The Five Greatest Aircraft Ever Flown By The United States Armed Forces

It should come as no surprise that some of the finest aircraft in the world to be built was done so on U.S. soil. Out of necessity, ambition, and sheer tenacity manufacturers, the likes of Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and McDonnell Douglas have offered only the best and finest the United States could have ever asked for. Constantly revisiting the drawing board, redesigning, improving, and upgrading, these companies have stayed at the head of the game for good reason.

There are numerous fine fighter aircraft out there, but these are five of the best used by the U.S. military, in the past and present.

McDonnell Douglas F-4C Phantom II

In 1940, the Soviets debuted the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-1 and were steadily improving the design of their fighter aircraft in the following years. In response to the USSR’s aerial strength, McDonnell Douglas set to work and came up with the two-seater, twinjet, all-weather F-4 Phantom II, and it was one of the most versatile fighters ever built. It served in the front line of Western air forces more than any other jet. Subsequent variants of the aircraft worked on improving any issues that hindered its performance in battle, with the F-4E later shifting focus from speed and thrust to better manoeuvrability.

F-4 Phantom II
An US Air Force (USAF) F-4 Phantom II aircraft is refueled in flight by a USAF KC-135 Stratotanker

It first flew on May 27, 1958, and the U.S. Navy adopted the F-4 in 1961. It was adopted by the Marine Corps and Air Force, and it set several speed records upon entering service as it was more than twice as fast as the speed of sound. The Phantom II saw heavy action in Vietnam and during the Gulf War‘s Operation Desert Storm, in particular, the F-4G Wild Weasels. While the U.S. military retired the aircraft from active duty in 1996, it remains in use by several other countries, including South Korea and Iran.

McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II
McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II

Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet

The Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet is a modified version of the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet. In the mid-1990s, the US Navy requested a larger multi-role fighter that would replace the Grumman F-14A Tomcat. Boeing stepped in with the Super Hornet, which is 20 percent larger than the original and can carry 33 percent more fuel, increasing its mission range by 41 per cent.

KC-135 Stratotanker refuels a Navy F/A-18E Super Hornet
A KC-135 Stratotanker refuels a Navy F/A-18E Super Hornet over Iraq June 15, 2018. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Staff Sgt. Corey Hook)

Entering fleet service in 1999, the Super Hornet joined the Strike Fighter Squadron 115 (VFA-115) at Naval Air Station Lemoore, California two years later. A relatively new fighter, most of the missions carried out by the Super Hornet have taken place in West Asia, most notably in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Still in service with the United States, different variants of the aircraft are currently also flown by the Kuwaiti Air Force and the Royal Australian Air Force.

F/A-18E Super Hornet aircraft
A US Navy (USN) F/A-18E Super Hornet aircraft. Photographer’s Mate Airman Phillip A. McDaniel, U.S. Navy

North American F-86 Sabre

In the early year or so of the Korean War, U.S. pilots were dealing with losses keeping up with the MiG-15s flown by the Soviet-backed Chinese and North Koreans. The Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star was the serving aircraft at the time but it wasn’t nearly enough. Soon though, the North American F-86 Sabre emerged as the leading U.S. fighter jet of the war.

F-86F Sabre
Col. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., commander of the 51st Fighter Interceptor Wing, leads a three-ship F-86F Sabre formation during the Korean War in 1954. (Courtesy photo)

Once the efficiency of the jet fighter was realised, mainly due to its well-trained pilots and proficient equipment, it was put into mass production. North American Aviation produced around 7,800 units between 1949-56.

The F-86 was used extensively during the Korean War, participating in some of the earliest jet-to-jet dogfights in history. Outside of Korea, the F-86 also saw action in other Cold War conflicts and during the 1965 Indo-Pakistani War.

F-86E Sabre
The F-86E Sabre flown by Lt. Col. Albert Kelly, 51st Fighter Interceptor Group commander,during the Korean War in 1952. The F-86 was the Air Force’s first swept wing fighter. (Courtesy photo)

While the fighter and its later different models were slowly phased out by the U.S. Air Force, continued to see service in the air forces of several other countries.

McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle

The F-15 is a twin-engine, high-performance, and all-weather air superiority fighter known for its incredible acceleration and manoeuvrability with a top speed above Mach 2.5 to keep up with the USSR’s MiG-25 interceptor and reconnaissance aircraft. It was officially introduced into service with the US Air Force in 1976.

McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle
McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle

The F-15 quickly proved to be a superior tactical fighter, achieving 101 aerial victories with no recorded losses. Its armament is quite powerful across all variants as it carries a large complement of missiles that include AIM-9 Sidewinders and AIM-7 Sparrows; the Boeing-built Small Diameter Bomb I, Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) and Laser JDAM weapons; and an internal 20 mm Gatling gun. The F-15E Strike Eagle newer variant is even more powerful, featuring improved avionics and producing between 50,000 and 58,000 pounds of thrust.

U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle
A U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle assigned to the 335th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron conducts aerial refueling during an agile combat employment exercise

The F-15 has seen heavy use by the US, with the F-15C, -D, and -E variants deployed during Operation Desert Storm, the latter of which was used to conduct nighttime air-to-ground strikes. Of the 36 aerial victories scored during Desert Storm, 32 alone were done by the F-15.

Some 46 years and 1,500 models after it was introduced, the fighter still remains in service but that will not last, as the Air Force had announced that it would begin phasing out the aircraft in the near future.

Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor

The Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor was intended as a replacement for the famous F-15 Eagle. The aircraft had its first flight in 1997 and was officially introduced into service with the U.S. Air Force eight years later in 2006. The U.S. Department of Defence announced the decision to end F-22 production at 187 aircraft in April 2009.

F-22 Raptor
F-22 Raptor Air Power

The single-seat fighter is devastating in battle, mainly thanks to its stealth features and heavy armament. It was designed to be difficult to detect on radar, meaning it can virtually sneak up behind or above an enemy aircraft and remain undetected for several minutes. What’s more detrimental is its capability of shooting down a combatant while outside of their range of detection.

The U.S. Air Force received its last F-22 in 2012, yet despite this, the F-22 is still in active service and used exclusively by the Air Force. It made its combat debut in September 2014 in coordinated strikes with other fighter jets and bombers against Islamic State strongholds in Syria.

F-22 Raptor
F-22 Raptor in flight over an undisclosed location