The top ten best piston-engined fighters


Piston-engined fighters ruled the roost for thirty years. A brutal survival of the fittest ensured a rapid evolution of these characterful machines; the final fighters were over six times faster and around ten times heavier than the first generation. Whereas the first fighters had only a single rifle-calibre weapon, the Tigercat of 1943 had an awe-inspiring arsenal of four ‘.50 Cals’ and four 20-mm cannon. The Tigercat also had forty times more horsepower than a World War I fighter. The era of classic fighter planes ended on a high-point with huge, powerful masterpieces. We look at the zenith of ‘prop’ fighter design and choose the ten most formidable machines. To keep this blog going- allowing us to create new articles- we need donations. We’re trying to do something different with Hush-Kit: give aviation fans something that is both entertaining, surprising and well-informed. Please do help us and click on the donate button above – you can really make a difference (suggested donation £10). You will keep us impartial and without advertisers – and allow us to carry on being naughty.  A big thank you to all of our readers.


10. Focke-Wulf Ta 152H


Faster and possessed of greater range than the Spitfire XIX, the Ta 152H was possibly the finest piston-engined fighter in the world at high altitude. Had the war lasted and the high-flying B-29 been committed to Europe then this aircraft would have been its nemesis.

9. Lavochkin La-11


The ultimate Soviet piston-engined fighter and the go-to aircraft for low and medium altitude operations, the La-11 represented the zenith of the superlative Lavochkin series of combat aircraft and is one of the few aircraft on this list to have seen a serious amount of use on operations.  Combat Aircraft’s Thomas Newdick noted that it was “Last of an illustrious line, and scored a hat-full of Cold War air-to-air kills (well, a lot more than the Sea Fury, anyway)…  the La-9 was a better flier, but the La-11 marked the apogee of the Soviet piston-engined fighter. It also showed that you could still eke performance out of the rugged basic design (which went back to 1940), while the agile Yak series of fighters came to an end with the wartime Yak-3 (after which its wing was put to use for early jet fighters).”

8. Dornier Do 335


The Do 335 was very unorthodox. It featured two tandem engines in the fuselage and a unique ‘push-me/pull-you’ propeller arrangement. With the power of a two-engined aircraft and the frontal cross-section of a single: the result was a remarkable top speed of 474 mph. Pierre Clostermann was one of the first allied pilots to encounter the aircraft, however even in the extremely fast Tempest, the flight he was leading was unable to catch the ‘Pfeil’.  Fortunately we will never know what this amazing machine was truly capable of. The performance of the pre-production aircraft was spectacular. A handful served on operations but little is known of what they achieved. Had the jet engine not burst onto the scene, it is likely that a spate of designs would have aped its revolutionary layout.

Was the Spitfire overrated? Full story here. A Lightning pilot’s guide to flying and fighting here. Find out the most effective modern fighter aircraft in within-visual and beyond-visual range combat. The greatest fictional aircraft here. An interview with stealth guru Bill Sweetman here. The fashion of aircraft camo here. Interview with a Super Hornet pilot here. Most importantly, a pacifist’s guide to warplanes here. F-35 expose here

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7. Spitfire Mk 24

The last model of Spitfire designed for land operations by the RAF was a potent combat aircraft, and easily one of the world’s finest at the end of the 1940s. This serves to underline the remarkable unbroken development of a basic design that first flew in 1936, the Mk 24 was twice as heavy, more than twice as powerful and showed an increase in climb rate of 80% over that of the prototype Spitfire.


6. Grumman F7F Tigercat


Over 4000 horsepower. a Great range, a superb climb and tremendous speed of 460mph. For a twin-engined aircraft  it was also highly manoeuvrable. It is therefore surprising to learn that it scored only two kills (and they were slow vulnerable biplanes). However it could be argued that it has done more good than any other aircraft on this list as Tigercats operated for many years as fire-fighting tanker aircraft in California. Interestingly the F7F was intended to be named ‘Tomcat’ but this was deemed to be too sexually suggestive – a serious problem for an aircraft designed to kill people.

5. Martin-Baker M.B.5


The greatest Allied might-have-been of the war? The M.B.5 drew unanimous praise from those who flew it, for its speed, range and climb-rate  were outstanding, and it got more out of the Rolls-Royce Griffon than any other aircraft. Whether it would have lived up to its obvious potential will remain unknown, having the misfortune to emerge into a world teeming with inferior but numerous Spitfires and Tempests. Click here for the ten greatest cancelled fighters.


4. North American P-82 (later F-82) Twin-Mustang


A bizarre machine consisting (more or less) of two lengthened P-51H fuselages joined with a new centre section, the P-82B holds the record for the longest un-refuelled non-stop flight by a propeller-driven fighter (8129 km). It was also exceptionally fast. Sadly for the USAF later models of the Twin-Mustang were powered by Allison engines rather than the superlative Merlin fitted to earlier examples (due to increased royalties demanded by Rolls-Royce) and performance was reduced as a result.

