Photograph of A6M Zero launching for the Pearl Harbor

National Archives

Fighters are aircraft employed to destroy other aircraft in aerial combat. During the Pacific War, most fighters were fast, maneuverable monoplanes carrying a single pilot and machine guns or cannon as armament.

Fighters could be sent against incoming bombers (interception) or could accompany friendly bombers to protect them from the other side's intercepting fighters (escort). They could also be sent out to sweep enemy fighters from a target area (air superiority). The requirements for each kind of mission were slightly different, and some fighter designs were optimized for a particular mission. Interceptors needed to be fast, have an excellent climb rate, and have enough firepower to destroy a large bomber and enough protection to survive the return fire from the bomber's defensive guns. They had less need for long range or high maneuverability. Air superiority fighters were thought to need high maneuverability and speed above all else. Escort fighters needed the attributes of air superiority fighters plus excellent range. In practice, most fighter designs were pressed into service in all three roles at one time or another.

Prior to the war, most airmen were deeply skeptical of the effectiveness of fighters as interceptors. This was in part because the bombers of the day had shown such rapid improvement in performance that contemporary fighters often had little or no speed advantage, making the prospect of successful interception seem dim. Furthermore, it was thought that high-flying bombers would be detected so late and at such a high altitude that fighters would never be able to  take off in time to climb to altitude. Maintaining standing patrols of fighters, known as Combat Air Patrols or CAP, seemed hopeless because of the short endurance of fighters. Fighter tactics were actually dropped from the curriculum of the Air Tactical School after 1936.

A number of technological developments just prior to the outbreak of the Pacific War changed this picture. Fighters became faster as a result of improved engine design (particularly the use of superchargers, which greatly improved high-altitude performance), better streamlining, and the development of high-octane fuels. At the same time, the development of observer networks and of radar increased the warning time sufficiently to allow these high-performance fighters to reach altitude in time to intercept. The Battle of Britain saw the first successful defense against modern bombers by modern fighters. By 1941 the U.S. Navy War College predicted that every ten fighter sorties would shoot down four bombers.

The Second World War shattered a number of other illusions about the design and employment of fighters. During the First World War, fighters were optimized for maneuverability, and tactical doctrine was based on the turning fight or dogfight. Fighter pilots attempted tight maneuvers to put themselves on the undefended rear of enemy fighters, known as the enemy's "six". Pilots sought opportunities for a low deflection shot, in which the target was moving in almost the same direction as their own aircraft, because most pilots were very poor at estimating how much to lead a target that was moving at a relative angle greater than 15 degrees. Many airmen assumed that air combat in the Second World War would simply be a faster, deadlier version of the same game.

However, a number of fighter experts, such as Claire Chennault, believed that dogfighting was an obsolete tactic. They noted that, even in the First World War, most kills were achieved by surprise and most dogfights ended in a draw. Chennault perfected hit-and-run tactics that relied on speed, firepower, and ruggedness rather than outstanding maneuverability, and which took maximum advantage of surprise when it could be achieved. Such tactics would prove effective against such outstandingly maneuverable Japanese aircraft as the Zero and the Oscar. While a nimble fighter could roll and turn quickly at low speed, at high speed its controls tended to "stiffen" badly and it lost maneuverability. The Spitfire, for example, could roll at 90 degrees per second at speeds below 240 mph (390 km/h), but its ailerons stiffened so badly at maximum speed that it could roll only a few degrees per second. Furthermore, tight maneuvers quickly bled off speed and altitude, which gave the advantage to less maneuverable but more powerful aircraft which were more capable of maintaining high speed.

By late 1941, most air forces had adopted some variant of the "finger four" formation, in which fighters flew in loose groups of four aircraft arranged like the fingertips of an outstretched hand. In the chaos of aerial combat, this formation could swiftly change direction or break up into two pairs of aircraft. Each pair was supposed to stay together at all costs, with the lead aircraft focusing on shooting while the wingman watched his "six." However, the Japanese preferred the three-aircraft shōtai, which tended to fall apart under attack, and they did not adopt the four-aircraft element until 1943 or later.

American naval pilot Jimmy Thatch developed the Thatch Weave, a cooperative defensive tactic in which a pair of fighters flew some distance apart and watched each other's "six." If one of the fighters was "bounced" by an enemy fighter, the other friendly fighter immediately turned sharply towards the fighter under attack. This warned the pilot under attack to make his own sharp turn towards his wingman, leaving his pursuer vulnerable to a head-on low-deflection shot from his wingman.  The effect was to convert a turning fight, in which the nimble Japanese fighters had a decided advantage, into a head-on confrontation in which the rugged American fighters had the advantage.

