The 5 Deadliest Aircraft Carrier Fighters of All Time

Photo Credit: 1. U.S. Navy / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain 2. SDASM / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Photo Credit: 1. U.S. Navy / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain 2. SDASM / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

The Italo-Turkish War in 1911-12 was the first to feature aerial bombardments. World War I, which began a few years later, also featured a fair amount of aerial fighting. Since then, there has been a race to produce the fastest and most deadly planes. Below is a list of the most lethal aircraft carrier fighters of all time.

Grumman F9F Panther

Following World War II, the United States realized it needed to invest heavily in fighter jets. The F9F Panther, which had its first flight on November 21, 1947, was the first Grumman jet fighter and the US Navy‘s first successful carrier-based one. It featured a navy blue color scheme and four 20mm cannons. The sleek fighter could also carry several other munitions.

Two Grumman F9F Panthers flying over the USS Princeton
Two Grumman F9F Panthers flying over the USS Princeton. (Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images)

The Panther didn’t have long to be tested, as the Korean War began in 1950. Navy pilots flew hundreds of missions aboard the F9F. On November 9, 1950, the fighter scored the first recorded jet-on-jet aerial kill by downing a Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15. Even though the MiG-15 had a top speed of 670 MPH, compared to the F9F’s slightly lower speed, the Panther continued to prove its ability in combat, as a single F9F downed four MiGs in a battle over the Sea of Japan in 1952.

The United States retired the plane in 1958.

Mitsubishi A6M Zero

The Mitsubishi A6M Zero, a carrier-based fighter aircraft, was designed by Jiro Horikoshi, and had its first flight in April 1939. The plane was immediately dominant in dogfights, achieving a kill ratio of 12 to one. It could fly 1,600 miles on internal fuel, and reached a top speed of 346 MPH. Despite its speed, the Zero could still turn on a dime.

Mitsubishi A6M Zero in flight
Mitsubishi A6M Zero in flight. (Photo Credit: Museum of Flight / CORBIS / Getty Images)

Early on in WWII, the Zero dominated the skies. As other planes adapted, however, the Achilles heel of the Japanese-designed aircraft was found. The Allied forces realized it had been lightly armored to achieve its incredible performance. Due to this, it was largely adapted for use in kamikaze missions toward the end of the conflict.

Grumman F6F Hellcat

The Mitsubishi A6M Zero presented a major problem for the Allied forces. At first, the Americans attempted to take on the Japanese aircraft with the Vought F4U Corsair. The planes initially looked to be formidable, with an 11 to one kill rate. As time went on, however, issues with carrier landings and logistics opened the door for other fighters. Enter the Grumman F6F Hellcat.

A Grumman Hellcat takes off in Long Island
Grumman F6F Hellcat (Photo Credit: Museum of Flight / CORBIS / Getty Images)

While in service to the US Navy, the US Marine Corps and the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm, the Hellcat is credited with destroying an incredible 5,224 enemy aircraft. It was quickly developed by Grumman in the early 1940s and had its first flight on June 26, 1942.

Upon entering the Pacific Theater, the Hellcat turned the tide. In fact, the aircraft shot down so many Japanese planes during the Battle of the Philippine Sea that Navy aircrews referred to the conflict as the “Great Marianas Turkey Shoot.”

McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II

The F-4 Phantom was developed after WWII and Korea. Designed by McDonnell Douglas, it was significantly different than the aircraft used during the two previous wars, as it could reach a speed of Mach 2 and carry 18,000 pounds of armaments. The fighter featured prominently in the Vietnam War in both reconnaissance missions and air fighting, and was known for its ability to combine a huge payload with speed and maneuverability.

Crew prepping a McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II for takeoff
McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II being prepped for takeoff. (Photo Credit: Hulton-Deutsch Collection / CORBIS / Getty Images)

However, that didn’t mean there weren’t any issues with the plane. Pilots complained about the low maneuverability and ineffectiveness of its early missiles. Rather than change its design, the Navy chose to better train its pilots – in fact, the “TOPGUN” school was created to help pilots understand how to best operate the aircraft.


Taking off and landing on an aircraft carrier is no easy task. The US and British militaries were painfully aware of the problem and thus focused on fixing it. The result was the British Harrier, which conducted its first flight on December 28, 1967. Unlike previous jets, the Harrier was a VTOL, meaning it took off and landed vertically, eliminating the need for dangerous horizontal landings on a carrier.

Two Harrier jets in flight
Harrier jets in flight. (Photo Credit: PA Images / Getty Images)

The Harrier was also effective in the air, albeit after some training. Difficult to fly due to how new VTOL technology was, pilots who mastered the aircraft were able to perform their duties well. The Harriers were best used during the Falklands War in the 1980s, during which British pilots used Sea Harriers to beat back the Argentinian forces.

The Harrier was officially discontinued in 2003.

Todd Neikirk

Todd Neikirk is a New Jersey-based politics, entertainment and history writer. His work has been featured in,, and He enjoys sports, politics, comic books, and anything that has to do with history.

When he is not sitting in front of a laptop, Todd enjoys soaking up everything the Jersey Shore has to offer with his wife, two sons and American Foxhound, Wally.