In 1915 the French World War One pilot Roland Garros hit upon the novel but dangerous idea of preparing a machine gun to fire directly through the propeller of his own aircraft. He hoped that by fixing steel plates to protect the propeller he would avoid the somewhat embarrassing, not to mention potentially lethal, experience of shooting himself out of the sky.
By means of this crude solution he created the world’s first fighter aircraft. It was the beginning of an arms race that would ultimately see piston-engine aircraft replaced by jet fighters capable of smashing through the sound barrier, striking at targets with a barrage of missiles, and engaging in advanced technological warfare.
This list looks at ten of the most important, and awe inspiring, jet fighters ever seen.
10. Messerschmitt ME-262
In the summer of 1944 Allied pilots began to report encounters with a terrifying new German aircraft over Western Europe. It had no propeller, but it was none the less capable of phenomenal speeds.
That aircraft was the Messerschmitt ME-262, also known as the “Swallow.” It was the world’s first operational jet fighter. The ME-262 was not without its problems. Its engines were unreliable, the aircraft was difficult and expensive to maintain, and with the Allies dominating the skies it proved to be highly vulnerable on take-off.
Once the ME-262 did get airborne it was the deadliest fighter aircraft in the skies. With exceptional performance and a top speed of almost 100mph faster than even the best piston-engine aircraft, no Allied aircraft could come close to matching it.
The Germans weren’t the only nation to invest in jet power. Great Britain’s own jet fighter, the Gloster Meteor, went into operational service at almost exactly the same time as the ME-262. While the two aircraft never engaged each other directly, the German jet boasted superior speed and handling to the Meteor and is widely regarded as a far superior aircraft.
The ME-262 might even have been a war-winning weapon for the Nazis had it been introduced sooner and in greater numbers. Fortunately, production was significantly delayed when Hitler demanded it be converted into a fighter bomber.
9. F-86 Sabre
While the ME-262 had not been able to overcome the Allies’ overwhelming numerical superiority, its exceptional performance proved that the future of air-to-air combat would be jet powered.
In the years after World War Two the world’s major powers set about replacing their piston-driven fighter aircraft with the faster and deadlier jets. The process was still not complete when the Korean War erupted in June of 1950. It would be the first and only war in which piston-engine fighters and jet-powered aircraft fought in the same skies in substantial numbers.
For months the deadly Soviet MiG-15s swept American aircraft from the skies. The tables were only turned with the introduction of the new F-86 Sabre.
The idea for a swept-wing jet had been borrowed from Nazi Germany following the capture of experimental aircraft, data, designs, and engineers. The result was realized in an iconic aircraft that downed around eight Mig-15s for every one of their own number lost.
Sabres were flown by the likes of Chuck Yeager and Buzz Aldrin, thousands were employed in air forces around the world, and they remained in active service until as late as 1994 when Bolivia finally retired the last active squadron.
The operational life of a fighter aircraft is often short. Technology marches ever onwards, often rendering combat aircraft obsolete and no longer fit for purpose. The legendary MiG-21 is one of the exceptions. It was designed back in the 1950s, but it’s still in service today and likely to remain so for another twenty years or more.
Even back in 1959 when it began to be rolled out to Soviet fighter squadrons, the MiG-21 didn’t boast any great technological sophistication. It was, however, designed to be extremely fast and maneuverable. These qualities made it a superb fighter and interceptor aircraft.
MiG-21s were not only effective but also easy to maintain and cheap to construct, at least in as far as a supersonic jet fighter can ever be said to be cheap. This allowed the Soviet Union to churn them out in prodigious quantities. Well over 10,000 MiG-21s were built, far more than any other type of jet fighter in history.
The MiG-21 changed the balance of air power in the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States of America. Over the course of its long history MiG-21s have served in numerous air forces and been deployed in the Vietnam War, two Arab-Israeli Wars, and the 1965 Indo-Pakistan War. As recently as February 2019 MiG-21s belonging to the Indian Air Force engaged Pakistani F-16 Fighting Falcons in a dogfight.
7. Harrier Jump Jet
In the 1960s several nations flirted with the idea of a vertical takeoff fighter jet. The potential advantages were obvious and considerable. With fighters no longer reliant on runways they could operate almost anywhere, from a clearing in a jungle to a city street.
There were, however, very substantial difficulties in developing such an aircraft that is still able to compete against more conventional jet fighters. Only Great Britain was able to overcome the challenges to produce the famous Harrier Jump Jet.
The aircraft was not without its problems. It was a subsonic fighter in a world where its competitors were supersonic, it’s considered difficult to fly and alarmingly easy to crash, and it can’t quite even manage its famous vertical takeoff whilst carrying a full payload of fuel and ammunition.
Despite these limitations the Harrier is regarded as a legendary aircraft. Its vertical takeoff gave it a capability no other aircraft could match and the potential to operate in places no other aircraft could.
Without the Harrier the British could not have fought and won the Falklands War. So long as they were flown by highly skilled pilots, Harriers showed themselves to be capable opponents in dogfights with far faster and deadlier jets. Britain’s Royal Air Force retired their remaining Harriers in 2010, but they remain in service with the U.S. Marines.
In 1967 the Soviet Union revealed the existence of their new MiG-25 jet fighters to the world. The Americans were immediately rattled, and not without good reason. The MiG-25 could outperform any fighter the Americans could pit against it, and it was certainly much, much faster.
Going flat out a MiG-25 could reach speeds of more than 2,000mph. This is breathtakingly fast even by the standards of a modern fighter jet, although Soviet pilots were warned not to push their MiGs to anything like these extremes or they would destroy their own engines.
