The Top Ten US Navy Aircraft of World War II

Obviously it’s in there but is it number one?

It is striking both how few different types the US Navy operated during World War II, particularly from carriers, and how nearly all of them were either totally brilliant or just awful. Inconveniently, for lists such as these, the war ended just as some very impressive types were happening along: the excellent F8F Bearcat and AD-1 Skyraider were both flying by VJ day but neither had entered service, likewise the FD-1 Phantom, the first jet designed from scratch for carrier use. Most frustrating of all was the spectacular F7F Tigercat, it became operational the day before Japan surrendered so its contribution to the war effort was, understandably, limited. It is virtually impossible to make any left-field choices for USN aircraft during the war because, frankly, there weren’t any. 

So let’s take a look at the ones that did make it – hopefully one or two of them are slightly surprising and at least four made it into Steven Spielberg films, here are the top ten WWII USN aircraft:

10. Martin PBM Mariner

Mariner PBM-3S viewed through the distinctive tail of a sister aircraft. The PBM-3S was a dedicated anti-submarine variant that ditched gun turrets and armour for increased range. Note the huge radar housing above the cockpit.

Better than the Catalina in every regard (except, initially at least, reliability) the Mariner is nonetheless fairly obscure today. Despite being the second most numerous flying boat ever built (with 1366 produced, just one more example was built than the next most numerous – the Beriev MBR-2), it never fully escaped from the PBY’s slow-moving shadow but the PBM deserves more recognition for it was an excellent flying boat that enjoyed lengthy service from before America’s entry into the war until the 1950s. One of several large aircraft to be tested by a piloted scale model (powered by two Chevrolet car engines, it was christened the ‘Tadpole Clipper’ and survives in the collection of the National Air and Space Museum), the first PBM flew with a flat tail but aerodynamic concerns led to the tail being given the same dihedral as the inner wing and resulted in the aircraft’s distinctive inward canted tailfins.

Early war PBM-3 shows off its potent defensive armament with twin fifty cals in nose, tail and dorsal turrets.

Entering service with VP-55 in September 1940 the Mariner, whilst generally successful, was considered somewhat underpowered and control in the event of an engine failure was marginal at best. A later switch to the Pratt & Whitney R-2800 solved that particular issue but the change came about relatively late in the war and the Wright R-2600s fitted to earlier aircraft were neither powerful nor reliable enough for a maritime patrol aircraft. Nonetheless, PBMs sank at least ten (some sources say 12) U-boats and were widely used in the Pacific, including in the nocturnal interdiction role. For operations at night, the Mariners were painted all over black and known as ‘Nightmares’ but never gained the same sort of notoriety as the PBY ‘Black Cats’ that undertook the same role.

Yes but can the Catalina do this? (it could). PBM shows off its spectacular JATO capability in October 1944.

Later PBMs carried an impressive array of electronic equipment, for example the PBM-5S2 carried the AN/APS-15 radar, the AN/ARR-31 sonar buoy signal receiver, an L-11 searchlight, and an AN/ASQ magnetic anomaly detector. The Mariner was an extremely well-armed flying boat, with nose, tail and dorsal turrets mounting two .50-cal machine guns apiece and a single hand-held weapon in each beam position. Later examples could carry 8000lb of bombs or depth charges, double that of the PBY.

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The PBM remained in frontline service during the Korean war and undertook patrols and ASR duties. One example was attacked by Chinese MiG-15s whilst on radar monitoring duties during July 1952 but managed to escape. The last examples served with the Coast Guard until 1958. The Mariner was also the direct basis for the Martin Marlin, the last and best flying boat produced in the US.

9. Lockheed PV-1 Ventura

Early PV-1 being bombed up in the Aleutians mid 1943. The Ventura served everywhere the US Navy maintained a presence. Note that the white bars and red surround to the national markings have simply been painted over the nose glazing.

Due to the fact that the US Navy quite famously fought the Japanese and Germans in World War II it is easy to forget now that their real enemy was always the US Army. Much as with their Japanese foes, interservice rivalry was (and remains) rife in the American armed forces, how else can one explain the existence of the Navy’s Army’s Air Force (or the Marine Air Corps Aviation as it is sometimes known) when the US possesses a perfectly good Army and Air Force already? Before (and indeed during) the Second World War the USAAF attempted to stymie the effectiveness of Naval aviation by demanding a monopoly on land-based heavy bombers and patrol aircraft and then, just to rub salt in the wound, using their spiffy new B-17s to intercept USN ships at sea (tee hee). As a result an affronted USN successfully demanded the War Department prevent any Army Air Force aircraft patrolling further than 100 miles from shore. All this went out the window when German U-boats started exacting a heavy toll on transatlantic shipping. The Navy, logically, saw the use of aircraft against maritime targets as their domain but were compelled to use flying boats and floatplanes but really wanted to use long-range, land-based patrol and reconnaissance aircraft with a large bomb load.