Click here for the Twin-Spitfire

3. de Havilland Hornet


Faster and far longer ranged than the first-generation jets, the Hornet also happens to be achingly beautiful. Eric Brown, the world’s most experienced test pilot, maintained it was his favourite piston-engined aircraft, as he put it “My favourite piston engine (aircraft) is the de Havilland Hornet. For the simple reason it was over-powered. This is an unusual feature in an aircraft, you could do anything on one engine, almost, that you could do on two. It was a ‘hot rod Mosquito’ really, I always described it as like flying a Ferrari in the sky.” (Sea Hornet illustrated).

Equal 1st: Hawker Sea Fury and Grumman F8F Bearcat:


One holds the absolute climb rate record for piston-engined aircraft, the other the maximum speed record. Both appeared as a result of the same problem – it was too difficult to operate a jet fighter from a carrier and thus piston-engined fighter development was allowed to develop to its apogee. They are so closely matched that it is impossible to choose between them. Captain Eric Brown, who flew both, sums it up rather neatly:

In the case of the Bearcat I found myself inevitably comparing it with the Hawker Sea Fury, and there really was very little to choose between the two. The Bearcat probably had the edge on climb and manoeuvrability, but was not such a good weapons platform nor as good in instrument-flight conditions as the Sea Fury. It was rather like the Fw 190 versus Spitfire IX situation – they were so evenly matched that if they met in combat the skill of the pilot alone would have been the deciding factor. Both were certainly great aircraft.”

The Sea Fury was the pinnacle of Hawker’s illustrious prop fighter line. The Sea Fury had everything a great fighter needs: it was tough, well-armed, fast and agile . Despite its enormous size and power (2,480 HP)  it had delightful handling qualities; pilots were impressed with how spin-resistant it was, and Sea Fury pilot Dave Eagles gave it it ‘top marks for agility’. The Sea Fury was sent to war in Korea, where it proved itself an excellent warplane, notably downing a MiG-15 jet fighter in 1952.

Find out what it’s like flying the Sea Fury here.


Thank you for reading Hush-Kit. Our site is absolutely free and we have no advertisements. If you’ve enjoyed an article you can donate here. At the moment our contributors do not receive any payment but we’re hoping to reward them for their fascinating stories in the future.

Thank you for reading Hush-Kit. Our site is absolutely free and we have no advertisements. If you’ve enjoyed an article you can donate here. At the moment our contributors do not receive any payment but we’re hoping to reward them for their fascinating stories in the future.

Have a look at 10 worst British military aircraftSu-35 versus Typhoon10 Best fighters of World War II top WVR and BVR fighters of today, an interview with a Super Hornet pilot and a Pacifist’s Guide to Warplanes. Was the Spitfire overrated? Want something more bizarre? The Top Ten fictional aircraft is a fascinating read, as is The Strange Story and The Planet Satellite. The Fashion Versus Aircraft Camo is also a real cracker. Those interested in the Cold Way should read A pilot’s guide to flying and fighting in the Lightning. Those feeling less belligerent may enjoy A pilot’s farewell to the Airbus A340. Looking for something more humorous? Have a look at this F-35 satire and ‘Werner Herzog’s Guide to pusher bi-planes or the Ten most boring aircraft. In the mood for something more offensive? Try the NSFW 10 best looking American airplanes, or the same but for Canadians. 

Check out the Top ten fighters of World War II here

The judges were: Hush-Kit’s Joe Coles, Combat Aircraft‘s Thomas Newdick, the RAF Review‘s Paul Eden, The Aviation Historian‘s Nick Stroud and the artist Ed Ward.  If you enjoyed this, have  a look at the top ten British, French, Swedish, Australian,  Soviet and German aeroplanes. Wanting Something a little more exotic- try the top ten fictional aircraft. Feeling more negative? Enjoy a little glass of  Schadenfreude and read about the Ten Worst Carrier Aircraft.


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  1. Jonathan Mercer

    Superb! Mainly because it’s in complete accord with my own personal prejudices (I’ve just been reading about surviving aviation forums).

    Every now and then I ask myself what high performance piston fighter would make me very happy if I owned one and, being British, the Sea Fury wins out. At the same time I suspect there would be days when my faithless eyes would stray towards a Bearcat…

  2. Pingback: Top Ten Fighters at the outbreak of World War II | Hush-Kit
  3. E. Brammer

    I would’ve lengthened the list, foe these two; the FG-2 Corsair (with the ‘corn-cob’ engine) and the P-47N Thunderbolt.
    As for the F-7F, my dad qualified for those in ’45. They (the aircraft) didn’t make it to the carrier before Truman ended the war. Truly a very fast, demanding (torque on take-off), but versatile ship. Only the Hornet compared.

