American Fighter Planes of WWII
Descriptions and comments by the aces who flew them
By Stephen Sherman, Apr. 2002. Updated July 28, 2011.
P-38 Lockheed Lightning
Big, twin-engine fighter plane used by Army fliers from 1943 in the Pacific
9,200 planes produced, starting in March, 1942.
P-38J specs: 420 MPH, four 50 caliber machine guns and one 20 mm
cannon, all nose-mounted
With its twin engines mounted on twin booms and the pilot's separate nacelle in between, the P-38 looked like no other plane. Lockheed's brilliant designer Kelly Johnson created the plane in response to a 1937 Army specification for an interceptor that could reach 20,000 feet in 6 minutes. With the engines of the era, this was quite a challenge, and the innovative P-38 design resulted. After lengthy production delays, the Lockheed appeared in force in the Southwest Pacific in mid-1943, and proved a devastating fighter. In Fire in the Sky: The Air War in the South Pacific, Robert DeHaven, a 14-kill ace with the 49th Fighter Group, describes his reaction to the Lightning:
The P-38 was very unusual. Imagine what I felt when first climbing on board that airplane. Sitting on that tricycle landing gear, it was very high off the ground. There was a stepladder that dropped out of the tail end of the fuselage pod, and you took two steps up this ladder and the third step was onto the wing next to the canopy. ... It was a good sized airplane. In comparison the P-39 was a midget, almost like a toy.
It was very fast and had good firepower. That gave a lot of people false confidence when they first went to P-38s. Their limitations on tactics were the same as those we were accustomed to in the P-40s, but even more so. You did not go looking for a close-in dogfight with an Oscar or Zero. Japanese planes were quicker ... at slow speed. But new pilots did not always realize the consequences. If the speed bled off a P-38, which happened very easily, it could be in serious trouble against a Japanese fighter. Many of our men found out the hard way, particularly when we first started receiving the P-38s.
Recommended Reading (available from Amazon.com): P-38 Lightning Aces of the Pacific and CBI
Recommended Reading (available from Amazon.com): P-38 Lightning Aces of the ETO/MTO
P-39 Bell Airacobra
Unique pre-war design, hampered by lack of turbosupercharger
Cannon firing through propeller hub; liked by Russians for tank-killing
9,500 planes produced, starting in April, 1942.
P-39N specs: 375 MPH, four 30 caliber machine guns, two 50 caliber
machine guns, and one 37 mm cannon
Along with the P-40, the Airacobra was one of the few U.S. fighters available in large numbers at the start of the war. While its lack of a turbosupercharger made it ineffective about 12,000 feet and while it was generally outclassed by the Zero, it served well in the early months of the war. It was relatively free of mechanical defects and breakdowns; like most American aircraft it could absorb a lot of enemy gunfire and still return its pilot back to base.
Bud Anderson on the P-39Bud Anderson first flew the P-39 in late 1942, from Hamilton Field in Novato California while training with the 328th Fighter Group. As he relates in To Fly and Fight:
It was a good-looking airplane. If looks counted for anything, it would have been a great airplane. And the Russians absolutely loved them, and wound up with most of them. Under 15,000 feet, the P-39, called the Airacobra, was a decent if underpowered performer.When the guns fired, the pilot could smell the gunpowder in the cockpit. Bud Anderson loved that smell.
But the Airacobra was mincemeat above 15,000 feet, and useless in Western Europe, where virtually all of the flying and fighting was at double that altitude. ...
But in October of 1942, I was thrilled to be flying it. It was unique, with its engine behind the cockpit, and the propeller drive shaft running between the pilot's legs. It had a tricycle landing gear, unlike anything in our arsenal except the P-38. And the cockpit was more like a car's, with a door instead of a swing-up or sliding canopy, and windows that actually rolled up and down with a crank. You could taxi the thing while resting your elbows on the sill, like cruising the boulevard on a Saturday night.
