34 and the King Tiger among the greatest of all tanks. I know which one I’d like to be driving in a fight, but I also appreciate that this isn’t the most appropriate way to approach the question. Similarly, while I’d love to drive a Porsche 959 to work every morning, I’d be hesitant to list it ahead of the Toyota Corolla on a “best of” compilation.

Nations buy fighter aircraft to resolve national strategic problems, and the aircraft should accordingly be evaluated on their ability to solve or ameliorate these problems. Thus, the motivating question is this: how well did this aircraft help solve the strategic problems of the nations that built or bought it? This question leads to the following points of evaluation:

Fighting characteristics: How did this plane stack up against the competition, including not just other fighters but also bombers and ground installations?

Reliability: Could people count on this aircraft to fight when it needed to, or did it spend more time under repair than in the air?

Cost: What did the organization and the nation have to pay in terms of blood and treasure to make this aircraft fly?

These are the parameters; here are my answers:

Spad S.XIII

In the early era of military aviation, technological innovation moved at such speed that state of the art aircraft became obsolete deathtraps within a year. Engineers in France, Britain, Germany and Italy worked constantly to outpace their competitors, producing new aircraft every year to throw into the fight. The development of operational tactics trailed technology, although the input of the best flyers played an important role in how designers put new aircraft together.

In this context, picking a dominant fighter from the era is difficult. Nevertheless, the Spad S.XIII stands out in terms of its fighting characteristics and ease of production. Based in significant part on the advice of French aviators such as Georges Guynemer, the XIII lacked the maneuverability of some of its contemporaries, but could outpace most of them and performed very well in either a climb or a dive. It was simple enough to produce that nearly 8,500 such aircraft eventually entered service. Significant early reliability problems were worked out by the end of the war, and in any case were overwhelmed by the XIII’s fighting ability.

The S.XIII filled out not only French fighter squadrons, but also the air services of Allied countries. American ace Eddie Rickenbacker scored twenty of his kills flying an XIII, many over the most advanced German fighters of the day, including the Fokker D.VII.

The Spad XIII helped the Allies hold the line during the Ludendorff Offensive, and controlled the skies above France during the counter-offensive. After the war, it remained in service in France, the United States, and a dozen other countries for several years. In an important sense, the Spad XIII set the post-war standard for what a pursuit aircraft needed to do.

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Rudel (December 7, 2013 - 2:03pm)

formatting problems

Rudel (December 7, 2013 - 2:46pm)
  • An iconoclastic but plausible list.  Taking the "honorable mentions" into consideration I would make the following (albeit conventional) changes/exceptions to your list.
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  • Supermarine Spitfire over the bf-109 based on kill-ratio and range alone.  It should replace the Fishbed in the top 5.
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  • I would also have to place to F-16 ahead of the Mig-21 due to the astounding number of Fishbeds shot down over the years.
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  • The inclusion of the Jap Zero.  While it kicked ass in the first year of the war, by the fall of 1942 at Guadalcanal the "Cactus Airforce" was battling it to a one to one kill ratio in the lowly but durable (and fast diving) F4F due to the adoption of superior tactics (diving in from the sun, the "Thatch Weave", etc.)  After this point in the war it became a flying unarmored gas tank target for P-38's, F6F's and Corsairs.  Hardly a candidate for inclusion via your: "Cost: "What did the organization and the nation have to pay in terms of blood and treasure to make this aircraft fly?" criterion.
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  • The Growler is not a pure fighter variant per se.  Replace it with an F-18 Hornet from which it was derived from the fighter-bomber Super Hornet for counter AAA duty.
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  • Where is the Electric Lightning's combat record?  This make sit fail the "Fighting characteristics: How did this plane stack up against the competition, including not just other fighters but also bombers and ground installations?" test.  There are many really good fighter aircraft that have little combat experience.
  • And last but not least and despite it's high speed, does the Swallow really top the overall total effectiveness of the P-51 during the course of the air war over Europe?  It was too little and too late.  Read the first few pages of Chuck Yeager's autobigraphy for an account of his search and destroy targets of opportunity flight from England over Germany to the Alps then to the Pyreneese and back to England (love those big external drop fuel tanks) on a sunny May morning in 1945 a day or two before the end of the war.  A magnificent story!  In that plane he was truly one of the Masters of the Universe.
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  • Addendum:  I'd delete both the Fishbed and the Electric Lightning from the list.  Some possible replacements are the P-38 Lightning, the deHavilland Mosquito (in the fighter, nightfighter, interceptor role in addition to its superb fighter bomber and anti-ship capabilities),  P-47 Thunderbolt (both as a fighter-bomber and high altitude fighter once it was supercharged),  the Albatross D.III, the F-14 Tomcat (albeit quite epensive to maintain), and the Vought F4U Corsair.  All these planes have a stunning number of sorties and kills.  
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douglasgray1992 (December 10, 2013 - 5:48pm)

As a Soldier, I think we would be remiss if we did not have the A-10 Thunderbolt as at least an honorable mention.  The A-10 is an aircraft with campaign-changing capabilities.  Despite the US Air Force's long-running resistance to a a close-air-support mission, there has been no aircraft better suited to close-quarters combat.

