Aviation has captured the imagination of humanity since the Wright brothers took to the skies for the first time in 1903. But like every other great human invention, it would not take long before some military use would be found for it. When World War I began in 1914 most air forces consisted of a few scouts, but by the time it ended in 1918 the air arsenals of the great powers would be composed of thousands of fighters and bombers. World War II would see air power reach its full maturity; the war would see the first battle waged entirely in the skies (the Battle of Britain), thousand-bomber raids over Europe, the first jets, and most ominously, the dropping of an atomic bomb by an aircraft. Air technology expanded by leaps and bounds during the Cold War as each of the two superpowers strove to achieve a technological edge over its rival. By the end of the 20th Century, air technology would finally make it possible for a war to be won by air power alone, as shown by the 1991 Gulf War in which a US-led air armada laid waste to Saddam Hussein’s vaunted armies, which had once been considered the fourth most powerful in the world.
Despite the destructive nature of air power, it has nevertheless been romanticized throughout the years as evidenced by the glamorous image of the fighter pilot. So much that the US Navy set up recruitment booths outside movie theaters following the success of Top Gun back in 1984! But Tom Cruise’s heroics on the silver screen pales in comparison to reality. So without further ado, here are the 10 most legendary true air combat rivalries in history.
Last in the legendary line of Soviet MiGs (acronym of the USSR’s famous and feared Mikoyan-Gurevich design bureau, which we’ll see twice again later in this list), the MiG-29 was the most advanced fighter in Saddam Hussein’s vaunted air fleets. However, five of them were shot down during the 1991 Gulf War, all by US F-15s. Years later, Serbian MiG-29s once again did battle against their old nemesis and the result was similar: four shot down without claiming a single Eagle. In fact, the F-15 has never been shot down by an enemy in combat, scoring 104 kills (mostly by Israeli and US pilots) against zero losses of their own. But what would have been of this duel if the MiG pilots had been better trained Soviet rather than Iraqi or Serbian pilots? We’ll never know. The relative dearth of air combat in modern times due to overwhelming US/NATO superiority, however, puts this matchup on the list anyway.
Aerial technology made a quantum leap between 1914 and 1918 and by the end of the Great War, air forces had become an essential component of warfare for both the Allies and the Central Powers. The Spad XIII represented the pinnacle of French aviation at the time, being flown by many of the country’s highest scoring aces as well as those of the nascent US army air corps (which, as many people are not aware, was entirely equipped by French designs). As such, it is widely seen as having been the finest Allied fighter of the war. However, the Germans were not too far behind with the last of the legendary Fokker fighters, the D.VII. In fact, it was such a feared aircraft that the Germans were forced to surrender all of their surviving D.VIIs to the victorious Allies as a condition of the Armistice.
It’s easy to forget that night combat during World War II was almost as intense and spectacular than daylight combat. Additionally, it was also as much a duel between technology as it was about aeronautics as each side developed new ways to counter the other side’s innovations. The British Mosquito was the main Allied night fighter of the war, successful thanks to its impressive speed (it was built almost entirely out of wood and was powered by the same Merlin engines as the Spitfire), as well as its adaptability. Facing it was the venerable Messerschmitt Bf 110, a veteran of the Battle of Britain that was given a new lease of life as a night fighter, becoming the most widely used by the Luftwaffe. Bf 110s took an impressive toll out of British heavy bombers during the Allied bombing campaign whenever there were no Mosquitos to stop them.
The “Phabulous” Phantom was perhaps the finest all-around fighter of the Cold War, being used not only by the US (by both the air force and the navy, something that was unprecedented) but also by numerous NATO and Western allied air forces, notably Britain, Germany, Israel and Japan. The Phantom was the most widely used US aircraft during the Vietnam War, both as a fighter and as a bomber, and it also saw extensive action with the Israeli air force during various Middle East conflicts, notably the Yom Kippur War. Its main rival during those wars was the Soviet-designed MiG-21, which although less advanced (it was essentially one generation behind it), was lethal in the hands of a competent pilot – such as Nguyen Van Coc, who shot down no less than 9 F-4s over Vietnam. Smaller and more nimble than the lumbering Phantom, the MiG-21 was deadly at close combat especially against early F-4s that lacked guns.
One year after the “Fokker scourge” (see below), the Germans once again were able to conquer the skies over the Western Front thanks to the Albatros series of fighters that were most prominent during 1916-17. In the hands of pilots like Manfred von Richtofen (a.k.a. the Red Baron), the Albatros D.III was without equal compared to its rivals and led to a period of significant losses by the Allies in 1917, particularly against the British in what was became known as “Bloody April” which coincided with the Battle of Arras on the ground. The tables were turned when a series of superb new British fighters reclaimed air superiority back for the Allies. Of these, by far the most agile and elegant was the Sopwith Camel, which became best known for shooting down more enemy aircraft than any other Allied fighter during the war. No wonder its status as an iconic vintage British aircraft is surpassed only by the Spitfire.
