The World's Best Aircraft

By Peter G Masefield
Mr Masefield, former technical editor of The Aeroplane, London, and now personal advisor on civil aviation to Lord Beaverbrook, recently completed a tour of US aircraft factories as a guest of the Army Air Forces. Now returned to London, he has compiled what, in his studied opinion, is the rating of today's warplanes. In presenting Mr Masefield's list — and the formula upon which he bases his ratings — the editors of Flying believe that, although the Masefield list may be of a controversial nature, his formula will prove of interest to the aircraft industry.
Noted British writer and technical expert names his selections, based on a comprehensive formula.

What are the world's best airplanes in each of the more important military and civil categories? Is the Flying Fortress or is the Liberator the most formidable day bomber? Does the Mustang surpass the Spitfire as a single-seat dog-fighter? Has the enemy any unbeatable types in operation?

Questions such as these are posed frequently. They have been answered from time to time by lists of "The World's Best Airplanes," each representing its author's personal opinions and prejudices — mine among them. Interesting and enlightening as many of these may have been, the weakness of such selections is that personal preferences have had perforce to enter into them — and rarely have two selections agreed; any more than have similar selections of football or movie stars. Before going further I am going to say that I believe that, provided there is sufficient basic information from which to work, comparative qualities of airplanes can be assessed in different categories on a basis which will eliminate mere opinion and prejudice. Further, working from a foundation of this sort, detailed calculations, practical research and experience of actual operations leads me to believe that, taken all round, the three most outstanding aircraft in the world today are:

  1. The North American Mustang (Merlin engine) single-seat fighter.
  2. The de Havilland Mosquito fighter-bomber.
  3. The Consolidated Liberator day bomber.

Such a statement is seemingly mighty sweeping. The purpose of this article is to justify it and to try to show how an overall assessment can be made of the relative quality of other aircraft in the various categories required in modern air war. In such an assessment, each of the three airplanes singled out above for special praise comes out not only on top of its class in its specialized category, but also has the versatility to lead in other complementary categories. Thus the Mustang is supreme, according to my estimation, in land-based single-seat fighter categories; the Mosquito supreme as a high-speed day and night bomber and reconnaissance airplane and also as a night intruder-fighter, while the Liberator leads both as a long-range day bomber and as an ocean patrol-bomber.

So much for generalities. When we come down to detail, we find that the characteristics which distinguishes the performance of aircraft from the performances of their human rivals for glamor, is that the airplane is a mechanical being and its features can be calculated in precise figures as such. That is not to say that an airplane has not completely incalculable qualities of its own. In fact, in some ways airplanes are essentially feminine and, in the hands of a skilled and sympathetic pilot, can reveal almost human character and personality not possessed by any other man-made machine.

Be that as it may, the fact is that by assessing the combination of desirable features of any given type of airplane in terms of an ideal, what may be termed a "quality factor" can be calculated for that airplane as an overall percentage of the ideal.

If, for example, the maximum speed which any airplane might hope to attain today were set at 500 mph and a certain type in fact attained 420 mph, then its "quality factor" on that count would be 84 per cent of the ideal 500 mph. Similarly, if the maximum attainable rate of climb were set at 6,000 feet per minute and the hypothetical airplane achieved 4,000 feet per minute, then its "quality factor" on that one feature would be 66.6 per cent. Combining the two together, the overall figure for the two factors would be 75.3 per cent.

Of course there is much more to it than that. Obviously the first thing to decide is with what categories of aircraft one must deal — single-seat fighter, heavy day bomber, naval dive bomber and so forth. Then one must decide what are the desirable qualities to look for in each category of aircraft before any assessment can be attempted.

First things first; the respective categories. First of all there are four broad divisions of aircraft: land-based strategic and tactical types, ship-borne types, and transports. Strategic aircraft are those long-range types whose operations are designed to influence the disposition and the numbers of the enemy's forces which can be brought to the battlefield, wherever that may be. Tactical aircraft are those designed to intervene over the battlefield itself, both in defense of main bases and acting as cover and support to surface forces. The ship-borne types are all those designed to be flown from ships at sea, whether carriers or other classes of war or merchant ships. The transports — landplanes and flying boats — are self-evident.

In each of these four main divisions there are, obviously, different classes of aircraft for different specialized purposes. Let us set them down and at the same time put down against each of them the quality which, combined with other all-round attributes, is the chief requirement for success in the particular job — such as a good eye for a baseball batter.

