The World's Best Warplanes

by Major Nathaniel F Silsbee
US Army Air Forces

A comparison of fighting aircraft of various classes and nations, when air supremacy depends on quality in combat.

Success in the race for air supremacy depends upon quality. In the long run inferior planes are worse than none. In 1940 the outstanding event in the war in the air was the battle of Britain. The hitherto invincible Luftwaffe was turned back largely because of the edge in speed and fire power of the 8-gunned Spitfires and Hurricanes over the Messerschmitt 109s and Heinkel 112s, despite the overwhelming quantitative superiority of the Nazis. The wholly unsuspected quality of the Soviet fighters such as the speedy I-26 (sometimes called the MIG-3, combining the initials of the two designers) and the heavily armed and armored IL-2 or Stormovik bomber-fighter proved more than a match for the Me-109E fighter and Ju-88 fast bomber one year later.

Today, nearly one year after our active entrance into the conflict, sufficient combat experience has been gained to form an estimate as to the quality of American planes under fire. The record is impressive, all the more so because of the initial losses sustained by surprise attack and local treachery, and because much of the equipment which was available during the first few months was largely obsolescent. The speed, heavy fire power, protective armor plate, diving ability and general ruggedness were fighting qualities which gave Army Air Force bombers as well as fighters an increasing edge in aerial combat performance. From February 1 to August 1, the period of greatest disadvantage, during which we were largely carrying on defensive and delaying actions against overwhelming odds, the ratio was two enemy airplanes shot down to one of ours. During August and September American air power began to play a really important part on several fronts — beginning to roll back the Japs in the south Pacific, the Aleutians, helping stall Rommel in Africa, and commencing the eye-opening daylight raids over Europe with our Fortresses and Liberators. For these two months, the ratio has increased to 8 to 1. The Navy and Marine figures are no less remarkable.

By that time balanced air forces in these areas were being built up. Newer models became available, such as the Boeing B-17E Fortress with stinger tail guns, and Curtiss P-40F Warhawk with higher ceiling than earlier models. Newer types, such as the speedy Lockheed P-38 Lightning interceptor-fighter, with its fast climb, high ceiling and long range were thrown into action. Balance was rounded out by the appearance in these areas of models already highly successful elsewhere, such as the fast, powerful bomber-fighter Doug1as A-20 Havoc, hard-hitting medium bombers, including Martin Martians (B-26) and North American Mitchells (B-25), and long-range 4-engine Consolidated Liberators (B-24). A great proportion of these new planes were flown to the theaters of action, and Air Transport Command's increasing flow of cargo planes kept the supply of spare engines and parts coming along. The establishment of the Overseas Division of the Air Service Command completed the picture with its ground technicians and facilities to keep an ever larger proportion of our planes actually in the air. Other factors include combat experience. of our pilots and crews and increased skill in handling our deadly .50-calibre guns, both hand turned and power-turret types.

It is not generally realized that most of the first-line military airplanes in the forefront of today's aerial combat are the result of tried and proved designs first brought out six or more years ago, vastly improved as to speed, ceiling and especially fire-power, but still essentially the same airplanes.

In the fighter class are four single-seater low-winged mono-planes which were designed in 1934-35, flown in 1936 and put into limited production in 1937-38 (the Messerschmitt was in full-quantity production). These are the British Spitfire and Hurricane, the German Messerschmitt Me-109 and the American Curtiss Hawk P-36, stalwart fighters all, the 8-gunned British jobs having the edge in fire-power, the Me-109 in ceiling and the P-36 in maneuverability. Originally designed for engines of 640 to 850 hp, their successors (Hurricane II, Spitfire V, Me-1091F, and P-40F Warhawk) are now powered by V-type liquid-cooled engines (Merlin XX and Daimler-Benz 601N) averaging around 1200 hp, with considerably improved critical altitudes. Original speeds averaged 325 mph, now are between 360-390 mph top speed.

The same story more or less holds for bombers, including the British Wellington, German Heinkel 111K and the American Fortress, all developed in 1934-35, test-flown in 1936 and still going strong in stepped-up versions, which fly faster and farther with heavier loads of bombs. In addition to these developments it should be noted that even in the case of planes designed since the beginning of the international crisis, there is often a considerable time lag before a new military airplane can be successfully thrown into battle. For example the powerfully armed Bell P-39 Airacobra was designed in 1937-38, prototype test-flown in the spring of 1940, in good production about a year later, and in action on several fronts from early 1942. The fast-climbing Lockheed P-38 Lightning, twin-engine interceptor-fighter, was tested in a flight across the country in February 1939 in about seven hours and a half, including stops for fuel, at about two-thirds throttle, hitting around 400 mph while crossing the Alleghenies. A large number of changes in the prototype delayed quantity production on the P-38E (the model tentatively selected for combat operation) until the summer of 1941. Operational tests revealed the necessity of eliminating tail flutter at high speeds, other changes in the interests of increased safety were made, and an improved turbo-supercharger installed, all of which added up to the P-38G, the model reported in successful action on various fronts during the past few months.

