Most Famous American WWII Planes

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The Grumman F4F Fighter

During World War II the United States produced over 300,000 aircraft during this worldwide conflict. This astounding number dwarfed all other combatants. And it must be noted that the United States didn’t officially enter until late 1941 (December 7). Of this impressive number, several American WWII planes have gone on to be some of the most famous aircraft ever produced in war time.

Douglas DC-3

At the conclusion of the “Great War” in 1918, the burgeoning aircraft industry turned to civil air transportation. The plane that stood out in the early 1930’s was the Boeing – 247, a twin-engine all metal aircraft packed with many modern-day features. The 247 was in high demand at this time. Jack Frye, the leader of Trans World Airlines (TWA) reached out to other manufacturers to design a plane that would surpass the 247 in performance. One manufacturer to answer the call was Donald Douglas from Douglas aircraft. His design was also a twin-engine all metal aircraft that would soon revolutionize the airline industry.

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Jack Frye, TWA President

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Douglas DC-3

The first prototype was the DC-1, in which, one was constructed, however, this would be Douglas’s road to success. For the remainder of the 1930’s every major carrier utilized the DC-3. The greatest contribution of the DC-3 lay ahead. When the U.S. entered World War II the DC-3 immediately took on the important role of moving men and equipment around the world. It was the airplane of choice for the Allies from the skies of Normandie to the jungles of Burma, and then some. It would go on to serve in Korea and Vietnam, even morphing into a deadly gunship. Today this venerable bird still flies 80 years after its introduction. Over 16,000 were built.

Douglas C-54 Sky Master

In 1938, the Douglas company built on their success of the DC-3 with the development of a four-engine version, the DC-4E. The DC-4E was capable of carrying twice the load of the twin-engine successful DC-3. However, the DC-4E proved to be too expensive for the airlines. Instead, the airlines chose the less complex DC-4. In 1941, with war on the horizon, the USAA took over the civil order for DC-4 and renamed it the C-54 Sky Master, a truly powerful aircraft. The first C-54 took to the skies in Santa Monica, in February 1942, and the first C-54’s were delivered in February 1943.

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"Sacred Cow" Presidential Plane"

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"Donald Douglas, President Douglas Air"

During the war 1,241 C-54’s were built for the Army and its Navy version the R5D. The C-54 had a 49 seats capacity, or room for 16 stretchers. While in service the C-54’s flew over one million miles per month over the vast Atlantic Ocean, akin to 20 round trips per day. The U.S. government utilized a modified C-54 Sky Master, the Sacred Cow, to transport President Roosevelt to the Yalta Conference in February 1945. One of the Sacred Cow’s modifications was a retractable elevator to lift President Roosevelt in his wheelchair. In addition to President Roosevelt, Allied Commander, Douglas MacArthur also used the C-54 in the Pacific War.

Consolidated PBY Catalina

The Consolidated PBY Catalina was a major contributor in World War II. A bird as ungainly as they come, nevertheless it proved to be worth its weight in gold. Before World War II paved runways were not a common sight. Finding locations to land a large aircraft was difficult. The PBY’s heritage dates back to the early days of “flying boats”. The PBY was a version developed to operate at land and sea to perform air-sea-rescue over vast open ocean spaces.

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"Ruben Fleet"

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"Consolidated PBY Catalina"

The real strength of the PBY was its endurance, range, lift capability, and most important, reliability. Consolidate leader Reuben Fleet relocated Consolidated to San Diego in 1935. The designation PB (Patrol Boat) and Y for company took to the skies in 1935. Its primary roles in WWII were varied. Sea rescue, and reconnaissance were its mainstays in its service. Able to stay in the air for long range reconnaissance, night patrols, and ferrying key personnel. If anyone doubts its important contribution, one only has to look at its performance at the Battle of Midway in June 1942. The U.S. had intelligence of a Japanese Invasion fleet. But it was the job of PBY’s to locate the fleet, which it did, resulting in the Japanese losing 4 key aircraft carriers.

Scout Bomber Douglas

In World War II the German Luftwaffe unveiled their deadly Stuka dive Bomber that ravaged Europe in their march to the English Channel. The world soon noticed its ability to take out individual targets with precision, on a scale never seen before. The challenge of the relatively new concept of “dive bombing” at sea focused on hitting a moving, twisting target. At the outset of the war the American Navy had just such a plane, the SBD dive bomber. It also earned the nickname “Slow But Deadly”.