1. Four types of aircraft are important for STRATEGIC operations:
    Major Requirements
    (a)  Long-range heavy day bomber..............defense, range
    (b)  Long-range heavy night bomber ............... bomb-load, range
    (c)  Day and night reconnaissance bomber........... speed, range.
    (d)  Long-range ocean patrol-bomber (anti-sub) ........... range, load.
2. For TACTICAL missions there are eight important categories:
    (a)  Single-seal single-engine dog-fighter (low and medium altitudes)........ defense, range
    (b)  Single-seat single-engine dog-fighter (high-altitude)......speed, ceiling
    (c)  Single-seat fighter-bomber...........speed, bomb-load
    (d)  Single-seat escort fighter.......range, speed, maneuverability
    (e)  Bomber-destroyer ......... firepower, speed
    (f)  Night intruder-fighter ....speed, range, firepower
    (g)  Two-engine attack-bomber (and tankbuster) ....firepower, speed, load
    (h)  Land-based torpedo-bomber ......... Range, speed, maneuverability
3. SHIP-BASED aircraft may be divided into four main categories:
    (a)  Single-seat naval interceptor fighter........... speed, climb.
    (b)  Single-engine naval dive-bomber...... bomb-load, speed.
    (c ) Single-motor naval torpedo-bomber...... speed. maneuverability
    (d)  Naval escort fighter................. range, speed.

In the transport categories there is scope for an almost unlimited number of types of aircraft, according to the routes to be operated and the local conditions along them. For generalized purposes the types of transport required can, perhaps, be boiled down to six main categories. They are:

LandplanesMajor Requirements
    (a)  Long-range ocean transport (3,000 miles in still air)payloads, ton-miles per gal
    (b)  Medium-range, high-capacity transport (1,500 miles in still air) . payload, ton-miles per gal
    (c)  High-speed, medium-capacity personnel transport (1,500 miles in still air)..... speed, ton-miles per gal
    (d ) Short-range, single-engine "roughrider" transport (600 miles in still air) . . take-off, ton-miles per gal
    (a)  Long-range ocean transport flying boat. (3,000 miles)payload, ton-miles per gal. per hr
    (b)  Short-range air-sea rescue and general-purpose amphibian (1,000 miles in still air)payload, ton-miles per gal per hr

In all that gives 22 different categories of aircraft. And although this does not make full provision for many types of aircraft which are doing fine war work — such as the "grasshoppers", the catapult seaplanes, any of the many classes of trainer or any gliders — nevertheless these 22 categories do cover all the more important types of aircraft required for operational flying in modern air war.

Having decided on the various categories to be represented, the next important step is to determine in each category the qualities needed to give all-round excellence. For instance a single-seat fighter needs a first-class combination of speed, maneuverability, rate of climb, high ceiling, range, firepower, armor, ease of maintenance and low cost of production (reckoned in man hours). The requirements for a heavy night bomber are naturally rather different and include emphasis on bomb-load and range.

Perhaps the best way to look at this requirement of qualities is to imagine oneself at a conference called to select the best airplane for a particular job. Represented at the conference are:

  1. The Commander-in-Chief of Air Operations.
  2. The air crew which is to fly the airplane in action.
  3. The ground crew which is to keep the airplane flying.
  4. The production engineer who has to build it in quantity.

Each will want different features. If the type under discussion is a bomber, the C-in-C will want the maximum possible bomb-load which can be dropped on a target, and sufficient range to bring all targets within reach. The air crew will want speed, defense and pleasant flying qualities, combined with a good ceiling to escape the worst of the flak. The ground crew will want ease of maintenance and the production engineer will want simplicity of construction so that it is easy to build. Thus, in assessing an overall "quality factor" we must take account of all requirements — which will vary according to the purpose of operation.

Obviously, too, some factors are more important than others. and figure most prominently in the design. These are the qualities which have been termed the "major factors" in setting out the 22 categories required: defense and range for the day bomber, bomb-load and range for the night bomber, and so on.

