Wars have rhythmed the world and the course of mankind throughout history. Those same wars were fought with fearsome weapons: tanks that could crush the enemy lines, firearms with the best accuracy, boats dominating the seas and, above the battlefield, planes soaring through the sky.
Now, let me tell you about some of the most important war planes designed by humanity:
1. The Fokker Eindecker E.I (WW I)
Originally designed as a scouting tool, this single seat airplane is one of the most famous Geman fighters to fly during World War I. It was the first operational fighter of the Fliegertruppe (the Flying Corps of Germany’s Imperial Army) and started flying in 1915.
A Fokker E.1 - Source: San Diego Air and Space Museum
You may wonder about the reason of its fame: well, the Fokker E.I is the first plane to use synchronized machine guns: thanks to a synchronizer gear, the machine guns’ bullets were now able to be fired through the arc of the propeller without risking damaging the blades.
Drawing of a correctly functioning synchronizer gear: all rounds are fired within a safe zone. – Source: Wikipedia
This allowed the aircraft to be aimed directly at the target and increase accuracy. This advancement allowed Germany to dominate the skies from 1915 to 1916 until France’s Nieuport 11 and the United Kingdom’s Airco DH.2 entered the war. Nonetheless, the Fokker really paved the way for the fighters that came after it.
2. The A6M Zero (WW II)
This dog fighter absolutely dominated the Pacific during World War II. The Zero is widely known for having been used during Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. The biggest strength of the Zero was its lightness which allowed high maneuverability: a new aluminum-zinc alloy called extra super duralumin (ESD) was created with the purpose of making the Zero as light as possible.
Two A6M Zero Model 11 flying over China – Source: Henry Sakaida "Imperial Japanese Navy Aces, 1937-45" p15 (part of the public domain)
This alloy is still used nowadays to build missile parts, aircraft components and was used to build parts of the Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Booster. Its high maneuverability in conjunction to its deadly weaponry (it was equipped with two powerful 20 mm cannons, two 7.7 machine guns and was able to carry to 30 to 60 kg bombs) made the Zero truly frightful. Even after they became obsolete, the Zero were still used to deploy kamikaze attacks.
With all this information, you may ask yourself « What kind of plane could have possibly outclassed the Zero? », and this question gives us the perfect opportunity to talk about the next plane.
3. The Grumman F6F Hellcat (WW II)
If the Zero was the best plane from 1940 to 1942, the Hellcat dominated the second half of the war, going as far as destroying 5,223 enemy aircrafts during the conflict’s duration.
A F6F-3 on an American airplane carrier – Source: San Diego Air and Space Museum
To counter the Zero’s maneuverability, the US opted to make an aircraft that would be faster but also sturdier (in their pursuit of lightness, the Japanese had to drop a lot of the Zero’s protective equipment). With a bullet-proof windshield, armor around its fuel tank, and 96 kg of cockpit armor, the Hellcat was made for long battles where its endurance would be key to beat the Zero. Hellcats, that singlehandedly turned the tide in the Pacific, were used by the British in Norway and were even used by the US during Operation Dragoon.
Even after the war, the Hellcat saw military uses: for example, the French used them during combat in Indochina.
Together, the Zero and the Hellcat may be considered as two of the most influential fighter aircrafts of their century.
4. The Enola Gay (WW II)
The Enola Gay is a Boeing-B29 Superfortress, a versatile bomber which could take part in high altitude strategic incendiary bombing or naval mine dropping. Some minor modifications set the Enola Gay apart from other B29: the plane’s protecting armor and gun turrets were removed, its bomb bay was modified, and the engines were improved. All those changes were made with a single task in mind, being able to function as nuclear weapon delivery aircraft. Every plane mentioned throughout this article has a good reason to figure in it and the Enola Gay is no exception: after all, the Enola Gay is the plane used to drop Little Boy and Fat man on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945.
The Enola Gay after the Hiroshima mission –
Source: U.S National Archives and Records Administration
It is not really the plane’s ability, although being able to carry up to 16,000 pounds (7257.48 kg) of explosive is no small feat, but what it represents in the context of World War II and how it kickstarted an era of fear of nuclear Warfare.
5. The Douglas C-54 Skymaster (Cold War)
The Douglas C-54 is a transport aircraft used by the United States during World War II and the Korean War for cargo but also air-sea rescue. What makes this plane famous though is its use during the Cold War, mainly for the Berlin Airlift. For those who don’t know, between the 24th of June 1948 and the12th of May 1949, the USSR, which had control over East-Berlin, blocked all access that linked it to West-Berlin, which was controlled by France, the U.K. and the U.S. To aid those in East-Berlin, the U.S. and the U.K., with the help of Canada, South-Africa and France, put up an airlift to carry various supplies like food, fuel or medication. The C-54 was the ideal plane for this mission: with its 28,000 pounds (12,700.6 kg) cargo capacity. By the end of the blockade, the C-54 and the C-47 had flown over 92,000,000 miles (148,000,000 km) and were baptized "raisin bombers" by German children because of the quantities of candies they dropped.
Douglas C-54 Skymaster dropping candies during the Berlin airlift –
Source: National Museum of the U.S. Airforce
Throughout this article we’ve mainly prized planes for their fighting abilities or their destructive power and how impactful they were on the wars they took part in, but the Douglas C-54, more than a symbol of destruction, more than a representation of a country’s power, is a symbol of peace and shows the desire of humans to help each other. Planes, even in times of war can create bridges between people and have a durable impact on humanity’s History.
Planes truly are a marvel of the human mind bringing despair, hope or the light of technical evolution all the same but, we ought to remember that, ultimately, planes are only tools and that it is up to us to use them in ways that don’t stain our collective history.
Bibliographie et articles relatifs au sujet qui peuvent vous intéresser :
On the Fokker Eindecker E.I:
On the A6M Zero:
On the F6F Hellcat:
On the Enola Gay and related matters:
On the Douglas C-54: