World War II still fascinates many people today. It was the bloodiest and most devastating war the world has ever seen. War tends to bring out the worst in mankind, and it also brings out the best. The best in terms of the people, and sometimes, the best in terms of ingenuity and necessity. Most American planes at the beginning of the war were not as good in many ways, as the planes of Germany and Japan. By the middle and end of the war, however, that changed dramatically. This list represents that change. These are the top five American fighter planes of World War II with the most kills.
It’s very easy to romanticize conflict and war, especially World War II. For aircraft, especially fighter planes, romanticism is high. Gorgeous, sleek machines flying through the skies, in modern-day duels to the death, are the stuff of dreams and legends. Dogfights were the ultimate 1-one-1 test of skills, finesse, and wits.
The reality is that most air-to-air kills during the war were not from dogfights, especially in the European Theater of Operations (ETO). After the Battle of Britain, most Allied and Axis fighter pilots tried to avoid dogfights and preferred to use other tactics and techniques to score their victories.
After the Americans entered the war, and as the American fighter planes got better, the control of the skies changed hands. Allied countries achieved air superiority, and this significantly enabled the ground and naval forces to make progress and ultimately secure victory.
The Criteria for the Best Fighter Planes
To determine “the best” planes of World War II, or any war, we must consider multiple things. To determine the best thing of anything, it is important to weigh all factors and circumstances, as well as the tactical and strategic impacts. In other words, to determine “the best,” the positive impact, as well as the challenges and costs, must be evaluated to objectively rate success or failure.
In this case, this list does not evaluate the overall “best” planes based on multiple factors, or tactical and strategic success, or kill-to-loss ratio, or anything else. This is simply a list based on only one category: total air-to-air victories.
The U.S. military usually keeps very good records for these numbers. However, there is also room for human error. In addition, historical records we see today do not always present the same numbers, and the data does not always align. Different sources sometimes cite different numbers, so it can de difficult to find the exact, most accurate tallies.
In reverse order, here are the top five fighter planes flown by the U.S. Armed Forces of World War II, ranked by the most kills. These numbers are for those planes, flown by American pilots.
5. Curtiss P-40 Warhawk
The P-40 was one of the most gorgeous aircraft of World War II. It was a pre-war design and was the workhouse for the U.S. Army Air Corps at the beginning of the war. Several other nations also flew the P-40, including Great Britain, The Soviet Union, Australia, Canada, and China. The Warhawk was also heavily produced: by November of 1944 when production ended, 13,738 P-40s were built. Behind the P-51 and the P-47, the P-40 was the third-most produced American fighter of the war.
Over the years, the P-40 has been the subject of significant praise, and criticism. It is often said that the P-40 was inferior to other planes of the time, notably the Messerschmidt Bf-109 and the Mitsubishi A6M Zero. In many ways, that is true. At high altitudes, the lack of a two-speed supercharger made it far inferior to the Bf-109. At slow speeds, the P-40 could not outmaneuver a Zero. However, at low and medium altitudes, the Warhawk could outrun and outturn both fighters. It held its own against other fighters for years, and many units had good kill-to-loss ratios. The Warhawk had better all-around capabilities and traits than several other fighters, that were usually considered better. The P-40 was a sturdy aircraft, capable of taking damage and bringing pilots home. The top speed was 360 mph.
By the end of the war, the P-40 Warhawk was credited with 2,225.5 air-to-air victories. In the Mediterranean Theater of Operations (MTO), it scored 592 kills. In The Pacific Theater of Operations (PTO), 660.5, and in China-Burma-India (CBI), 973.
4. Republic P-47 Thunderbolt
The P-47 Thunderbolt was just that: a thunderbolt of a weapon. It was the largest, heaviest, single-engine fighter of the war. The P-47 was good at everything, and better than people often give it credit for. It was a good fighter, a good mid-range escort, and amazing at ground attack. While the P-51 is most often considered the best fighter of the war, the P-47 was almost as good at many things, and better at others. All these years later, the consensus between the two planes is split, on which plane should be called “the best.” 15,636 P-47s were manufactured during the war, making it the most-produced American fighter of the war. It was also the most expensive fighter plane produced by the United States. At over $100,000 a copy it was twice as expensive as a P-51 Mustang.
The P-47 had eight .50 caliber machine guns, could fly at over 430 mph, and carry more ordnance than many other planes. It was also a beast. Heavily armored and extremely well-constructed, the P-40 could withstand heavy punishment, keep fighting and keep flying. The Thunderbolt was far more durable than the more fragile P-51. The turbo-supercharger engine made it an excellent high-altitude fighter, and it was the fastest American diving plane of the war. Its weakness lay in the weak ability to turn and to climb, however, and pilots had to learn to work around that. What the P-47 lacked in the turn, it made up for in the roll, and other tactics allowing the dive speed and roll capability to outmaneuver German planes.
God help the Luftwaffe pilot who let the “Jug’s” eight .50 cal guns get on his tail.
The P-47 Thunderbolt saw combat in every theater during World War II, primarily in the ETO and the PTO. The Thunderbolt scored 3,661 victories, with the majority coming in the ETO — 2,685.5. In the MTO it had 263, in the PTO 696.5, and in CBI, 16.
3. Lockheed P-38 Lightning
The P-38 Lightning was one of the more unique fighter planes of the war, with its twin-boomed engines, and heavy armament in the nose. It was revered by both pilots and adversaries alike and was highly capable in many ways. It was one of the first, best high-altitude American fighters, and had a long-range. Lieutenant General Jimmy Doolittle considered it “the sweetest-flying plane in the sky.”
