Top Ten Fighters, 1946
1946 was the zenith of piston-engined fighters. The bloody lessons learnt from the hundreds of thousands of dogfights fought in the War had been carefully noted by designers. This knowledge had been distilled into the creation of a generation of aeroplanes wildly superior to their peers from the recent past, but these perfected killing machines faced fierce competition from immature upstarts with an unfair advantage: the first generation of fighter jets. To make this list, aircraft had to have been in operational service during the year in 1946 – hence no Sea Fury, La-9, Twin Mustang or MiG-9 (likewise, also no Me 262 or Ki-84 for example).
The order is somewhat arbitrary and cases could be made for aircraft that didn’t make the grade such as the Tigercat and Spitfire F Mk.22. Reality doesn’t confirm to the ‘top ten’ format – and war is not a sport with a league table. This list of ten supremely capable aircraft should however form a good basis for a discussion on the relative merits of ten extremely exciting machines at the cutting edge of mid-20th century technology.
10. Vought F4U-4 Corsair ‘The Ensign Eliminator’
The Vought F4U represented a big improvement in performance over the previous generation of carrier fighters, even though it took a great deal of work to make it suitable for carrier operations. The F4U-4 variant saw active service in the last four months of the Pacific war. It benefited from a R-2800-18W engine which could produce 2,400hp with water-injection, and a four-bladed propeller as well as numerous detail improvements over the F4U-1. As a result, it could reach speeds of 446mph at 25,000ft while retaining its predecessor’s impressive manoeuvrability. By 1946, the engine had been upgraded to a R-2800-42W offering 2,760hp, and top speed pushed up to 451mph.
Though it had impressive performance, and better range than the Grumman F8F, the F4U-4 was always marginal as a carrier aircraft, with an unpredictable stall in the landing condition, and on top of that NACA determined that it had a few unsavoury control characteristics. Nevertheless it deserves its place as one of the most effective carrier fighters in service in 1946.
9. Yakovlev Yak-3(VK-107) ‘Pебенок буре’
Much like Britain’s Tempest II, the Yak-3(VK-107 – there was no specific designation to denote the engine change) was the result of a long process of wartime refinement of a basically sound design, being the final production variant of a highly conventional fighter that had first flown in April 1940. The diminutive Yak possessed beautiful handling from the start but was hampered by its relative lack of power and pathetic armament.
By the end of 1945, the Yak-3(VK-107) had addressed both these problems. Engine power, whilst still modest by the standards of other nations, was up by about 500 horsepower whilst the structural weight had been reduced by some 2000lb, mostly by replacing wooden components with metal. Armament was provided by three nose mounted 20-mm cannon offering a heavy concentration of fire without any of the detrimental aspects of wing-mounted weapons. The result was spectacular- a small, well-armed, manoeuvrable aircraft whose loaded weight was less than half that of a Tempest V yet was 10mph faster at 17,000ft.
The authorities were delighted: ‘the experimental Yak-3 powered by the VK-107A engine and designed by Comrade Yakovlev appears to offer the best performance of all indigenous and known foreign fighters, being superior in horizontal speed, rate of climb and manoeuvrability‘ gushed the official report. The Yak was not faultless, its ceiling was low, its basic equipment primitive and its range was not exactly in the P-51 class but it was an outstanding fighter aeroplane at low to medium heights and, importantly, was straightforward to produce quickly in massive numbers.
(The Yak-3U that I was referring to derives from the Russian usilennyy which means ‘strengthened’ and is actually: усиленный. It would appear that the designation may be retrospective.)
8. Republic P-47N Thunderbolt ‘$83,000 Jugs’
In 1944 the ‘hot rod’ P-47M appeared, designed specifically for chasing V-1s, which mounted the latest R-2800-57 Double Wasp engine with an incredible war emergency rating of 2800hp. Meanwhile in the Pacific there was need for a very long-ranged aircraft to escort B-29s. Republic were keen to regain the escort mission that the upstart Mustang with its longer range had taken from them and the P-47N was the result.