Luckily for the Navy, the USAAF wanted their Renton plant to build B-29s and they cunningly wangled permission to operate land-based bombers as a condition of the agreement. Not only that but they also managed to bag for their exclusive use a reliable but slightly obscure land-based medium bomber then in production, the B-34 Lexington, which would become the PV-1 and adopt the British name Ventura in Naval hands. RAF Venturas had not been particularly successful in the crowded skies of mainland Europe and were being discarded in favour of the Mosquito by the time the PV-1 was making its debut but over the ocean things were somewhat less demanding in terms of aerial opposition and the disappointing bomber became, through politics, chance, and interservice bickering rather than by design, an excellent patrol aircraft.

ASW Ventura, somewhere over the Atlantic.

Like the visually similar Lockheed Hudson that preceded it, which had proved highly successful as a maritime patrol aircraft in British service, the Ventura was a derivative of an airliner, in this case the Lockheed Model 18 Lodestar. Although it didn’t have the range capability of the PB4Y Liberator, the PV-1 was well-armed, fairly manoeuvrable and quite fast. As such it was able to attack enemy shipping and submarines in a more aggressive fashion than the somewhat ponderous Liberator or the terrifically slow Catalina. Being essentially a medium bomber, the Ventura was able to carry depth charges, mines, a torpedo or regular bombs and could attack shore installations and land targets just as effectively as enemy shipping. It was also one of the first US aircraft to regularly carry radar and Venturas often acted as ‘lead-ships’ for non-radar equipped Liberator units, as well as conducting its own strikes. The most surprising usage it was put to was as a night fighter. The Marine corps, always at the bottom of the chain when it came to aircraft procurement, were casting around for a suitable radar-equipped night fighter, hoping for something along the lines of the Army’s P-70 Havoc or P-61 Black Widow, or the British Beaufighter or Mosquito (both of which had been procured for USAAF use). The only remotely suitable aircraft available was the PV-1 and sure enough it went into action as the Marines’ first radar equipped aircraft. Despite being a naval offshoot of a bomber with relatively limited performance, the Ventura did surprisingly well, claiming its first kill, a Mitsubishi G4M bomber, in the early hours of 13 November 1943. Subsequently, an improved variant with longer range, the PV-2 Harpoon, was developed towards the end of the war but a problem with its wing required a major redesign and this, the best version of this highly versatile aircraft saw only brief service before VJ day. 

‘Chloe’ was one of the Marine Corps’ PV-1 night fighters and featured extra forward firing machine guns. The arrowhead antenna of the British Mk IV (SCR-540) radar is just visible poking out of the extreme nose

The political machinations that gave rise to use of the PV-1 as a maritime patrol craft are long gone but the Navy still uses many long range land-based patrol aircraft in the form of the Orion and Poseidon as a direct result of those machinations, and the Ventura was the granddaddy of them all.

8. Curtiss SB2C Helldiver

Was the Helldiver as evil as this photograph would have us believe? Some would argue yes.

Aviation history is littered with examples of potentially world-beating aircraft that through bad luck or bad timing failed to achieve anything much, the Helldiver is an example of that much rarer breed: an aircraft that was unpopular, unpleasant and (initially at least) dangerous, yet delivered an outstanding service record. Widely criticised for its problematic development and unfortunate flying characteristics, as a case in point the Helldiver was rejected for British service due to ‘appalling handling’, the SB2C was nonetheless a spectacularly successful anti-shipping aircraft and (allegedly) accounted for a greater tonnage of enemy shipping sunk than any other US aircraft, of which more later. First flown in 1940, the SB2C was supposed to replace Douglas’s SBD Dauntless, which had always been regarded as something of a stop-gap, in the dive bomber role. Problems arose from the very beginning: the prototype exhibited structural weaknesses, poor handling, directional instability, and stall characteristics, pretty much all of which were derived from its limited dimensions, particularly its abbreviated fuselage length – dictated by the size of Essex class carrier deck lifts. The aircraft was simply too small for its weight. There were also problems with its Wright R-2600 Twin-Cyclone engine. Although this engine matured into a reliable power unit it is notable that around this time Grumman dropped it for the Hellcat and went with the R-2800 Twin Wasp instead.

The prototype XSB2C aloft on a snowy 18 December 1940. Note the woefully small tail. This aircraft was lost a little over a year later when the wing failed during diving tests.