The Airacobra and the Lightning had design features which have rightly been termed "unorthodox" (one way in which major improvements can be achieved). This is ample justification of a four to five year board-to-battle record. Another new fighter is the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt, which is a more conventional design, though with plenty of distinctive features of its own. Its family tree goes back to the P-35, of which the P-43 was a stepped-up version with a 1200 hp engine and turbosupercharger for high altitude operation. The P-44 was an improved P-43, with six heavy machine guns, a 1,350 hp engine and the latest gadgets available in 1940. The fighter plane experts at Wright Field passed on to Republic's engineers certain things they wanted in a powerful slugger that would dominate the upper air, and the expensive XP-44 mock-up, good as it was, had to be scrapped. In September 1940 the XP-47 was designed, and by May 1941 the prototype was test-flown. Improvements were made, and while production on the P-43 was tapering off, the factory began tooling up for what became the P-47B, with 2,000 hp Double Wasp engine. Speed has been announced as better than 400 mph, ceiling up to 40,000 feet, with six or eight of the same .50-calibre high velocity machine guns which have proved so devastating in the Fortress and Liberator heavy bombers. Further testing brought other important improvements, and by spring 1942 the advanced model P-47G was in limited production. Six months later good production was achieved at the parent factory and begun at a midwestern branch; it has also been announced that another major aircraft producer is rapidly tooling up one factory to turn out this formidable fighter.

So much for time lag in production, and despite engineering and production short cuts which have become possible in the light of the huge orders which have been placed with the aircraft companies (and some of these have been noteworthy), it is still largely true that there is no substitute for time when it comes to the development of successful military aircraft. In addition to the attainment of a good production rate, however, there are two other factors tending to delay a particular model of a fighter or bomber coming into combat action. The first is the need of building up a reserve after the squadrons have received their initial equipment. A statement recently appeared in The Aeroplane (London) to the effect that no new model fighter plane would see combat action until about one thousand were on hand; this may vary somewhat in particular cases. The other factor is the necessity for months of tactical training to insure that perfect teamwork which is largely responsible for winning modern air battles.

It may be of interest to follow the evolution of one of these fighter planes and see the nature of the changes which have proved so vital in maintaining combat superiority. The Curtiss Hawk 75 (Army P-36) was originally powered by a Wright Cyclone 850 hp radial air-cooled engine. Its speed of slightly over 300 mph was somewhat faster than the original Me-109, but slower than the Hurricane and Spitfire, all of the same vintage; the current Me-109E, just then coming into production, was considerably faster than the original model. The decided edge in speed which the V-type liquid-cooled engine provided for these foreign types helped to swing Air Corps procurement policy toward this type of engine for the fighter planes in its forthcoming expansion program, including the Lockheed P-38, Bell P-39, Curtiss P-40 and North American P-51. The Republic P-43 was to have a 1200 hp radial air-cooled engine to be followed by the powerful P-47 Thunderbolt as soon as the Pratt & Whitney 2,000 hp Double Wasp was perfected. The highly successful P-36 was slightly redesigned in 1938 to take the new Allison V-1710 (then turning up 950 hp) as the YP-37. The following year this was developed into the P-40, and by the spring of 1940 the first of these came off the production line. In the meantime war broke out and the P-36 was fitted with a Pratt & Whitney Wasp engine of 1,000 hp and became the P-36A. As the Hawk 75A a fair number of these were sold to the French, and they did excellent service on the western front in the spring of 1940 against the Me-109E and Heinkel 112. It had a top speed of 330 mph, excellent maneuverability, fast climb, but was lightly armed (two .30-calibre machine guns) and had insufficient protective armor plate. Altogether a fighter plane which bore the same relation to the more rugged, heavily armed V-engine powered Hurricane as the radial Jap Zero bears to our present P-40s. The British took over the balance of the French order of Hawk 75As, renamed the plane the Mohawk and used them in the early engagements in the Middle East.