Another illusion shattered by the war was that heavily-armed twin-engined fighters could effectively escort bombers to their target. The Germans were the strongest proponent of "destroyer" fighters, but most of the major powers experimented with the concept. However, it was found during the Battle of Britain that the "destroyers" were sitting ducks for single-engined fighters. In the end, the only twin-engined fighter of the war to enjoy much success was the P-38 Lightning, which owed much of its success to its high speed, long range, and good high-altitude performance.

First-generation American fighters, such as the P-40 and the Wildcat, tended to be well-armed and very rugged but unremarkable for speed, range, and maneuverability. Second-generation fighters such as the Corsair and Hellcat were much faster and had better range without sacrificing protection. The Hellcat was also probably the most maneuverable American fighter of the war, despite being better protected than the Wildcat. The Mustang, which saw service late in the Pacific War, was possibly the best fighter of the war, combining excellent performance with very long range, though at some cost in ruggedness.

Early Japanese fighters, such as the Zero and Oscar, were extraordinarily maneuverable and had excellent range, but were fragile and lacked firepower. In many ways, they were the ultimate development of the World War I fighter. Allied pilots who attempted to dogfight these fighters were in for an unpleasant and often fatal surprise, but found that hit-and-run tactics were effective, as the Japanese aircraft had a tendency to disintegrate under a solid burst of fire. Although the Japanese later introduced fighter designs with better firepower and protection, the Zero and Oscar remained in service throughout the war and were the two most manufactured of all Japanese combat aircraft, suggesting that the Japanese air combat philosophy was too deeply entrenched to be easily changed.

British fighter development was largely the story of the Spitfire, which was repeatedly improved in successive models. Never as rugged as the American fighters, the Spitfire also lacked for range, but it had excellent performance and maneuverability (though never as good as the Zero) and adequate firepower with reasonable protection for the pilot. The inferior Hurricane fighter saw service in the Far East, as did the dismal Fulmar naval fighter. Not until the arrival of the Firefly late in the war did British carriers have a decent indigenous naval fighter; in the interim, the British relied on unsatisfactory navalized Spitfires and Hurricanes and on American naval fighters supplied through Lend-Lease.

Carrier Fighters

In addition to the other qualities desirable in a fighter, a carrier fighter had to have a low enough landing speed to operate off a short flight deck, enough resistance to corrosion to endure salt air, and a sturdy undercarriage for hard landings. These additional constraints were severe enough that most naval fighters were inferior to the best contemporary land-based fighters, the Zero being a notable exception. The Hellcat was very successful in the naval fighter role but was slightly inferior in performance to its best land-based contemporaries. The Corsair was originally designed as a naval fighter but had outstanding performance. However, its forward visibility was so poor that it was initially relegated to the Marines for operation from land bases. British naval pilots subsequently mastered the art of landing the Corsair on a flight deck using a curved approach path, and Marine squadrons flew the Corsair off carriers in the final months of the war.


According to Johnson (2000), the prewar Air Corps deliberately rendered its fighters incapable of carrying external stores in order to prevent their misuse as ground support aircraft. However, as fighters acquired more powerful engines, they became capable of carrying heavier and heavier loads. As a result, the jump was made to fighter-bombers, which were fighters that could be armed with bombs or rockets for strikes against ground targets. The American Thunderbolt, Lightning, and Corsair and the British Beaufighter were particularly successful in the fighter-bomber role, but most Allied fighters still in production had acquired strike capability by 1945. Allied fighter-bombers were particularly adept at direct ground support and, as their numbers grew, they were often employed in "cab ranks", which were squadrons of fighter-bombers kept on continuous patrol over the Allied spearheads where they could be quickly directed against any enemy targets that were encountered by the ground troops.

Japanese fighters were more lightly constructed than Allied fighters and most of the single-engine models were unsuitable for carrying bombs much larger than 130 lbs (60 kg) in weight. However, the "Tony" was powerful enough to carry two 550 lb (250 kg) bombs, and the two-engine "Nick" and "Randy" were effective ground attack aircraft.


