The Five Best Aircraft Carrier Fighters of the Twentieth Century
Since World War II, exceptional carrier-based fighters have repeatedly more than held their own against land-based adversaries.
Here's What You Need To Remember: To quality for this list, the carrier-based-fighter in question must not only have been effective, but also had significant operational impact.
Designing an airplane that can fly at high speeds lugging heavy weapons loads, and yet still takeoff and land on a short flight deck a few hundred meters long has always posed a formidable engineering challenge. Sea-based fighters typically feature folding wings for easier stowage, ruggedized landing gear and arrester equipment, and greater robustness to endure the wear and tear from sea-based operations. These all literally weigh against the exquisite engineering exhibited by land-based fighters.
Yet since World War II, exceptional carrier-based fighters have repeatedly more than held their own against land-based adversaries.
To quality for this list, the carrier-based-fighter in question must not only have been effective, but also had significant operational impact. This excludes excellent carrier-based jets such as the Super Hornet or Rafale-M which haven’t seen intensive combat employment.
The airplane must also be a ‘fighter’ designed for air-to-air capability airplanes. This leaves out excellent aircraft like the SBD Dauntless dive bomber, A-1 Skyraider and A-4 Skyhawk which were attack planes foremost, even though they had their occasional air-to-air successes.
Mitsubishi A6M Zero
The A6M Zero was an elegant fighter designed for the Imperial Japanese Navy by engineer Jiro Horikoshi. Weighing less than 4,000 pounds. The Zero’s 840-horespower radial engine allowed it to traverse a remarkable 1,600 miles on internal fuel, outclimb and outrun many contemporary land-based fighters with a top speed of 346 miles per hour, and still turn on a dime.
When Japan unleashed its surprise attack on Pearl Harbor and territories across Asia and the Western Pacific, Zeroes flown by veteran Japanese pilots proved a terror of Allied fighters like the Hawker Hurricane and F4F Wildcat which the Zero outclassed in both speed and maneuverability. Allied pilots spent the first year of the Pacific War developing tactics to cope with the Zero’s capabilities.
However, unlike other successful carrier-based fighters, the Zero failed to evolve at the same pace as its adversaries. Its remarkable performance had been achieved by cutting away almost all armor protection—a design compromise that became increasingly fatal as faster, better-armored Allied fighters entered service with heavier armaments.
Vought F4U Corsair
In 1943, the Grumman F6F Hellcat brought an end to the Zero’s dominance, shooting down hundreds of Japanese aircraft in air battles such as the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot.
However, the Hellcat itself was outlived by the even higher-performing F4U Corsair. The Corsair is notable for its unique gull-winged design, but difficulties landing the “Hogs” caused the Navy to delay its introduction into service—so the Marines snatched them up up by instead. The Corsair quickly proved so succesful that both the U.S. and Royal Navies adopted it into service.
The Corsair’s powerful Double Wasp engine made it fast and deadly, scoring an 11:1 kill ratio versus Japanese fighter pilots, who nicknamed it the “Whistling Death.” It played a vital role in intercepting Kamikaze attacks and providing ground support for Marines in Iwo Jima and Okinawa using napalm cannisters and high-velocity rockets.
Remarkably, the Corsair’s career was only getting started. By the 1950s, Corsairs were back in action over Korea and French-occupied Vietnam, principally used in ground attack roles. However, radar-equipped Corsair night fighters shot down North Korean night intruders. Corsair pilot Guy Bordelon was only the Navy ace of the Korean War, and one Corsair even shot down a MiG-15 jet.
The Corsair’s combat career concluded violently in July 1969, when El Salvador invaded Honduras over a lost soccer game. Both sides operated Corsairs, and a Honduran F4U pilot shot down two Salvadoran Corsairs and a P-51 before the four-day war’s conclusion.