So far the problem is relatively straightforward. Now we come to the more detailed and the more complicated procedure The thing to bear in mind is that we are attempting to make a fair and impartial assessment of the world's best airplane in each of the categories specified — the airplane best fitted to the job in hand. The principle is to compare the known performance and other qualities of each airplane under review, against the best attainable in each particular. The approach should be made in a spirit of how much can be gained out of the formula in the way of eradicating biased opinion, and in checking judgment and not in the spirit of how much one can outwit it and promote freaks. In this way some most interesting results can be gained and I believe the method is reasonably foolproof, After much experiment and detailed thought on the subject. the most satisfactory sequence of assessment appears to work out as follows:

  1. Split the aircraft under review into their essential categories.
  2. Define the requisite qualities in each category from the points of view of C-in-C, aircrew, ground crew and production engineer.
  3. Compare only like with like. Thus the Mosquito should not be assessed against the Clipper as a transocean transport, though both have flown the Atlantic. Nor should the FW-190 be assessed against the Lancaster as a night bomber, even though both have been used for this purpose.
  4. Compare only on a basis of consistent figures. Thus if a range is quoted with external fuel tanks the speed must be quoted for the machine equipped with the tanks — and so on.

In making the detailed calculations I have been able to draw on restricted figures for various aircraft whose exact performance may not be published yet. Naturally those figures cannot be quoted here. If that puts into the estimate of results something of the atmosphere of the patent medicine whose prescription is a professional secret, then I must ask forgiveness and plead the unfortunate result of inevitable and essential wartime restriction. Nevertheless the results can be reached without telling the enemy any unknown facts because there are so many 'unknowns" in each individual assessment that even the most brilliant German mathematician could not chase the missing "x"s. A "quality factor" of, say, 85 per cent for the Spitfire IX could in no way reveal the exact top speed or rate of climb.

As a detailed example of the method of assessing the "quality factor" for any given airplane, let us analyze the figures for an airplane of 1939, where all the relative qualities are known and can be quoted freely. The same methods are applied to today' s aircraft, except that the optimum figures of 1939 are exchanged for those of 1943-44.

As the illustration let us take the Messerschmitt Me-109E single-seat dog-fighter (1939) for operation at low and medium heights. We proceed as follows:

Major FactorsBest of 1939Me-109E
% of Best
1. Max speed at 15,000 ft362 mph Spitfire354 mph98.0
2. Maneuverability factor (wing-loading)  14.7 lb/ft2(Gladiator)32.1 lb/ft245.8
Subsidiary Factors
3. Duration (50% power)4.2 hr (Seversky P-35)2.4 hr57.1
4. Initial climb4,800 ft/min (CW-21)3,100 ft/min  64.5
5. Firepower616 mhp491 mhp79.8
6. Maintenance factor16 (Curtiss Hawk 75)1168.7
7. Production factor5,100 man-hours (Gladiator)   6,60077.5
8. Vulnerability factor3.0 (Hurricane)1.033.3

So much for the percentage calculations. But the mere addition and averaging of the percentages is not enough. By that means an airplane supreme in the major factor for its category, but low on other counts, would be unduly penalized, and vice-versa.

In each category the major factors are those in which real superiority is required if the airplane is to be any good. Therefore the major factors should be assessed separately and, by a logical course, given twice the weight of any of the subsidiary factors, thereby assuring that an airplane with poor major factors, but superior subsidiary factors will not be assessed unduly highly. The procedure then becomes:

  1. Determine and assess the major factors.
  2. Determine, add up and average the subsidiary factors.
  3. Add major factors plus major factors again, plus average of the sum of subsidiary factors, and then take average for result.

Applying this procedure to the example of the Me-109E we see that the two major factors work out as 98 per cent and 45.8 per cent. The average of the sum of the subsidiary factors works out as 63.5 per cent. Thus we have from (3) the sum, 98 per cent plus 98 per cent plus 45.8 per cent plus 45.8 per cent plus 63.5 per cent; all divided by five. The result— the quality factor — thus works out as 70.2 per cent for the Me-109K on the standards of 1939.

One or two points require clarification. Firepower is calculated on the basis of "muzzle horsepower".

The maintenance factor is an effort to assess ease of servicing on a known background. A fair arrangement seemed to be to award points on the following system:

Thus, from the point of view of maintenance the maximum possible points would be 20, equivalent to 100 per cent. The same general principle has been applied to gain a vulnerability factor. A maximum of 10 points can be gained for the following contributions towards low vulnerability:

In practice this procedure and these details seem to give a fair appraisal of qualities. Applying these methods to the 22 categories against a standard of the highest obtainable figures of 1943-44, and varying the desirable qualities to suit the demands made upon the different classes of aircraft, we arrive at the final result. Each category of aircraft is assessed on at least two major factors and not less than five — and sometimes as many as seven — subsidiary factors, which include all those shown in the Me-109E example and also bomb load, ceiling, climb at 20,000 feet, defensive power (emphasizing turrets), range, ton-miles per gallon and payload for a given range.

