Aerial power was a crucial component for the Allied forces in defeating the Axis countries. Fighter planes in particular were fundamental.
They played the role of escort to bombing raids, protected airfields and civilians from enemy attacks, and were a part of some of the most incredible dogfights in history.
Spend a few minutes surfing the web and you’ll find stories like that of Fred “Buck” Dungan who, along with his wingman, initiated an attack against 40 Japanese fighters and bombers. Or the incredible story of the last dogfight of WWII held over Tokyo Bay.
Below are three of the most iconic American fighter planes of WWII; The P-51 Mustang, P-38 Lightning, and the P-40 Warhawk.
In 1944 the Truman Senate War Investigating Committee called the P-51 Mustang, "the most aerodynamically perfect pursuit plane in existence."
That's quite the statement; but the P-51 most certainly deserves it.
The P-51 was designed and built by North American Aviation. The first prototype was flown in mid 1940. After changing the engine based on pilot suggestions the P-51B was capable of flying 440 MPH at 30,000 ft. The P-51 was a well respected machine and loved by its pilots. One such, Bob Goebel, had this to say about 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 red-lined 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."
The P-51 outperformed every German airplane and was the first U.S. built fighter to fly over Europe after the fall of France. Some historians feel that the P-51 was one of the most critical tools used in overcoming the German air force.
The P-51 flew numerous missions over Europe, destroying trains, escorting bombers, and taking down enemy aircraft throughout the war. (Image Source)
A German Focke-Wulf Fw-200 Condor, a bomber, was the first victim of the formidable P-38 lighting. Capable of shooting 409 rounds per minute and flying 400 MPH the P-38 was one of the most versatile fighters of WWII.
This speed gave it an advantage over the Japanese Zero and led to the P-38 shooting down more Zero's than any other fighter.
Captain John Alden Tilley, a P-38 pilot serving in the Pacific during WWII, had this to say about the P-38.
“I guess P-38s were the great love of my life. They handled beautifully, were very forgiving and would do almost anything you asked of them. I loved the two counter-rotating engines (one of those engines brought me home on several occasions) which eliminated the torque problems associated with single engine prop jobs. I also loved all those guns in the nose, because we didn't have to worry about a converging cone of fire as you did with wing mounted guns. The P-38L clocked a good 40 MPH faster on the deck than the P-51Ds I flew with similar loads. The P-47s, P-40s and P-39s weren't even in the same ball park. The P-38 would also carry one hell of a big load. I remember someone in the Group getting airborne in 1700' with two one-ton bombs hung under the plane.”[Source]
Designed and built by Lockheed, the P-38 was originally intended to be a bomber-interceptor. But it quickly became an infamous fighter in part due to the four .50 caliber machine guns and the 20mm cannon contained in its nose.
In the European theater the P-38 Lightning's unique design and fierce dog-fighting abilities earned it the nickname "fork-tailed devil" by the Germans. The P-38 truly was a force to be reckoned with.
The P-40 Warhawk was one of the most powerful fighters available when it was introduced at the beginning of WWII. It was one of the most widely produced and recognizable planes of WWII and served in every theater of the war.
Warhawks, or Tomahawks, depending on who you ask, were famous for the shark teeth painted on their cowling. Here is the story on how the tradition got started.
When the P-40 Warhawk was first produced a number of them were sent to the Royal Air Force. They called them Tomahawks but they were essentially the same plane. Squadron 112 was re-equipped with a number of them after many of their Gloster Gladiators had been destroyed.
The pilots of the squadron decided that the Tomahawks cowling was the perfect place to paint their squadron badge, a black cat. Unfortunately the pilots weren't the greatest artists and the cat ended up looking more like a fish with sharp teeth.
A group of American pilots in China, the American Volunteer Group, or "Flying Tigers" as they came to be known, saw pictures of the Tomahawks and decided to paint their planes as well. However they painted them with shark teeth.
The AVG was an incredibly successful group of pilots and during their 6 months in existence they managed to shoot down over 280 Japanese aircraft. They became a legend and squadrons around the world began to paint their P-40 cowlings with the same shark teeth. (Image Source)
Though the P-40 was slowly replaced by the P-38 and P-51 as the war progressed, it had made its mark in the history books as one of the greatest fighter planes of WWII.
These three planes all played critical roles during WWII and ultimately helped the allied forces achieve victory. What do you think? Are there other planes that should be on this list? Let me know in the comments below.
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