As evidenced in earlier posts, I have a soft spot for airplanes and a particular obsession with all things World War II. WWII airplanes are some of the most legendary in the world, this great conflict giving rise to revolutionary new designs and inspired ideas in the realm of aviation. This post is dedicated to my favourite WWII Allied aircraft- not the best aircraft, necessarily, just my favourite. And Soviet designs are not part of this post, since the Eastern Front is a whole other area of interest for me!
I would assume that when most people think of a WWII aircraft, the Spitfire comes to mind. Even those who don’t know much of WWII show a spark of recognition when I mention the name ‘Spitfire’. And such a reputation is well-deserved! Appearing in many incarnations, the Spitfire combined manoeuvrability and speed with high performance at altitude, and was a fearsome dogfighter.
Early Supermarine Spitfire at IWM London
I had the privilege of going to Duxford Aerodrome and the Imperial War Museum Duxford back in 2011, a site that is tied to the Spitfire’s illustrious history. In 1938, Duxford’s No. 19 Squadron was the first of the RAF to operate the new fighter. During the Battle of Britain two years later, squadrons of both Spitfires and Hawker Hurricanes that were based at and around RAF Duxford, were instrumental in holding off the attacking Germans.
Replica Spitfire in its rightful place- an original WWII hangar at Duxford
While at Duxford, I was well aware of its association with the awe-inspiring Spitfire. It was incredible to tour the old WWII hangars and imagine them as they would have been in the ’40s: full of mechanics and pilots attending to dozens of Spitfires. And looking out at the grassy field beyond the hangars made me imagine rows of the graceful, gently-mottled airplanes bobbing along the grass on their way to intercept a group of Messerschmitts and Heinkels.
Tiger Moth on approach to Duxford’s grass strip
I’ve also seen numerous Spitfires in action in airshows; always agile and impressive, it is a privilege to see this legendary plane flying. What strikes me most about the Spitfire is its longevity and versatility. There were 22 separate marks of Spitfire and further variations on those marks; but the plane itself was produced over ten years, from 1938 to 1948. Just over 20,000 planes were made over that decade, and were distributed for use all over the world. Whether dogfighting with a Bf-109 over the English Channel, or fitted with a sand filter and deployed in North Africa, the Spitfire proved its worth in all situations and was much-loved by its pilots.
My favourite bomber, perhaps of all time, is the Avro Lancaster. Even before I knew much about airplanes or WWII, I knew and loved the Lancaster.
Lancaster at IWM Duxford
The ‘Lanc’, as it was nicknamed, has an unmistakeable silhouette; thick fuselage, four props driven by Rolls-Royce Merlin engines, and multiple defensive turrets. I love the Lanc because it is so unique and storied- Lancasters dropped 608,612 tons of bombs during the war, and were the aircraft chosen for the famous Dambusters raid.
The impressive bomb bay of the Lancaster
In August 2012, I witnessed an original Lancaster fly for the first time in my life. Prior to that, I had seen various museum specimens in both Canada and the UK, but amazing as museums are, there is nothing like seeing an aviation legend in the air. Especially one as rare as this- there remain only two airworthy Lancasters in the world today. The sound and sight of such a plane in the air was unforgettable, and also frightening; as I imagined how it must have been for Lancaster crews on raids and for German citizens being bombed by these planes.
Lancaster taxiing at Hamilton Airshow- the noise from its four Merlins was magnificent! Image courtesy of Andrew Jacobs
B-17 Flying Fortress
The B-17 is a glorious-looking aircraft, with its usually shiny silver finish and its broad and elegant wings. Although its most well-known claim to fame may be the 1990 film Memphis Belle, this aircraft was great in its own right. With a payload of 17,600 pounds (just 400 lbs. shy of that of the Avro Lancaster), the B-17s fielded by the USAAC and USAAF flew nearly 300,000 sorties over Europe and were well-known for remaining airworthy even after taking large amounts of damage.
B-17 at the 2013 Great Lakes International Airshow
I attended the 2013 Great Lakes International Airshow in St. Thomas last summer, excited at the prospect of seeing a real B-17. I was not disappointed, as I actually saw the plane on four separate occasions that weekend! My grandparents live in St. Thomas so I stayed at their house for the airshow, and on the eve of the show the drone of propellers drew me outside. I was shocked to see the B-17 flying at about 1000 feet over the house, on its way to the airport! After that, I saw the beautiful bomber perform in the show (of course), make several passes around the city once the show was over, and finally fly low over a city park where I was eating supper. I felt very privileged and strangely emotional to have seen it so much.
Incredible low pass by the B-17- we had an unparalleled vantage point for the show!
de Havilland Mosquito
One of the greatest blessings in my life is that I have seen the last airworthy Mosquito in the world. The de Havilland Mosquito is undoubtedly one of the most unusual aircraft designs of the war- despite being introduced in 1941, at a time when metal construction was prevalent in aviation, this fighter/bomber was made almost entirely out of wood. This allowed the ‘Mossie’, as it was affectionately known, to fly quickly and efficiently while saving valuable metal for other uses.
Beautiful Mossie taxiing at Hamilton Airshow. Image courtesy of Andrew Jacobs
Seeing this last Mosquito was really a memorable experience, due to its rarity and unique characteristics. It always makes me very sad that there are often so few airworthy WWII planes left (such as only two Lancasters and one Il-2 Sturmovik), but I felt privileged and delighted to see the Mosquito. Flying is what these planes were built for, and I think it is wonderful that even 70 years after the war, some examples continue to do so.
Mosquito performing in the air. Image courtesy of Andrew Jacobs
The Mosquito that I saw did not perform on its own, however- no, it was much more impressive even than that. It shared the skies with a Lancaster, two Hurricanes, and two Spitfires. All are Rolls-Royce Merlin powered machines, and all are legends of the RAF in WWII. Those six aircraft were truly a sight to behold, and it was a sight that not many people alive today will get the chance to see. I still can’t believe that I was there to see that historic flight!
The six legends: two Spitfires and two Hurricanes accompanying a Mosquito and Lancaster. Image courtesy of Andrew Jacobs
North American T-6 Texan/ Harvard
I recall attending several airshows in Toronto as a child, and it was at those shows that I discovered the favourite plane of my childhood. That plane was the T-6 Texan, or Harvard, as we call it here in Canada. The Harvards I knew as a child were rather brutish-looking planes, painted in a bright yellow because of their role as trainer aircraft.
Photo of German Harvard II from Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to GW_Simulations
A group of Harvards visits many regional airshows in Ontario over the summer, and this group invariably puts on a fun performance. The Harvard has great aerobatic capabilities, and must be an entertaining plane to fly. Its radial engine is very loud (which frightened me when I was little, intimidated as I was by any loud noise), which for me adds to the appeal of the aircraft. When I was younger, I dearly wanted to fly a Harvard; a dream that stays with me still.
Four Harvards in formation at Great Lakes International Airshow
And that concludes the examination of my favourite WWII Allied aircraft! Truth be told, I appreciate any and all WWII-era aircraft; because of the ingenuity with which many of the designs were created, and because of the exceptional performance and achievements made thanks to these aircraft in a time of dire need and conflict. I now look forward to describing the legends of the VVS (Soviet Air Force) at a later date- Soviet wartime aircraft offer many examples of planes that are not well-known, but incredibly efficient and formidable.
Jackson, R. (2004). The Encyclopedia of Military Aircraft. Bath, UK: Parragon Publishing.
(2014, February 26). Avro Lancaster. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Avro_Lancaster