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The Five Most Iconic Planes of World War II

Perhaps more than any era before or since, World War II gave rise to a diverse array of world-class aircraft developed to fulfill a variety of roles.

From carrier-based dive bombers like the Douglas Dauntless that terrorized Japanese ships in the Pacific, to Russian Illyushin IL-2 Sturmovik tank busters that pulverized German armor on the Eastern Front, the lineup of notable planes is extensive. 

Few would argue that the massive 4-engined B-29s that dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki are anything but iconic, butthese aircraft and their ilk often get overlooked.

After all, it’s fighters that tend to steal the spotlight.

Why? 

Who knows? 

Maybe it’s because they’re faster and flashier. 

Or because they pit one man against another in harrowing aerial duals that strike romantic chords somewhere deep in our collective subconscious. 

Whatever the case, we’re about to take a closer look at 5 of the most iconic aircraft of World War II, so get comfortable. 

1. Supermarine Spitfire

The Supermarine Spitfire is a supremely iconic World War II aircraft which featured a revolutionary elliptical wing, a 27-liter Rolls-Royce V-12 engine, and eight Browning .303 machine guns. 

More than any other aircraft in the English stable during the Second World War, the Spitfire is credited with saving the island nation from the German onslaught in the Battle of Britain.

The pivotal air war raged from late 1940 to mid-1941, and though the venerable Hawker Hurricane played as significant a role as its more famous counterpart, it’s the image of the Spitfire singlehandedly halting the Nazi juggernaut that persists to this day.  

The Spitfire’s development began in 1937. 

Early variants sported Rolls-Royce Merlin engines with just over 1,000 horsepower, but later models featured higher displacement Griffon power plants that cranked out more than 2,200.

With its innovative wing, impressive climb rate and responsive handling, it was at least an equal match for Luftwaffe adversaries like the Messerschmitt Bf 109.

Airmen especially loved the later versions’ improved visibility and horsepower, but many claimed its relatively small caliber guns put it at a disadvantage. 

And that wasn’t its only Achilles heel. 

Its outdated carburetor was prone to choking on excess fuel during steep dives, which often caused the engine to cut-out temporarily. 

For young pilots battling German aces it was a decidedly deadly characteristic, but one that was eventually solved by the addition of a pressurized carburetor in 1942.

All told more than 10,000 Spitfires were built during the war, and they racked up thousands of kills.

2. North American P-51 Mustang

Though the P-51 is arguably the most iconic American fighter of World War II, it’s not so well-known that it was originally developed in response to a British Purchasing Commission request for a long-range single seat fighter in 1940. 

In an unprecedented display of efficiency, the engineering team at North American Aviation took the stunning new plane from concept to working prototype in just 102 days. 

The original model was powered by a normally aspirated Allison V-12, but its lackluster high-altitude performance made it unable to perform the duties for which it’d been built. 

It wasn’t until the addition of the supercharged Rolls-Royce Merlin—and eventually a Packard built Merlin variant—that it’d go on to carve out its place in aviation history. 

Later versions featured high-visibility bubble canopies that protruded well above the fuselage giving pilots unobstructed vision, and six .50 caliber machine guns with nearly 2,000 rounds of ammunition. 

Despite its formidable mix of performance and firepower, it was largely the Mustang’s impressive range that propelled it to stardom. 

Featuring large internal fuel cells and wing mounted drop tanks, Mustangs could escort bombers from Britain to Germany and back, severely curtailing the Luftwaffe’s ability to shoot down the lumbering, bomb-laden behemoths.

When Air Marshall Herman Goering saw the American escort fighters in the sky above Germany he opined, “When I saw Mustangs over Berlin, I knew the jig was up.”

Some claim that during the war Mustangs were responsible for destroying nearly 5,000 enemy aircraft. 

Many of those kills came during aerial combat, but significant numbers were the result of post-mission strafing runs on return trips from Germany.

Though Mustangs were most prevalent in the European theater, they also saw service in North Africa, the Mediterranean, and the Pacific. 

3. Messerschmitt ME 262

The Messerschmitt ME 262 may not have swayed the outcome of the war like the other planes on the list did, but its status as the world’s first operational jet fighter makes it a shoe-in for one of the era’s most iconic flying machines. 

The 262 featured two jet engines slung under its wings, and though they were unreliable and underpowered by today’s standards, they gave it a top speed nearly 100 miles-per-hour faster than its piston engine opponents. 