The Americans finally got a chance to take a closer look at the Soviet aircraft when a pilot defected to Japan in 1976, taking his MiG-25 with him. The Soviets furiously demanded the return of their jet. They finally got it, but not before American engineers had thoroughly inspected it, stripped it down to its constituent parts, and helpfully packed it into crates.
This close inspection revealed the MiG-25s phenomenal speed had come at the sacrifice of some maneuverability, but it was still a remarkable aircraft. It set numerous world records, one of which, climbing to a height of 123,523 feet on jet engines, still hasn’t been beaten. More than 1,000 MiG-25s were produced and a few remain in service to this day.
5. F-117 Nighthawk
It has been argued that the first ever stealth aircraft was designed in Nazi Germany as far back as the 1940s. However, the Horten Ho 229 was still at the experimental stage when World War Two came to a close, and its stealth capabilities may have been a happy accident of its unusual flying wing shape rather than a deliberate design choice.
The first true stealth aircraft, the American F-117 Nighthawk, became operational decades later in 1983. In order to protect the aircraft’s anonymity, it initially flew only at night. Its existence wouldn’t be officially acknowledged by the American authorities for another six years.
Only a meager 64 F-117 Nighthawks were ever produced, and although they were commonly known as stealth fighters they mainly served as ground-attack aircraft. Even so, their influence was out of all proportion to their numbers. Their revolutionary design was intended to minimize their radar signature. While they weren’t entirely invisible to radar as is often assumed, they were extremely difficult to detect and intercept.
During the 1991 Gulf War they flew 1,300 sorties without losing a single aircraft, and by the time the Nighthawks were retired from active service in 2008 only one had ever been lost to enemy action.
4. Eurofighter Typhoon
In the 1980s several of the European powers felt the need to deploy an air superiority fighter with capabilities that went well beyond those of any existing aircraft. This was no easy task. The cost of producing such an exceptional machine was prohibitively high, so the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain agreed to pool their collective resources to develop the machine that would eventually become the Eurofighter Typhoon.
The project almost didn’t get off the ground. France dropped out, and the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War greatly reduced the need for a massively expensive fighter aircraft.
It wasn’t until 2003, twenty years after its conception, that the first Eurofighters, at a cost of around 100 million Euros for each machine, were finally delivered to Germany’s Luftwaffe.
Like its competitors, the Eurofighter relies on a huge amount of computing power to even keep it in the sky. However, unlike most of its modern rivals it doesn’t have true stealth capabilities. While it isn’t quite as versatile as aircraft such as the F-35, as a pure air superiority dogfighter the exceptional speed, maneuverability, and technological clout of the Eurofighter Typhoon means it has very few rivals.
3. F-35 Lightning II
Lockheed Martin, the company behind the United States of America’s new fifth generation jet fighter, describe the F-35 Lightning II as the most lethal and survivable aircraft in the world.
Its advanced stealth capability is said to make it almost entirely invisible to enemy radar, while an array of sensors allow the pilot, with the aid of a $400,000 helmet, to effectively see through the skin of the aircraft itself. With a core processor capable of performing 400 billion calculations a second, and the capability to instantaneously share that information with friendly forces at land, sea, and air, the F-35 is one of the most advanced aircraft ever to take to the skies.
This technology does come at a considerable price. At a total cost of an estimated $406 billion the F-35 has been described as the most expensive weapons program ever undertaken. This eye-watering figure doesn’t even include an additional $1.1 trillion expected to be needed to maintain and operate the machines over the course of their lifetimes.
Despite considerable criticism over spiraling costs, the F-35 is expected to remain in service until 2070 and form the backbone of American air power over the coming decades.
2. Chengdu J-20
The collapse of the Soviet Union left the United States standing alone as the world’s sole remaining superpower. This situation would not last forever, and many experts expect China’s economy to eventually overtake that of the United States of America.
China’s huge population has always allowed it to field vast military forces, but it has often been a case of quantity over quality. China had previously relied on purchasing combat aircraft from abroad, but that has changed with the recent appearance of the Chengdu J-20, informally known as the Mighty Dragon.
The Chengdu J-20 entered military service in 2017, and while the Chinese government is extremely proud of its new fifth generation fighter jet, it’s keeping the exact details of the aircraft’s capabilities strictly secret.
It is believed that the Mighty Dragon combines advanced stealth technology, high maneuverability, and a greater range than any rival fifth generation fighter jet. It is a superior machine to anything that local rivals such as India and Japan could call upon. However, some experts have speculated it may have been designed to disrupt refueling and attack naval assets, rather than engage in dogfights with enemy jets, in the event of a regional war with the United States of America.
1. F-22 Raptor
A single F-22 Raptor costs something in the region of $300 million. On top of that they burn through another $35,000 for every hour of flight. Even those nations willing to shoulder this kind of expenditure will have to look elsewhere. The United States of America has reserved the F-22 Raptor for the exclusive use of its own military forces; fewer than 200 have been built, and they simply aren’t for sale.
The F-22 was the first operational fifth generation jet in the world. While the F-35 is intended to function in a multitude of roles, the Lockheed Martin F-22 was designed with one primary purpose in mind: to be the world’s deadliest air superiority fighter.
The aircraft should be able to operate over enemy territory with near impunity. Its stealth technology is said to be so advanced that its radar signature is roughly equivalent to that of a bumblebee. It’s able to cruise at speeds of 1,150 MPH, and once afterburners are engaged this leaps to 1,500 MPH. It’s also the most maneuverable jet fighter in the world.
Despite having entered service in 2005 the Raptors didn’t take part in their first combat operations until 2014, when the aircraft took part in airstrikes against ISIS in Syria.
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