Editor’s Note: Please also see previous works by Robert Farley including Will the F-35 Dominate the Skies? , Five Best Bombers of All Time , Top Five Fighter Aircraft of All Time and the Five Best Submarines of All Time
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.
Royal B.E.2 (3500)
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.
Brewster Buffalo (509)
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.
Lavochkin-Gorbunov-Gudkov LaGG-3 (6528)
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.