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The six best fighters of the past

What are the six best fighter aircraft of the past?


January 28, 2008
By Raymond Canon

To see us through the long Canadian winter, your humble scribe intends
to start an argument. Not a physical one, of course, just a verbal one
to help readers through to the more balmy days of spring.

The question is what each reader thinks are the six best fighter
aircraft of the past. To be sure, six is an arbitrary number but it is
better than, say, just one or even 250. To help you along, here are the
ones that I have chosen.

1. Hawker Hurricane. This was the plane that did everything asked of it
in the Battle of Britain. It shot down more German aircraft than all
other RAF fighters put together, it was more rugged than the Spitfire
and could be put back into action more quickly. It later served as a
fighter-bomber, a tank-buster, a Fleet Air Arm and Merchant Marine
fighter. Part of its production was in Canada and it was the aircraft
flown by No.1 RCAF Sqn during the above-mentioned battle.

2. North American P-51 Mustang. This was an aircraft that was going
nowhere until its Allison liquid-cooled engine was replaced by the
Rolls-Royce Merlin. It then became an American aircraft with a British
engine. It also blossomed as a highly effective fighter with a range
long enough to escort bombers over Germany. It was the last internal
combustion engine fighter used by the RCAF; the Americans went so far
as to mate two P-51s into a P-82 Twin Mustang.

3. Fock-Wulfe 190. This heavily armed German fighter frightened the RAF
more than any other Luftwaffe aircraft during World War II with the
possible exception of the jet fighters. It was better than anything the
USAAF or RAF had at the time. Later versions of the fighter usually go
under the appellation of Ta-152, in honour of Kurt Tank who was the
company’s chief designer. Over 20,000 of the various marks of the 190
were produced during the war.
F-86 Sabre. Another first-class aircraft, like Nos. 1 & 2 that came
along when it was needed – to combat the MiG-15 in Korea.  Like 1 &
2 it was also flown by the RCAF and it went on to become NATO’s
front-line fighter aircraft. The 86D was the first to be developed into
an all-weather version while fighter-bomber versions also saw service.
There are whispers that the Canadair version built with the Orenda
engine was one of the best of the breed.

5. Hawker Hunter. Another plane that, like the F-104, was developed as
a point-defence fighter but went on to be just about everything else.
Its initial Achilles heel was its range but, once that was solved, it
went on, like the Hurricane, to do just about everything else (Sydney
Camm’s magic touch). Everybody loved the Hunter, especially the Swiss
who laid their hands on over 100 of the 1,900+ that were built. Its
30mm cannon armament was devastating and the plane served for 40 years.
Two ex-Swiss Hunters have just been leased to fly for the Royal Navy
while Lebanon wants to bring back five of them for ground attack duties.

6. English Electric Lightning. The only fighter with one engine on top
of the other, it was also plagued initially by short range. It served
as both a high- and low-level fighter and excelled at both of them. The
Americans discovered how good it was when it outflew both the F-15 and
F-16 in dissimilar air combat. Its remarkable climb rate meant it could
ascend to 50,000 feet and wait for the F-15s to catch up. The Brits
should be ashamed of their efforts to market it. Only Saudi Arabia and
Kuwait bought it but more effort could have seen it in the service of a
number of other countries.

There you have it. For readers who might be reaching for their handbook
on tarring and feathering, here are some honourable mentions: Spitfire,
Me 109, Corsair, Hellcat, MiG-15, Me 110 night fighter and Yak-9.

En garde!
Raymond Canon is an Aviation Analyst at the University of Western Ontario