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Edward Henry Heinemann, Doulas engineer"

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Scout Bomber Douglas"

The SBD was designed by Doulas engineer Edward Henry Heinemann, and was first deployed in squadron 2 on board the USS Lexington in late 1940. Although the Pearl Harbor attack decimated the battleship fleet, the U.S. carrier fleet was at sea and avoided destruction. Now, the surviving carrier would be the spearhead of the U.S, counterattack. And the SBD would be at the front in finding and attacking the Japanese. This is best exemplified by the exploits of Navy pilot Captain "Dusty" Kleiss during the critical Battle of Midway. On June 4, 1942, Dusty nosed-dived at 20,000 feet to attack the carrier Kaga, striking it dead center where he and his fellow pilots sank 3 carriers. Later, Dusty would dive on, and sink Hiryu. To conclude the battle, the next day Dusty attacked a Japanese cruiser.

The North American Mitchell B-25 Bomber

Prior to World War II they wished to have two WWII planes available for specific missions. The B-25 Mitchell was the only U.S. aircraft to be named after an individual, General Billy Mitchell, a World War I pilot and proponent of future airpower. North American aviation cut its teeth in military aircraft with the twin-engine XB-21 bomber. While it did not measure up, it had features they would later use in producing some of the best aircraft of the war. The next North American WWII planes production was the NA-40 which would become the B-25 with a tri-cycle landing gear.

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"Dutch" Kindelberger, North American President" zero

Mitchell B-25 Bomber"

The B-25 could perform a variety of missions for all services. One mission in particular set the B-25 apart from the rest. After the Pearl Harbor attack, the U.S. searched for a way to strike the Japanese homeland. It would take a submariner to come with the idea of launching B-25’s from a carrier. Renowned aviator Colonel Jimmy Doolittle was selected to train the pilots and lead the mission. On April 18, 16 B-25’s launched from the carrier, Hornet, destined for Tokyo and other locations. This daring raid instantly boosted the Morale of Americans and sent a message to the Japanese that more devastation lay ahead.

Boeing B-17 Bomber

In 1934, the USAA issued a proposal for a bomber aircraft that could fly at 250 mph, operate at 10,000 feet, and a range of 2,000 miles. Military doctrine concluded after World War I that in future warfare air power would be front and center. Believing in the notion that the bomber would always get through. Whichever company wins the competition would be awarded a production run of 220 aircraft. The early 1930’s were tough times for the industry in a world grappling with a worldwide depression. One struggling company, Boeing Aircraft under the leadership of Edward C. Wells, submitted a proposal that would become a legend.

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Edward C. Wells, Boeing Engineer"

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Boeing B-17 Bomber"

Eleven months after submitting their proposal, the model-299 took to the skies. It was an impressing all-metal bomber with beautiful lines. However, the model 299 crashed in a test flight at Wright Field, killing the pilots. Boeing lost the contract to the Martin Company, but the Army brass were impressed, and purchased several for “future consideration”. In 1937 the Army purchased an additional 17 upgraded aircraft and designated them YB-17. The first B-17’s to participate in the war were sold to the RAF, with mixed results. For the U.S. the Pearl Harbor attack was the B-17’s baptism under fire. In 1942 the B-17 were deployed in massive numbers in England. After mixed results in daylight raids in Germany their losses were significant. It would take the introduction of the the P-51 Mustang long range fighter of the B-17’s to reach their full destructive potential.

Boeing B-29 Bomber

With the B-17 already in service, Boeing was already considering a significant upgrade. The company submitted a proposal that simply dwarfed the B-17 in every capacity. The YB-29 could reach a ceiling of over 30,000 feet, have a range of 4,000 miles, and fly at 350 mph, with a 10,000 lbs. bomb load. But what set it apart was its pressurization, providing the crew with relative comfort at high altitude, and heating. The B-29’s remote-controlled gun system was state-of-the-art for its time.

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Boeing B-29 Bomber"

The Army was so impressed with the B-29’s potential in the Pacific that 1,600 were ordered before the first prototype. In 1943 it was determined that the new B-29’s would be used in the pacific where distance would be the greatest challenge. India would serve as the initial bases for B-29s, until bases in China were prepared. The Chinese marshaled a massive peasant force to build the necessary bases in Southern China to put the 29’s in range of Southern Japan. The bombing campaign ran into difficulties with the long range, get stream, and precision high altitude bombing. It would take the seizure of pacific islands by the Army and Navy in some of the most vicious fighting the world had ever seen. By late 1944 the B-29’s were beginning the final destruction of Japan, burning many Japanese cities to the ground in fire bombing raids that culminated in the dropping of two nuclear bombs that changed the world forever.

Lockheed P-38 Lightning

The P-38 Lightning was one of the few fighter aircraft that was deadly and beautiful. In 1937 the Army Air Corp issued a proposal for a fighter aircraft to reach unheard of speed. The goal was for a fighter that could go beyond 400 mph. Brilliant young Lockheed engineer, Kelly Johnson deduced that only a twin-engine configuration with super charging could accomplish this. The twin boom configuration was also a notable departure from other fighters. But it would be the firepower in the nose of the aircraft that would make it a part of legendary aircraft production in WWII. To showcase the speed of the P-38 the Army set out to break Howard Hughes speed record, which it shattered by 22 minutes in a flight from California to New York. The plane crashed on landing, but the Army had seen enough.

