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P 47 the best fighter of WW2

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  • P 47 the best fighter of WW2

    Is it true that most Luftwaffe pilots would rather be sent to the Eastern Front than the Western Front?

    Pete Feigal
    , former Pro Military Artist for 25 Years
    Answered March 27 ∑ Upvoted by
    Rishav Karn
    , former Hauptmann at Wehrmacht and
    Rich Kiene
    , Served in USMC 67-71 DaNang VN 1969.US Army 86-93 Somolia 93.

    I can’t, of course, speak for all German aviators, but I had the immense luck to meet and become friends with a very special one, and I heard his thoughts about the Eastern vs the Western Front…

    I was once a professional artist working for the US Military, military and aviation museums, restorers, CAF squadrons, the Tuskegee Airmen, etc. focusing on military subjects, esp. WWII aircraft/AFV and the Middle Ages/Mongols. I met the German aviator GŁnther Rall at the EAA FlyIn at Oshkosh, WI, one year when we had adjoining booths and stayed friends/penpals till his death. He was history’s #3 ace, with 275 victories in 621 combat missions. He was shot down five times and severely wounded, even marrying his doctor after one long hospital stay for a severely injured back.

    Above: Rall in the middle in front of his Bf-109G.

    He saw it all; fought in the Battle of France, Battle of Britain, Balkans, and mostly the Eastern Front, the retreat from Stalingrad and Kursk, where commanded the famous JG-52, the most successful fighter wing in history, and taught students like Erich Hartmann, and then finally in defence of the Reich.

    He spoke of his concerns when, in April of ‘44, he was transferred west to fight in the defence of the Reich. The quality of the American pilots and aircraft he believed were clearly superior to the Soviet’s, and the fighting would be at higher altitudes. He had great respect for the Allied pilots, ranking, (“On this day, at least,”) the British first, the Americans a close second and the Soviets a distant third.

    He said he was a bit fatalistic about facing the American P-47’s and P-51’s but was a soldier and did his duty. His fears were justified when, after he had jumped one of Zemke’s Wolfpack’s P-47’s, (Rall always used the hit-and-run tactics, NEVER got into tight turning contests, had no use at all for “dogfighting” and taught all his students, including Barkhorn and Hartmann that “if they ever found themselves “dogfighting” they had done something majorly wrong,” and considering these were the three greatest aces in history, I believe he had a point,) shooting it down, he was instantly attacked by other P-47’s. Already diving on the attack, he had no choice but to continue down, but his 109 was a terrible diver/roller and no aircraft except perhaps a P-38 could out dive a P-47 and no plane except perhaps a FW 190 could out roll it. He took many hits, including, “a bit disconcertingly!” a .50 that severed his left thumb. He bailed out and survived, but was, thankfully, out of the action for good.

    He said it ultimately saved his life as the Allies had total superiority of the air and he doubted he could have survived many more encounters.

    Mr. Rall was a true gentleman, and I got to hear his amazing thoughts and insights about WWII aircraft altogether, esp. fighters, and the Battle of Britain, meeting Hitler, Stalingrad, Kursk, the defence of the Reich and WWII from all angles as a whole from his unique eyewitness POV. He spoke passable English and my German, esp. reading, was good enough to hear/read some incredible stories.

    My favourite memory of him was at Oshkosh when he did an impromptu history lesson outside my art booth to a crowd of intrigued aviation fans using some of my WWII art as aids. At one point some hayseed in bib overalls and a Confederate flag cap drawled, “So you was a Naaazi, huh?” Mr. Rall, not a big man, stood up straight and replied, with great dignity: “I was a soldier, sir.”

    Rest in peace, sir.


    Some great thoughts going on here! I apologise but I don’t have time to answer all questions individually do to health/life concerns so:

    A lot of conversation about comparison dive speeds going on, lots of “data” and “stats” being thrown around and I want to give a bit of a different perspective to all this, so here’s some thoughts about what I learned from 25 years working/speaking with top test pilots, pilots, crew chiefs, designers, museums, restorers, etc.

    (Above: Greatest diver in WWII.)