It combined the new engine with a larger wing designed to deal with the truly massive fuel load of 1226 US gallons (to put that into context the Spitfire XIV, when fitted with the largest available droptank, carried 308 US gallons), and featuring square cut tips to improve rate of roll. From the outset the P-47N was designed with provision for a 2500-lb bombload to fulfil the fighter-bomber role. The P-51H was faster but the P-47N outranged it and was more versatile. It was, apparently, a more comfortable aircraft to fly than the Mustang, was a better gun platform and had the edge on the P-51 in some manoeuvres. However, in 1945 a P-47 cost $83,000 compared to $51,000 for a P-51.
The P-47N may have been superior to the P-51H in several respects but it wasn’t $32,000 better. Having said that 1816 were built and the P-47N is one of only two aircraft on this list to have seen meaningful service during the Second World War. Oscar Perdomo, the USAAF’s last ‘ace’ of the conflict scored all his victories on the type two days before the war ended.
7. Grumman F8F-1 Bearcat ‘The Bastard Bear’
In 1942, Grumman had markedly improved on its earlier F4F Wildcat with the F6F Hellcat. The new aircraft did much to turn the tide of war in the Pacific, but was significantly bigger and heavier than its predecessor. Rather than continue this trend, Grumman set about designing a follow-up to the F6F that would be as small and light as the Pratt & Whitney R2800-34 engine would allow, and they achieved a power-loading of 3.5 lb/hp (compared with 5.5 for a P-51). This would allow even better raw performance, particularly rate of climb and short take-off. Like the P-51H the F8F had reached squadrons in 1945 but did not see frontline service before the end of the war.
Shortly after the Second World War, the US Navy evaluated the P-51H as a possible carrier fighter, and instigated a mock carrier launch and dogfight between the two aircraft. Legend has it that the F8F had taken off, circled tightly and ‘strafed’ the Mustang before the latter had left the ground.
The F8F-1 in service in 1946 was capable of 424mph, remarkable agility and a climb-rate that gave allegedly it the record from brake release to 10,000ft until the ‘century series’ came along. Unlike the Corsair, the Bearcat’s visibility for deck-landing was superb, and it flew ‘as if on rails’, making it practical as well as a hot rod.
An innovative ‘failsafe’ wing-fold was incorporated, where the outer panels were supposed to snap off if the G-limit was exceeded, leaving the pilot with enough aerodynamic surface to get home. Unfortunately, though, this failed to work as advertised, leaving the Bearcat unable to fully exploit its impressive manoeuvrability in service. Even then, it could sustain a 7G turn without trouble due to the engine’s high power.
6. Hawker Tempest Mk.II ‘Sundown over Empire’
The best British fighter in the last months of the Second World War was the Hawker Tempest Mk.V, which matched high speed with heavy armament and surprising agility for such a large aircraft. Combat reports from late 1944 and 1945 give little doubt that the Tempest Mk.V generally made short work of the Fw 190s and Me 109s it encountered over Holland and Germany, at the low and medium altitudes where most air combat took place at that time.
The Mk.II (its lower mark number reflecting the fact that designations were issued according to engine fit during the type’s development rather than a progressive development) replaced the Mk.V’s complex and sometimes temperamental Napier Sabre H-24 engine with a reliable 18-cylinder Bristol Centaurus radial. The change of engine resulted in an improvement in the already impressive performance, being up to 20 mph faster than the Mk.V at all altitudes (top speed was just shy of 450mph at 12,000ft, and did not begin to fall away seriously until 20,000ft) with a better rate of climb, while leaving the handling unaltered.
Acceleration was astonishing – the Tempest Mk.II could pull out an initial lead on a P-47D even at high altitudes, despite turbo-equipped Thunderbolt having a higher top speed. At low levels, the Tempest was a barely-believable 80mph faster than the P-47. At altitudes up to 20,000ft, not many fighters could live with the Tempest Mk.II in 1946, while it also made an effective ground-attack aircraft. It served with the RAF in Germany and India until 1951, and with the Indian Air Force.