Over half of the Airacobras produced, almost 5000 planes, went to the Soviet Union. Operating there at low levels, it was very effective at ground support, and could even hold it own in aerial combat. Several Soviet Airacobra aces are known. One of the leading Russian aces, Alexander Pokryshin, with 59 kills, scored 48 of these in a P-39.
P-40 Curtiss Warhawk
The Flying Tigers' plane
13,800 planes produced, starting in June, 1940.
P-40E specs: 362 MPH, six 50 caliber machine guns
The P-40 was the workhorse of the Allied aerial arsenal right through 1944. It may not have been as "hot" as later designs, but it was a sound design, based on the earlier P-36, mated to the Allison V-1710 engine, that Curtis was able to produce in large numbers. As Clair Chennault found out in China, the P-40 was heavier, faster, and sturdier than Japanese fighters, and it out-gunned them as well. Properly handled and below 15,000 feet, it was a lethal aircraft.
Joel Paris was a P-40 ace with the 49th Fighter Group in the Southwest Pacific. In Fire in the Sky: The Air War in the South Pacific, he relates his opinion of the P-40:
I never felt that I was a second-class citizen in a P-40. In many ways I thought the P-40 was better than the more modern fighters. I had a hell of a lot of time in a P-40, probably close to a thousand hours. I could make it sit up and talk. It was an unforgiving airplane. It had vicious stall characteristics. ...Robert DeHaven, a 14 kill ace, also with the 49th F.G., scored ten of his kills in the P-40.
If you knew what you were doing, you could fight a Jap on even terms, but you had to make him fight your way. He could out-turn you at slow speed. You could out-turn him at high speed. When you got into a turning fight with him, you dropped your nose down so you kept your airspeed up, you could out-turn him. At low speed he could out-roll you because of those big ailerons. They looked like barn doors on the Zero. If your speed was up over 275, you could out-roll it. His big ailerons didn't have the strength to make high speed rolls ...
You could push things, too. Because you knew one thing: If you decided to go home, you could go home. He couldn't because you could outrun him. He couldn't leave the fight because you were faster. That left you in control of the fight. Mind you: The P-40 was a fine combat airplane.
www.P-40.com - one of the best web sites dedicated to a particular plane.
P-47 Republic Thunderbolt-
The Seven Ton Milk Jug
"It better dive, because it sure as Hell can't climb." Don Blakeslee
15,700 planes produced, starting in March, 1942.
P-47D specs: 430 MPH, eight 50 caliber machine guns
Robert S. Johnson and the P-47When Robert S. Johnson first saw a Thunderbolt, it was love at first sight. The P-47B was a giant with a 2,000 horsepower engine; not very pretty on the ground, but every inch a powerful machine, rugged and sturdy with all the mass of a tank. He scrutinized the tremendous four-bladed propeller. In each wing rested four 50 caliber machine guns, giving the Thunderbolt the ability to throw 7,200 rounds of lead per minute!
He had a chance to check out the P-47 at Bradley Field:
I hit the starter switch. Deep inside her belly the Thunderbolt groaned, a straining rumble sounding for all the world like a giant dynamo coming alive. Ahead of me the four propeller blades turned slowly, then began to move faster as the Pratt & Whitney gained in power. The rumble increased in pitch, the blades became a blur. Suddenly the cranking and rumbling vanished, to be replaced by a tremendous, throaty roar, a bass of power such as I'd never heard. I cracked the throttle forward a fraction of an inch and the fighter sang of power, a symphony of thunder, alive and ready to howl at the slightest movement of my fingers.He took the plane up, nearly killing himself when the heavy canopy bar slid back and smashed his head. But he got the ship in the air and it howled its way up into the sky. He soon learned that "unless we plunged nose first into the ground, we couldn't hurt the Thunderbolt". It could take the stress of any aerobatic maneuver. The pilots of the 56th Fighter Group grew to trust the fighter, knowing they could subject it to any demands of aerial combat.