    I knew “Corky” Meyer, and if you don’t know him it’s a shame as he was America’s top civilian test pilot, who was THE #1 Grumman test pilot who brought in the Hellcat, Bearcat, Tigercat and many of their jets, had balls that wouldn’t fit in Yankee Stadium, and eventually was Grumman’s CEO. He was so respected he was chosen to first evaluate the captured Zero. He did extensive testing of a staggering array of aircraft, Allied and Axis, and laid a real, comprehensive foundation for accurate comparison of all of America/Britain’s fighters and had the best, most accurate knowledge of all of WWII’s fighters I ever met, and he talked with the most actual hands-on experience of anyone I personally ever knew, except Eric Brown, that, unfortunately, I never met. His experience with dive testing these planes is paramount here in my notes…

    I also knew many pilots who first flew the P-47 some who then switched to the P-51, and met and talked with, though didn’t know them personally, a couple, like “Gabby” Gabreski, America’s top ETO ace, who stuck with their P-47’s through the war.

    I was brought up watching newsreels of beautiful, swoopy “Hollywood” Mustangs and Corsairs, and relatively few of ugly Hellcats and Thunderbolts, (having to do, I learned years later, with the restrictions put on cameramen because of top secret issues earlier in the war, that were later relaxed for publicity/public morale purposes), but I learned when I got into military aviation professionally, from most of these amazing men, to my initial surprise, but has been demonstrated to me again and again ever since, that…

    The P-47 Thunderbolt was, without a doubt, the greatest fighter, *the* greatest warcraft of WWII and probably of all time. If it’s namesake the A-10 Thunderbolt was an aircraft built around a huge 30mm gun, the P-47 Thunderbolt was an aircraft built around a huge Pratt & Whitney turbo-supercharged R2800 air-cooled, radial engine.

    It was *the* most versatile aircraft of WWII. It did everything well.

    Docile and sweet to fly despite its size, even for the average 200 hour-trained pilots. I’ve never flown a P-51, darn it, although I have a T-6 and Yak trainer, but had (cramped but free!) rides in two 51s, and the Mustang was a little bit twitchy, you had to really fly it.

    Self-sealing fuel tanks, good armour behind the pilot’s head, (and as it turned out, elsewhere from the very strong and huge turbo-supercharger system.)

    Huge, tall, comfortable cockpit with unmatched visibility, and some features few aircraft could match: these included electric fuel indicators, great heating and air-conditioning for the cockpit, and variable heating for the gun-bays, great in chilly Europe and at high altitudes.

    It flew over 746,000 combat sorties, more missions than the P-51, P-40, and P-38…wait for it…*combined!*

    It was made in greater numbers than any other US fighter.

    The pilot is the greatest/most important/expensive part of any aircraft and their survivability per mission was *the* key element of air combat, and the P-47 had the best survivability per mission of any US fighter in WWII, and I believe almost top in all nation’s fighters. “The plane’s safety record was nothing short of astounding – only about 0.7 percent of Thunderbolts were lost in action.”- Military History Now. “Thunderbolts were lost at the exceptionally low rate of 0.7 per cent per mission and Jug pilots achieved an aerial kill ratio of 4.6:1. In the European Theater, P-47 pilots destroyed more than 7,000 enemy aircraft, more than half of them in air-to-air combat.”-Smithsonian. “As a testament to the survivability of the P-47, it should be noted that the top ten aces who flew the P-47 returned home safely.”-Aviation History. That alone is so significant.

    It’s true the Mustang had a better kill ratio, and are given credit for shooting down more German planes, but it’s “Apples/Oranges.” The P-47’s were in service a full year before the P-51’s started arriving in signifiant numbers, and took on and broke the back of the Luftwaffe earlier in the war when it still had good pilots. The P-47’s paved the way for D-Day’s almost unopposed by the Luftwaffe status, and when the Luftwaffe was significantly damaged, they switched the P-47s over to the much tougher role of “ground pounding”, while the P-51’s took on, for the last 10 months of the war significant numbers of good, even great German aircraft, but flown mostly by green boys, “clay pigeons,” “floaters,” some with less than 50 hours of training from lack if fuel, significantly poorer in quality than the “expertens” the P-47s had faced from late ’42 to D-Day.

    It was arguably *the* best ground attack aircraft of the war with its eight .50’s, carrying 3400 rds, (425 rds per gun,) vs the P-51’s six .50’s carrying 1880 rds. And the 47 could heft 2.4 tons of ordnance, bombs and rockets in ground attack vs the P-51’s single one (1) ton. When firing 5” rockets it had the broadside of a Destroyer!

