In aerial combat, it’s a fine line between greatness and failure
by ROBERT FARLEY
Over the last century of military aviation, several fighters have earned the nickname “flying coffin.” Military aviation inherently pushes up against the limits of technology and human endurance, particularly where fighter and pursuit aviation are concerned. Flying a fighter is remarkably dangerous, even when no one is trying to shoot you down.
Engineering a capable fighter plane is also a struggle. Relatively small changes in engine, armament and airframe design can transform a clunker into an elite fighting machine. Many of the best fighters in history were initially viewed askance by their pilots.
But elite status rarely lasts for long, especially in World War I and World War II. Fighters that dominated the sky in one year become “flying coffins” as technology and tactics move forward.
And thus the difference between a great fighter and a terrible fighter can be remarkably small. The critical work is in determining the criteria. Fighters are national strategic assets, and must be evaluated as such.
Did this aircraft fail at the tactical tasks that it was given? Did it perform poorly against its direct contemporaries?
Did the fighter show up, or was it in the hangar when it was needed? Was it more of a danger to its pilots than to enemy fighters?
Did it represent a misappropriation of national assets?
So what are the worst fighter aircraft of all time? For these purposes, we’ll be concentrating on fighters that enjoyed production runs of 500 or more aircraft — totals are listed in parentheses. Curiosities such as the XF-84H “Thunderscreech” need not apply.
Royal B.E.2 (3,500)
Preparing aircraft before anyone had fought an air war was undoubtedly a struggle for pilots and engineers. The Royal B.E.2 was one of the first military aircraft put into serious industrial production, with a run of around 3,500 aircraft. First flown in 1912, it remained in service until 1919, with its responsibilities steadily declining as better aircraft became available.
In a sense, the B.E.2 inspired the first generation of fighters by displaying all of the qualities that no one wanted in a fighter aircraft, including poor visibility, poor reliability, difficulty of control, slow speed and weak armament.
The advent of the Fokker Eindecker made the B.E.2 positively hazardous to fly. Refinements often hurt more than they helped, with the plane becoming steadily more dangerous and accident prone as grew heavier.
It’s tough to give a failing grade to a first effort. But the B.E.2’s difficulty and poor reliability, combined with the British decision to keep it in service well beyond its freshness date, earn it a spot on this list.
Incidentally, the failure of the Royal Flying Corps to effectively substitute for the B.E.2 in a timely fashion provided much grist for early advocates of the Royal Air Force, the world’s first independent air force.
Brewster Buffalo (509)
A short, squat and unattractive aircraft, the Buffalo entered service in the same year as the Mitsubishi A6M Zero and the Bf-109, two overwhelmingly superior aircraft. Intended to serve as both a land and carrier-borne fighter, the Buffalo saw its first combat in Finnish service, as several were transferred from the United States after the Winter War.
Weight increases during the design process included provisions for heavier armament, extra fuel and armor plating. Unfortunately, these left the airframe dreadfully underpowered, unable to keep up or maneuver with its best contemporaries.
Although the Buffalos operated by the Finnish Air Force did well against the Soviets in the early days of the “continuation war,” Buffalo pilots serving in Commonwealth and Dutch air forces in Southeast Asia were massacred by Japanese fliers in Zeros and Oscars. To add to its least desirable characteristics, the Buffalo performed poorly in the high temperatures common in the tropics.
U.S. Marine Corps pilots referred to the Buffalo as — you guessed it — a “flying coffin” in the wake of the Battle of Midway, where the aircraft performed disastrously against the Japanese. It was quickly replaced in U.S. service by its far more effective counterpart, the Grumman F4F Wildcat.
Lavochkin-Gorbunov-Gudkov LaGG-3 (6,528)
Military modernization is often about timing, and the Soviet Union of the 1930s rebuilt its military industries slightly too quickly, optimizing production around technologies that would fall a step behind foreign contemporaries.
The LaGG-3, first flown in 1940 but developed from the LaGG-1, was the Soviet Air Forces premier fighter during the German invasion of 1941, and was such a disaster that, playing on the fighter’s acronym, pilots referred to it as “the varnished guaranteed coffin.”