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Kelley Johnson, Lockheed Engineer"

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Lockheed P-38 Lightning"

The P-38 lightning was destined to see action in Europe and the Pacific. The RAF purchased 66 but were disappointed when the U.S. withheld the superchargers on the British purchase. The British canceled the order after testing 3. With the U.S. now in the war, the U.S. took possession of the remainder, and put the Lightnings in full production as a high-altitude interceptor with long-distance range. The Lightning didn’t perform as well at medium level, but its firepower made it a deadly weapon. The Lightning excelled in the warmer climates of the pacific. The top scoring U.S. aces of the war flew the Lightning, downing 78 aircraft between the two of them. The Lightning is best known for one of the most daring missions of the war. In 1943 U.S. intelligence discovered the travel itinerary of Admiral Yamamoto. A squadron of Lightning intercepted him and shot him and his staff out of the sky.

Chance Vought F4U Corsair

The Chance Vought F4U Corsair fighter had a 11-year production run and was the last piston-engine fighter in production. The U.S. Navy was in search of a carrier-based fighter to replace the aging Grumman F4F fighter that was heroically holding down the fort early in the Pacific War but was sorely over-matched. With a high demand for Corsairs, Vought turned to Goodyear and Brewster to meet production demands. During carrier landing trials the Corsair’s did not perform well, there were problems with landing gear. The Navy instead chooses to use the exceptional Grumman F6F Hellcat. Between the two they would be the hammer-blow to knock the Japanese from the sky.

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Rex Beisel, Chance Vought"

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Chance Vought F4U Corsair"

After the carrier trials the Navy assigned the Corsairs to Marine land-based squadrons, where they would become legends. The Corsairs earned the nickname “whistling Death” for high pitch whine when air passed through the air-intakes. The “Bent Wing” Corsairs routinely dueled with Japanese fighters in the skies above the Solomon Islands with great success. It would take British ingenuity to solve the Corsair’s carrier landing problems. The British also integrated the Corsairs into their carrier forces, as they combined forces with the U.S. in 1945 on the final road to victory.

North American P-51 Mustang

Born out of the desperation of war, the NA-P-51 would one day achieve the remarkable status of best WWII fighters. In 1940 the British Purchasing commission turned to America in search of fighter aircraft to help it fend off the Luftwaffe. The best plane the U.S. had available was the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk. But Curtiss was running at full capacity, so the British turned to North American, a relatively new company who they had purchased training aircraft in the past. An astute businessman, North America's leader “Dutch” Kindleberger convinced the British his company could build a better plane than P-40. The British accepted and in 120 days a prototype was produced. The British insisted that NA use the same Allison engine in the P-40. On its test flight the P-51 reach a speed of 382 mph at 15,000 feet, besting the P-40 by 25 mph.

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Edgar Schmeud, P-51 Mustang Designer"

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North American P-51 Mustang"

In late 1940 the British informed NA that they had given the P-51 the designation Mustang. The U.S. also purchased two Mustangs for further testing. While the Mustangs performed well at lower levels, however, at higher levels it was slower and sluggish because the Allison engine lacked a supercharger. The Mustang was relegated to reconnaissance and dive bombing in 1943. It would take the sharp awareness of a RAF pilot who observed that the Merlin engine used in several British planes, and considered the best engine in the war, would be a perfect fit for the Mustang. After inserting the Merlin, the improvement was breathtaking. Now the U.S. had the best American WWII plane that could fly faster, higher, and longer than any plane in the sky. In 1944 the Mustangs tipped the balance of the air war in Europe when they cleared the skies of Luftwaffe fighters, clearing the way for Allied bombers to pulverize the German Fatherland. And likewise in the Pacific as they escorted B-29’s to the Japanese homeland.

Special Mention

No list could be complete without the mention of several other great U.S. aircraft in WW2. The Consolidated B-24 “Liberator” four-engine bomber, the sister ship to the B-17 and B-29 was the most produced bomber of the war. The Republic P-47 “Thunderbolt” a design by Alexander Kartveli was the Mack truck of WW2 fighters. The B-26 “Marauder” Medium Bomber is the sister ship of the B-25 Mitchell bomber, a product of the Glen L. Martin Company. The Grumman F6F Hellcat along with its sister ship the F4U Corsair wrestled the Pacific skies from the Japanese. The Curtiss P-40 Warkhawk with its "Shark Tooth" nose art, will be remembered for holding the line until better fighters were available.

Evolution Of World War 2 Fighter Aircraft

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