Top 10 Best Fighter Planes of World War II

If you were a fighter pilot during WWII and you were going to fly over Europe and the Pacific, you would be in dogfights. You would serve as an escort for bombers over Europe and provide air-to-ground support in both theaters. You would also strafe ground targets and ships.

Which plane would you want to fly?

Things to consider: top speed and maneuverability at high and low altitudes, durability, visibility out of the cockpit, safety, armament, range, and overall flying performance.
The Top Ten
1 Supermarine Mk 24 Spitfire

The Spitfire's wing design meant that it gave ample warning of a stall and, even when in a stall, the ailerons were still effective, so comparing statistics is not the whole story. Young inexperienced pilots (that's most of them) could fly the Spitfire to the limit with confidence, whereas with most other aircraft, only a really experienced pilot would dare to take his aircraft to the limit.

As a result, Spitfires could perform well irrespective of who flew them, while other types were often not being flown to their full potential, unless in the hands of an expert. The horrific accident rates during the war show the cost of young men in aircraft which were difficult to handle.

2 North American P-51D Mustang

When introduced in larger numbers in early 1944, the Merlin-engined Mustangs brought about a huge change in the daylight air offensive against Germany. For the first time, the Allies had a fast, maneuverable, high-altitude, single-engine fighter that could escort their heavy bombers anywhere in Germany. This is what sets Merlin-engined Mustangs apart from all other WWII fighters.

Others may have had similar performance, like the Spitfire and the FW190D9. The ME262 was a hundred mph faster, but none of these had the extreme range of the Mustang (except for some early Japanese fighters, which weren't even close to the Mustang in performance). This made the Mustang an offensive strategic fighter unlike any other. The P-51D was just like icing on the cake, with slightly better performance, range, and a bubble canopy. It literally changed the nature of strategic air warfare. A truly great fighter.

3 Focke-Wulf FW 190 D-9

The Focke-Wulf 190 D-9, in my opinion, revolutionized air combat for the Germans who, at the time, relied heavily on long-range fighters (BF 110's) and BF 109's that were already shown to be sub-par when up against later Spitfire models. It came at a time when Britain had control of the skies and brought the Germans back into the fight. The D-9 was highly effective and feared by the allied bomber formations and had a certain fear factor to it that played a part in combat.

It was really a jack of all trades, you might say. Its 30mm cannon had a devastating effect on aircraft and ground targets, and its great maneuverability gave it the edge in dogfighting less maneuverable bomber escorts like the P-38 and P-47. A wartime winner with a legacy that will live on.

4 Messerschmitt Bf 109K

The Mustang's advantages over the 109 are a total myth. To compare the fastest versions that saw service during the war, the P-51D's top speed was 437 mph, while the BF-109H was 470 mph. The range wasn't much different either. The P-51's maximum range with external tanks was 1,650 miles, while the range of the BF-109 was 1,491 miles. The maximum altitude of the BF-109H was 49,200 feet, while the P-51D's maximum altitude was 41,900 feet.

Firepower isn't even remotely comparable. The Mustang was armed with six minuscule 12.7mm machine guns, while the 109 was packing up to three 30mm cannons and two 13mm machine guns. With its higher maneuverability granted by its lighter weight and leading-edge slats, along with its greatly superior firepower, number of planes produced, adaptability, kill count, and service life, it's truly ridiculous that any human capable of critical thought would nominate the Mustang as the greatest fighter of all time, when the facts clearly show that this honor goes to the BF-109.

5 Chance Vought F4U-4 Corsair

A Marine pilot in a Corsair saved my father's life when their convoy was attacked by Kamikaze pilots late in the war. My dad was on the bridge, manning the earphones and sending fire orders to the various stations, when a Kate got through the flak and headed toward the bridge. The Corsair, positioned up in the sun with its belly painted gray and nearly invisible, executed an extreme dive. As it pulled up, it cut the Kate in half with its 6 .50 cal guns. Only a part of the engine nacelle hit the side of the ship, causing some minor damage. While all this was happening, my mother was at home in a defense plant, inspecting riveting on wing sections for F4U Corsairs. True story.

