There are reasons to be skeptical of the inclusion of the Lancaster. The Combined Bomber Offensive was a strategic dead-end, serving up expensive four-engine bombers as a feast for smaller, cheaper German fighters. Battles were fought under conditions deeply advantageous to the Germans, as damaged German planes could land, and shot down German pilots rescued and returned to service. Overall, the enormous Western investment in strategic bombing was probably one of the greatest grand strategic miscalculations of the Second World War. Nevertheless, this list needs a bomber from the most identifiable bomber offensive in history, and the Lancaster was the best of the bunch.
Over 7000 Lancasters were built, with the last retiring in the early 1960s after Canadian service as recon and maritime patrol aircraft.
Boeing B-52 Stratofortress:
The disastrous experience of B-29 Superfortresses over North Korea in 1950 demonstrated that the United States would require a new strategic bomber, and soon. Unfortunately, the first two generations of bombers chosen by the USAF were almost uniformly duds; the hopeless B-36, the short-legged B-47, the dangerous-to-its-own-pilots B-58, and the obsolete-before-it-flew XB-70. The vast bulk of these bombers quickly went from wastes of taxpayer money to wastes of space at the Boneyard. None of the over 2500 early Cold War bombers ever dropped a bomb in anger.
The exception was the B-52.The BUFF was originally intended for high altitude penetration bombing into the Soviet Union. It replaced the B-36 and the B-47, the former too slow and vulnerable to continue in the nuclear strike mission, and the latter too short-legged to reach the USSR from U.S. bases. Slated for replacement by the B-58 and the B-70, the B-52 survived because it was versatile enough to shift to low altitude penetration after the increasing sophistication of Soviet SAMs made the high altitude mission suicidal.
And this versatility has been the real story of the B-52. The BUFF was first committed to conventional strike missions in service of Operation Arc Light during the Vietnam War. In Operation Linebacker II, the vulnerability of the B-52 to air defenses was made manifest when nine Stratofortresses were lost in the first days of the campaign. But the B-52 persisted. In the Gulf War, B-52s carried out saturation bombing campaigns against the forward positions of the Iraqi Army, softening and demoralizing the Iraqis for the eventual ground campaign. In the War on Terror, the B-52 has acted in a close air support role, delivering precision-guided ordnance against small concentrations of Iraqi and Taliban insurgents.
Most recently, the B-52 showed its diplomatic chops when two BUFFs were dispatched to violate China’s newly declared Air Defense Zone. The BUFF was perfect for this mission; the Chinese could not pretend not to notice two enormous bombers travelling at slow speed through the ADIZ.
742 B-52s were delivered between 1954 and 1963. Seventy-eight remain in service, having undergone multiple upgrades over the decades that promise to extend their lives into the 2030s, or potentially beyond. In a family of short-lived airframes, the B-52 has demonstrated remarkable endurance and longevity.
Over the last century, nations have invested tremendous resources in bomber aircraft. More often than not, this investment has failed to bear strategic fruit. The very best aircraft have been those that could not only conduct their primary mission effectively, but that were also sufficiently flexible to perform other tasks that might be asked of them. Current air forces have, with some exceptions, effectively done away with the distinctions between fighters and bombers, instead relying on multi-role fighter-bombers for both missions. The last big, manned bomber may be the American LRS-B, assuming that project ever gets off the ground.
Grumman A-6 Intruder, MQ-1 Predator, Caproni Ca.3, Tupolev Tu-95 “Bear,” Avro Vulcan, Tupolev Tu-22M “Backfire.”
Over the last century of military aviation, several fighters have earned the nickname “flying coffin.” Military aviation inherently pushes up against the limits of technology and human endurance, particularly where fighter and pursuit aviation is concerned. Flying a fighter is remarkably dangerous, even when no one is trying to shoot you down.
Engineering a capable fighter plane is also a struggle. Relatively small changes in engine, armament, and airframe design can transform a clunker into an elite fighting machine; many of the best fighters in history were initially viewed askance by their pilots. But elite status rarely lasts for long, especially in World War I and World War II. Fighters that dominated the sky in one year become “flying coffins” as technology and tactics move forward.