Although it entered service five years after the Bf-109, the LaGG-3 was essentially hopeless in combat against its contemporary. It unfortunately combined lightweight wood construction with an underpowered engine, which meant that it struggled to gain tactical advantage against heavier German fighters, yet went to pieces when hit.
Combined with desperate Soviet pilot training practices of the war, there’s little surprise as to how German and Finnish aviators gained such remarkably high totals against their Soviet opponents. Production of the LaGG-3 should have ended in 1942, but the agility of the Soviet military industrial complex being what it was, continued until 1944.
Century Series — F-101 (807), F-102 (1,000), F-104 (2,578), F-105 (833)
Picking a candidate from the so-called “century series” fighters was a struggle. Most of the century series aircraft were developed while the U.S. Air Force was still dominated by the strategic bombing cadre, and interested primarily in the prospects of nuclear combat with the Soviet Union.
Tactical Air Command tried to resolve this problem by making itself as “strategic” as possible, focusing on interceptors that could catch and kill Soviet bombers, and also on fighters heavy enough to deliver nuclear weapons. This left the fighters of the USAF poorly equipped to tangle with the tiny, maneuverable MiGs deployed by the North Vietnamese air force.
The series was not a complete disaster. The F-100 was an adequate second-generation fighter, the F-106 an entirely capable interceptor. The rest had the sort of troubles expected of a misaligned set of strategic and technological concepts. The McDonnell F-101 Voodoo was an interceptor converted into a fighter-bomber, a combination that made nearly no sense. It would mostly see service as a recon aircraft.
The Convair F-102 Delta Dagger performed inadequately as both an interceptor and a fighter-bomber, briefly seeing combat in Vietnam before turning in its most notable service as a remote-control target drone.
The Lockheed F-104 Starfighter was fast, beautiful and a death trap, earning the “flying coffin” nickname while suffering over thirty mishaps per 100,000 flight hours. It was also known as the “missile with a man in it.” More than 50 percent of F-104s in Canadian service were lost in crashes, more than 30 percent in German.
The enormous Republic F-105 Thunderchief deserved better. Designed as a nuclear bomber, it was ill-suited to the conventional bombing mission forced by the Vietnam War, and became easy prey for the Frescos, Fishbeds and SA-2s.
The aircraft of the century series had different builders, and were intended to perform different missions. However, they were procured in enormous quantities, and all suffered from problems associated with the same cause. The inability of the Air Force to conceptualize warfare outside of the strategic realm.
Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-23 (5,047)
The MiG-23 was supposed to be the Soviet answer to the big American fighters such as the F-4 and F-111, a powerful swing-wing fighter that could also perform attack and interception roles. And the Flogger surely was powerful.
But the Flogger was a beast to fly and to maintain. American “Red Eagle” pilots, tasked with determining the capabilities of Soviet aircraft, considered the Flogger a disaster waiting to happen. In 1984, Lt. Gen. Robert Bond died flying a USAF-operated Flogger. A relatively large aircraft, the Flogger also lacked many of the best qualities of its predecessors, including a small visual profile.
The MiG-23 was initially intended to fill out the air forces of the Warsaw Pact, but the Soviet clients generally preferred to keep their Fishbeds. Indeed, in export terms the MiG-23 was essentially a cheap loss-leader for the Soviet engine and technical support industries, as it proved remarkably difficult to safely keep in service.
By design, engines burned out quickly, meaning that export customers who had fallen out of Soviet graces quickly lost the use of their fighters. The Flogger’s combat record in Syrian, Iraqi and Libyan service generally has not been positive. It’s hardly surprising that the MiG-23 will almost certainly leave service before its predecessor, the MiG-21.
In terms of future members of this list, attention naturally falls on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which should exceed the 500-aircraft threshold. As I’ve argued before, it’s difficult to get a sense of the strategic value of the aircraft without a full perspective on its career. We won’t know whether the JSF is a deserving member of this list for quite some time.
For one, it’s unlikely that the F-35 will suffer from anything approaching the accident rate of the fighters on this list. The JSF’s tremendous expense, however, undoubtedly makes it a long term candidate for inclusion.