6 Mitsubishi A6M Zero

At the start of the war, no Allied plane could touch it either for maneuverability, firepower, or range. The most advanced plane of its time. It would be at the top of this list if this wasn't an English site. A Spitfire, Mustang, or BF-109 aren't fit enough to share airspace with a Zero.

At the start of the war there was no better fighter on either side of the ocean. It had the Americans playing catch up. I've seen one of the few left in the world in Kure, Hiroshima. It was a beaut!

The fighter was not made of wood. It did possess an excellent rate of climb, though in absolute climb speed it was not that fast. It was a steep climber.

7 Grumman F6F Hellcat

The arrival of this plane played a huge role in allowing America to turn the tide against Japan. It was the first American fighter to have a firm advantage over the Zero and was easier to fly than the Corsair. It also shot down more planes than any other Allied aircraft during the war and accounted for around 75% of aircraft downed during the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot of 1944.

This is the plane that took the US to the gates of Tokyo. Nothing else matters. You have to look at the rate of climb of the F8 Bearcat and its left side roll under high throttle. It will run rings around other planes.

8 Messerschmitt Me 262

Plagued by a huge strategic disadvantage, inept leadership from Hermann Goering and Adolf Hitler, and unreliable engines of poor condition, the Me 262 easily was a portrait of the Luftwaffe's struggles in the last months of World War II. The Me 262 could have been a phenomenal aircraft had it not suffered from these flaws, as well as its inexperienced pilots. Most of them were experts, such as Adolf Galland, Johannes Steinhoff, and Gunther Luetzow, but they were still new to jets and their different engines. Had it been introduced earlier (it's possible the 262 or another jet fighter could have debuted in 1942, not long after the Fw 190!), its flaws could have been ironed out and its new technique mastered. The Me 262 was still a deadly opponent to bombers and fighters so long as its engines could survive.

It was most vulnerable at low altitude, where a P-51 or P-47 could dive on it, or a Hawker Tempest could easily catch up to it.

9 Republic P-47D Thunderbolt

Have you heard of the A-10 Warthog? Its less known nickname is Thunderbolt II, inspired by the P-47. Known as the "Jug," the P-47 was one of the heaviest planes to be powered by a single propeller engine, weighing around 5 tons when empty. However, it was incredibly fast at high altitude and in a dive and had a fearsome armament.

German pilots remarked that it was something "you never wanted to be in front of." The P-47 was also incredibly armored, with the ability to survive substantial amounts of damage and fly home. It featured an 18-cylinder R2800 engine, which could continue to work even with some cylinders completely destroyed.

The P-47 could also perform ground attack roles, capable of carrying half the bomb load of a B-17 in rockets and bombs. Its only flaws were poor maneuverability and decent range. Many pilots in Korea who flew P-51s for ground attack missions wished they could've flown the heavier and more armored P-47 instead, which was better suited for the role.

10 Hawker Hurricane

Due to the USA's late entry into World War II (in real terms not until 1942, some months after Pearl Harbor), Americans are limited in their choice of the best fighter and bomber planes. This is because unless they know that Britain's Royal Air Force destroyed Germany's mighty Luftwaffe in 1940 in the Battle of Britain with their superb Hawker Hurricanes and Supermarine Spitfires, they are at a disadvantage.

Americans will also not know that Britain's mighty heavy bomber, the Lancaster, was bombing German sites a full three-and-a-half years before a US bomber saw service over Germany. Of course, Americans must choose the Mustang as their favorite because it was the only really good fighter plane they had, even though it didn't see real service until 1944, because national pride enters the equation.

The Mustang was indeed a brilliant long-range plane, built to a British Air Ministry requirement but was useless until the US-built engine was replaced with the matchless British Rolls Royce Merlin engine. The same Merlin that powered Great Britain’s Lancaster bomber, and both the Supermarine Spitfire and Hawker Hurricane fighters. Without the Supermarine Spitfire and the Hawker Hurricane, in 1940, Great Britain would no longer exist. And that's the only real test as to what were the best fighter planes of WWII.

