The Greatest Ever Fighter Planes
The Beautiful, The Functional and the Downright Lethal
Fighter planes are the sharp-end of the world's air forces. Over time they have evolved into the most sophisticated, eye-catching killing machines ever designed by man. There's something cruel and mean and nasty about fighter planes, but they're also balletic, superb and beautiful.
No 10. Lockheed F-117 Stealth Nighthawk.
The Nighthawk has seen action in Panama, Bosnia and Iraq. Many facts about the Stealth are still top secret, it has an unconfirmed top-speed that's close to the speed of sound and it can carry some 5,000lbs of bombs. First impressions of this intimidating jet can be misleading, even for pilots. "It has so many odd features you would not think it able to fly".
Unlike other fighters there is nothing smooth or streamlined on the Stealth, it is all radar deflecting angles. The engines for the F-117 came from the F-18 while the navigation system came from the B-52. A typical fighter has a radar cross-section of about 54 sq ft while the Stealth has less than 0.1 sq ft making almost invisible to radar.
Focker DR1 Triplane
No. 9. Focker DR1 Triplane
Perhaps the classic World War I fighter, noted for the successes chalked up by Baron Manfred von Richthofen better known as the Red Baron. Single-winged fighters were still in their infancy during World War I, biplanes were the design of choice as they could take the harsh gravitational forces of aerial combat. But if two wings were good, engineers reasoned that three should make the DR1 even better, and they were right. The extra wing allowed the plane to climb higher and to climb faster.
When the DR1 was rolled out in 1917 it wasn't just the superb wings and the top speed pf 115mph that made it an awesome fighter, it also had machine guns that fired through the propellor arc, a revolutionary World War I innovation.
Mitsubishi A6M Zero
No. 8. Mitsubishi A6M Zero
This fighter made a spectacular and infamous appearance on Dec 7th 1941 at Pearl Harbour. It was America's first real look at this lethal dogfighter, and it hurt. The Zero could outfly and outfight anything the allies had. This carrier-based plane could also fly further on a tank of fuel, some 1900 miles, than any other fighter.
Professor James DeLaurier, an aeronautical engineer, describes the Zero: "The power to weight ratio was very good, a very manoeuvrable, elegant design with excellent aerodynamics and excellent stability". No wonder the Zero was nimble and quick. The Zero had an astonishing vertical climb-rate of 4,500 feet per minute, almost double that of the competition.
Harrier Jump Jet
No. 7. Hawker Siddeley Harrier Jump Jet
It hovers like a helicopter and flies like a fighter. Squadron Leader Al Pinner says of the Harrier: "It's a trend-setter, a traditional jet fighter needs 10,000 feet to put down, the Harrier can land almost anywhere. That's got to make it one of the greatest fighters in the world." First flown in the 1960's it continues to see service to this day. During the Falklands War Harriers shot down 24 Argentinian jets without a single air-to-air loss.
The reason this plane is so successful is it's versatility. It has a decent top speed of 660mph but, more importantly, it can hover. The reason it hovers, one very powerful Rolls Royce jet engine and four rotating nozzles that can blast an amazing 22,000lbs of thrust.
No. 6. McDonnell Douglas F-86 Sabre
The swept winged, shark-nosed F-86 Sabre was the superstar of the Korean War. It was in this war that the Sabre forged it's formidable reputation where it out-flew and out-fought the comparable MIG 15 on an almost daily basis and earned the nickname "Ace Maker". The Sabre has a top speed of 688mph
It's sleek design and swept back wings gave rise to the rumour that the F-86 was the first aircraft to go supersonic, earlier than Chuck Jaeger. This was backed up by ex-pilot General Boots Blesse who remembers the plane achieving these speeds but only in a full-power dive.
Messerschmitt ME 109
No. 5. Messerschmitt ME 109
The allied nemesis and the pride of the German Luftwaffe, the Messerschmitt ME 109. Tom Clancy describes it as "A good gun platform, it could perform well, turn well and climb well". The ME-109 saw action from The Battle of Britain to the Russian Front, from North Africa to Norway.
The 109's top speed of 347mph was close to that of the Spitfire, but for many allied pilots, having a 109 on their tail was a potential death warrant. Lloyd Berryman, an ex Spitfire pilot remembers: "The 109 had a great respect, but by the same token anything with black crosses on it had our respect and certainly this was an excellent fighter aircraft".
F-18 Super Hornet
No. 4. McDonnell Douglas F-18 Super Hornet
If Darwin had a favourite aircraft it would be the evolutionary and revolutionary F-18 Super Hornet. It is probably the leading conventional fighter of the modern era. Some planes are fast, this fighter is ballistic. It's two after-burning jet engines give it a top speed of 1.8 mach or almost 1200mph. The F-18 has been in combat for over 25 years, armed with a 20mm cannon, bombs and missiles the Hornet has proved itself during both Gulf wars and Afghanistan and Bosnia.
During operation Desert Storm the F-18 flew some 5,000 strikes against the Iraqis losing only two jets to enemy fire.
No. 3. MIG 21
The MIG 21 is described as a rocket ship, it first appeared in the late 1950's. Named after it's inventor Mikoyan Gurevich the MIG 21 is, today, the most produced jet fighter in the world. A staggering 10,000+ Mig 21's serving in over 40 countries. During the cold war and over Vietnam the MIG 21, NATO codenamed Fishbed, was the jet to watch out for.
The MIG 21 is capable of a searing 2.3 mach or 1,400mph. Besides being fast the MIG was also resilient and typically Russian. Tom Clancy points out: "By American standards, it was crudely built and the pieces don't fit together very well". It's small wing span limited it's mobility in dogfighting and it had a limited range.
No. 2. Supermarine Spitfire
The Battle of Britain starlet. Flying the Spitfire has been described as dancing with the most beautiful girl at the ball. A perfect combination of form and function. A champion pf the air-to-air duel, the Spitfire helped turn the tide during the Battle of Britain in 1940. Armed with 8 machine guns it knocked Luftwaffe fighters and bombers from the skies.
The Spifire's performance and aerial supremacy is all down to it's wings, these elliptical or oval shaped wings made this fighter instantly recognisable from below and deadly from above. The reason behind the beautiful wing design: room for the guns. It also produced a very efficient wing that allowed this fighter to turn on a dime.
No. 1. P-51 Mustang
The Mustang had a blistering top speed of 445mph over 50mph faster than the ME 109. No other fighter could touch it's ability to go the distance, 1500 miles - the Spitfire MKIV was lucky to make 500 miles. The Mustang accounted for nearly 5,000 air kills and created over 280 fighter aces.
The Mustang made it's name escorting bombers deep into Germany. Hermann Goering is reported as saying upon seeing the Mustang "He knew then, that the war was lost". So what gave the Mustang it's advantage? It's wing design is what resulted in it's unequal speed, manoeuvrability and range. Originally fitted with the Allison engine it really came good when later fitted with the Merlin unit.
P-51 Mustang! The Greatest Ever Fighter!
CREDITS: All of the above information was taken from the UK's Channel Five "Greatest Ever" documentary series.