Dogfights: Top 10 Fighter Planes of World War II

Mitsubishi A6M Zero taking off to attack Pearl Harbor. KK News

Mitsubishi A6M Zero

A light and nimble fighter, the Mitsubishi A6M Zero was the first carrier based fighter capable of besting its land based opponents, and was Japan’s main fighter of WWII. The Zero’s design sacrificed protection for speed,  maneuverability, and long range, on the theory that superior speed and maneuverability were protections in their own right, with long range an added bonus. The A6M came as a shock to Allied pilots when first encountered, because it could outmaneuver every airplane it faced at the time.

A better dogfighter than anything the Allies had at the start of the Pacific War, the Zero’s superior performance, especially in the hands of Japan’s elite naval aviators, exceeded anything the Allies had hitherto expected from the Japanese. In the war’s early days, Japanese naval aviators flying Zeroes achieved a 12:1 kill ratio.

To counter the Zero’s advantages, American pilots adopted team work tactics such as the “Thach Weave” which required pilot pairs to work in tandem, or the “Boom and Zoom”, in which American pilots engaged the Zero only in diving attacks, as the acceleration of their heavier planes in a dive allowed them to flee if the diving attack failed.

While holding considerable advantages in maneuverability and speed, the Zero’s lack of protection for either the pilot or the fuel tanks proved a steadily mounting disadvantage as the war progressed, since the heavier and more rugged American fighters could absorb considerable punishment from Zeroes, while a single machine gun burst from the American plane could disintegrate a Zero.

By 1943, attrition had thinned the ranks of Japan’s elite aviators, and the Japanese Navy’s training pipeline could not produce enough replacements of similar caliber. As a result, there were fewer and fewer Japanese pilots capable of extracting the most out of the Zero’s advantages while minimizing its disadvantages. Which was bad news for the Japanese, as the quality of American aviators was increasing, due to wartime experience as well as an extensive training program that produced capable aviators at a rate Japan could not match. That was exacerbated by the introduction of new American fighters, such as the F4U Corsair and the F6F Hellcat, that were a significant improvement over their predecessors, and proved more than a match for the Zero, with greater firepower, armor, speed, and similar maneuverability.

By 1944 the Zero was obsolescent and rapidly becoming obsolete, but it remained in front line service because the Japanese faced production difficulties in fielding a replacement. From its heyday at war’s beginning when it ruled the skies of the Pacific while flown by elite pilots, A6Ms were reduced by war’s end to flying kamikaze missions under the controls of barely trained novices.

Advertisement

  • John Cochrane

    Where’s the Corsair or the Mosquito in your list?

    • Barry Gregory

      Mosquito was a night-fighter, bomber and pathfinder rather than a true fighter.

      • John Cochrane

        By that logic the P-38 shouldn’t be on the list either as it was a pursuit/Interceptor and not a true fighter. . .

        • Brian

          The P-38 was a true fighter. In the pacific ruled the skies. An exact opposite to Japanese lighter maneuverable fighters. It could out climb, out dive, and outgun the Zero. Several of the US highest scoring aces flew the P-38. It also could handle other roles like ground attack and Recon plane. The Mosquito was designed as a fast light bomber that happened to excel as a recon and night fighter. It was maneuverable enough to dogfight but it was not designed to be a fighter from the start. Don’t get me wrong I respect the Mossie but can understand why the Mossie is not on the list. Mosssies were not designed to take off and dogfight other fighters from the start.

          • Michael P Dooley

            You bet! Richard Bong = 40 kills
            Tommy McGuire = 38 kills

    • Jason Stgermain

      I don’t feel the mosquito belongs on this list, but the Corsair most definitely does. Ruled the skies in the pacific theater!

    • Richard Ffoulkes

      The Corsair was a superb aircraft, but I think the Hellcat had a bigger overall impact as it already outclassed the Japanese planes by a comfortable margin and was used in much bigger numbers. The guys at the front must have been mightily relieved to trade in their Wildcats, Thach weave or no.

      The Mossie was in a class of its own – it doesn’t belong with the fighters, but there were any number of other tasks it did brilliantly and it was another plane that enraged the Luftwaffe as “every piano factory in England” could build it. It’s interesting to speculate how Bomber Command would have done if they’d eliminated the heavies and got the Mosquito to deliver the mass raids. For the same cost and same crew as a Lancaster you could have sent over enough Mosquitos to deliver the same payload, and they were much harder to catch.

      • John Cochrane

        Interesting thought on the Mossie. . .

      • Sutton David

        Agree Hellcat yes, Corsair no. I would have only built Mossies and eliminated heavy bombers

        • rdb787

          Experiments done during the war showed that removing the front and dorsal turrets and adding a streamlined nose to the Lancaster would have increased it’s speed by 50 mph which would have made it nearly impossible to intercept by German night-fighters. It would have also reduced the crew by one as well.