    Just in Europe, from D-Day through the end of the war, P-47 units of the 9th Air Force are given credit for destroying 86,000 German railway cars, 9,000 locomotives, (their railroad system was, also arguably, the Germans greatest weapon of WWII), 6,000 armoured fighting vehicles, (NOTE: mostly by disabling their tracks/suspensions or by destroying their support vehicles, aircraft did not actually destroy many actual AFVs) and 68,000 trucks. This does not count the horses and wagons that truly propelled the Wehrmacht and infantry/artillery pieces/machine-gun-emplacements/pillboxes that the P-47’s, guided by other P-47 pilots grounded, working with the American infantry, that could bring in close support sometimes within a recorded 50 yards! Danger Close!

    A significant key to its success in ground attack key was its immense strength, including its amazing Pratt & Whitney R2800 air-cooled engine that could literally have two complete cylinders blown away by German 20mm cannon shells and still get her pilot home. By comparison, the P-51 was a poor ground attack aircraft with its incredibly fragile water-cooled Packard-built Rolls Royce Merlin engine that could be destroyed by a piece of high-velocity metal the size of a fingernail clipping piercing its unarmored cooling system, a “Golden BB.” It performed poorly again in the ground attack role in Korea when the same Pratt & Whitney R2800 air-cooled radial engines, this time powering F4U Corsairs, had to be sent in to replace them after they took severe losses from ground fire.

    Despite the myths and lies spread by the “Bomber Mafia” that had come to power in the Army Air Corps in the ’30’s on their totally flawed theory that fast, supercharged bombers wouldn’t need fighter protection, but would simply outrun enemy fighters, (proved murderously wrong on raids like Schweinfurt,) and who then fudged “info”,“data” and “charts” to “prove” that the existing P-47s were not good escort fighters, and “it wasn’t our fault!”, “data” still insanely waved about by amateurs today. In reality, with drop tanks, the P-47s were great escort fighters. The P-47 units went in desperation over the general’s heads, worked in cooperation to get the new British “paper” drop tanks, and proved their worth. By the model P-47D, the Thunderbolt could carry up to three drop tanks, giving it a range of 1,900 miles (3,057 kilometres), far enough to escort bombers to any target and back. And by war’s end the P-47 “N” Model was *the* premiere escort fighter of the war with a lavishly large cockpit, huge fuel tanks, even an auto pilot, and it could escort the B-29s on extremely long missions up to 2,350 miles, further than any P-51 and in incredible comfort.

    With its large fuselage able to carry cameras it as an excellent photo recon ship.

    It was, for all practical purposes except for a very few produced models:

    The fastest piston-powered aircraft of WWII, its R2800 engine made during the war between 2,000 and 2,800 at the end, in actual hp, one horsepower per cubic inch, better performance than the RR Merlins could ever achieve.

    With its turbo-supercharger it was the best high altitude fighter of the war, except for a few and relatively insignificant Ta 152s or experimentals.

    And even thought it couldn’t climb or turn (“dogfight”) with smaller aircraft, despite what terrible History Channel documentaries and decades of poorly researched computer/video games try and sell, that kind of tight turning combat was NOT in vogue from 1941 on. (Read my original answer above to hear what Gunther Rall thought of “dogfighting.”) The fast hit-and-run/energy/zoom manoeuvres of ambush, dive and roll, were, and the P-47 was, except for the FW 190, the best roller, and it was the best diver of WWII.

    All from a fighter designed before WWII, unlike the later arriving P-51, with its obvious advantages of hindsight/combat experience.

    But specifically back to the diving abilities: the P-47 was the fastest diving piston-powered aircraft of WWII in the majority of, but not in 100% of, conditions, as nothing ever is.

    “The Thunderbolt was the fastest-diving American aircraft of the war—it could reach speeds of 550 mph (480 kn; 890 km/h)”-Wiki

    Once at the Planes of Fame museum “Corky” talked about how so much of the “stats” that are constantly thrown around about like Gospel on aircraft performance by folks that might not understand them or how that data was gathered…was simply wrong. He told a great story that he had heard from people who were there about the time when Lockheed established the performance stats for their new P-38 to try and sell it to the military, and it sounded like Chevy trying to fudge stats on their new Camaro!