The P-38 did have a mixed service record in many ways, and it was not without its troubles. In Europe, it was not as well suited against German planes, as it was in the Pacific against Japanese planes. The two biggest American aces of the war racked up their kills with the P-38 in the Pacific, however. The struggles and losses the P-38 experienced in Europe are more to tactics and how it was deployed, rather than limitations in the plane. Once the P-38 fighting doctrine changed, the Lighting had more success in Europe and the Mediterranean. The P-38 could not out-turn the Zero at low speeds, for example, but it could out-climb and out-dive the Zero, so it could disengage at will to the frustration of Japanese pilots. Tactics were used accordingly to play to the strengths of the plane, namely its great speed allowing the nose guns on the Lighting to rip lightly armored Japanese planes, to shreds.
The P-38 Lightning is often incorrectly attributed as shooting down the most Japanese planes of the war. Not even close; two other planes shot down more planes in the Pacific, including the highly capable Vought F4U Corsair. The F4U was an amazing plane and a great fighting machine. However, it does not make our list of the Top 5 American fighter planes of World War II with the most kills. The F4U comes in at number six, with 2,140 kills.
The P-38 also flew in all four theaters during World War II. In total, the Lightning shot down 3,785 planes. In the European Theater, it scored 497 victories, in the Mediterranian Theater 1,431, in the Pacific Theater 1,700, and 157 in the China-Burma-India Theater.
2. Grumman F6F Hellcat
The Grumman F6F Hellcat entered major service relatively late in the war, and as the U.S. Navy’s primary carrier-based fighter. 12,275 Hellcats were manufactured in less than three short years. The Navy needed a carrier-based plane that could be the “answer” to the Japanese Zero carrier-based fighter. The F6F filled that role remarkably well and helped the Navy establish air superiority in the Pacific.
Using the same engine as the P-47 and the F4U, the Hellcat could achieve speeds of 380 mph. Boasting six wing-mounted .50 caliber machine guns, the F6F could quickly inflict significant damage on enemy planes. With these advantages, the Hellcat was still less maneuverable than the Zero at slow speeds, and could not climb quite as fast at low altitudes. However, the Hellcat, faster at all altitudes, and ideally suited to carrier operations established doctrine and tactics to their significant advantage.
Also well-built and engineered(Grumman was referred to by Naval aviators as, “The Iron Works”), the Hellcat was a rugged fighter able to take damage, with strong armor protecting the pilot. The Hellcat boasted an amazing survivability rate, with only 1,164 operational or combat losses. In fact, only 270 Hellcats were lost in aerial combat, and 553 to anti-aircraft fire.
Within a very short span of just a couple of years, the F6F Hellcat claimed 75% of all U.S. Navy air-to-air kills in the PTO. The Grumman F6F Hellcat claimed an impressive total of 5,168 victories. All of those victories came in the PTO, except for 8 in the ETO, during the invasion of Southern France.
1. North American P-51 Mustang
The number 1 is no surprise: the North American P-51 Mustang. Often and usually considered the best fighter of the war, the P-51 was a game-changer for Allied forces. Employed as a long-range bomber escort, the P-51 was unmatched by German planes, especially at high altitudes. Once the P-51 arrived, the American and Allied air forces achieved air superiority. And with air superiority, ground superiority is more achievable. In addition, the Combined Bomber Offensive (CBO) — the Allied strategic bombing campaign — was initially not as successful as later in the war, with the Mustang escorts.
The P-51 is a truly gorgeous machine and embodies the beautiful design of this “golden age” of aviation. It boasted six .50 caliber machine guns on the wings, and at 437 mph it was one of the absolute fastest planes of the war. However, the P-51 did have its share of challenges and struggles, especially at the beginning. It was initially developed for the British for their war efforts with the Royal Air Force (RAF), who was the first user. Poor engine design and high-altitude performance caused the British to initially scrap their plans to use the P-51. After swapping engines and further development, the majority of the struggles were resolved and the high-performance fighter emerged. Several different air forces ended up using the P-51 to great success, once those performance issues were resolved.
The P-51 is known to have been a bit fragile, however, and could not sustain as much damage as other planes. The air scoop at the bottom of the plane was not well protected from anti-aircraft fire, for example, and was a vulnerability. The liquid-cooled engine was not always optimal compared to the air-cooled engines, like that of the P-47 Thunderbolt or the F4U Corsair. Ultimately, however, the other traits and characteristics of the plane overcame those challenges, combined with pilot skill, and the P-51 helped change the course of the war.
Like some of the other planes on this list, the P-51 flew in all four theaters of operation during the war. In the ETO, the P-51 scored 4,239 air-to-air victories and 1,063 in the Mediterranian Theater. Later in the war, the Mustang entered the Pacific campaign, scoring 297 victories in the PTO, and 345, in CBI.
The Legacy of World War II Fighter Planes
For many of us who were not alive during World War II, there is a sense of wonder and admiration for this time period. The war was a terrible thing, yet, it becomes nostalgic even for those who weren’t there. World War II aviation is the pinnacle of romanticism and a fountain of inspiration. Those pilots became legends and heroes.
We may never see the elegant dance of air-to-combat like that ever again. Or even, pilots looking each other in the eye during their one-on-one game of man and machine, versus man and machine. Today’s technology and highly electronic warfare, combined with the speed of air engagements, will more than likely render the prior form of air combat obsolete and uncommon.
Those fighters did, however, become the foundation for everything we have and see today. And one can always still continue to dream and imagine what it would be like. In the process, we keep all those planes, and the pilots, alive forever.
Which do you think was the best fighter plane flown by U.S. Forces in WWII? Tell me in the comments below.