The P-40 turned up a speed of about 360 mph as compared with the 330 of the P-36A. The air fighting over Europe had demonstrated the need of self-sealing fuel tanks (a German feature) and much heavier armament and protective armor for the pilot, engine and instruments (British features). These were worked into the Curtiss production line, with a P-40A, B and C coming along every few months; as rapidly as possible these were sent to the various Fighter Squadrons of our own GHQ Air Force and to the British, who called this ship the Tomahawk. Many of these were sent to Africa and to the Far East, where they have proved of great value. By the end of 1940 the P-40D was beginning to roll, followed by the P-40E six months later, in each case production on one model tapering off as it started on the next so that a continuous flow of fighter planes was assured. The P-40D and E were heavily armed with six .50-calibre machine guns, and were sufficiently different from the original P-40 to warrant a new name, Kittyhawk. The Allison engine by this time was rated at 1150 hp, with a 1325 hp rating well along in development. The Kittyhawk became an outstanding performer in the desert fighting, with its unusually large cooling area and powerful guns for low-flying strafing operations. With its British stablemate the Hurricane IIB equipped with light bombs for destruction of ground objectives (the Hurribomber), many of the P-40Ds became Kittybombers. These, together with another Anglo-American team, this time the speedy, powerful, twin-engine fighters, the Bristol Beaufighter and Douglas A-20 Havoc, are authoritatively regarded as in very large measure responsible for stopping Rommel's latest drive. By now the P-40 is showing up as a sturdy all-purpose fighter plane in the same class as the Hurricane, and this is emphasized further by its successful use on a great variety of fronts, including Africa, Russia, Burma, China and the Pacific. The P-40 was not designed as a fast climbing interceptor, and comparisons with the Spitfire and the agile but fragile Jap Zero are beside the point. It cannot be too often repeated that all airplane design is a compromise between the flying qualities of speed, climb, maneuverability, range, and the fighting qualities of fire power, protective armor, rugged construction and ease of maintenance; and each military airplane model can perform best the job for which it is designed.

One limitation in the P-40 design with Allison engine is the service ceiling. The P-38 on the other hand, with two Allisons equipped with turbosuperchargers, is definitely a fast climbing, high flying job, which with its great speed, powerful armament, and exceptionally long range may turn out to be one of the outstanding fighter planes of the entire war. To add to this country's supply of V-type liquid-cooled engines, the 1210 hp Rolls-Royce Merlin XX, used in the Spitfire Mark V and Hurricane Mark II series, was turned over to Packard for quantity production in 1940. The 2,000 plus hp Napier Sabre was in the advanced experimental stage but not at that time proved in any operational aircraft. It is reported as the power-plant of the new, speedy high-flying Hawker Typhoon. The Merlin XX, with two-speed blower super-charger, was used in the P-40F, known as Warhawk, adding another mile to the 3 to 4 mile ceiling of the Kittyhawk making the Warhawk now one of our deadliest fighters.

Military airplanes are not only tailor-made as to types, but during war a feverish struggle is constantly going on to obtain superiority over the enemy. Each change for the better which one side makes, each improvement in speed, ceiling or armament, must be followed as fast as possible by more effective changes in the other fellow's planes. This prevents airplanes from being built on strictly mass production methods, freezing designs. This is why the aircraft industry has had to maintain the highest possible degree of flexibility in its production, even though it means a somewhat slower production rate. As a matter of fact the present large scale orders for planes in 1,000 and even 5,000 lots, with pooled production and a high degree of subcontracting has more nearly made this possible than at any time hitherto. Nazi Germany made the mistake of freezing designs on the Me-109 single-seater fighter, the Ju-87 Stuka and other planes to insure overwhelming quantitative superiority. The battle of Britain taught them the lesson and they are now coming through with the required changes more quickly. One of the factors which has enabled American flyers to overcome terrific odds so far in practically every combat area is the fact that American factories are to a large extent keeping pace with battlefront developments and putting into our warplanes the required changes with a minimum of delay, and yet not interrupting the flow of fighters and bombers to the front. We have already noticed an example of this in the Curtiss P-40 series, and a more recent instance is the transition from the Boeing B-17E to the F, including some 400 minor changes. It so happened that the day the first B-17F came off the line the last of the B-17Es was being delivered, and the total for that month went up instead of down.

Constant change must be provided for. For example word comes back from Egypt that the landing gear on a certain bomber is causing too many crack-ups, or maybe two of the .30-calibre guns should be replaced by .50s, and certain changes are suggested. Many of our large aircraft and engine companies such as Douglas, Lockheed and Wright Aeronautical have expert trouble-shooters in the important theaters of action, and in coordination with Air Force officers on the spot the word gets back quickly. Until the change can be made in the production line proper, which may take several weeks, each airplane is flown to a modification center where the change is made before the plane is flown to the front. There are several dozen of these modification centers located in various parts of the country. Some of these are operated by our principal aircraft producers, some by skilled crews of our nation's domestic airlines, and a few by Air Force personnel at the various Air Depots.

The philosophy of the modification center is simple. As one officer puts it, "Suppose you make kitchen stoves. Your factory is all tooled up for one model on a quantity basis and you're turning out thousands of them. Then your head salesman tells you that you've got to add another gadget or your competitors will run you out of business. Which is easier — retooling your whole plant or adding another shop where the gadget can be installed on the stoves before they meet their competition?" This permits up-to-the-minute developments to be incorporated in combat aircraft without interrupting the flow of production. In this connection Capt Eddie Rickenbacker had an excellent word of advice on his return from an inspection of our new air bases in England. He urged that every major aircraft company send its chief engineer and production manager to the more important fronts at least once and preferably twice each year; with these fronts only a few hours away by transport plane this should be feasible, and the results would pay richly. In air warfare, time is priceless.