In the assessment of the world's best aircraft on this basis, only aircraft which are in operational service and about which general details may be published have been included for selection. Nevertheless some of the "ideals" for 1944 have been computed on more advanced figures than those of airplanes at present in service. In other words — although for instance, the Boeing B-29 is not included in the assessment — the figures for bombers have been computed so that it could be included later without gaining a quality factor exceeding 100 per cent.

The complete list appears at the end of the article. No enemy types qualify. I believe that most of the results will be endorsed by those who have had an opportunity to study the aircraft at first hand. I personally feel that I learned a great deal during an extensive tour of the aircraft industries in the United States and Canada which I was privileged to make recently, and I have been fortunate in having known the British aircraft industry intimately in both peace and war.

A few notes on some of the aircraft named in the list and on some of the categories considered may clear up one or two points, especially because two of the aircraft named are no longer in production. These two — the Boeing Clipper and the Chance Vought (formerly Sikorsky) VS-43B amphibian — are outstanding in their respective classes. None of the converted military flying boats come up to the all-round performance of the Boeing Clipper on long-range routes. The nearest rival is undoubtedly the Chance Vought Excalibur, although the German six-engined Blohm and Voss Bv-222 flying boat of about 50 tons loaded weight, should not be forgotten. There can be no doubt that a cargo version of the Boeing Clipper, had it been produced, would have been of great value to the war effort.

The VS-43B appears to be well suited to duties as a general purpose and air-sea-rescue amphibian. Its rivals for this task, the primary need for which has been realized only comparatively recently, are the elderly Supermarine Walrus biplane and the Grumman Goose amphibian. Like the Clipper, the VS-43B would have been valuable in numbers.

Two of the other selections seem to warrant special comment, They are the Noorduyn Norseman and the Curtiss Helldiver. The Norseman, now in quantity production in Canada for the US Army Air Forces as the UC-64A, stands in a class by itself. Originally designed for bush flying in Canada, it is straightforward and robust in construction, easy to repair and easy to fly into and out of confined spaces with a respectable load. For bringing up supplies behind advancing armies where airfields are not plentiful, for general hack work carrying up to eight men or spare engines and so forth, there is nothing flying which can equal it. The US Army's Norsemen are proving their worth.

The Curtiss Helldiver has had a checkered career. It was roundly condemned by the Truman Committee at a time when there were in it almost more bugs than airplane. Much redesign has been done and production has proceeded in the USA and in Canada. Now I understand that the Helldiver is in operational service and doing well, fulfilling the promise which, until now, has lurked in the background but nevertheless has been there all along.

In the single-seat fighter class, the Mustang reigns supreme. With the Merlin engine its performance is exceptional, both low down and at heights above 30,000 feet. Although the latest Airacobra is slightly faster at sea level, the Mustang makes up the leeway very rapidly and, at a few thousand feet, is ahead. Wing-mounted bomb racks give the Mustang a useful role as a fighter-bomber and also provide slings for long-range fuel tanks. In fact, although there have not been reports of Mustangs used for long-range daylight escorts yet, it gives promise of excelling all other aircraft at this job. Its quality factor on this count in fact works out at 86.3 per cent.

The Mosquito and the Liberator also shine among the galaxy of fine aircraft; the Mosquito combining speed with a shattering weight of fire in its fighter form, and range and bomb load in its bomber version. The Liberator now is more thoroughly defended than any other day bomber, and has a slight advantage in speed and load over the Fortress. Even so, the latest Fortress is a magnificent day bomber and stands up to punishment better than any other airplane of its size now flying. When the B-29 Super-Fortress appears in action it will be a long way ahead even of the great types it supersedes — or rather, reinforces.

At night the Lancaster II naturally comes out on top, the more powerful Hercules version having a slight advantage over the Lancaster I. Eight-thousand-pound bombs stow comfortably into its great bomb bay and its range and load-carrying qualities are at present unequaled.

And so on down the list, each airplane selected having, in my estimation, qualities which place it ahead of all rivals for the job in hand. Perhaps one omission from the list of categories maybe suggested: the patrol bomber flying boat. In fact, the land-based patrol bomber would seem to be able to cover most tasks of the flying boat with greater speed and load. If, however, a choice was required, the Short Sunderland stands out as the most successful and practical type yet operating. Although the Catalina has done and is doing a very fine job and the Coronado and Mariner now are both in service, the all-round estimate sets the Sunderland slightly ahead.