Added to all this the Navy demanded nearly 900 changes to the design which seriously delayed the start of production and added greatly to the weight of the aircraft, exacerbating its handling woes. The aircraft was extremely difficult to control below 100mph yet the approach to the carrier was supposed to be flown at 98mph so deck landing was problematic at best. Arguably worst of all, the SB2C wasn’t even particularly good at dive-bombing, the controls became heavy in the dive and the dive brakes caused severe tail buffeting, both of which reduced accuracy. Throughout its career, though particularly at the start, the SB2C would be compared unfavourably against the Dauntless, an aircraft that was easy to fly, a supremely accurate dive bomber, and possessed greater range. The Helldiver’s reputation improved as its career progressed but it would never entirely escape the shadow of its illustrious predecessor. 

Oft reproduced but excellent photo of an SB2C-3 Helldiver banking over USS Hornet before landing. The aircraft was returning from strikes in the China sea January 1945. Note pitot tube of camera aircraft in foreground.

Initial SB2C-1s were regarded as basically unfit for combat and nearly all were retained in the US for training (with the exception of those of a single Marine Corps unit operating from Enewetak Atoll). The SB2C-1C was the first model to serve aboard a carrier, going into action for the first time with an attack on Rabaul on 11 November 1943. The new aircraft was thoroughly disliked by crews who joked that SB2C stood for Son of a Bitch 2nd Class and nicknamed it ‘The Beast’. Later models massively improved handling and dive accuracy, especially after the introduction of the SB2C-3 which featured a more powerful Twin-Cyclone engine. During the last two years of the war Helldivers sunk over 300 Japanese ships (including, in concert with torpedo bombers, the magnificent battleships Yamato and Musashi) and attacked countless targets on shore. Helldivers officially accounted for 44 Japanese fighters shot down (almost certainly an inflated figure) and only 19 were ever lost to enemy aircraft though this says more about the parlous state of Japanese naval aviation than any particular quality of the aircraft itself, had it not appeared two years late that number would be much greater. Having said that it cannot be denied the Helldiver was tough (though early examples displayed suspect build quality): an abrupt pull out in a dive-bombing attack could lead to a 13G load on the airframe which the SB2C could, and did, absorb. Later models also engendered considerable affection from their crews: Helldiver pilot Bob Barnes for example stated that it was “a great dive bomber”.

The Helldiver’s reputation around a carrier deck was less than inspiring but had improved somewhat by the time this example was photographed aboard an unidentified Casablanca class escort carrier. By 1945 the Helldiver’s greatest flaw was its poor reputation.

By 1945 it was clear that single seat fighters could carry the same amount of ordnance as the Helldiver and weapon improvements meant that dive-bombing was no longer the sole means to achieve acceptable accuracy. Furthermore a fighter was far less vulnerable to enemy aircraft than a big heavy two-seater. As such the SB2C was the last purpose-built dive bomber in USN service, withdrawn from the active inventory during 1948. Surprisingly, given its less than stellar reputation, the SB2C found ready acceptance in foreign navies, seeing combat both during the Greek Civil war in the late 1940s and with France in French Indochina (Vietnam) as late as 1954. 

Curtiss produced a training film in an attempt to dispel the bad vibes attendant on the Helldiver in which a ‘pilot’ rather unconvincingly claims “I think it’s a darn good plane myself” near the end. You can watch it here and see if you believe him.

7. Consolidated PB4Y-2 Privateer 

Best long-range land based maritime aircraft of the war?

The USN used many B-24 Liberators with great success for long-range patrol and anti-submarine warfare, designating them the PB4Y. The PB4Y-2 Privateer represented the ultimate Naval Liberator model: stretched, improved and optimised for maritime requirements. The finest land-based long-range maritime aircraft of the war, the Privateer was instantly distinguishable from its Liberator ancestors by its truly enormous single tailfin in place of the much more modest twin tails of the earlier aircraft. A slightly more detailed inspection would reveal that the forward fuselage was significantly lengthened and the oval-shaped engine nacelles were switched for circular units. The Liberator’s slightly awkward front turret arrangement had been cleaned up, a process made easier by the adoption of a spherical Emerson 128 turret for the nose position whereas on the rear fuselage, two large and distinctive teardrop blisters contained the positions for the waist gunners. The huge tail transformed the capricious handling of the B-24 and was to have become a standard fit on the standard Liberator bomber (as the B-24N) but only seven were produced before all outstanding Liberator contracts were cancelled at the end of the war, though there is some evidence that Consolidated themselves connived to have the B-24N contract quashed, the new variant had been designed by Ford and management at Consolidated were allegedly furious that a car factory might have developed a superior aircraft than they could manage.

Have a look at this fab model here

This Privateer was photographed over Miami in 1949. The PB4Y-2 enjoyed an extremely long postwar career. Note massive tail and distinctive ‘blister’ turrets on rear fuselage.

