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A fighter aircraft is a military aircraft designed primarily for attacking other aircraft, as opposed to a bomber, which is designed to attack ground targets, primarily by dropping bombs. Fighters are comparatively small, fast, and highly maneuverable, and have been fitted with increasingly sophisticated tracking and weapons systems to intercept and attack other aircraft.
At one time, just before the opening of World War II, there were two types of fighters. Smaller single-engine planes were used as interceptors and day fighters, sometimes referred to as pursuit, while larger twin-engine designs were used as heavy fighters. The latter role proved to be unworkable, or at least not enough effort was put into them to remain useful. They then found themselves being converted to an ever-growing list of secondary roles, including strike fighters, bomber destroyers and night fighters, where their two engines gave them the increased payload needed to fill these roles.
As the performance of aircraft engines improved, notably with the jet engine in the 1960s, the need for different designs gradually disappeared. First the interceptor, bomber destroyer and night fighter designs merged into a single aircraft class. Later advances in targeting systems and the ever-increasing payloads meant that modern fighters can carry a load as large as the biggest WWII bombers, eliminating many of the bomber and ground attack aircraft roles as well. Today there are typically only two general fighter designs, smaller planes which make up the backbone of most air forces, and larger designs that operate at longer distances, sometimes referred to as interdictors.
Fighter aircraft were developed during World War I, when they were tasked with hunting down enemy reconnaissance aircraft and balloons. Engine power was so limited that they were barely able to lift themselves, but by the end of the war they had become one of the primary designs in the inventory.
By the time of World War II fighter aircraft were extremely important. Control of the sky, or air superiority, had become a vital part of military doctrine, notably in the case of the blitzkrieg. The Luftwaffe's inability to destroy the British fighter squadrons during the Battle of Britain made the seaborne invasion of Britain infeasible. As engine power grew, existing designs were increasingly used in other roles, with aircraft like the Republic P-47 and Hawker Typhoon becoming celebrated attack aircraft.
Messerschmitt developed the first operational jet fighter, the Me 262, proving to be significantly faster than conventional propeller-driven aircraft. In general terms the jets were untouchable as long as the pilot properly used his speed advantage. The Me 262 could simply fly away from defending fighters, or, in the hands of a more competent pilot, it could run down opposing fighters so quickly that opponents simply didn't have time to get out of the way of its guns. The Me 262 was little used, partly due to German fuel shortages. Moreover, their speed advantage was significantly negated by Hitler's insistence that they be used primarily as fighter bombers. Nevertheless the plane clearly pointed to the end of the propeller engine for fighters. Britain's Gloster Meteor, which had been in development since the late 1930's, entered production soon after, spurred by reports of the German jets, and by the end of the war almost all work on piston powered fighters had ended.
In the 1950s, jet-engined fighter planes capable of supersonic flight were developed. Power remained low, and the designs were dedicated to specific roles. Any particular air force might deploy three or four designs, day fighters, night fighters, attack planes, etc.
These distinctions continued to erode during the 1960s, not always with good results. The McDonnell F-4 Phantom II was designed as a pure interceptor for the US Navy, but became a highly successful multi-role aircraft for the US Air Force and US Marine Corps as well as many other nations. Only a few years later, however, the General Dynamics F-111, intended as a multi-role, multi-service fighter, proved to be a near-disaster, so ineffectual as a fighter that the Navy version was abandoned, and the type eventually matured as bomber. Budgetary and political realities have increasingly forced the development of multi-role rather than specialized aircraft, but with some notable exceptions (like the F/A-18 Hornet), the demands of a good attack aircraft and a good air combat fighter remain somewhat mutually exclusive.
Aerial combat first evolved during World War I
- French aviator Roland Garros was decorated for his innovative machine gun attachment to his plane, which fired bullets through the propeller. Although the design eventually fell into German hands, Garros used it to shoot down three enemy aircraft.
- Significant aircraft:
- Soviet Union
- United Kingdom
- United States
- Saab J21
Many of these fighters would do over 400 mph (600 km/h) in level flight, and were fast enough in a dive that they started encountering the transonic buffeting experienced near Mach 1, occasionally breaking up in flight due to the heavy load placed on an aircraft near the so-called "sound barrier". Dive brakes were developed late in WW II to minimize these problems and restore control to the pilots.
- United Kingdom
- Dassault MD 450
- Dassault Mystere IVB
- Dassault MD 550 Mirage I
The first generation of production jet fighter planes had performance problems near sonic speed (similar to that of the latest piston engined fighters) until aeronautical engineer Richard Whitcomb discovered the "area rule" in 1952. Subsequent designs featured a "bottle-shaped" fuselage that improved performance. This would be an important distinction between early jet fighters (F-86, etc.) and later ones, like the F-5.
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