Going the Distance

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The phrase “Going the distance” has many positive meanings and connotations.  Whether it’s in sports or business or in a social setting, the phrase is both commonly used and well understood.

  • In baseball, it refers to a game in which the starting pitcher throws a complete game, all nine innings. “Verlander was strong, needing only 104 pitches to dominate the other team, as he went the distance for his fourth complete game of the season.” 

  • In boxing, it means when a fighter survives the entire agreed-upon number of rounds, especially when the other fighter was expected to win by knockout before the scheduled ending. “Ali went the distance against the heavier punching Frazier and survived all fifteen rounds.” 

  • In business, it can mean a situation where an individual or team follows through on every detail and brings the project to a successful conclusion. “They really went the distance on that audit, despite the lack of cooperation they encountered along the way.”

In the historical setting of World War II aviation, that phrase has a completely different meaning. From the onset of World War II (Sept. 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland) until it ended with Japan’s surrender on August 15, 1945, the state of the art of aviation had advanced so dramatically, so quickly, in such a short period of time that planes from the late 1930’s seemed like ancient relics from a completely different era compared to the most advanced front-line aircraft at the end of the war.

Four fighters that 'went the distance' in WW II

Nonetheless, in spite of the meteoric advance in aviation technology in that short six-year span, four fighter aircraft remained in active combat service for the entire duration of the war. Those four are:

Mitsubishi A6M Zero (Japan) 

Supermarine Spitfire (Britain)

Messerschmitt Me-109 (Germany) 

Lockheed P-38 Lightning (United States)

I am going to take a bit of historical license and eliminate the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk, Grumman F4F Wildcat, and Hawker Hurricane from consideration, even though, technically, these aircraft may have still been in service in some secondary capacity at the war’s end. However, the four planes that are the focus of this article were major front-line participants all the way through the war. They clearly went the distance.

A closer look at the historical highlights of each one:

Messerschmitt Me-109

The Me-109 opened World War II as perhaps the most capable and effective offensive fighter aircraft used by any country. Its high speed and climb, good maneuverability and heavy firepower contributed to its enormous early success. It was produced in greater numbers than any fighter aircraft in history — over 33,000 were manufactured in its lifetime — and although it was not the cutting-edge aircraft in 1945 that it had been in 1939, those newest versions could still hold their own, even in the face of the most advanced Allied fighters.

Mitsubishi A6M Zero 

When Mitsubishi’s Zero-Sen fighter plane made its combat debut against the U.S. in December 1941, it stunned the world with is incredible maneuverability, high speed and scalded cat-like climb rate. It was the first carrier-based aircraft whose performance eclipsed that of its land-based adversaries and the Zero could justifiably be called the best fighter plane in the Pacific skies during the first two years of the war. Although the United States devised combat tactics that somewhat reduced the Zero’s aerial ascendency, it wasn’t until the introduction of the newer versions of the P-38 Lightning and the Grumman F6F Hellcat in late 1943 that the Zero’s superiority was largely neutralized. 

Because of American air attacks on Japanese factories and the necessity of Japan’s already limited industrial sector to not interrupt its ongoing production in order to ramp up the build and introduction of newer types, the Zero remained in service right through the end of the war in 1945. The Zero was the only one of these four that became clearly obsolete and uncompetitive while still being used as front-line equipment. The lack of suitable higher-powered engine designs meant that the Zero was simply unable to be modified and improved to a meaningful degree after 1943, two full years before the war’s end, and Japanese forces suffered the consequences of its performance shortfalls as a result.

Lockheed P-38 Lightning 

The twin-engine P-38 was a solid performer all the way through the war and the 1945 versions remained dangerous and lethal combat aircraft. America’s highest-scoring ace — Richard Bong, with 40 confirmed air-to-air victories — flew the P-38 exclusively, as did the next highest-scoring American ace, Thomas McGuire (38 “kills”). That alone is proof of the P-38’s impressive wartime pedigree.

The Lightning was more successful in the Pacific Theater at the low-to-medium altitudes where the Pacific air war was typically fought than in Europe against German fighters (which were generally better-performing than their Japanese counterparts and usually operated at higher altitudes), but the Lightning’s high speed, long range and mission versatility all added up to a “wire-to-wire” winning aircraft, with an enviable combat record backing it up.

Supermarine Spitfire 

The Spitfire proved to be an inordinately capable and flexible design. If ever an inanimate object — an aircraft — could become the legendary, emotional representation of a determined, beleaguered population, the Spitfire surely was that for the British people. Whether providing critical air cover for the against-all-odds Dunkirk evacuation of Allied forces from France so they might live to fight another day, or bravely fighting Germany’s Luftwaffe to a bloody stalemate over southern England in the summer of 1940 (thus blunting Germany’s invasion plans), the Spitfire’s heroic accomplishments were central to Britain’s wartime survival when the situation appeared its darkest.  

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