Meanwhile, the Privateer had begun to show off its spectacular capabilities on operations. The first units became operational during late 1944 and arrived in theatre only during early 1945 so the Privateer’s WWII service life was relatively brief though quite intense. By this stage of the war advances in electronics meant that the Privateer possessed a versatile electronic suite (by 1940s standards anyway) that could be tailored to suit a variety of given missions. Thus Privateers acted as anti-shipping search and destroy units, airborne communication platforms, radar and radio-station hunter-killers, weather reconnaissance planes, or search and rescue aircraft to find downed airmen with their radio direction finders. They could even act as their own standoff anti-radar jamming unit. Privateers also managed to make history by becoming the first aircraft to take a fully automated guided missile into action in the form of the ASM-N-2 ‘Bat’ radar-guided glide bomb. Several ships were sunk by Privateers with this revolutionary weapon and several others put out of action, most notably the coastal defence ship Akugi. 

The world’s first ‘smart’ bomb. Somewhat careworn PB4Y-2 with two ASM-N-2 Bat glide bombs under the wings.

After the war, its roomy fuselage and great endurance rendered the Privateer ideal for further usage as an ELINT platform and spy plane as the Cold war became more serious: a PB4Y-2 was shot down over the Baltic by Soviet La-11 fighters in April 1950 and several more operated by Taiwan were destroyed by Chinese fighters. Mothballed Privateers were reactivated for use in Korea where their air to ground radar was used to detect coastal incursions by North Korean vessels. By 1954 all had been replaced in USN service by the P2V Neptune, several Privateers enjoyed a second career with the Coast Guard whilst others served as highly effective firefighting aircraft until 2002. The Privateer was an aircraft ahead of its time that paved the way for a whole swathe of very long-range patrol aircraft packed with ever more sophisticated and powerful electronics.

6. Grumman F6F Hellcat  

Early Hellcat on a training carrier. The red surround to the national insignia on US aircraft was only applied for a two month period in the summer of 1943.

A profoundly sensible update to the Wildcat, the Hellcat took the same basic formula of a nice handling, easy to fly airframe of immense strength and mated it to an engine producing nearly double the horsepower of the Wildcat’s Twin Wasp. The result was arguably the most competent carrier fighter of the war, equal or superior to virtually every enemy it faced and possessing none of the handling foibles of its great rival, the Corsair. On the other hand, although powered by the same engine, the Hellcat could never match the outright speed of the Vought aircraft. However, in action against the Japanese, absolute speed, though desirable, was not the most important quality a fighter could possess and the Hellcat enjoyed a healthy performance advantage over its primary opponent, the A6M Zero. 

The Hellcat was a decidedly large aircraft and no one would call it pretty but it shot down more enemy aircraft than any other naval aircraft in history.

Developed in record time, the F6F was initially perceived as little more than a low risk back-up should F4U development go awry. Grumman only received a contract to build the prototype (as an ‘improved F4F’) on 30 June 1941. This was over two years after the first flight of the Corsair, this was a lifetime in aviation development terms at the end of the 1930s, yet the first production Hellcat rolled off the line only four months after the first production Corsair, and despite the head start of the Vought team, the F6F would make up the primary equipment of the USN fighter squadrons throughout 1944 and 45. By the time the Hellcat entered combat in August 1943, it was clear that US forces were on the ascendant in the Pacific and the relative quality of Japan’s aviators and equipment was definitely, in the main, diminishing. Nonetheless, the F6F’s claimed victory to loss ratio of 19 to 1 (5156 kills against 270 losses), whilst definitely (and innocently) inflated, is undeniably impressive.

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Condensation whips off the propeller of this F6F as it waits its turn to take off from USS Yorktown on an operational mission in November 1943. The Hellcat was an excellent deck handling aircraft.

The Hellcats’ greatest moment was probably the Battle of the Philippine Sea in June 1944, the largest carrier battle in history, when US carrier aircraft destroyed around 750 Japanese aircraft for the loss of less than two dozen Hellcats. The F6F was the sole US fighter type involved in this action, which destroyed 90% of the aircraft available to Japanese carrier air groups in just two days and effectively destroyed the Japanese Navy’s ability to operate aircraft at sea. A truly superb fighter aircraft, the Hellcat was available in numbers exactly when it was needed and remains inextricably linked with the next aircraft on this list:

5. Chance Vought F4U Corsair

Very early ‘birdcage’ Corsair, so named for the heavily framed cockpit canopy.