    He said that for at least a week before the “official test,” top Allison techs fine-tuned/balanced the two engines, turbo-superchargers, set exact manifold pressures, tweaked the props, (always something that could rarely be done precisely in the field with its dual engines, a huge weakness of the P-38. It was in fact two aircraft put into one, beautiful, very expensive, very complicated and its greatest weakness, not strength.) They stripped her like a stolen car of its .50’s, 20mm, ammo, big radio, armour plate, drained 3/4 of its fuel, “even threw out the fuzzy dice on the rearview mirror!” Lockheed engineers went over every inch, they had their own test pilot trained for months on this individual aircraft, “hired winged Pegasus as an advisor,” pampered, peeped and babied her, then…let ‘er rip! She flew like, well, “Winged Pegasus,” and performed magnificently, giving Lockheed great numbers to take to the military procurers who controlled the purse strings, as, patriotic as Lockheed surely was, they had a very expensive prototype they desperately wanted to sell…and they put the P-38 in an unrealistic configuration that she would never actually ever be in in a real, combat setting. The average, ordinary, 19 year-old, bubblegum chewin’, baseball cap wearin’, standing on a 50 gallon oil tank, American crewman could never, ever duplicate that level of enhanced performance in the intense, actual pressure of The Field.

    When calculating the P-47’s actually dive numbers a lot of the dive speed performance people go to is based on Eric Brown’s (easily one of the top ten pilots of all time,) performance testing with the P-47.

    Dive speed performance is measured differently with different factors. At high altitudes its usually “mach number limited” and at low it’s “air speed limited.” Other factors: acceleration in the dive, ease of recovery, room to recover, strength of the aircraft to actually consistently reach those numbers are also key factors to be considered here, and all to the P-47s benefit.

    For instance overall a P-47D could outdive a Spitfire Mk14 by over 100mph! And it could outdive all German fighters except the Me 262 jet, (that, BTW, melted IT’S turbo fans on every mission, from lack of essential alloys, kinda expensive and labor intensive.)

    Capt. Eric Brown tested the P-47 and said the P-47s mach limit was a very low .71 and that has been accepted by many for a long time, but new/old research shows he was, sorry, Eric, wrong.

    The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) both at Langley and the Ames Research Centers, and the Royal Air Force all tested the Thunderbolt and they all came up with much higher mach numbers than Brown, at .814815 in the US and the RAF's Fighting Development Unit came up with .836. Republic itself came up with 0.82, flown by Chief Test Pilot, Robert Johnson, our #2 ace in ETO, flying exclusively P-47s, 27 victories, who, I believe, knew what he was doing in a Thunderbolt cockpit.

    Some stories said Brown had better equipment but this is unlikely. NACA had an almost unlimited wartime budget and had/could manufacture all the best equipment they needed, were very experienced at measuring mach numbers. They even tested the P-47’s manoeuvrability up to mach 0.78. So the majority of source material is hugely weighed against Eric Brown on this.

    We also have pilot reports from the entire war that P-47 pilots at altitude would easily outdive German fighters, (or anything else), whose aircraft had limits from 0.75 for the Bf 109s to about 0.78 for the Fw 190s. If Brown was correct and the P-47 was limited to 0.71 then the 109s and 190s could have escaped them by diving, something that just didn’t happen as Gunther Rall personally could testify to. (The only time this didn’t happen was earlier in the war when the Thunderbolts were ordered to *not* chase the diving German fighters and stick to the bombers they were escorting.)

    As I expressed earlier, simply looking at sheer numbers and stats are misleading. For instance, one huge advantage the P-47 had in the dive over the P-51 and basically almost every WWII aircraft, esp. fighters, was electric dive brakes, that it, thankfully, got relatively early in its combat career, something very few aircraft, including the Mustang, were ever equipped with.

    By designing compressibility dive flaps for the heavy and fast P-47, Republic’s Aviation engineers provided means to counteract these undesirable changes and afford safe pullouts at critical speed and high altitude, a huge factor over other fighters. The P-51 with it’s great “numbers” simply couldn’t, in reality and combat situations, dive as fast as the “stats” say, as it couldn’t recover fast enough. (The P-51’s earlier cousin the A-36 Apache actually was equipped with dive brakes but the later P-51s were not.)

    (Note: because of the refigured wing of the “N”ovember Model, different shape/sized, extra fuel tanks, that particular P-47 model did not have dive brakes.)