5. de Havilland Hornet F Mk.I ‘The Spiffing Super Hornet’
Designed for a Pacific island-hopping campaign that was over before it entered service, the Hornet was the finest twin piston-engined fighter ever to see service, boasting superlative range, speed, firepower and handling. ‘Handed’ (the left propeller turning the opposite direction from the right one) engines and airscrews removed the torque that plagued the highest powered piston-engined aircraft and, unburdened by the colossal nose-mounted motor of single-engined fighters, the Hornet pilot enjoyed an exceptional view forwards and downwards from his bubble canopy in the extreme nose.
Armament was the standard and effective British fit of four 20-mm Hispano cannon mounted below the pilot. With 4000hp available the performance in the vertical plane was described as ‘rocket-like’ and ‘even with one propeller feathered the Hornet could loop with the best single-engine fighter’. As the fastest ever operational piston-engined British warplane, the Hornet supplied performance that was only marginally inferior to the Meteor and Vampire and combined it with an endurance the thirsty jets could not match.
The late-model Merlins that powered the Hornet were highly developed, reliable engines at the end of a decade long process of refinement and improvement and still had advantages over the first turbojets. Not least was their ability to rapidly increase engine speed, useful for a fighter but essential for a carrier aircraft, which the Hornet was being developed into during 1946.
In the words of Eric Brown, who flew all but one of the aircraft on this list and conducted the carrier qualification trials of the Sea Hornet, it was ‘a truly outstanding warplane… ranks second to none for harmony of control, performance characteristics and, perhaps most important, in inspiring confidence in the pilot. For sheer exhilarating flying enjoyment, no aircraft has ever made a deeper impression on me‘.
4. North American P-51H Mustang ‘Mustang Harry‘
The North American P-51 was one of the outstanding fighters of the Second World War, and one of the few to have a genuinely strategic impact due to its ability to escort bombers all the way to Berlin. Surprisingly, Edgar Schmued and the design team at North American believed their superb aircraft could be improved upon significantly.
Although the P-51B-D models comfortably outpaced and outranged the Spitfire Mk.IX, despite using a similar powerplant, the Mustang was significantly heavier, compromising its rate of climb and potentially holding back even better performance. Schmued asked for a complete weight breakdown of the Spitfire, searching for any areas where the Mustang could be lightened, and using lower British load factors. In addition, the aerodynamics were completely revised, to create a series of prototype ‘lightweights’ that knocked on the door of the magic 500mph.
The production version was designated the P-51H, and featured a lighter structure, new wing planform and aerofoil. It improved on the P-51D in every respect, being capable of over 480mph at 25,000ft, with an impressive climb rate and manoeuvrability to boot, and was more forgiving to fly than the earlier models. The ‘H’ just missed the war in frontline service (despite some erroneous suggestions that a few made it to the Far East by VJ Day) though the first squadrons were formed in mid-1945. It could certainly give any contemporary jets a run for their money.
3. Gloster Meteor F Mk.3 ‘A-10 before drug use’
Britain’s first jet fighter still looked like pretty hot stuff in 1946, the staggering leap in capability of Soviet and American jets had yet to occur and Britain appeared to lead the world in the brave new world of jet aircraft. In its Mk 3 version the Meteor utilised the Derwent engine, a marked improvement over the Welland with which the Mk I was (under)powered. The considerably superior Mk.4 had flown in 1944 but would only enter service in 1947 and in the meantime the RAF made do with the still highly capable Mk.3.
The Meteor’s great advantage was, of course, its speed. Manoeuvrability was not brilliant in the lateral plane, the ailerons (and the pilot’s arm) had a lot of work to do to overcome the inertia of two Derwents hanging halfway out on those huge wings and rate of roll was pedestrian, but the Meteor could use its obvious speed advantage to engage or disengage any other aircraft at will and four 20-mm cannon in the nose was considered ‘the ideal’ in 1946. In contrast to its state-of-the-art engines the airframe was, in comparison to the Me 262 for example, extremely conservative and blessed with truly massive dimensions.
