From the skies over Europe in World War II to the deserts of the Middle East in modern times, the United States has been at the forefront of aerial warfare. And at the heart of America’s air power are its fighter jets, the sleek and deadly machines that have dominated the skies for decades. But which ones are the best of the best?

P-51 Mustang (1942)

Ah, yes. The US Army Air Forces (USAAF) and the Royal Air Force extensively used the legendary P-51 Mustang in aerial combat and dominated the skies during World War II. It was known for its incredible speed, shooting down dozens and dozens of enemy warplanes left and right. A long-range, single-engined, single-seat fighter aircraft, the Mustang was fitted with sophisticated features ahead of its time, making it the most successful piston-engined platform of the war.

P-51 Mustang
P-51 Mustang (Image source: DVIDS)

Despite being designed in the early 1940s, the fighter aircraft incorporated some features that were not yet common for aerial platforms, such as pressurized cockpits, which allowed pilots to fly at high altitudes without suffering from hypoxia (oxygen starvation). It also had long-range capabilities, allowing itself to escort bombers deep into enemy territory. With its powerful armament—including six M2 Browning .50 caliber machine guns mounted in its wings, and durable construction, the Mustang quickly became a significant player in the Allied forces’ claim to victory.

P-47 Thunderbolt (1943)

Another iconic World War II warplane that played a massive role in the triumph of the Allied forces was the P-47 Thunderbolt.

P-47 Thunderbolt
P-47 Thunderbolt (Image source: DVIDS)

Staying true to its namesake, the Thunderbolt was the largest, heaviest, single-engined fighter aircraft of its time, prominently known for its ruggedness and firepower. As the P-51 Mustang escorted bombers, the P-47 Thunderbolt mostly took on the role of a ground attack aircraft. Nevertheless, throughout its service during WWII, the Republic Aviation-built aircraft had an impressive record of roughly 3,700 downed enemy aircraft on its belt. Yes, there were challenges regarding its maneuverability, but the Thunderbolt was undoubtedly a beast.

F-4U Corsair (1943)

Despite entering service in the later part of WWII, the F-4U Corsair was definitely not late for the party. It has the maneuverability of P-51 and the ruggedness of P-47, making it very capable and deadly, with over 2,100 kills under its name. This single-engined aircraft had the best of both worlds and became particularly popular with pilots.

F-4U Corsair (Image source: DVIDS)

Designed by Chance Vought, the carrier-based ground attack fighter was first flown in the 1940s powered by a Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp engine that defined its impressive top speed. Besides its six .50-caliber machine guns, the Corsair carried various bombs and rockets that played a significant role in conducting successful aerial assaults in the Pacific, Mediterranean, and European theaters. The fighter aircraft also served in the Korean War and Vietnam War before its retirement in the 1960s.

F-86 Sabre (1947)

After the success of the P-51, North American Aviation developed the F-86 Sabre, a single-engined swept-wing fighter aircraft. The USAAF required a new aircraft to address the rising threat of the Soviet swept-wing MiG-15. The Sabre eventually proved a formidable opponent and became a crucial component of the US Air Force’s (USAF) arsenal during the Korean War.