  • Barry Gregory

    Ah the Lightning, the USA’s Me110. Great plane if your enemy is outnumbered by dozens to one!

  • troonorth

    “Die Schwalbe” How something so beautiful could be so deadly is the mystery of war. Too few, too late. We should thank our lucky stars for fools like Hitler and Goering, for if it were not for fools like these, the war might have turned out quite differently.

    • Richard Ffoulkes

      Yes, the 262 was a lovely plane and great when it went, but those turbojets broke if you even looked at them funny and had an operational lifetime that would disgrace a Formula 1 car engine. Logistically the USAF had the Germans on toast even if they’d used the 262 effectively in any reasonable quantity, though.

      • troonorth

        My Uncle flew Spit’ MK IX’s against the 262 and he said it was the only German aircraft that truly terrified his squadron’s pilots. The Jumo engine may have been relatively unreliable, but it was ‘operational’ which ours were not. Had the Germans been able to devote the scarce materials needed to perfect that and subsequent engines and had they deployed the 262 earlier, the situation in the air might have been quite different. Thankfully, Hitler didn’t like the noise of these new engines!!

  • Greg Kerr

    There were any number of other fighter aircraft that performed very well depending on which theater of the war they flew in or under what conditions. The P-40 got off to a bad start against the Japanese…but perhaps that tale was sold to the public to disguise the fact that Japanese pilots were better trained and more experienced early in the war. The P-40 was one of the most heavily produced fighter in the war and performed well in certain theaters where combat occurred at lower altitudes. Same holds true for the Bell p-39 Airacobra and the P-63 King Cobra. The top scoring Russian ace scored the majority of his kills in the P-39. Even the lowly Brewster F2A Buffalo did yeoman duty for the Finns. In fact the Buffalo was the top scoring plane of the entire war in regards the ratio of kills versus losses. The Italians fielded some very fine fighters as well….though in such small quantities that they had little impact and received even less attention. At war’s start many of the French fighters were more than a match for the 109, but French tactics and strategy sucked. And when the Japanese finally fielded newer high performance models towards the end of the war which could stand up to the best the Allies had, most were flown by pilots with hardly any training. All in all though, the choices shown here were all exceptional fighter aircraft.

  • David

    How is the Whistling Death NOT part of the discussion?? Gorgeous design, innovative, FAST and DEADLY, didn’t it have one of the HIGHEST kill ratios of any Allied Fighter???

  • Tanneradozen

    The Hawker Tempest fighter was extremely fast and because heavy held together in a very fast power dive.The Meteor. Britain had 3 squadrons of Meteors in 1943 that were not made operational except over Britain. They had great success catching and shooting down the V-1 doodlebugs.

  • Tanneradozen

    The Germans had a Heinkel rocket plane fighter that gained great success as a bomber interceptor but not as a fighter in a dog fight. Endurance was too limited. Because of wartime shortages the design of ME 262 jet engines only gave them a lifespan of approx 26 hours whereas the British meteors are still flying today. Thank-you Frank Whittle and Gloster.

  • Sutton David

    I think the Hellcat was the plane I would go to war in. It was lethal, it was rugged and it showed up ready for action with few faults.

    • Richard Ffoulkes

      Yes indeed. Fast enough (even if slower than the Corsair), typical “Grumman Iron Works” construction, and could beat a Zero at anything other than a low-speed turning fight – as long as you keep your speed up you have little to fear, and the data shows the odds to be nearly 20:1 in your favour. You’d take that, really.

  • Josh Gidney

    Good read, but the La-5FN/7 belongs on the list, and the MiG-3 rivalled the Spitfire and Mustang for beauty, IMHO. PS I’m not Russian.

  • Kerry Valle

    Have you ever tried Skeet Shooting….Until you have, I would not talk about the lack of talent or skill required for any gunner.

    • Alex Anderson

      Indeed I have Kerry and I fully respect the talent required to lead a moving target in midair. There is some instinctive math required — although it appears to be much easier to walk a line of tracers onto a target than shooting without tracers. To be fair, I’ve never had a clay pigeon shoot back at me though. On the other hand, are you saying that the skill required to do that is comparable to calculating weights and loads, ranges, flight times, angles of motion in a 3D environment and then at the end of the day actually landing a B-17/Lancaster (anything else with wings)? Because if you are then I would respectfully suggest you try it first. But even without being somewhat snarky, the historical fact is that the training regimen for pilots was a lot longer and more involved than the training regimen for gunners.

  • Kerry Valle

    The Corsair’s carrier operations was actually perfected by the British. Then the USN adapted the Corsair for US Naval operations.

  • JD Chance

    Hellcats, Spitfires, Mustangs, Corsairs .. top 4 for me .. hard to pick number one .. still .. would go with Hellcats.