An aesthetically striking aircraft, the Corsair managed to weather a painful introduction to carrier operations to emerge not only as one of the finest aircraft of the conflict and but also as one of the most successful combat aircraft of all time. The first American single-engine fighter to exceed 400mph ended up becoming the last piston engine fighter to score an air to air victory (in 1969) but had it not been for the exigencies of war it is likely that the F4U would never have served from a carrier deck at all. The prototype first flew in November 1940 and, although possessed of excellent performance, the Navy wanted changes. Top of their list (due to information being gleaned from air combat in Europe)  was an increase in armament from the two .30 cals in the nose and two .50 cals in the wings to a more viable six .50 cals in the wings. This modification required the deletion of the wing fuel tanks and for the aircraft to maintain any kind of range ability an alternative placement for the fuel had to be found. Centre of gravity issues meant the fuel had to be stored either in or directly above the wing and that’s where it went, a large fuel tank was inserted into the fuselage, over the wing. This in turn necessitated moving the cockpit backwards to allow room for the fuel and this was the origin of the F4U’s most problematic feature for deck landing – the pilot was unable to see over the nose. This issue was compounded by unfortunately stiff shock absorbers in the undercarriage which resulted in the aircraft bouncing back up after the wheels touched the carrier deck, leading potentially to the hook missing all the arrestor wires and an inevitable crash.

The early F4U passed its carrier qualification trials but was tacitly admitted to be a handful. This aircraft is from VF-17, the second USN Corsair squadron which would be credited with 152 aerial victories over the Solomons.

It is often stated that the Corsair failed its carrier qualification tests and that it took the British Fleet Air Arm to develop landing techniques for it but this is a myth. Three USN units had carrier-qualified before the FAA even started to receive Corsairs. Nonetheless, the fact that the F4U was acknowledged to be a difficult aircraft to deck land, particularly when compared to the docile Hellcat, undoubtedly contributed to the decision, taken to simplify logistics of spare parts supply, to equip land-based Marine-corps units with Corsairs and operate Hellcats from carriers. The Navy’s loss was the Marine Corps gain, accustomed to receiving the Navy’s cast-offs the Marines found themselves in possession of arguably the finest naval fighter in the world (though most Hellcat pilots would likely disagree) and proceeded to utilise it to great effect. It is notable that the highest-scoring Corsair ace of the war was a Marine Corps pilot: Robert M Hanson with 25 victories. With improvements to the airframe and handling techniques worked out, the F4U returned to US carrier decks permanently in December 1944.

A USMC F4U unleashes rockets during a strike against targets on Okinawa in 1945. The Corsair’s success as a ground attack aircraft would see heftier two-seaters such as the SB2C and TBF sidelined to make way for more versatile single-seat fighter bombers.

The Corsair’s official tally is 2140 aircraft shot down against 189 combat losses, a ratio of 11.3 to 1. This number (like that of the Hellcat) was undoubtedly an overestimate but its record in air combat was astoundingly good. Although the Hellcat shot down more aircraft during World War II and was described by many pilots as a superior dogfighter, the Corsair rates a higher spot due to the fact that it was replacing Hellcats in carrier units by 1945, its greater ultimate development potential, and its astounding longevity: the Corsair flew on in combat service through Korea (scoring 12 kills) and beyond, the Hellcat didn’t. And the Corsair scored the last piston engine air to air kill in history, 17 years after the last Hellcats were expended as radio-controlled bombs. 

Also it looks more exciting. Unlike:

4. Grumman TBF Avenger

December 1944 and a TBF lands on USS Lexington somewhere in the Pacific.

When the Avenger first went into action, five of the six aircraft committed to combat were destroyed. Hardly an auspicious start but the Avenger would ultimately reverse its reputation from this bloody baptism.

A popular myth surrounds the name ‘Avenger’ in which the name is said to have been chosen because the TBF was going to avenge Pearl Harbor. In reality the name had already been picked two months before the attack but the TBF was the first new American aircraft to enter service after the US entry into the war so it’s easy to see how that story gained credibility. Despite looking about as sleek as a washing machine and being the heaviest single-engine aircraft of the entire war, and being saddled with the nickname ‘Turkey’, the chunky TBF was surprisingly sprightly in the air (though could never be described as agile) and proved extremely effective. It also had some star quality – Paul Newman was an Avenger gunner (he wanted to be a pilot but was ruled out due to colour blindness) and George HW Bush, the youngest Naval aviator of the war, piloted a TBF in combat (and was shot down for his trouble). 

Not a great picture but this depicts the sole survivor from the Avenger’s ill-fated combat debut after the damaged aircraft had crash landed back on Midway Island.

Unlike its dive bombing partner, the SB2C, the torpedo bomber Avenger enjoyed a remarkably trouble free introduction to service, being a simple aircraft to fly and deck land, the worst criticism levelled at being that it was a little underpowered and difficult to get out of in an emergency. Like all Grumman products it was possessed of amazing strength and could be operated even from small escort carriers with relative ease. Its combat record speaks for itself, kicking off with the destruction of the battleship Hiei in November 1942 and following it up with numerous other vessels culminating in the shared destruction, in concert with the Helldiver, of the super-battleships Yamato and Musashi.