Naturally the list of 22 types does not claim to be either absolutely complete or infallible in its selection. Yet I sincerely believe that it presents a logical choice based on known data. Some people may quarrel with some parts of it— indeed comments and criticisms will be both interesting and useful. And at the beginning of another New Year — in 1945 — with the world perhaps looking forward into the peace and prosperity of a new Air Age, another such list in which civilian types will predominate should prove of interest.

CategoryWorld's BestPercent of
1943-44 Total
Some types considered
1.Heavy day bomberConsolidated Liberator78.4B-17G, Lancaster, Ju-88, Do-217
2.Heavy night bomberAvro Lancaster II75.2Halifax, Stirling, B-17G, B-24J, He-177
3.Day and night reconnaissance-bomberdeHavilland Mosquito93.2B-26, P-38J, A-20, Ju-88, Baltimore
4.Long-range patrol bomber (anti-submarine)Consolidated Liberator75.6Sunderland, Catalina, Mariner, Lancaster, Coronado
5.Low-medium altitude single-engine fighterNorth American Mustang II75.0Spitfire IX, Fw-190, P-38, Me-109G, Typhoon, P-39Q, P-40
6.High-altitude single-engine fighterNorth American Mustang II91.4P-47, Spitfire IX, P-38, Me-109G, Fw-190, P-39
7.Single-seat fighter-bomberLockheed Lightning89.2Typhoon, Whirlwind, Fw-190, P-40, P-51
8.Single-seat escort-fighterRepublic Thunderbolt73.6Lightning, Spitfire, Typhoon, Fw-190, Hamp*
9.Bomber destroyerdeHavilland Mosquito (fighter)91.6Typhoon, Spitfire, P-47, P-39, Ju-88, P-51
10.Night intruder-fighterdeHavilland Mosquito (fighter)95.2Beaufighter, P-61, P-70, Ju-88
11.Two-engine attack bomber (and tank-buster)North American Mitchell85.0Hs-129, A-20, P-38, Whirlwind
12.Land-based torpedo bomberBristol Beaufighter X90.0Beaufort, P-38, Do-217, Betty*, B-26, Wellington, He-111
13.Naval interceptor-fighterSupermarine Seafire IX95.2Hellcat, Corsair, Zeke*, Hamp*, Wildcat, Sea Hurricane
14.Single-engine naval dive-bomberCurtiss Helldiver89.4Dauntless, Val*
15.Single-engine naval torpedo bomberGrumman Avenger75.8Barracuda, Albacore, Swordfish, Kate*
16.Naval escort-fighterGrumman Hellcat92.8Corsair, Seafire, Wildcat, Hamp*
17.Long-range transportDouglas Skymaster91.8Constellation, Stratoliner, Ju-290
18.Medium-range high-capacity transportCurtiss Commando92.3Skytrain, Ju-52, SM-82
19.High-speed medium-capacity transportLockheed Lodestar93.2Flamingo, Electra, Q6, Envoy, Lockheed 14
20.Short-range single-engine transportNoorduyn Norseman89.9Fairchild 82, Bellanca Senior Pacemaker, Caproni Ca-111
21.Long-range transport flying boatBoeing Clipper87.6Coronado, Mariner, Short G, Excalibur
22.Air-Sea-Rescue and general amphibianChance Vought VS-43B82.6Walrus, Goose
* The Japanese type in this category.
This article was originally published in the January, 1944, issue of Flying magazine, vol 34, no 1, pp 21-25, 116.
The original article includes photos of Avro Lancaster II, Boeing Clipper, Bristol Beaufighter, Vought-Sikorsky VS-43B, Consolidated Liberator, Curtiss Commando, Curtiss Helldiver, deHavilland Mosquito, Douglas Skymaster, Grumman Avenger, Grumman Hellcat, Lockheed Lightning, Lockheed Lodestar, Noorduyn Norseman, North American Mitchell, North American Mustang II, Republic Thunderbolt, Supermarine Seafire, along with the tables above.
Photos credited to British Information Services, Boeing Aircraft Co, International News Photos, Rudy Arnold, Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corporation, Curtiss-Wright Corporation, The deHavilland Company of Canada, Ltd, Douglas Aircraft Company, Inc, US Navy, Lockheed Aircraft Corporation, Ulric Meisel, Noorduyn Aviation, Ltd, North American Aviation, Inc, The Aeroplane.
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