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.
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.
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.
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.
The Sabre was a significant technological advance in the late 1940s to early 1950s, providing an aviation edge to the US forces and shaping the course of the Korean War. Its first-of-its-kind design achieved a kill ratio of 10:1 against the Soviet MiG-15, with approximately 1,000 downed enemy warplanes under its name, subsequently cementing its legacy in US military history.
Despite aging, the Sabre saw action in the Vietnam War, where it was used by both the US Air Force and its Vietnamese counterpart for missions such as air-to-air combat, ground attack, and reconnaissance before its retirement in the 1970s.
F-100 Super Sabre (1953)
F-100 Super Sabre was a high-performance follow-on to the revered F-86 Sabre fighter aircraft North American Aviation also built, serving the USAF and Air National Guard until the late 1970s. It was the first fighter aircraft capable of supersonic flight in level flight and the first of the notable Century Series of American jet fighters.
Unlike the Sabre, however, the Super Sabre was less widely used and encountered many technical issues. In addition, at some point, some of its earlier variants had to be grounded due to several accidents.
Even so, the F-100 was a significant aircraft in US military aviation. After all, it was the first supersonic jet fighter to enter service and played a major role during the Korean War, credited for taking down at least a thousand enemy aircraft.
F-104 Starfighter (1954)
The F-104 Starfighter was among the first contribution of Lockheed Martin in US military aviation. It was a single-engined, lightweight supersonic fighter aircraft that the USAF used in the 1960s and 1970s.
The Starfighter rose to prominence as the first fighter jet to fly at Mach 2 and eventually held the world speed record for that time. It was also notably the first aircraft to feature an ejection seat which, at that time, was significant for the safety of pilots at such speed. Moreover, it carried robust radar systems capable of launching various weapons, including air-to-air missiles and bombs. It saw combat action during the Cold War, including the Berlin and Cuban Missile Crises, significantly portraying as a symbol of American air power and helping to keep the peace during a time of great tension. Moreover, it partook in the Vietnam War and the Yom Kippur War. However, it was a controversial aircraft, heavily criticized for its high accident rate due to its high speed and high performance. It was also heavily criticized for its cramped cockpit and its lack of maneuverability.
Despite its problems, the F-104 was a significant aircraft in military aviation history. It was the first explicitly designed aircraft to fly at Mach 2, holding the world speed record for a time. Additionally, the Starfighter was the first aircraft equipped with an ejection seat enabling safely ejecting pilots in case of emergency amid speeds.
F-111 Aardvark (1964)
Built by General Dynamics in the 1960s, the F-111 Aardvark emerged in response to a USAF requirement for a new tactical bomber capable of operating at high subsonic and low supersonic speeds. It featured a twin-engined, variable-sweep wing fighter bomber capable of flying at Mach 2.2 speeds and was known for its long range. The service eventually used it in various roles, including air-to-air combat, air-to-ground strikes, and electronic warfare, and saw extensive action during the wars of Vietnam, the Gulf, and Iraq, to name a few. Additionally, it can carry nuclear-loaded weapons.
After years of service, the F-111, a pioneering variable-sweep wing aircraft, eventually retired in 1996 from the USAF, succeeded by the F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Lightning II.
F-14 Tomcat (1974)
An iconic fighter jet that played a crucial role in the US military over three decades, the F-14 Tomcat was probably one of the most versatile and effective aircraft in the US arsenal. It featured a twin-engined, variable-sweep wing fighter aircraft, and its long range, high speed, and superior air-to-air combat capabilities were particularly popular among pilots. The Tomcat also had a powerful radar system that could track multiple targets simultaneously.
The long-range supersonic built by Grumman in the 1960s after the collapse of the General Dynamics-Grumman F-111B project had played a key component in American military power projection throughout the Cold War and beyond. Moreover, the US Navy used the aircraft from 1974 to 2006, where it demonstrated its impressive performance in combat—particularly during the Gulf War. During that period, the F-14 Tomcat cemented its reputation as a formidable fighter and helped to establish the American forces as the world’s preeminent military power.
It made its maiden flight in late 1970 before entering service four years later, replacing the revered F-4 Phantom II until its eventual retirement in 2006. Even then, it remains one of the most iconic fighters ever built.