  4. Jim Bottger

    I can’t believe the P-51 Mustang didn’t make this list…granted, it wasn’t a pure “dogfighter” like many of these planes were, but there was no other plane, regardless of country of origin, at that time that could’ve done what the Mustang did. It was the only plane in the war that could escort our bombers all the way to Germany, outfight the German fighters, and then escort the bombers all the way home…you could say they single handedly won the war in Europe…

    • Reg Prescott

      I too like the P51 but it was really a multi-role aircraft rather than an out and out fighter and I feel that is why it isn’t on this list.. After the war, the allies did various comparisons and investigations into properties of the piston engined planes (See TJ Wade) and the Mustang scored quite badly when it came to rate of climb, acceleration and turn. As you say, it had range and above all else, it was very stable so proved very adaptable.(Much more so than many planes on this list). Towards the end of the war, many German squadrons were completely wiped out by Mustangs as a result of clever tactics by the pilots and the jawdropping fuel capacity of the plane.They simply followed the enemy home when they ran out of fuel and took them out on the way in or on the ground.

      • Brian

        Yes, I think as other’s have pointed out, this is a common misconception because of the fame of certain aircraft during WW2. Many people believe WW2 fighters are the best ever because of kills, fame etc….however they were not the “pinnacle” of piston engine prop fighters. The P-51D was the last major variant of the Mustang and it was completed years before these other planes even flew. This was during a time when all aspects of fighter aircraft were being surpassed almost on a monthly bases. At this time period, the idea that a fighter that is years older could keep up with the new fighter is not going to happen. The constant increase in horse power, armament , materials and other technologies make it an impossible comparison.

    • Bruce

      I guess it depends what question you’re asking. This list is for the “Most Formidable [of all time]” rather than “Most useful fighter of WW2”.

      Also bear in mind that the mustang’s success was in large part due to:
      – Good tactics & training
      – Poor tactics & training amongst the rookie German pilots + a lack of experienced pilots by that stage of the war.
      – The Germans were forced to continue using upgraded 109’s & 190’s. They simply didn’t have the spare resources to switch production, iron out teething troubles, develop suitable tactics and introduce them to squadron service, even though they had some excellent designs.

      I’ve read that the P47 could have been given the same range as P51 if they had similarly maxed out it’s MTOW by giving it massive drop tanks & accepting the COG issues that came with some of the P51’s internal tanking. Does anyone know if this is true?

      • Colin

        The P-51 increased its internal fuel tankage with an fuel tank aft of the cockpit and under the radio shelf.
        This would not have been possible on the P-47 as the same space was occupied by the turbo. The post-war P-47N however utilised a ‘wet wing’ with 93 US gallons of fuel in each wing.

      • Brian

        Yes, the fuel capacity was similar however, as a military aviation historian I often see these types of comparisons. These are usually from what I call Wikipedia experts, people who think that data sheets can tell them everything about a complex aircraft and they can use those numbers to determine which is better. The P-51 range was largely effected by it’s laminar flow wing that greatly decreased drag. The same amount of fuel in a P-47 or even Spitfire with the exact same engine is not going to get nearly the range as the Mustang. Another large factor that “fan boys” of the Mustang hate to hear is that it was half the price of it contemporaries. I personally love the Mustang but I don’t allow that to skew the other non-combat factors that effected this aircraft and the legend that grew behind it as history. The allies won the war, therefor it follows that the plane we used would gain fame. We had the P-51 in mass bulk and that is what became famous. Fighter pilots have no say in the aircraft they fly, the generals purchase them and the generals don’t care about these comparisons. They only care if their plane can “hold it’s own”. Now tell me, if you are responsible for providing tons of aircraft to fight and you could buy one fighter for $100,000 and another comparable fighter for $50,000 which would you buy in bulk? As an example of how history is made to fit what people believe later lets look at the supposed famous statement from Hermann Göring, “When I saw bombers being escorted by mustang over Berlin I knew the war was lost”. In fact Goring never said this. What he said was, “When I saw allied bombers (the true weapon that made a difference) being escorted by fighters over Berlin, I knew the war was lost. I newspaper reporter who reported this statement asked an Army officer, what kind of fighter was Goring seeing? The officer said, probably Mustangs. So the reported thought he would fill in the blank and give you are more accurate statement. Instead this became a way to prove how powerful the Mustang was when the entire point of Goring statement has nothing to do with a fighter plane. The allies had been bombing Germany since the beginning of the war and bombers being escorted by fighters meant we were within a certain range of Berlin. That was his point, not that the Mustang made any difference.