Capable of fulfilling a number of roles, the 262 saw developmental variants as bombers, reconnaissance aircraft and night fighters. 

Despite imploring the Fuhrer to develop the revolutionary plane as an air superiority fighter, Hitler disregarded Luftwaffe officers’ pleas and pushed for its use as a bomber—a blunder which severely curtailed its overall effectiveness. 

According to statistics, 262 pilots shot more than 500 allied aircraft from the skies over Europe. 

They’re impressive numbers, especially considering the jet’s limited availability due to manufacturing shortfalls, engine reliability issues, and a lack of aviation fuel. 

After the war, captured examples where whisked off to Britain, America and the Soviet Union where engineers used many of their advancements as building blocks for their own post-war jet designs. 

4. Mitsubishi A6M Zero

Imagine this. 

It’s early in the war in the Pacific. 

You’re a rookie pilot fresh out of flight school. 

You’ve just been handed your first airplane—a Curtis P-40.

It’s an impressive machine to be sure.

It even sports menacing jaws painted on the cowling, but if the rumors you’ve been hearing around base are true, those nasty teeth won’t help, because the Japanese A6M Zero purportedly has a 10 to 1 kill ratio against guys just like you, in P-40s just like yours. 

The revered Zero was the Imperial Japanese Navy’s premier fighter during the war. 

It quickly gained a reputation as a potent and formidable long-range brawler that could operate from aircraft carriers and traditional airfields. 

In fact, when it entered service, the Zero was widely regarded as the world’s best carrier-based fighter. 

Its attributes included incredibly long range, a decent climb rate, and unparalleled maneuverability. 

But all those characteristics came with a cost. 

Lack of self-sealing fuel tanks, and an inability to sustain much damage due to its light construction meant that even a small caliber round through a wing could lead to a catastrophic fire or loss of flight controls. 

By 1942, the tables began to turn as allied fighters like the Chance Vought F4U Corsair and the Grumman Hellcat began to appear in numbers, and by the end of the war the proud Zero was a hopelessly outclassed dinosaur. 

5.  Focke-Wulf FW 190

FW190 - Chino Airshow 2014
FW190 – Chino Airshow 2014 by Airwolfhound is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Foregoing an elegant nickname like the one given the aforementioned jet-powered ME 262 ‘Swallow,’ pilots of the famed Focke-Wulf FW 190 accorded their craft a moniker more fitting a machine of its lethal nature—‘The Butcher Bird.’

Though some historians and amateur aviation buffs consider it inferior to the Messerschmitt Bf 109, the FW 190 was widely regarded by airmen who flew both as the more rugged and well-rounded of the two. 

Whereas the 109 featured a sleek V-12 giving it better aerodynamics, the 190’s massive BMW radial engine produced more horsepower allowing it to carry heavier loads, which made it a natural bomber and ground attack plane as well as a nimble fighter. 

The airplane was based on a Kurt Tank design from the late ‘30s, but the 190 made its official combat debut in the early years of the war on the Eastern Front where it was a clear standout. 

It was based on a simple design philosophy—that rugged, straightforward machines were the best options during times of war.

A heated rivalry existed between engineers of the competing models, and Tank often scoffed at the 109 which he considered little more than a fragile, overpriced toy.  

Despite the 190’s success, it was continually plagued by its radial engine’s large cross-section that limited top speed. 

A number of upgrades attempted to correct the problem, including a long-nosed variant fitted with an aerodynamic engine cowling, and another that featured an inverted Daimler-Benz V-12 with a more streamlined profile.  

Neither variant went into full production, but the hefty air-cooled workhorse wasn’t without its strong points. 

It was more robust than its liquid cooled V-12 cousins, and would often continue to run normally even after taking multiple hits from enemy aircraft. 

Though it lacked the all-out speed of some of its contemporaries, the FW 190 was more maneuverable, more versatile, and packed a bigger punch with its array of 20 mm cannons.

Summary

A wise person once said, “Necessity is the mother of invention.”

Truer words were never spoken, especially as they relate to the development of lethal aircraft during times of war.  

Have we missed a few iconic airplanes from World War II? 

You bet. 

Maybe more than a few, but for now, these 5 examples stand at the pinnacle of aviation history… and all were born of necessity.  

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