Rudel (December 18, 2013 - 10:13pm)

I agree, as a former member of the 1st Marine Division I have nothing but love for CAS.  In my day it was Douglas Skyraiders which could hover over a battlefield for considerable lengths of time and Douglas Skyhawks that could dive and put a bomb down a smokestack.To be honest though, the author of the article did seem to be limiting planes to the fighter role.

djobert (February 25, 2014 - 10:25am)

Waht about the Avro Arrow? It would have been the best plane of his generation, by far. It would be one of the best plane in the world, even today...

DURRD (April 11, 2014 - 3:52am)

These types of lists are always controversial as there are so many subjective factors that can weigh in, but this one started well by stating specific criteria that would be evaluated for the title of "greatest fighter".  I disagree somewhat strongly with most of the planes on it though as I don't believe that they come up to the standard of greatest when measured against the stated criteria of fighting characteristics, reliability, and cost.My list would be as follows:1) F-15 Eagle:  No disagreement on this one.  It is unmatched in history with its undefeated air-to-air record in the service of at least 3 countries that have used it in actual combat.  I agree with everything that Dr. Farley said about it in his write-up.  In my rank ordered list it is number one.  2) Bf 109:  This one will be controversial no doubt, as it was not the most advanced or best performing fighter of WW2, but hear me out.  It was produced in more numbers than any other fighter in history.  It probably shot down more foes than any other fighter in history.  It was the mount of probably at least the 100 highest scoring aces in history.  It wasn’t quite the performer that the latest Spitfires and P-51s were perhaps, but the late war versions were close.  It performed well against bombers, and even occasionally in the ground attack role.  It was there for the Luftwaffe from the beginning of the war to the end, and in addition to its important role in the Spanish Civil War prior to WW2, it was also used after the war by the Spanish, and oddly enough, the Israelis.  I don’t know how it could be left off any list where actual historical performance and significance are criteria, and even for this list it ranks high on all three stated measures.  3) F-86 Sabre:  Often nominated as the sweetest flying/handling fighter of all time, the F-86 was dominant in the Korean War as is well known.  However, it also held the line as the primary fighter during a substantial portion of the Cold War used by many Allies and was the most produced Western jet fighter of all time.  It was used to great effect by the Pakistani Air Force in several wars with India, even performing surprisingly well as late as 1971.  It also was used during the Taiwan Straits crisis and dominated the technically superior Chinese fighters (mainly due to the secret addition of the Sidewinder missile).  4) F-4U Corsair:  This one was a tough call, as there are several WW2 fighters that demand inclusion, but I have to go with the Corsair.  I understand the logic of including the Hellcat instead on the original list, but the Corsair was a much better performer overall and about equally tough.  It was shut out of the mid-war carrier action but was heavily used by the USMC, the British FAA, and finally by the USN in the later war.  It was probably slightly inferior to the P-51 in overall performance status, but just barely.  It was not easy to fly, but with proper training that could be overcome.  Often forgotten is the fact that it was one of the main workhorses of the Korean War as well.  While this was mainly in a ground attack role, the only USN ace of the war got all 5 of his kills in it, and one even shot down a Mig-15 that was foolish enough to slow down and dogfight.  It saw lots of other combat action in the French colonial wars in Africa and Asia, as well as in South American hands.  5) Fokker D.VII:  This is sort of a conventional choice I suppose, since the D7 is often thought to be the best fighter of WWI.  It is a tough call though.  It was not as fast as the SPAD 13 or the SE-5, and even in WWI speed trumped maneuverability, although not as much as it did in WW2, since the differentials involved were not great (the Fokker was perhaps 20 mph slower than those other 2).  The D.VII was likely just as tough in a dive as the SPAD though and was far more maneuverable.  It is telling that this one aircraft was named to be handed over in the Armistice agreement, and was pressed into service by several Allied countries.   

DURRD (April 11, 2014 - 3:54am)

Sorry about the run-on paragraph.  I have gone back and edited it several times but it simply refuses to show my paragraph breaks.

DURRD (April 11, 2014 - 3:57am)

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