In 1943 the Allies began their systematic round-the-clock bombing of Germany but the Americans (who flew by day) suffered enormous losses due to the fact that their bombers flew without fighter escorts. First used in combat in December of that year, the Mustang became the first Allied fighter capable of flying from British bases deep into occupied Europe and back (hence the saying “it can’t do what a Spitfire can, but it can do it over Berlin”). Thus began a battle of attrition against the best German fighter of its day, the Focke-Wulf Fw 190. Although evenly matched (the Mustang was the better aircraft at high altitude where most combat took place but the Fw 190 had more powerful armament), the numerical superiority of the Americans was too much for the Germans, which could not replace their mounting losses over the next couple of months. By D-Day, barely half a year after the Mustang was first in action, the Luftwaffe had been effectively decimated and could offer no serious resistance to the Allied invaders from here all the way until V-E Day.
It would be the first great duel in the war that saw the birth of air combat. At first, fighters were simply aeroplanes with an extra crewman equipped with a gun. Later it was decided to mount the gun on the fuselage and fire over the propellers. The first main quantum leap for fighter design came from the German side thanks to the Fokker E.I, the first aircraft capable of shooting through its propeller thanks to a synchronizer, something that gave it incomparable precision when it was first introduced in mid-1915. The Allies responded with the French Nieuport 11 in early 1916, which would soon overtake its German rivals and bring an end to the so-called “Fokker Scourge”; a period where it seemed as if nothing could wrest air supremacy away from the Kaiser’s air fleets over the Western Front.
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, they had in their arsenal the best carrier-based fighter in the world: the Mitsubishi A6M Zero. Thanks to its legendary maneuverability and the skill of its better-trained pilots, the Zero dominated the Pacific skies until the arrival of the US Hellcat towards the end of 1943. The Hellcat was heavy but powerful and, unlike the fragile Zero, could take a lot of punishment. Thanks to this, it managed to sweep the Zero out of the skies, notably during the Battle of the Philippines Sea in 1944 (known colloquially as “The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot”) where US Navy Hellcats shot down dozens of Zeros with minimal losses. Later, they would face the Zero in a different role: as kamikazes. By the end of the war, the Hellcat would rack up the highest kill ratio of any Allied fighter, an impressive 19:1, and its rivalry with the Zero would prove that carrier-based fighters could be just as capable as their land-based counterparts.
Jets made their debut during the final year of World War II but it would take a different war in a different decade for them to face off against each other for the first time. Technically speaking, the Soviet-designed MiG-15 had a slight advantage over the US Sabre (designed by North American, the same company that produced the Mustang) although in practice both aircraft were evenly matched and looked remarkably alike as well. Ultimately, however, pilot quality would determine the result and the veteran aviators of the US (many of them with WW2 experience) prevailed over their more poorly trained Communist rivals. The exception was the handful of experienced Soviet pilots (many who were also WW2 vets) who flew incognito under North Korean or Chinese banners, and gave US pilots a bigger headache. Although these were not the only jets to fly over Korean skies, in no other war has air combat been so strongly defined by one single rivalry as it was here.
The mother of all aerial duels in the mother of all aerial battles. The Battle of Britain in 1940 was the first military campaign waged entirely in the air and pitted the pride of the Royal Air Force, the Spitfire Mk. I, against the fighter that had swept the skies of Europe during the German blitzkrieg, the Messerschmitt Bf 109E. Both were evenly matched and in fact, the Bf 109E may have had a slight technical edge (it was two years older than the Spitfire and therefore a more mature design). However, victory went to the British who successfully defended their island against the best that the Luftwaffe could throw against them. This epic win by “the Few” would save the Allies from defeat but the rivalry between these two legendary aircraft would not end there: they would meet on a regular basis over the North African desert and in the skies of occupied Europe up to V-E Day. The Spitfire aged much better than the 109, however, and late war marks such as the Mk. IX and the formidable Mk. XIV still ranked among the best piston-engined fighters in the world; an impressive feat for a pre-war design. The later Bf 109G and Ks, while still excellent aircraft, were no longer nearly as good.
The battles that never happened
So here we have it, the greatest air duels in history. But what about those battles that never took place? One that comes to mind is the Messerschmitt Me 262 and the British Meteor, the first jet fighters to enter service in World War II. Unfortunately, British reluctance to use the Meteor for front line duties (it was used mainly against V-1 flying bombs) meant that they never encountered each other. Another battle left to the imagination was the F-4 Phantom against the MiG-23, a more comparable aircraft to it than the MiG-21 which was from an earlier generation. Given that the MiG-21 could give the F-4 a run for its money under certain conditions, the MiG-23 would surely have been a more lethal opponent. A more modern matchup that has yet to take place is the F-15 Eagle against the Russian-designed Su-27 Flanker (or its many variants). Whereas the MiG-29 is a light-weight short-range fighter more similar to the F-16, the Su-27 is a proper air superiority fighter capable of deep penetration. Its massive air-to-air missile armament and incredible maneuverability would make it a tough challenge for the F-15 at any range. Finally, a match left solely for speculation is the F4U Corsair against any contemporary German fighter, such as the Fw 190. The Corsair was used exclusively by the US naval forces in the Pacific and as a result never fought any European opponents. But it outperformed the Hellcat and according to many, was equal or even superior to the Mustang. We can only guess how it would have fared against the Luftwaffe’s finest…
In any case, to wet the appetite of any enthusiast, here’s an amazing video by Breitling which shows a perfectly preserved Mustang and a Corsair flying alongside each other. You know you’re an aviation buff if – like me – you think the blondes in the end are not the two hottest birds in that video!