Grumman F9F Panther
The Panther was the first jet successfully integrated into U.S. Navy carrier air wings for long-term service. The slick jet, painted an inky navy blue and packing four twenty-millimeter cannons and flew on hundreds of raids during the Korean War, a dangerous role immortalized in the film The Bridges at Toko-Ri. It quite likely scored the first jet-on-jet aerial kill in history by downing a MiG-15 on November 9, 1950.
Though both powered by similar turbojets based on the Rolls Royce Nene, the straight-wing F9F could only attain 620 miles per hour, compared to the 670 mph of the swept-wing MiG-15. However, that didn’t prevent a lone F9F pilot from downing four Soviet MiG-15s in an whirling air battle over the Sea of Japan in 1952. Like the best naval fighters, the F9F also evolved gracefully over time, developing into a higher-performing swept-wing model called the “Cougar.”
The Harrier (In its Many Incarnations)
There have been many variants of the Harrier built by various manufacturers, but their basic appeal was always the same: their vector-thrust turbofans allowed them to takeoff and land vertically like a helicopter from the deck of a small amphibious carrier or a remote forward bases lacking traditional runways.
This capability came at a price, however. Despite boasting air-to-air capability, Harriers were firmly subsonic jets that would be at a grave disadvantage dueling contemporary supersonic fighter jets. Furthermore, the trickiness of its VTOL engines has caused Harriers to suffer extremely high accident rates.
Yet the Harrier makes the list because its capabilities decisively affected the outcome of Falkland Island War. In addition to twenty-eight carrier-based BAe Sea Harriers, the U.K. hastily converted container ships to carry fourteen land-based Royal Air Force Hawker Harriers. Together these escorted Royal Navy ships and pounded Argentine ground targets.
Argentina flung scores of strike jets at the British fleet, which lay at the extreme of their operational range. Though they might have been equally matched versus the Harrier, the Argentine pilots followed orders to only press the attack on British ships—arguably a mistake. Harrier managed to shoot down roughly twenty Argentine fighters using all-aspect AIM-L Sidewinder missiles. The Argentine pilots endured heavy losses to still sink several ships. But without the deterrence provided by the Harriers, the damage would likely have been far greater.
McDonnell Douglas manufactured AV-8 Harriers also performed well in combat over Afghanistan and Iraq and remains in service with the U.S. Marines and the navies of Spain and Italy. They will be replaced by F-35B jump jets, which despite significant teething and cost issues, promise a tremendous improvement thanks to supersonic flight capability, stealth characteristics, and advanced avionics.
McDonnell-Douglas F-4 Phantom
The F-4 Phantom was a beastly warplane powered by two huge J79 turbojets that could propel it past twice the speed of sound. A rare example of a design successfully used by all three branches of the U.S. military, the two-seat Phantom could detect adversaries and engage them with long-range missiles using its nose-mounted radar, and also carry a heavier bombload than a World War II B-17 bomber.
The Phantom often gets a bad rap for difficulties it faced combatting MiGs over Vietnam related to its lower maneuverability and the ineffectiveness of its early air-to-air missiles. The Navy responded to these problems by instituting the “Top Gun” school which schooled aviators in air combat maneuver theory. Navy Phantom pilots claimed forty MiGs shot down for only seven Phantoms lost in air-to-air combat. Later F-4J and F-4S models operated by the Navy incorporated wing-slats which greatly improved maneuverability and landing performance, though at a slight cost of speed.
Despite its flaws, the Phantom proved you could combine speed, heavy payload, advanced sensors, and (eventually) decent agility in one large airplane, a principle which informs modern fourth-generation jets such as currently-serving FA-18E/F Super Hornet.
And what of the awesome F-14 Tomcat, you ask?
The Grumman F-14 Tomcat of Top Gun fame was indeed a superb air superiority fighter. However, the Tomcat’s saw most of its action as a land-based fighter in the service of the Iranian Air Force.
Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring. This article first appeared in April 2019. It is being republished due to reader interest.