Here's What You Need to Remember: Weapons should be evaluated in terms of how they help achieve national objectives.
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:
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.
Of course, it is not only air forces that fly fighter aircraft. The F6F Hellcat can’t compare with the Spitfire, the P-51, or the Bf 109 on many basic flight characteristics, although its ability to climb was first-rate. What the F6F could do, however, was reliably fly from aircraft carriers, and it rode point on the great, decisive U.S. Navy carrier offensive of World War II. Entering the war in September 1943, it won 75% of USN aerial victories in the Pacific. USN ace David McCampbell shot down nine Japanese aircraft in one day flying a Hellcat .The F6F was heavily armed, and could take considerably more battle damage than its contemporaries. Overall, the F6F claimed nearly 5,200 kills at a loss of 270 aircraft in aerial combat, including a 13:1 ratio against the Mitsubishi A6M Zero.
The USN carrier offensive of the latter part of World War II is probably the greatest single example of the use of decisive airpower in world history. Hellcats and their kin (the Douglas SBD Dauntless dive-bomber and the Grumman TBF Avenger torpedo bomber) destroyed the fighting power of the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN), cracked open Japan’s island empire, and exposed the Japanese homeland to devastating air attack and the threat of invasion.
In 1943, the United States needed a fighter robust enough to endure a campaign fought distant from most bases, yet fast and agile enough to defeat the best that the IJN could offer. Tough and reliable as a brick, the Hellcat fit that role. Put simply, the Honda Accord is, in its own way, a great car; the Honda Accords of the fighter world also deserve their day.
The Me 262 Schwalbe (Swallow, in English) failed to win the war for Germany, and couldn’t stop the Combined Bomber Offensive (CBO). Had German military authorities made the right decisions, however, it might at least have accomplished the second.
Known as the world’s first operational jet fighter, full-scale production of the Me 262 was delayed by resistance within the German government and the Luftwaffe to devoting resources to an experimental aircraft without a clear role. Early efforts to turn it into a fighter-bomber fell flat. As the need for a superlative interceptor become apparent, however, the Me 262 found its place. The Swallow proved devastating against American bomber formations, and could outrun American pursuit aircraft.
The Me 262 was hardly a perfect fighter: it lacked the maneuverability of the best American interceptors, and both American and British pilots developed tactics for managing the Swallow. Although production suffered from some early problems with engines, by the later stages of the conflict, manufacturing was sufficiently easy that the plane could be mass-produced in dispersed, underground facilities.
But had it come on line a bit earlier, the Me 262 might have torn the heart out of the CBO. The CBO in 1943 was a touch and go affair; dramatically higher bomber losses in 1943 could well have led Churchill and Roosevelt to scale back the production of four engine bombers in favor of additional tactical aircraft. Without the advantage of long-range escorts, American bombers would have proven easy prey for the German jet. Moreover, the Me 262 would have been far more effective without the constant worry of P-47s and P-51s strafing its airfields and tracking its landings.
Nazi Germany needed a game changer, a plane capable of making the price too high for the Allies to keep up the CBO. The Me 262 came onto the scene too late to solve that problem, but it’s hard to imagine any aircraft that could have come closer. Ironically, this might have accelerated Allied victory, as the Combined Bomber Offensive resulted in not only the destruction of urban Germany, but in the waste of substantial Allied resources. Win-win.
An odd choice for this list? The MiG-21 is known largely as fodder for the other great fighters of the Cold War, and for having an abysmal kill ratio. The Fishbed (in NATO terminology) has served as a convenient victim in Vietnam and in a variety of Middle Eastern wars, some of which it fought on both sides.
But… the MiG-21 is cheap, fast, maneuverable, has low maintenance requirements. It’s relatively easy to learn to fly, although not necessarily easy to learn how to fly well. Air forces continued to buy the MiG-21 for a long time. Counting the Chengdu J-7 variant, perhaps 13,000 MiG-21s have entered service around the world. In some sense, the Fishbed is the AK-47 (or the T-34, if you prefer) of the fighter world. Fifty countries have flown the MiG-21, and it has flown for fifty-five years. It continues to fly as a key part of twenty-six different air forces, including the Indian Air Force, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force, the Vietnamese People’s Air Force, and the Romanian Air Force. Would anyone be surprised if the Fishbed and its variants are still flying in 2034?
The MiG-21 won plaudits from American aggressor pilots at Red Flag, who celebrated its speed and maneuverability, and played (through the contribution of North Vietnamese aces such as Nguyễn Văn Cốc ) an important role in redefining the requirements of air superiority in the United States. When flown well, it remains a dangerous foe.
Most of life is about just showing up, and since 1960 no fighter has shown up as consistently, and in as many places, as has the MiG-21. For countries needing a cheap option for claiming control of their national airspace, the MiG-21 has long solved problems, and will likely continue to serve in this role.