Showing off what it was designed to do: a TBF lets loose a Mark XIII torpedo in October 1942. The torpedo is fitted with a plywood tail shroud to improve its airborne performance

Over the course of the war the primary function of the TBF switched from anti-shipping missions to ever more commonplace attacks on land targets and the Navy’s premier torpedo aircraft saw much more action as a conventional bomber.But arguably the most important contribution the TBF made to the war was as an anti-submarine aircraft, second only to the Liberator for the number of submarines it sunk. The Avenger was able to make use of the new technology of sonobuoys and the Mark 24 ‘mine’ (or Fido) which was actually an acoustic homing torpedo. Its most impressive victim with this weapon was the Japanese cargo submarine I-52, which was carrying, amongst other things, over two tons of gold and three tons of opium(!) to Germany and intending to return with various high-value items such as bombsights, aircraft components, and, worryingly, 800kg of uranium oxide. I-52 was sunk, gold, opium and all, by a pair of ASW Avengers from escort carrier USS Bogue in June 1944 before it ever made it to Europe.

Why have they done this to me? Postwar Goodyear-built TBM-3W Avenger, showing off the aesthetic ‘improvement’ afforded by a massive ventral radar pod, additional tailfins and the strangely hunchbacked fuselage providing dark accomodation for the lucky radar operators. Actually, the extra tailfins look pretty cool.

Postwar the Avenger served on as an ASW and AEW asset for many years before enjoying a lengthy civilian career as a firefighting aircraft, a role to which its sturdy construction, a hallmark of its naval heritage, made it well suited. The last operational firefighting Avenger was retired as late as 2012. During its busy career, as well as spoiling that prime opium, the TBF managed to shoot down a V-1 ‘doodlebug’ and was the surprising victor in a dogfight with a Nakajima Ki-44 at low level. Most famously perhaps the Avenger is inextricably woven into the legend of the Bermuda Triangle following the infamous disappearance of ‘Flight 19’, five TBFs on a training exercise which vanished in December 1945. An event which led to this scene in Spielberg’s mashed potato sculpting classic ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ (which also features a sneaky Hellcat getting in on the action).

3. Grumman F4F Wildcat

Photographed in early 1942, this brand new Grumman F4F-3 Wildcat still sports the prewar insignia that would soon be dropped over fears the red dot might be confused for the Japanese hinomaru marking.

Despite losing out to the Brewster F2A Buffalo to be the US Navy’s first carrier borne monoplane fighter, the pugnacious Wildcat became the finest carrier fighter of its generation and essentially won the air war over the Pacific whereas the poor old Buffalo was consigned to obscurity and inclusion in many ‘world’s worst aircraft’ books and articles (notwithstanding insane levels of success in Finland). Originally designed as a biplane (the unbuilt F4F-1) the Wildcat was hastily altered into a monoplane (F4F-2) when it became clear that the biplane was yesterday’s news, even in an operating environment that required good low-speed controllability and a strong structure – such as a carrier deck – all of which played to the biplane’s strengths. Never particularly fast, the F4F was manoeuvrable (though not in the same league as the A6M Zero, its primary opponent), well-armed, immensely strong and a profoundly good deck landing aircraft and this, as it turned out, was what the Allies desperately required. The Wildcat first saw service with the Royal Navy, becoming the first US aircraft in British service ever to claim a victory in combat when two shot down a Ju 88 on Christmas Day 1940 – oddly the final RN ‘kill’ of a Luftwaffe aircraft was also achieved by Wildcat on 26 March 1945 when four(!) Bf 109Gs were shot down over Norway.

Despite possessing the world’s most comically ineffective looking undercarriage, the Wildcat was noted for its good deck handling.