    A P-47D pilot with dive recovery brakes could fly right up to or even slightly beyond the mach limit with confidence. Confidence that the aircraft was the best made and would not tear apart as most others, including P-51’s might, and that he could recover from the dive. And here’s where some of the “official stats” become meaningless: when most aircraft were on the verge of hitting their max mach number…their aircraft could possibly disintegrate. If your mach number is 0.80 but you know that at 0.805 the tail of your Bf 109 or P-51 has a pretty good chance to tear off…you are probably never going to actually go 0.80. The P-47 could honestly do that 0.82 over and over again, with no risk to plane or pilot.

    This ”confidence” is another factor in the dive numbers: the actual strength of the aircraft…how many G’s can an aircraft sustain before breaking. “Corky” was famous for being able to bring home a bent ship that had most of the rivets popped and he learned some interesting things about the Thunderbolt. And here is another huge advantage to the P-47. A little know fact to most amateur historians about the P-47 is that it was THE best manufactured aircraft of WWII, followed closely by the B-29 Superfortress and Grumman F6F Hellcat. On the whole the P-51 was very well made, but it did not come close to the quality of the P-47.

    Check out ‘Gregs Airplanes and Automobiles’ on Youtube for his 9 hour documentary series on the P-47, and his conclusion about this amazing aircraft. Incredible facts and figures, right down almost to the individual nuts and bolts, combat record, design philosophy, much more, amazingly meticulous research! You WILL become a believer in all things “Thunderbolt.”

    (BTW, the F4U Corsair was actually quite shoddily made, built only for speed, didn’t even have a cockpit floor for most of its manufacturing run. Yes, you read right. Drop your canteen, map, compass, pencil, sandwich and you are SOL. Way tougher to land/taxi/take off in, with that huge, always leaking-white-taped-sealed forward-hog-nosed-low-viz-gas tank, and every single pilot I ever met who flew both the F6F Hellcat and the F4U Corsair vastly preferred the Hellcat, and so did the maintenance crews.)

    People wonder at the $51,000 cost of a P-51D vs the $85,000 cost of a P-47D, 3 for less than the price of 2, a significant factor in the US Military continuing with the P-51 after the war. It was a bigger aircraft, of course, with duplicated systems, eight .50’s, significantly more ammo, and its huge turbo-supercharged Pratt & Whitney 2800R air-cooled, radial engine, far superior at altitude to the merely supercharged V-12, water-cooled Packard-built Rolls Royce Merlin, made up much of that cost. But additionally the cost difference was because of the sheer quality of materials and build time put into the Thunderbolt. When you study the manufacturing process of the P-47, (Check out ‘Greg’s!’) its mind-blowing. Double-skinned with the top quality aluminium, absolutely top quality steel and components, even fasteners, literally the “nuts and bolts” were better, (yes, there are many different grades of quality for all of this items, and the P-47 had the best.) When you study the amazing and huge turbo-supercharger system, you realise why the fuselage had to be so big. And it didn’t just supply massive amounts of air to the engine, the system that extended from behind the pilot to the engine itself acted as armour to the aircraft and pilot as well. The fans of the turbos, for instance, were actually made of low, but still armour-grade steel! It was never “armoured like a tank,” it would have never got off the ground, but it sure as Hell was "BUILT like a tank.” It was incredibly strong and durable and that was the reason its got its precious and expensive pilots home after being shot up better than any other WWII aircraft, this alone making it the best aircraft of WWII. Without a good pilot, even the best machine is only an expensive “paperweight.”

    While some may point out the dive factors between the P-51 and the P-47 being close they are not taking in the fact that the P-51 could NOT sustain those physical strains in real combat manoeuvres: it’s tail or wings would break off and their pilots were taught NOT to dive at those speeds. The P-47 actually *could* sustain those optimal dive speeds without losing “structural integrity.” Again, the numbers, the “stats” themselves are meaningless without the real, authentic physics to give them clarity.

    A lot of thoughts here. No one aircraft was the fastest diving in all conditions but the P-47 was generally considered the fastest diving prop-driven aircraft of the war.

    Thanks for the time. If you’d like to see some of my pen and ink art, here’s a long-dead website with a few of my WWII aircraft and AFVs images, including a couple of Bf 109’s (G and K) and a Tiger tank. Amazingly, after 40 years my fine art T-shirts still sell at museum gift shops and on eBay. There’s no accounting for taste!