F-15 Eagle (1976)
Considered one of the most successful fighter aircraft ever built in US military history, the F-15 Eagle is a highly capable aircraft used extensively—proven and tested itself in combat. It has a twin-engined, single-seat, all-weather, long-range, air superiority fighter aircraft McDonnell Douglas initially developed for the USAF. Furthermore, it was among the first American “teen series” fighters that drew inspiration from air combat experience from the Vietnam War under the Tactical Fighter Experimental (TFX) program, and likewise to replace the aging F-4 Phantom II.
It had one of the most iconic fighter aircraft in history, demonstrating its superior capabilities in theaters in the Gulf War, the War in Afghanistan (book alert!), and the War on Terror. It also was known for its excellent maneuverability, high speed, and lethal weapons systems. Its kill ratio of over 100 to 0 proved remarkable and ultimately cemented its status among the most successful fighter aircraft in history.
F-16 Fighting Falcon (1978)
Another fighter aircraft built by General Dynamics, the F-16 Fighting Falcon, is the world’s most widely used aerial platform, with over 4,500 units produced. This single-engine, multi-role fighter aircraft has maintained a well-respected reputation since its emergence in the mid-1970s. Known for its agility, maneuverability, and affordability, the USAF and 25 other countries have significantly used the F-16 to address different missions.
Since then, the F-16 has become an essential aircraft in the USAF and has been exported to dozens, such as Israel, Pakistan, and Turkey, to name a few. In addition, it notably played a major role during the Gulf War and the War in Afghanistan, shooting down enemy aircraft using its sophisticated air-to-air weapon systems—thus, earning the right as one of the most successful fighter aircraft ever built.
Today, the supersonic F-16 Fighting Falcon remains a vital asset to the US arsenal. It is expected to remain in service for many years as it is a cost-effective and reliable aircraft.
F-117 Nighthawk (1983)
Entering the era of stealth technology, the F-117 Nighthawk pioneered the twin-engine stealth ground-attack aircraft capable of sneaking past enemy radar, developed by Lockheed Martin in the 1970s under its “Skunk Works” division. The initial aircraft to be fitted with stealth technology, the Nighthawk, was designed to fulfill the requirement for a low-observable plane capable of accurately infiltrating heavily fortified enemy airspace to strike high-value targets.
Aside from its stealth, the aircraft was also known for its unique appearance, with a trapezoidal planform and flat surfaces. Moreover, its significant participation during the Gulf War and the War in Afghanistan as an attack on high-value targets with precision-guided munitions further sealed its place as one of the best US fighter jets ever. It dropped bomb after bomb in major conflicts it participated in and throughout had barely suffered a loss due to being shot down in combat. Ultimately, the fighter aircraft had to retire in 2008 and be replaced by a more powerful stealth fighter, the F-22 Raptor. But it nevertheless remained an iconic aircraft in the history of military aviation as its features and capabilities made it a valuable asset to the US Air Force.
F-22 Raptor (2005)
Last but not least is the ever-iconic F-22 Raptor, built by Lockheed Martin and Boeing initially for the USAF. Its development began as early as the 1980s but spent almost three decades before entering service in 2005. Furthermore, it is the first operational fifth-generation fighter aircraft, known as one—if not the most advanced fighter aircraft in the world, featuring unique designs and far more advanced systems. It is highly known for its stealth, high maneuverability, supercruise, and superior air-to-air combat capabilities.
The aircraft saw combat in the Middle East, and despite not having to shoot down enemy aircraft, the Raptor has proven its air superiority to serve as an escort bomber and carry out airstrikes. It also has notably been used to symbolize American military air superiority in the new millennium. Thus, securing its place as one of the valuable assets in the US arsenals today and for the years to come.
These are among the best warplanes in the world and have all played a significant role in US military combat history, each equipped with mobility, speed, and lethality in its own right.
Indeed, America has gone so far in and up since it first developed and launched its fighter aircraft. Nevertheless, the country is not resting on its laurels as it seeks better, more advanced fighter jets, developing newer and more advanced platforms such as the F-35 Lightning II and the sixth-generation fighter jets that will preserve its dominance in air warfare for years to come.
What’s your personal favorite? Tell us in the comments!
** And to learn more about the world’s greatest fighter aircraft, click here.