Meanwhile, in USN service, after the Brewster F2A was withdrawn from carrier operations in late December 1941, the F4F became the only operational fighter on US carriers until the first Hellcats entered the fray in September 1943. As such it was the F4F that provided a fighter presence throughout all the Navy actions for the first year and a half of the conflict and it was during this period that the truly decisive battles of the Pacific war (Midway, Guadalcanal, Santa cruz etc)  were fought when the Imperial Japanese Navy was at the peak of its power and that the ultimate outcome of the conflict was less certain. By the time the Hellcat and Corsair appeared in any numbers the war in the Pacific was effectively won. Against the Zero the Wildcat was at a distinct disadvantage, on paper at least, being slower, less manoeuvrable and (sort of) outgunned by the Japanese aircraft. It more than made up for these deficiencies with the superior tactics employed by the US aviators, aided massively by their reliable radio equipment (by contrast the Zero’s radio was described as “useless” by ace Saburo Sakai), and its incredible toughness. Sakai described the Wildcat’s remarkable sturdiness as follows: “For some strange reason, even after I had poured about five or six hundred rounds of ammunition directly into the Grumman, the airplane did not fall, but kept on flying. I thought this very odd—it had never happened before” Meanwhile in the Atlantic the F4F, operating from tiny escort carriers helped to end the threat posed by the Focke Wulf Condor: the ‘Scourge of the Atlantic’ which attacked merchant shipping and passed on convoy details to U-boats. Both RN and USN F4Fs supported the landings of Operation Torch, shooting down several Vichy French aircraft in the process, which is somewhat ironic as France was the first overseas customer for the Wildcat (the F4Fs they ordered were not delivered by the fall of France so the order was taken on by the UK instead). 

The last Wildcats were the FM-2s, built by Goodyear. They are easily distinguishable by their taller tail fin and made up more than half of total Wildcat production. This example is seen just leaving the catapult of USS Core in the Atlantic during the spring of 1944.

Even after being supplanted on the decks of the fleet carriers, Wildcats remained an important presence on escort carriers, too small for the Corsair or Hellcat, until the end of the war in both the Atlantic and Pacific, production (latterly by General Motors) only ceasing in August of 1945. The Wildcat proved that reliability, toughness and ease of use were qualities that should not be underestimated, especially at sea. The US Navy fielded two better fighters but due to the battles it fought and when it fought them but the Wildcat was the most important US naval fighter of the war. 

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2. Consolidated PBY Catalina

A PBY-5A amphibian on patrol over the snow covered Aleutians in early 1943. Amphibian variants were in production from October 1941.

Memorably namechecked, along with the Ventura, by Quint in Spielberg’s 1977 angling classic ‘Jaws’, the ‘big fat PBY’ was a sight that meant the difference between life and death for thousands of downed aircrew and shipwrecked sailors. It is therefore one of very few combat aircraft that may have directly saved more people during the war than it killed, though it’s impossible to know for sure. And that’s even before you take into account its many years of firefighting service postwar. It was, by virtually any standard you care to apply (apart from maximum speed), the most successful flying boat of the Second World War and arguably in all aviation history. 

Flying boat ground crew have to get wet. A PBY taxiing towards their life raft was the most welcome sight imaginable for countless shipwrecked sailors, soldiers and airmen.

Despite being jokingly referred to as the slowest combat aircraft of the war, the Catalina achieved an amazing amount in US Navy service. As well as being the foremost Allied air-sea rescue aircraft of the conflict (in which role it was invariably referred to as ‘Dumbo’). It was second only to the Liberator (coincidentally designed by the same man: Isaac M Laddon), and tied with the Avenger, as a submarine-destroying aircraft and thus demonstrably helped keep the critical merchant convoys sailing to the UK. Its exceptional endurance made it an outstanding maritime patrol platform, convoy escort and long-range reconnaissance asset. It performed spectacular and highly effective low-level nocturnal interdiction, resulting in the sinking of thousands of tons of Japanese shipping. Yet the PBY could also be utilised as a straightforward cargo transport.

Still in its pre-war markings, a PBY-5 makes its lonely way across the ocean (apart from the aircraft from which the photo was taken I guess). Note the antennae for the early ASV radar poking out from the hull.

The ‘Cat’ also made history by (surprisingly) being the first USN aircraft to score a confirmed air to air victory in World War Two. On 10 December 1941, a PBY flying off the Philippines was intercepted by three A6M2 Zeroes and the bow gunner succeeded in shooting down one of the attacking fighters. Later a Catalina crew famously spotted the Japanese task force on its way to Midway Island, thus beginning the decisive Battle of Midway which represented the turning point of the Pacific war. It was the first operational USN aircraft to carry radar and the first to utilise MAD gear in combat.

When is a Catalina not a Catalina? When it’s a Nomad! The PBN-1 Nomad was a longer range variant with an improved hull (note the pointed bow in the image above) built by the Naval Aircraft Factory in Philadelphia. Most were supplied to the Soviet Union.

One of the most important aircraft of the war, the Catalina was built in greater numbers than any other flying boat in history and served with the armed forces of an astounding 31(!) nations, the last being retired in 1982 by Brazil. The earliest surviving airworthy Catalina, of around 20 currently flying worldwide, is a 1941-built PBY-5A now operated by the American Heritage Museum. This aircraft is significant as it is the single most successful anti-submarine airframe in history, having accounted for 3.5 U-boats during the Battle of the Atlantic. 

