The Most Successful Fighter Planes of WWII

World War I is often thought of as “The Great War in the Air,” and indeed that dreadful conflict was the first in which aviation played a decisive factor. But the daring exploits of aviators piloting biplanes (and tri-planes) at upwards of 120 miles per hour, twin air-cooled Vickers machine guns blazing away and long white scarves at their most flappy, look like child’s play compared to the amazing aerial combat of WWII. Aircraft came a long way in their first four decades of existence. By the time the Second World War broke out, fighter planes had come into their own: They were fast, reliable and deadly.

5 The Yakovlev Yak-3

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The Yak 3 was a relative latecomer to WWII, entering service in 1944, the penultimate year of the conflict. But this plane, the finest Soviet fighter aircraft of the war, quickly made up for the years it had missed, achieving a dominant kill-to-loss ratio over the German Luftwaffe and seeing service in the air forces of multiple allied nations. The Yak-3 could fly at speeds in excess of 400 mph and reach 35,000 feet of altitude. It carried one 20mm cannon and twin machine guns.

4 The Mitsubishi A6M Zero

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Were it not for its near total lack of armor, the Zero may well have been considered the best fighter plane of World War II. As it was, though, this fast, capable, maneuverable aircraft was a deathtrap for a pilot caught in the enemy’s crosshairs. It was a lightweight and fast plane, capable of speeds reaching 410 mph, and few aircraft could turn more nimbly. The Zero played a pivotal role in the attack on Pearl Harbor, and achieved air dominance in the early years of the war. Yet the plane failed to maintain that position against ever better equipped, trained and experienced allied pilots, especially when so many veteran Japanese pilots were lost to years of combat.

3 The Messerschmitt Bf-109

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The Me 109 saw service for the better part of three decades. The German Luftwaffe first deployed this capable fighter plane to assist their Fascist allies during the Spanish Civil War of the late 1930s. The last 109s were taken out of service in 1965 (they were being flown by the Spanish then, not the Germans, of course.) Me 109s could almost reach 400 mph and had an amazing service ceiling of more than 39,000 feet. And though other WWII fighters may have surpassed it in terms of kill ratio and performance records, it set one benchmark that may never be broken: Almost 34,000 Me Bf-109 fighter planes were built, a record to this day.

2 The Supermarine Spitfire

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The Spitfire is often hailed as the most beautiful fighter ever built. Seen from above or below, the aircraft does indeed look much like a bird in soaring flight. Seen from the cockpit of an enemy fighter, more often than not it looked like the Grim Reaper. Faster than most planes of the day, the Mk XIV variation Spitfire could reach speeds near 450 mph. Its superb performance (and lethality) was largely due to the excellent wing design, which provided large control surfaces and thus made the plane nimble and responsive.

1 The North American Aviation P-51 Mustang

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The P-51D Mustang is generally considered the greatest fighter plane of WWII. And the reasons are easy to understand: It was fast, well-armed, rugged and it could fly extremely long sorties (or missions) thanks to external gas “drop tanks.” Later models of the Mustang, once fitted with the Rolls-Royce Merlin 65 engine, could fly at excess of 430 mph and had a range of more than 1,600 miles, making them both a superb dogfighter and escort plane all in one. Its six 50 caliber machine guns didn’t hurt either, unless you weren’t an ally …

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