During World War II, military aircraft played a major role when it came to bombing the enemy and fighting in the air. Since then, in addition to the role they play for civilian transportation, aircraft have continued to play a central part in wars and military activities.
But incredibly, it was not much more than a century ago that the world’s first aircraft – including military aircraft – was produced.
The First Military Aircraft
Built by the world-famous Wright Brothers, the very first military plane was sold to the US army in 1909. Used to train pilots for a couple of years, it was retired before the breakout of WWI in 1914. However this war was the first major conflict where aircraft did in fact play a major role.
Initially aircraft were used primarily for reconnaissance, but it didn’t take long for engineers to design bombers, fighters fitted with machine guns, and ground-attack planes.
A large number of the WWI aircraft were biplanes mostly made of fabric and wood.
Impact of Aircraft in WWII
Air strikes were a major feature of World War Two, with the major powers, including Germany, Japan, the UK and the US, all developing powerful new military aircraft. Sleek, relatively lightweight aluminum airframes and powerful piston engines soon became the norm, though it didn’t take long for jet engines with no propellers to begin to supercede these.
So as the war intensified, the Germans rained bombs down over Britain, which prompted the British to improve its own military air power, at the same time introducing new radar technology. After the Battle of Britain, which was fought in the air, the Germans were forced to change their own war planes dramatically in an attempt to regain supremacy. They also developed guided missiles, as did the US, although to a lesser extent.
The large bombers that were produced towards the end of World War Two played an indispensable role in ending the war, particularly the huge US B-29s that dropped atomic bombs on the cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan towards the end of the war in 1945.
Famous WWII Aircraft
Hundreds of aircraft played a role in World War Two including many manufactured in various countries by companies that continue to produce leading civilian and military aircraft today. They include (in alphabetical order) Beechcraft, Bell, Boeing, Hawker, Kawasaki, Lockheed, Mitsubishi, Sikorsky, and Yakovlev. A number of companies manufacturing military aircraft during WWII, including Focke-Wulf, became predecessor companies of what is today the huge Airbus Group; others were merged into the British Aerospace group’s BAE Systems.
In spite of the many aircraft that were produced during the war, the most famous WWII aircraft are limited to a handful. These include:
- The iconic German Messerschmitt Bf 109 that was a single-seat “multirole” fighter plane based on a design (the Bf 108) that had been developed as a sport and touring plane. Introduced into the German Luftwaffe (Air force) in 1937, the Bf 109 was considered for years to be the best aircraft fighter in the world.
- The German Focke Wulf 190, another formidable airborne weapon that was used as a fighter and fighter-bomber, for torpedo bombing, and to intercept ground attacks. Introduced just two years into the war, in August 1941, it’s superb design compelled the British to improve its own Spitfires. Chuck Yeager, the legendary American aviation pioneer, flew an Fw 190 after the war, and said it was the only aircraft that matched the legendary US P-51D Mustang.
- The Supermarine Spitfire that was the champion British warplane and undoubtedly the most famous WWII aircraft originating from that country. Developed prior to the war, Spitfires in general are regarded as one of the best fighter aircraft ever. The Spitfire IX, produced from 1942, was Britain’s answer to the Fw 190, to which it proved to be a superior match, especially in the Battle of Britain.
- The US North American P-51 Mustang, which is the most celebrated US fighter plan of WWII. While America entered the war rather late, only after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the P-51 Mustang was flown by British pilots from May that same year. Described as a “classic warbird,” the P-51s were fitted with machine guns. While able to attack ground targets, typically outperforming any and all German fighters, they were mostly used to escort bombers on “long range sorties.”
- The US Boeing B-29 Superfortress that was a strategic long-range, high-altitude, heavy bomber aircraft used from 1943. Developed specifically to meet US Army Air Corps needs, it could fly long and high at around 400 miles an hour, and provided a virtually untouchable bombing platform. The two most infamous B-29s were Enola Gay, used to carry the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, and Bock’s Car (or Bockscar), used for the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki the same day.
There were many other Boeing aircraft used during WWII including the Boeing P-26 Peashooter, a monoplane fighter, the Boeing F4B/P-12, a pursuit fighter, the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, a heavy bomber aircraft that was the predecessor to the B-29, and the Boeing 314 Clipper (C-98) a long-range flying boat aircraft.
Interestingly, both Enola Gay and Bockscar were built in Nebraska by the Glenn L. Martin Company (now Lockheed Martin). The Lockheed Corporation, which merged with Martin Mariette to form Lockheed Martin in 1995, manufactured a number of quite famous WWII aircraft. These included the single-seat L-133 Starjet jet-powered fighter; the P-38 Lightning and P-80/F-80 Shooting Star, both heavy fighter-bombers; the PV-1 Ventura/PV-2 Harpoon patrol bomber; and the Lockheed XP-58 Chain Lightning, a high-altitude interceptor also used for close air support.
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