1. Douglas SBD Dauntless

SBDs were worked hard, note the sun-bleached paint and dents in the cowling of the closest aircraft. Cruising over the pristine waters of the South Pacific, these Dauntlesses were operating with shore-based Marines Corps unit VMSB-241 on Midway and photographed for LIFE magazine in the summer of 1942.

A good contender for the single most genuinely decisive combat aircraft in history, the Dauntless delivered the killer blow at the Battle of Midway, a blow from which the Imperial Japanese Navy never recovered and which marked the turning point of the Pacific War. Noted aviation author Bill Gunston wrote “It is remarkable that the SBD, so similar to Britain’s disastrous Battle, should have turned the whole tide of war in the Pacific” which is kind of true in that their performance and offensive armament were eerily similar but of course the SBD was a dive bomber and as such an order of magnitude more accurate than the Battle could ever be.

Down we pop: unarmed SBD makes a practice dive attack for the benefit of the camera.

Designed by the brilliant Ed Heinemann, the SBD was originally a Northrop aircraft, being an improved version of Northrop’s BT-1, by the time an improved version appeared Northrop had become the El-Segundo division of Douglas so the BT became the SBD, standing for Scout Bomber Douglas, though crews would joke it stood for Slow But Deadly. This nickname aptly illustrates the affection in which the Dauntless was held by its crews for as well as being a terrifically accurate dive bomber, the SBD was an easy aircraft to fly and deck land, which counts for a very great deal amongst carrier aircrews, and the SBD was always the standard by which its problematic replacement the SB2C was judged – and found wanting.

Dauntless in trouble: leaking oil has coated the entire upper fuselage and cockpit glazing of this SBD from USS Enterprise after it was hit by anti-aircraft fire on 30 March 1944. After discarding the bombload the aircraft was successfully ditched and the crew recovered. The SBD had the lowest loss rate of any US Navy combat aircraft in the Pacific.

But the fact remains that the slow and cumbersome SBD should have been terrifically vulnerable when it wasn’t committed to its dive bombing attack. The Royal Navy rejected it: RN test pilot Eric Brown wrote that it was “a decidedly pre-war aeroplane of obsolescent design and certainly overdue for replacement” (which is a bit rich coming from an air arm still happily operating the open cockpit biplane Fairey Swordfish) yet the Dauntless destroyed more Japanese shipping than any other Allied aircraft… possibly – the same claim is made for the SB2C. Significantly however, the Dauntless sank capital ships in the early war period, when the Japanese navy still possessed a formidable aviation component, making such a feat extremely difficult and dangerous to achieve.

Bombed-up SBD-5s fly over Eniwetok Atoll, on 18 February 1944. By the end of the year the SBD was no longer to be found on US carrier decks.

Six carriers were lost to Dauntlesses, three of them in the space of six minutes at Midway. It seems that the SBD was also a bizarrely lucky aircraft – the carrier Akagi was sunk by a mere three aircraft, each armed with just one 1000lb bomb, and it was also difficult to shoot down: for reasons that remain slightly unclear the SBD suffered the lowest loss rate of any US Navy aircraft in the Pacific War. Which is odd as the Army version, the A-24 Banshee, received such a severe mauling by Japanese fighters over New Guinea that it was relegated to non-combat duties during 1942. Unbelievably SBD crews were also officially credited with 138 aircraft shot down, 106 of these victories being over Zero fighters, and in this case it really is unbelievable because this was an overclaim of staggering proportions. The highest scoring SBD ‘ace’ crew was pilot John Leppla and gunner John Liska who were gained seven kills during the Battle of the Coral Sea. In reality no Zeros were lost to SBDs during this action. 

November 1942 and an SBD on USS Ranger is fitted with a 1000lb bomb for a mission in support of Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of French North Africa. Compared to its successor, the Dauntless was a remarkably small aircraft.

The SBD sank the first of many vessels when Dauntlesses from USS Enterprise sent Japanese submarine I-70 to the bottom on 10 December 1941, a mere three days after the Pearl Harbor attack. The SBD then proceeded to see more action than any other US type during 1942, winning the Battle of Midway in the process, before following it up with some impressive anti-shipping work at Guadalcanal and elsewhere throughout 1943. Just to prove its effectiveness was not limited to the Pacific, the Dauntless also saw action in Operation Torch and sank five German ships in Bodø harbour, Norway, during Operation Leader in October 1943. They remained in service on carriers until mid 1944, the final major engagement in which carrier SBDs saw action being the Battle of the Philippine Sea in June of that year where three Japanese carriers were lost. Meanwhile, in Marine Corps service the Dauntless served on until the end of the war.

Ultimately, though others helped (a lot in some cases), this was the weapon that won the Pacific war at sea.

Perforated dive brakes extended and bomb gone. An SBD-3 demonstrates a dive-bombing attack in 1942.

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