After he arrived in England in early 1943, he saw his first Spitfire and compared it to the Thunderbolt. The differences were amazing. The P-47 was a giant, massive weapon; the English fighter was lithe and rapid, with the agility to dart in and out of battle. The RAF pilots warned the Americans that their huge Thunderbolts would be sitting ducks against the Messerschmitts and Focke Wulfs. They were wrong. The tough Thunderbolts more than held their own against the Luftwaffe.
One day in late June, 1943, Johnson's Thunderbolt was hit early in the mission and then helplessly subjected to an Fw 190's machine gun fire on the way home. You read about this famous story in the Robert S. Johnson article on this site. Somehow, incredibly, the P-47 absorbed this battering from the German guns and made it back. After the injured Johnson had landed his plane at the Manston emergency strip, he surveyed the damage it had taken, and later described the result in his autobiography, Thunderbolt!:
There are twenty-one gaping holes and jagged tears in the metal from exploding 20mm cannon shells. I'm still standing in one place when my count of bullet holes reaches past a hundred; there's no use even trying to add them all. The Thunderbolt is literally a sieve, holes through the wings, fuselage and tail. Every square foot, it seems is covered with holes. There are five holes in the propeller. Three 20mm cannon shells burst against the armor plate, a scant inch away from my head. Five cannon shell holes in the right wing; four in the left wing. Two cannnon shells blasted away the lower half of my rudder. One shell exploded in the cockpit, next to my left hand; this is the blast that ripped away the flap handle. More holes appeared along the fuselage and in the tail. Behind the cockpit, the metal is twisted and curled; this had jammed the canopy, trapping me inside.Johnson had great success with the Thunderbolt, shooting down 27 German planes over Europe while flying the rugged fighters.
The airplane had done her best. Needless to say, she would never fly again.
Recommended Reading (available from Amazon.com): P-47 Thunderbolt Aces of the Eighth Air Force
P-51 North American Mustang
Generally considered to be the best fighter of WWII
"The day I saw Mustangs over Berlin, I knew the jig was up." Hermann Goering
15,100 planes produced, starting in June, 1942.
North American Aviation originally designed the Mustang in response to
a British specification. They agreed to produce the first prototype
only 4 months after signing the contract in April 1940 (and met that
commitment). And by the end of 1941 North American had delivered the
first Mustang to England for test flights. These first Mustangs were
powered by the Allison V-1710 engine, a good engine, but one which
didn't operate well at high altitudes.
P-51D specs: 440 MPH, six 50 caliber machine guns
In April, 1942, a British test pilot, Ronald Harker flew the Mustang and was very impressed by it. But he suggested that the new plane would be a natural fit with the Rolls Royce Merlin 60 engine, which operated very well at high altitudes. At the prodding of Major Thomas Hitchcock, the Americans began working along the same lines (using the Packard license-built version of the Merlin), and the first Merlin-equipped Mustang, the P-51B, flew in November, 1942. The results were impressive, to say the least. At 30,000 feet, the improved Mustang reached 440 MPH, almost 100 MPH faster than the Allison-equipped Mustang at that altitude.
Bud Anderson on the P-51:When Bud Anderson arrived at Raydon Wood in England, with the 357th Fighter Group. Here he was introduced to the Mustang, which was a lot different from the P-39. The Mustang was a tail-dragger with a long nose blocking the pilot's forward view, requiring him to make sweeping "S" turns to see where he was going. The P-51 was a lot more powerful, and had a big four-blade paddle propeller. Take-offs and landing were a bit tricky, but in the air, the Mustang
was pleasant and forgiving to fly. Best of all, it went like Hell. The Merlin had great gobs of power, and was equally at home high or low, thanks to a two-stage, two-speed supercharger. The Mustang carried fuel enough to pursue and destroy the enemy once you'd flown to the target, and it could turn on a dime. It was crucial to keep it it trim but, as we gained experience with the plane, that became automatic. We sensed it was special, even before we measured it against what the enemy pilots were flying.