During most of the war, most fighters were equipped with reflex sights, such as the U.S. Mark 8 gunsight, which used a reflector plate to superimpose a targeting image (typically an aiming dot or "pipper" surrounded by range circles) on the pilot's target. The image was projected in such a way that it appeared to be located at a great distance, so that it remained centered on the aiming point even when the pilot moved his head. However, the pilot still had to apply the correct deflection with which to lead a maneuvering target. This required considerable training, and only the U.S. Navy provided specialized training in high deflection shooting for its fighter pilots. Most other services emphasized tactics that reduced the amount of deflection required.

By the end of the war, Allied aircraft were being equipped with the British Mark II or American K-14 gyroscopic gunsight, which greatly simplified deflection shooting. The gunsight had a control for selecting the wingspan of the target, and this usually was marked in advance with the correct settings for those enemy aircraft types most likely to be encountered on a mission. Thus, when the pilot was preparing to attack an enemy aircraft, he could quickly set his gunsight for the correct wingspan. His gunsight had a reflector plate similar to that in an ordinary reflex sight, on which was projected a pipper surrounded by a pattern of six dots called the reticle.  Once the pilot had the target in his gunsight, he used a knob on his throttle to adjust the size of the reticle until it matched the apparent wingspan of the target. This gave the gunsight mechanism the range to the target. An analog computer connected to a set of gyroscopes then measured the rate of turn of the pilot's own aircraft, calculated the deflection on the assumption that the pilot's aircraft was matching the maneuvers of the target, and adjusted the reflector plate accordingly. The pilot maneuvered until his pipper had settled onto his target, then opened fire, with an excellent chance of scoring a hit. 

The Japanese were slow to adopt reflex sights, and a significant number of older aircraft (such as the A5M "Claude" and Ki-27 "Nate") still used telescopic gunsights when war broke out. These required considerable concentration and thus hindered the pilot's situational awareness. However, Japanese first line fighters were equipped with reflex gunsights such as the Navy Type 98 Reflector Gunsight. The Japanese were aware by 1943 that the Allies were beginning to make use of gyroscopic gunsights, and began design work on their own gyroscopic sight based on captured B-17 turret computing gunsights, but they were unable to put a gyroscopic gunsight into service before the war ended.

Postwar gunsights used a radar set to determine range, eliminating the distraction of adjusting the range reticle, and these eventually evolved into the heads-up displays of modern fighter aircraft.

Other Pilot Aids

A peculiarity of Japanese aircraft was the very poor communications equipment. The Japanese Navy did not acquire the capability to manufacture and install radios in its aircraft until 1940. Production was 1000 long-range HF sets and just 100 short-range radiotelephone sets per month in 1942. Each fighter was to be retrofitted with a radiotelephone and each light bomber with a radiotelephone and HF set, but the sets were poorly installed and almost unusable. Many fighter pilots later discarded their sets as so much useless extra weight. The problem was not exclusive to the Japanese: Poor radio communications dogged the Americans as late as the Battle of Santa Cruz and probably contributed to the slaughter of the torpedo bombers in the Battle of Midway. However, American radio communications even at their worst were superior to those of the Japanese, and improved markedly later in the war.

Another advantage enjoyed by the Americans was the use of antigravity suits. Military antigravity suits had reached the air groups of U.S. Navy carriers by the time of the battle of Okinawa, These automatically inflated during high-G maneuvers to compress the lower body, which helped prevent the blood supply from draining away from the brain and producing blackouts. The ability to remain fully conscious during very tight turns has obvious tactical advantages, though operational use of G-suits during the Pacific War was brief enough that little data on their combat effectiveness could be accumulated before the war ended.

Japanese fighters

A5M "Claude"

A6M "Zero"

A6M2-N "Rufe"

J1N "Irving"

J2M "Jack"

Ki-27 "Nate"

Ki-43 "Oscar"

Ki-44 "Tojo"

Ki-45 "Nick"

Ki-61 "Tony"

Ki-84 "Frank"

Ki-100 "Tony"

Ki-102 "Randy"

N1K1 "George"

British fighters







American fighters

F2A Buffalo


F4F Wildcat

F4U Corsair

F6F Hellcat

P-26 Peashooter


P-36 Hawk

P-38 Lightning

P-39 Airacobra

P-40 Warhawk

P-43 Lancer

P-47 Thunderbolt

P-51 Mustang

P-66 Vanguard

Australian fighters



Bergerud (2000)

Boyne (2001)

Chen (2004-2012; accessed 2012-8-25)

Gandt (2010)

Johnson (2000)

Mikesh (2004)

Spick (1997)

Zimm (2011) (accessed 2012-9-18)

Valid HTML 4.01 Transitional