And thus the difference between a great fighter and a terrible fighter can be remarkably small. As with the previous list, the critical work is in determining the criteria. Fighters are national strategic assets, and must be evaluated as such:
· Did this aircraft fail at the tactical tasks that it was given? Did it perform poorly against its direct contemporaries?
· Did the fighter show up, or was it in the hangar when it was needed? Was it more of a danger to its pilots than to enemy fighters?
· Did it represent a misappropriation of national assets?
So what are the worst fighter aircraft of all time? For these purposes, we’ll be concentrating on fighters that enjoyed production runs of 500 or more aircraft (listed in parentheses); curiosities such as the XF-84H “Thunderscreech” need not apply.
Preparing aircraft before anyone had fought an air war was undoubtedly a struggle for pilots and engineers. The Royal B.E.2 was one of the first military aircraft put into serious industrial production, with a run of around 3500 aircraft. First flown in 1912, it remained in service until 1919, with its responsibilities steadily declining as better aircraft became available.
In a sense, the B.E.2 inspired the first generation of fighters by displaying all of the qualities that no one wanted in a fighter aircraft, including poor visibility, poor reliability, difficulty of control, slow speed, and weak armament. The advent of the Fokker Eindecker made the B.E.2 positively hazardous to fly. Refinements often hurt more than they helped, with the plane becoming steadily more dangerous and accident prone as grew heavier.
It’s tough to give a failing grade to a first effort. But the B.E.2’s difficulty and poor reliability, combined with the British decision to keep it in service well beyond its freshness date, earn it a spot on this list. Incidentally, the failure of the Royal Flying Corps to effectively substitute for the B.E.2 in a timely fashion provided much grist for early advocates of the Royal Air Force, the world’s first independent air force.
A short, squat, and unattractive aircraft, the Buffalo entered service in the same year as the Mitsubishi A6M Zero and the Bf-109, two overwhelmingly superior aircraft. Intended to serve as both a land and carrier-borne fighter, the Buffalo saw its first combat in Finnish service, as several were transferred from the United States after the Winter War. Weight increases during the design process included provisions for heavier armament, extra fuel, and armor plating. Unfortunately, these left the airframe dreadfully underpowered, unable to keep up or maneuver with its best contemporaries. Although the Buffalos operated by the Finnish Air Force did well against the Soviets in the early days of the “continuation war,” Buffalo pilots serving in Commonwealth and Dutch air forces in Southeast Asia were massacred by Japanese fliers in Zeros and Oscars. To add to its least desirable characteristics, the Buffalo performed poorly in the high temperatures common in the tropics.
Marine Corps pilots referred to the Buffalo as—you guessed it—a “flying coffin” in the wake of the Battle of Midway, where the aircraft performed disastrously against the Japanese. It was quickly replaced in U.S. service by its far more effective counterpart, the Grumman F4F Wildcat.
Military modernization is often about timing, and the Soviet Union of the 1930s rebuilt its military industries slightly too quickly, optimizing production around technologies that would fall a step behind foreign contemporaries. The LaGG-3, first flow in 1940 but developed from the LaGG-1, was the Soviet Air Forces premier fighter during the German invasion of 1941, and was such a disaster that, playing on the fighter’s acronym, pilots referred to it as “the varnished guaranteed coffin.”
Although it entered service five years after the Bf-109, the LaGG-3 was essentially hopeless in combat against its contemporary. It unfortunately combined lightweight wood construction with an underpowered engine, which meant that it struggled to gain tactical advantage against heavier German fighters, yet went to pieces when hit. Combined with desperate Soviet pilot training practices of the war, there’s little surprise as to how German and Finnish aviators gained such remarkably high totals against their Soviet opponents. Production of the LaGG-3 should have ended in 1942, but the agility of the Soviet military industrial complex being what it was, continued until 1944.
Picking a candidate from the Century series was a struggle. Most of the Century Series aircraft were developed while the Air Force was still dominated by the strategic bombing cadre, and interested primarily in the prospects of nuclear combat with the Soviet Union. Tactical Air Command tried to resolve this problem by making itself as “strategic” as possible, focusing on interceptors that could catch and kill Soviet bombers, and also on fighters heavy enough to deliver nuclear weapons. This left the fighters of the USAF poorly equipped to tangle with the tiny, maneuverable MiGs deployed by the PAVNAF.