Another function of the modification center is that of adapting our planes for special jobs, such as the Doolittle raid, or for certain combat areas where special conditions are encountered. For example, North American B-25 Mitchells are painted a dusty pink for service on desert fighting fronts, and this hard-hitting medium bomber as well as other planes for this front are fitted with extra fine filters to keep out as much of the sand as possible. Other types of ships have to be adapted for operating under Arctic conditions. One of the outstanding examples occurred before the modification centers were developed, but it illustrates the urgent necessity of "must" alterations being worked into our combat aircraft. It is well known that the Japs found no tail guns in the Fortress B-17s they met over the Philippines, mostly B-17Cs and Ds. Even though the Jap guns downed very few of these big boys in flight, owing to their speed and amazingly rugged construction, our combat crews out there clamored for tail guns — and they got them in record time. The Nip pilots didn't know what struck them, and it is reported that nearly a hundred of them were downed before anyone was able to get back and tell the others what was happening. From the battle of Midway on they have kept a healthy distance from our Fortresses, and history is repeating itself on the western front with Goering's picked aces in Focke-Wulf 190s.

As the war in the air proceeds there's no intimating what further surprises in the way of speedy alteration and adaptation are in store for the Axis. Captain Eddie Rickenbacker's report after his inspection trip to England, revised opinions of the Truman committee, the published findings of the Harter sub-committee on aviation, and the exhaustive survey and report of the OWI are all reassuring as to the general superiority of American airplanes. Even in the list of 12 "best" planes drawn up by Peter Masefield of The Aeroplane and the London Sunday Times, American types score 7 out of 12, and many of the ablest authorities in reviewing his list insisted that in the heavy bomber class the American Fortress had the edge on the British Lancaster, and in the medium bomber category either the American Mitchell or Martian was superior to the relatively untried German Dornier 217E-2. It is also doubtful if the Italian Savoia Marchetti 84 land-based torpedo bomber is as fast, powerful or anywhere near as heavily armed as the American B-26 Martian (called Marauder by the British) used successfully as a torpedo bomber in the Midway and Aleutians engagements. If these three strongly supported substitutions in the original list were made it would give American aircraft 10 places out of 12, 5 for Navy and 5 for Army Air Force types. This would be even better than the carefully considered declaration of. the OWI report which stated, "The best the public can expect, and the best it will get, is that on the average the equipment of the Allied Air Forces shall be superior to the equipment of the enemy."

The Peter Masefield list is of course in no way official, and represents merely the opinion of one expert among many. As such, however, it does provide a basis for discussion, and the list printed herewith is submitted with unofficial comments and additional suggestions which may be of interest. His selections are good on the whole, in that all the airplanes mentioned are first class and worthy of inclusion in any such round-up. However, the fact that two of the Naval planes (Helldiver and Corsair) have not yet been proven in combat is a weakness, despite the undeniable superiority of these models in service tests. Also the classification is a bit narrow, some differentiation in types of land-based fighter planes being necessary, and room should be made for the very important light or attack bomber class. The suggested list provides for these additional types and nominates a few additional models for consideration. No unproven models are given as first choice, although a revision of such a list some months hence would probably bring some of them to the top. Masefield's original 12 are all included (in italics), though in some cases, for one reason or another, as second choice. It is admittedly easier to submit more than one choice for a given classification than to come down off the fence, but as some airplanes are "best" for certain purposes, even within the same general classification, it is believed that a more accurate and comprehensive picture is thus provided.

New models coming along may enable our American Air Forces to retain this better-than-average superiority, both in quality and quantity. Reports of a new German high altitude bomber and at least one fighter plane with pressurized cabin provide sharp reminders that no country has a corner on aeronautical research. We have to keep on our toes, and boldness and imagination are required to meet possible threats by air. When air supremacy is achieved, ultimate victory is assured, and with it the hope of a more stabilized and cooperative world order. This has its challenge to America both in the field of an international air policing set-up, and in globe-encompassing air passenger and cargo transportation as an effective aid in reconstructing a war-weary world. Wings of Power will have to function for a long time, but this will not necessarily interfere with Wings of Friendship.

This article was originally published in the February, 1943, issue of Flying Aces magazine, vol 43, no 3, pp 18-22, 78-79.
The original article includes a table comparing Peter Masefield's "The World's 'Best' Airplanes" in 15 categories with Major Silsbee's picks.
A PDF of this article [ PDF, 11.1 MiB ] has been prepared.