  5. Miguel

    AD-2 Skyraider and P47 shouldve made the list, both were excellent ground attack aircraft, the skyraider lasting till the 80’s

    • Ari

      How about the Grumman F6 Hellcat

      Great question, the fighter which won the war in Pacific !! in opinions of many, the most successful fighter in WW2 ..

      • Brian

        The Bearcat is the replacement for the Hellcat. Of course the Hellcat is a great plane, but could not compare the the Bearcat. “Fame” does not increase the performance of a plane over another plane developed years later with engines and technology the Hellcat could never hope to have. For example, you have probably heard of a Sopwith Camel from WW1? However have you heard of a British S.E.5? Probably not, the S.E.5 was a late WW1 fighter that really did not reach the RAF until 1918. So, we all know the Camel as one of the first great fighters from WW1 but the S.E.5 was hands down better. But you don’t know about it because it did not see action and there for was not in newspapers, news reals etc…

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  8. Bruce

    Another interesting parallel between Sea Fury & Bearcat is that they were both based on a highly successful WW2 fighter, keeping the same engine but shrinking the airframe to improve performance. This contrasts to the usual “let’s have more of everything” approach.

    • Brian

      In fact you couldn’t be more incorrect with this statement. The Sea Fury and Bearcat are both much larger than the similar aircraft that came before them. In the fast past fighter development of WW2 engine power was the key. Notice how both of the top fighters end up being radial engine fighters! During WW2 most designers went to inline engines to get the best possible aerodynamics and therefor speed out of the engines they had at the time. However, radial engines are safer and more reliable and as the horse power they created continued to grow to crazy numbers the aerodynamics created by an inline engine became a mute point. These later engines were so powerful they just brute forced their way to the highest speeds a prop fighter can reach. Every fighter aircraft of WW2 was given an increasingly stronger engine and grew in size and weight in every following variant. There are no WW2 fighters thought got smaller or weighed less in later variants. These engines weighed more, along with the rest of the aircraft but it was made up for with ever increasing horse power.



    • Colin

      R-2800 refers to the powerplant’s displacement, not output power, so 2,800 cu in and 1,650 cu in for the Packard Merlin

  10. David M Norris

    depends on the model. The P-51H was an awesome performer. It was faster than a bearcat and probably about anything on this list. It also depends on altitude. A P-47N configure light (no drop tanks or racks and about half fuel) was scary at height with its turbochargers. Down low it was too heavy

    • Charlie Walker

      According to several sources the Japanese considered the Corsair the best Allied figjter in the air. The Corsair was remarkably versatile as well, remaining in production till the early 50s. One Corsair pilot stated, “The Corsair was a great fighter and actually the best dive bomber we had.” It was a vastly superior ground attack aircraft to the Mustang, which was shot down in large numbers in Korea, principally because of its liquid-cooled engine. I suspect the Corsair was structurally tougher also.

  11. Joe

    Fun discussion. Like comparing great baseball players from different eras in some ways. It is hard to argue adjacent the final iterations of the prop fighters being the best (Bearcat and Sea Fury). The Bearcat was an enhanced Hellcat and the Sea Fury was an improvement on the Focke Wulf 190. If you had to choose a plane to battle one on one with another fighter, what would you choose based on armament, speed, agility and turning and survivability? I would argue the latest version of the FW 190 as improved in a positive war environment circa 1945 would have been my choice.

  12. Pingback: Almost the greatest fighter of World War II: The Martin-Baker MB5 | Hush-Kit
  13. Ronald van Riet

    Isn’t the Rutan Voyager the aircraft with the longest unrefuelled flight of more than 40000 km compared to the 8129 km of the P-82B?

  14. Cleve Meinke

    I see you have the F7F Tigercat & have not include the P-38. I love both the planes but you should look at the comparisions in all catigories.
    “The Thunderbolt M”. Top speed 490-512. Go back and look at its climb rate. The- P-47M and P-38.were the 2 aircraft tland based arcraft chosen by the USAAF to lead the attack on the Japans main Ilands if it came to that.

    THe US Navy would use the HellCat and F4U as its primary fighters. Maybe if the Japonese war was extended for invasin the Bearcat would have been used as a hihh speed climb intercepter with its top rated climb rate to 10,000 feet over all other pistion driven aiircraft at the time even beating the early jets of the time. THe BearCat with advanced ship radar warning could intercept any Japonese aircraft.. AS far as underwing ground attack wheight and fighter speed is concerned watch wha tCorsair does in Japan and Koriia,

  15. Cleve Meinke

    Do you really think a Sea Furry could out preform the top of the line F4U line, P-51 H, or P-47M.- do a comparison and check back with us!

  16. Pingback: US Army Fighters of World War II ranked by ‘kills’ | Hush-Kit

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