This would ultimately prove to be an advantage as the Meteor was able to absorb requirements for a second crewman, radar, more fuel, better engines, disposable stores and so on with ease. Unfortunately by the time it got engines of really decent thrust the MiG-15 had rendered it an anachronism as an air-superiority fighter, as RAAF experience in Korea would bear out, but in 1946 this was all in the future and the big Meteor could bask in turbojet glory in a piston-powered world.
2. Lockheed P-80A Shooting Star ‘Kelly’s Tip-Tanker’
While the definitive Shooting Star, the F-80C, didn’t arrive until 1948, the P-80A in squadron service in 1946 was formidable by the standards of its time. The speedily designed jet had gone from drawing board to flight in a period only a few weeks longer than that of the North American Mustang, despite the many unknowns associated with jet power and the transonic region of flight. Unlike the first US stab at a jet fighter, the ponderous Bell P-59, the P-80 was right almost from the off.
The 1946-standard P-80A had a top speed in tests of 536 mph at 25,000ft, and could top 500mph at a range of altitudes, even with tip tanks fitted, remaining controllable up to Mach 0.82. The Air Force’s Flight Test Division considered that the P-80A was ‘superior in manoeuvrability in most respects, especially at high speeds’, and that ‘a high rate of roll is possible at all speeds, and precision aerobatics can be accomplished with ease’. Furthermore, the Shooting Star had ‘the most excellent lateral manoeuvring characteristics of any fighter of today’ thanks to its powered ailerons. Moreover, visibility was superb thanks to a forward-placed bubble canopy and slim nose.
The P-80A wasn’t perfect as a fighter – at certain heights, it suffered from longitudinal instability that compromised its utility as a gun-platform and could be irritating for the pilot. But by 1946 standards, the P-80A was up there with the very best.
1.de Havilland Vampire F Mk.I ‘The ferocious Spidercrab’
Despite its partially wooden construction and cuddly appearance the Vampire was a force to be reckoned with in 1946. In terms of speed, climb and range the Vampire and Lockheed’s P-80A (its only serious rival) were virtually identical. In terms of armament the quartet of 20-mm cannon was rather more potent than the Shooting Star’s increasingly irrelevant .50 cal machine guns but it was in agility that the Vampire really shone.
When both were at their normal loaded weight the Vampire was a ton and a half lighter than the Lockheed and could outmanoeuvre it with ease. Indeed the Vampire was so agile that it could best a Spitfire Mk XIV, itself a fighter noted for its excellent manoeuvrability, in every respect (except rate of roll) whilst at the same time being considerably faster at all altitudes. Given pilots of roughly equal ability the Vampire could never be beaten by the Spitfire. Had the Vampire been in action sooner it would have been a serious problem for the Me 262, combining sufficient performance to match the German jet with both engine reliability that the Luftwaffe could only have dreamed of, and a manoeuvrability the 262 could not rival, all the while being a much smaller target than the Messerschmitt.
The key to this sparkling agility was the Vampire’s relatively enormous wing for its dainty weight which also, helpfully, blessed the Vampire with brilliant high altitude abilities – as late as 1949 the USAF’s massive B-36 was deemed to be immune from attack at its operating altitude by the vaunted F-86 Sabre or any other known fighter – except the de Havilland Vampire, which set a new world altitude record of 59.446 ft that very year. Inexplicably, though perhaps inevitably, given that in the Vampire the RAF had the world’s preeminent air-superiority fighter and in the larger Meteor an ideal jet powered fighter-bomber, it was the Vampire that was developed for the ground attack role and the Meteor for air defence.
Despite the world-beating performance the Vampire was relatively simple and cheap, ultimately serving with 32 air forces, more than any other British post-war aircraft.