quoted from To Fly and Fight, available from Amazon.com
Bob Goebel on the P-51:Robert Goebel flew Mustangs with the 31st Fighter Group, based at San Severo, Italy, in the MTO (Mediterranean Theater of Operations). Like Bud Anderson, he had flown P-39s earlier on. At San Severo in mid-1944, he got his first crack at the P-51:
We soon found out that the P-51 Mustang was indeed a different breed of airplane. It was fast, for one thing. ... The P-51 was redlined at 505 and, though it was no Spitfire, its turning ability wasn't bad at all - especially if you sneaked down 10 degrees of flaps. It was pretty good in the climbing department too, and accelerated very fast in a dive. But the thing that really set the Mustang apart from any other fighter, friend or foe, was its range. With a 75-gallon tank slung under each wing, it could perform the unheard-of: It could fly six-hour missions.
Physically, it was pleasing to the eye and looked fast, even sitting on the ground. Power was provided by a V-1650 Rolls-Royce Merlin engine built under license in the States by Packard, the luxury automobile company. The V-1650 was a fine engine and could be taken up to 61 inches of manifold pressure at 3,000 RPM for take-off or, if needed in combat, 67 inches for up to five minutes in Emergency Power. Normally aaspirated engines tended to run out of power as altitude increased, usually between 15,000 and 20,000 feet. The P-51 had a two-stage blower in the induction system that was controlled automatically with a barometric switch. Around 17,000 feet, when the throttle had been advanced almost all the way forward just to maintain normal cruise, the blower would kick into high, the manifold pressure would jump up, and the climb could be continued to 30,000 feet. The P-51 could be taken a lot higher than that, but above 30,000 feet the power was way down and the controls had to be handled gingerly.
quoted from Mustang Ace available at Amazon.com
The Mustang's range and combat capabilities permitted it to escort the heavy USAAF bombers (B-17s mostly) on massive daylight bombing raids over Germany. Some have argued that it was a "war-winning" weapon. It certainly was a decisive factor in the aerial Battle of Germany. After World War Two, the Mustang continued to serve with the USAAF and other Western air forces, including distinguished service in the Korean War.
Recommended Web Site: Joe Baugher's P-51 article - another excellent and detailed aircraft article by Joe Baugher
Recommended Reading (available from Amazon.com): Mustang Aces of the Eighth Air Force
Recommended Reading (available from Amazon.com): Mustang Aces of the Ninth and Fifteenth Air Forces and the RAF
P-61 Northrop Black Widow
Only American plane designed as a night-fighter
650 planes produced, starting in October, 1943.
P-61A specs: 369 MPH, four 20 mm cannon
P-63 Bell Kingcobra
3,300 planes produced, starting in October, 1943. 2,241 sent to
Of the 3,303 P-63s built, 2,241 were sent to the USSR, and 300 went to
the Free French, who used them in combat in Indochina. It’s often
stated that no P-63s served with the USAAF, but that isn’t true. The
USAAF used 378 RP-63s, as "pinball" aircraft; these were target
training aircraft, specially armored, and with lights that lit up when
the aircraft was hit with frangible bullets. These were the only P-63s
to serve with the USAAF; none were used operationally as fighters. (Thanks
to Robert Allen, for providing this info on the P-63.)
P-63A specs: 410 MPH, four 50 caliber machine guns, one 37 mm cannon
F2A Brewster Buffalo
An utter failure in the Pacific; but used successfully by the Finns
500 planes produced, starting in January, 1941.
F2A-3 specs: 321 MPH, four 30 caliber machine guns
While the Americans dismissed the Buffalo as useless junk after Midway, the Finns used them to great advantage in their war against the Soviet Union. Several interesting web sites cover the Finnish air war, Finnish aces, and the Brewster B-239, "Buffalo" in Finnish service.
The Finn's leading ace, Eino Juutilainen, scored 34 of his 94 kills while flying the Brewster Buffalo.
F4F Grumman Wildcat
7860 planes produced, starting in December, 1940.
F4F-4 specs: 320 MPH, six 50 caliber machine guns
Grumman's stubby, rugged fighter held the line against the Zeros in the early air battles over Guadalcanal and in the 1942 carrier battles. Later in the war, the FM-2, an Eastern-produced version of the Wildcat, flew from escort carriers.
