Greatest Warplane Ever?

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A question like that is sure to get the blood of any hard-core aviation enthusiast or history aficionado boiling in a hurry. There is definitely no shortage of worthy candidates. Among them would certainly be the following, and with good reason:

Fokker Eindecker E. III

The very first aircraft fitted with a synchronized machine gun that enabled it to fire through the propeller without shooting off the blades, the Fokker E. III Eindecker (“Single deck”) arguably ushered in the era of modern aerial combat as we know it today. For several months in early WWI (from summer 1915 until early 1916) the Fokker E. III held such an advantage over Allied warplanes that it was known as the “Fokker Scourge.”

Messerschmitt Bf 109

Produced in greater numbers than any other WWII fighter plane (over 33,000), the 109 served continuously throughout the war on every front on which Germany fought. It was continually upgraded with more powerful engines and more sophisticated equipment and was nearly as deadly and competitive an adversary in 1945 as it had been in 1939.

Boeing B-17

The backbone of the United States’ strategic bomber force in WWII, the “Flying Fortress” established a reputation for toughness and combat readiness that may never be surpassed.

Lockheed C-130 Hercules

First deployed in the 1950s, the Hercules vies with the American B-52 and the Russian Tu-95 Bear as the longest-serving military aircraft of all time. Unlike those planes, however (which are strictly long-range bombers), the Hercules has served in a multitude of roles, from transport (its original mission) to gunship to forest-fire fighting. Truly a remarkably versatile and long-lived aircraft.

McDonnell Douglas F-15

Designed in the late 1960s and entering service in the mid 1970s the F-15 Eagle established performance records from the day it was activated. The fact that it is still in front-line service with the U.S. Air Force and still an intimidating force to be reckoned with today—more than 40 years later—says everything anyone needs to know about this amazing aircraft. In the hands of those astonishing Israeli pilots, the F-15 (along with the F-16) shot down virtually the entire Syrian Air Force in the 1982 Israel-Lebanon War in a matter of a few days with no losses, when the Syrians were flying the very latest Soviet planes.

This is but a mere fraction of the planes that are worthy of consideration (and apologies to those I left off). But I am going to put forth a candidate that does not immediately jump to mind when thinking of this question, nor is it likely to appear on many of these “greatest” lists.

A pity and an oversight. This is a most legitimate contender, with an unquestioned pedigree, performance that eclipsed its contemporaries by a wide margin, an adaptability for different roles that made it extremely valuable and effective, and above all else, an enduring longevity across many decades and conflicts that unquestionably stamp its career with Hall-of-Fame credentials.

That plane is the Douglas A-26 invader.

The A-26 was the follow-up plane to their already successful A-20 “Havoc.” The Havoc was a ground-attack/light bomber with high performance, good speed, rugged structure and very agreeable pilot handling characteristics. It performed quite well in all the major theaters of World War II, and was widely used by Britain as well as the U.S. Army Air Force.

The A-26 replaced the Havoc in late 1944 and saw service in both the European and the Pacific theaters. Powered by two Pratt & Whitney R-2800 radial engines of some 2000 HP apiece (the same engine that powered first-line American fighter planes like the P-47 Thunderbolt, the F4U Corsair and the F6F Hellcat), the A-26 displayed exceptional performance, unmatched by any other multi-crew-membered piston-engined bomber of the war. Compared to the redoubtable B-25 Mitchell (275 mph) or the Martin B-26 (290 mph), the A-26 was nearly 90 mph faster, with a top speed in excess of 360 mph. This actually put it very close to the top speed of Germany’s primary fighter aircraft, the BF-109G, which had a listed maximum speed of 387 mph.

Here is a humorous tidbit: When I was a young boy—around 10 or so—I developed my avid interest in World War II aviation. This was in the early 1960s, not even 20 years after the war ended in 1945. World War II veterans were only in their 40s at the time, and there were millions of them living in the new suburbs that were sprouting up all over the country.