The Contenders
11 Lockheed P-38 Lightning

The large, two-engined P-38 looks nothing like your typical World War II fighter. Resembling more of a heavy fighter, the Lightning (namesake of the F-35 Lightning II, or "Fork Tailed Devil" to the Germans and "Two Planes One Pilot" to the Japanese) was an extremely fast and maneuverable plane. With heavy armament packed into the nose, getting hit by a P-38 would mean defeat or serious damage.

German pilots were advised to "never go head-on with a P-38." While not as iconic as the P-51 or Spitfire, the P-38 achieved many important milestones. It produced America's top ace, Richard Bong, and avenged Pearl Harbor by shooting down Admiral Yamamoto's transport plane.

12 Fiat G.55 Centauro

Called the best Axis fighter overall in 1943 by the Luftwaffe, the Fiat G.55 Centauro showcased impressive stats. Its level speed was 417 with WEP and could dive up to 590 mph. It boasted very good high-altitude handling, aerobatics, and performance. The critical altitude for speed was 8 km.

Some models were equipped with 5 Mauser 20mm cannons, making them great for intercepting heavy aircraft. It was more robust than the Re2005 and lacked its vibration/flutter issues. Regarded as the best for mass production among the Italian type 5 fighters, it was also most suitable for upgrades to the larger DB603 engine.

The Fiat G.55 Centauro featured a good rear view, unlike the BF 109, and even had faster dive acceleration than the Gustav! It was chosen to be the standard ANR Italian fighter since it outperformed others at more altitudes.

13 Kawanishi N1K-J Shiden

Most WW2 aviation enthusiasts talk about how outclassed Japanese fighters were near the end of the war, but there were quite a few that were more than a match for their American counterparts. The N1K Shiden was one of those fighters. It was fast, extremely maneuverable, and very heavily armed and armored.

Many people talk about how the Hellcat was the Zero killer, but few know about the aircraft which was the Hellcat killer. With a top speed in excess of 400 mph, a heavy armament of four 20mm cannons, high maneuverability, and unlike most previous Japanese fighters, armor protection for the pilot, along with self-sealing fuel tanks made this aircraft a highly potent force to be reckoned with.

14 Soviet Yakovlev Yak-3

In the end, it was the opinion of pilots that mattered. When German pilots were told to "avoid combat below five thousand metres with Yakovlev fighters lacking an oil cooler intake beneath the nose," it is clear the Germans were terrified of this plane. When it came to most other planes, they had a plan of attack which was effective, but against the Yak-3, it was simply: 'RUN!'

Additionally, when the French pilots serving with the Soviet Air Force were offered any British, American, or Russian airplane to fly, they chose the Yak-3 over all others. Although I don't know if these pilots were the best ever, they may have developed a bias for the plane they flew on the Soviet front, but it is still a great testimonial for the plane. Because of these reasons, I will always consider the Yak-3 to be the best fighter of WW2.

15 Blohm & Voss BV 238

Largest and heaviest aircraft of WWII, and the best flying boat of its day.

16 Curtiss P-40 Warhawk

Okay, this wasn't the best of the best. It wasn't better than the Mustangs in some opinions. But it still held off the Japanese and was probably the most important American aircraft. Which aircraft responded at Pearl Harbor? Not the Mustang.

The main land-based fighter of the US until it was replaced by the P-51, P-47, and P-39. It played a big role in the defense in China and Burma as Chennault's well-known Flying Tigers. The P-40 was the third most produced American fighter.

Held off superior aircraft until the Allies could get the new aircraft in the air. The same is true of the Wildcat.

17 Heinkel He 280

The REAL "first" jet fighter, and the first aircraft to feature an ejection seat. With a top speed of 570 mph, it was faster than the ME-262, and the production version would have been more heavily armed, with six 20mm cannons to the 262's four 30mm. It was also more maneuverable than the FW-190A, as proven during mock dogfights between the two.

Range was the only advantage of the 262. It was also an incredibly rugged aircraft that could take tremendous punishment.

18 Bell P-39 Airacobra

So beloved by Red Army fly boys and kept Soviets in the game early in the war. Roomy cockpit, very competitive with Fritz at low altitude. Gave a great punch with its 37mm cannon, two 12.7 Brownings, and four 0.30 cal. or two 12.7 under the wing.

The Soviets mostly used this one and gave it the praise it deserved. Sometimes I think America made a mistake not using this one.

Made in America and flown mostly by Soviets, is it any wonder this very capable fighter never got the press it deserved?

19 Macchi M.C.205V Veltro

A feared and respected adversary of Allied pilots, preferred over the BF 109 by Jagdwaffe pilots. An Italian aircraft that excelled in speed, power, and climb, and also very nimble and maneuverable, allowing it to fight on equal terms with top Allied fighters.

Extremely maneuverable at low altitude with adequate performance at high. High rate of climb, being able to outclimb every allied fighter.

Great climb ratio. A pair of 20mm cannons and a pair of 12.7mm MG. Extremely maneuverable at low altitude, even outperforming the legendary P-51 Mustang. Just as good as the Mustang at high altitudes, it could fight on equal terms with the top Allied fighters.

20 Hawker Typhoon

Actually, it was a very good fighter. Pierre Clostermann rode her to fame as the best French-born fighter pilot of the war. She was heavy, but made up for it with an engine that could pull a fully loaded bomber. And she carried enough armor to stop nearly everything fired into her.

She had one drawback: the torque of her engine killed a large number of rookie pilots. Both during takeoff and landing, the engine would simply roll the plane onto its back and dig her into the ground if the pilot wasn't aware and applying hard opposite rudder. She killed more of her own pilots than the Germans shot down pilots flying the Typhoon.

21 Junkers Ju 87

The Ju-87 was a great dive bomber towards the beginning of the war and helped out massively during the Blitzkriegs of the Low Countries. It was an amazing tank buster during the later years of the war and was great from a psychological standpoint with the infamous "Jericho Trumpet".

Fantastic aircraft, obsolete as a dive bomber, lethal as a tank buster.

22 Lockheed P-38J Lightning

The best overall fighter of WWII. It had excellent range, overall performance, and as a fighter bomber, it was second to none. Not as good for pilot safety (armor) as a P-47, but safer than others due to its two engines. It had a more versatile armament than others. Pilots who flew both P-38 and P-51 seemed to side with the P-38 after the war.

For some reason, the P-38 does not seem to have good press over the decades after the war, which I cannot understand. And in pure scare factor, nothing scared one as much as when a "forked-tailed devil" attacked you.

An average fighter with good long-range and high altitude performance. She was slower by 50 mph than nearly every other fighter in the air at the time. She was less maneuverable than both the Messerschmitt and Focke Wulf families of aircraft, and the Ta-152 would have made toast out of her. She's more legend than fact.

23 Focke-Wulf Ta 152 H-1

My personal choice for the best German aircraft of WWII, the Ta-152 was the best performing high altitude piston-powered fighter ever. Its speed at higher altitudes was exceptional. Unfortunately, these entered service in 1944/45 and weren't available in large numbers and so had no effect on the war, but this proved that even at the end of the war, Germany still had great designing skills.

This high-altitude fighter is a beast. A masterpiece made by Kurt Tank. The Fw190 D series was nothing but a stepping stone for this long-nosed, large-winged beauty. It's a shame that it was built in small numbers. It could have done way more if enough were produced.

24 Nakajima Ki-87
25 IAR 80

The IAR 80 was an amazing plane which, although outdated in the second half of the war, still performed admirably.

A Luftwaffe major who tested it in March 1941 had this to say about the IAR 80: Takeoff and landing are very good. It's 20-30 km/h slower than the BF 109E. The climb to 5000 meters is equivalent. In a dogfight, the turns are also equivalent, although the long nose reduces visibility. In a dive, it's outclassed by the BF 109E because it lacks an automated propeller pitch regulator. It's a fighter adequate to modern needs.

It was one of the most important planes on the Eastern Front but is forgotten today.

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