Recommended Reading (available from Amazon.com): Wildcat Aces of World War 2
F6F Grumman Hellcat
12,500 planes produced, starting in October, 1942. Entered service
F6F-3 specs: 376 MPH, six 50 caliber machine guns
The highly successful follow-on to the Wildcat. Built specifically to counter the Japanese Zero, the Hellcat filled the bill, and earned the nickname "ace maker." Its docile handling characteristics, especially important for a carrier-based plane to be used by a large number of competently trained pilots, made it the Navy's first choice fighter to deploy with the Essex-class carriers. Eugene Valencia, one of the Navy's top aces, quipped. "I love this airplane so much, that if it could cook, I'd marry it."
Recommended Reading (available from Amazon.com): Hellcat Aces of World War 2
F4U Vought Corsair
11,700 planes produced, starting in July, 1942. Also entered
F4U-1D specs: 425 MPH, six 50 caliber machine guns
Originally designed as a carrier-based fighter, the Corsair's difficult handling and landing characteristics caused the Navy to rely on the Grumman Hellcat instead. The Marine Corps benefited from this policy change, and its land-based units eagerly adopted the "Bent-wing Bird." The famous Jolly Rogers, the Navy's VF-17, also flew the Corsair during its tour in the Solomons. Late in the war, as the handling problems were resolved, both Marine and Navy pilots operated F4U's from carrier decks.
Tommy Blackburn (CO of the Jolly Rogers) on the F4U Corsair:
The Corsair appeared to be a superb fighting machine, but it was over-engineered and thus hard to maintain. At the start of a typical day's ops, only about half of our full complement was safe to fly. By "secure," half of those could be expected to be "down."
The 2,800-cubic-inch engine was a monster to fire up after it had sat in subfreezing weather overnight. First, it took two strong men pulling on a prop blade to slowly accomplish the minimum revolutions needed to clear the lower cylinders of oil so the start-up could be accomplished in safety. Next, the engine had to be primed with raw gasoline. This touchy enterprise had to stop short of flooding and thus drowning the spark plugs and evade the obvious fire hazard while getting enough vaporized fuel into the cylinders to get the engine to cough to life. Some genius had equipped the Corsair with a shotgun starter in lieu of the heavy electric starter. When all was in readiness, the shotgun shell was fired. Sometimes it went bang and turned the prop through three or more revolutions. Mostly, however, it just went poof and the prop just twitched. Four abortive tries generally overheated the starter, and that resulted in a fifteen-minute stand-down for cooling. So much for geniuses.
Each of fourteen cowl flaps had its own baby hydraulic cylinder to open and close it. These tended to leak. In addition, until the maintenance crews became expert, the big radial engine tended to throw a lot of oil. The combination rapidly coated the windshield and seriously decreased the airplane's inherently limited forward visibility. We all became expert at quickly locating rain showers through which we could fly in order to wash away the oil.
The landing flaps had a protective device to prevent extension at airspeeds high enough to cause overstressing. This was a dandy feature except that the flaps could and often did retract fully and without warning during the final stages of a landing approach. Of course, this resulted in a horrendous loss of lift and a rapid sinking. The pilot, ever alert for such mishaps, had to slam on full power to evade disaster. After too many narrow escapes, we got the "flap blowup" removed, it being our decision to risk tearing off a flap as against losing lift in this terrifying, dangerous manner. To my knowledge, no one ever did tear off a flap.
The Corsair's storage battery, which was located in the cockpit, had an unhealthy habit of boiling over. In one case, a battery exploded while the airplane was in flight. We later determined that it had been excessively over- charged, but the incident gave us one more in a long line of potential life-threatening problems to bear in mind while we were trying to fly - and eventually, fight - our irasible Hogs.
quoted from The Jolly Rogers, by Tom Blackburn and Eric Hammel
Check out the story behind Pappy Boyington's Corsair, which includes a short history of the plane's development.
Recommended Reading (available from Amazon.com): Corsair Aces of World War 2