As luck would have it, in our neighborhood, living directly across the street from our house, was Nikolas Grekko, a warm, friendly man of Greek descent who just happened to have been a B-24 Liberator pilot in Europe during the war. Along with the B-17 Flying Fortress, the B-24 Liberator was one of two long-range four-engined bombers that the USAAF used to conduct their strategic bombing campaign against Germany in World War II. The Liberator was a large, lumbering plane that carried a heavy bomb load and plodded its way to and from Germany on missions that could last for 10 hours or more. With the enthusiasm and hunger for details that only a 10-year-old has, I would ask Nick question after question and hang on his every word. One thing he told me has stayed with me all these years, as if he just told me this yesterday:

“We’d be cruising in formation towards Germany in what seemed like slow motion, having left our bases several hours earlier. Then, like clockwork, we’d see those A-26s in the distance, streaking past us like we were standing still as they headed towards their targets. We were so jealous. We would have given anything to have been in bombers that were as fast as fighters.” Wow. What an impression that plane made on me as a 10-year-old. 

World War II

The A-26 definitely racked up an impressive WWII record of service. Operated extensively by the U.S. 9th Air Force in Europe, the A-26 flew an incredible 11,567 bombing, ground attack and reconnaissance missions in only eight months, losing just 67 aircraft. But it wasn’t done, not by a longshot.

Korea

When hostilities broke out in Korea just five years later in 1950, the A-26 found itself in the middle of the action once again. Serving primarily in the role of day/night ground attack as it struck targets like enemy vehicles and railway traffic, the A-26s versatility, ruggedness and performance once again proved its worth. After the agreement to end the fighting was reached in June 1953, a North Korean general called the A-26 one of the West’s most feared weapons and singled out its contribution as being particularly devastating. Devastating indeed: Invaders were credited with the destruction of 38,500 vehicles, 406 locomotives and 3,700 railway trucks during the conflict.

Bay of Pigs 1961

The A-26 earned real notoriety in 1961, during the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, when U.S.-backed Cuban rebel forces tried to oust the new Government of Fidel Castro. A-26s (thinly disguised in Cuban markings) were used to support the initial invasion effort. However, when Castro's forces were obviously winning and pushing the American/CIA-backed invaders back, the rebels called for more A-26 assistance. 

President John Kennedy, humiliated on the world stage with his role in the heretofore secret operation now exposed, refused the request for additional A-26 support.

Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev saw what he felt was Kennedy's hesitation and weakness in handling the situation. A year later, in 1962, Khrushchev placed nuclear missiles in Cuba, leading to the Cuban Missile Crisis. So, it can be plausibly said that the non-deployment of the A-26 for follow-up strikes in Cuba in 1961 almost resulted in nuclear war in 1962.

South East Asia/Laos 1966

Specially upgraded Invaders (having since been re-designated as “B-26s,” when the Air Force dropped the “A” attack category in 1948) were used by U.S. forces to attack ground targets in Laos in order to stem the flow of Communist troops and supplies coming into Vietnam.

African Conflicts, 1960s

A/B-26s were also used by Portugal in Angola in 1965 during the Portuguese Colonial war, by Belgium in the early 1960’s during the Congo Crisis and by Biafra during the Nigerian Civil War in 1967.

So, there it is: My case for the Douglas A-26 Invader for the title of All-Time Greatest Warplane.

  •  Performance that was significantly beyond its contemporaries at the time of its introduction
  • Versatility for many different roles (ground-attack aircraft, traditional altitude level bombing, reconnaissance, night fighting, anti-shipping attack)
  • Rugged structure and ability to absorb extensive combat punishment
  • Unrivaled longevity with effective service operations spanning several decades (WWII in the 40s, Korea in the 50s, Cuba, Vietnam/Laos and other regional conflicts in the 60s)

Oh, and just for good measure, this is one beautiful, menacing-looking aircraft, isn’t it? Icing on the title-winning cake.



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