It could be argued that the history of aviation spans thousands of years, but in the last generation alone, mankind has developed technology that has allowed humanity to not only take flight, but to accomplish powerful feats of aerodynamic speed, distance, and heights. We’ve also built advanced weapons — both manned and unmanned — that have changed the scope of warfare forever.
This is a list of the top 10 fighters to transform the aerial battlespace for better… or for worse:
1. Su-27 Flanker
The Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker introduced a true modern fighter for the Soviet Union. It was developed in response to the F-15 Eagle during the Cold War and would become one of the most impressive fighter jets of the 20th century. The combination of AA-11 Archer missiles and Helmet Mounted Sight system introduced a true close-in threat to western fighters. The Su-27 might even have an edge over the F-15 in a dogfight — if the Eagle’s superior avionics let it get that close, but I’ll let you guys debate that in the comments.
Built for air superiority, the Su-27 has the flexibility for interceptor and ground attack missions and it remains in service as a multi-role fighter to this day.
Also read: F-15 vs. Su-27: Who would win
2. F-86 Saber
The F-86 Sabre was the first swept-wing airplane in the U.S. fighter inventory. It scored countless air-to-air kills against Soviet-built aircraft during the Korean War, namely the MiG-15 Fagot. In 1948, an F-86A set a world speed record of 570 mph; model upgrades would go on to beat that record when an F-86D flew 698 mph in 1952 and then hit 715 mph in 1953.
While the United States would discontinue production of the F-86 in 1956, it still boasts the legacy of defeating its enemy with a victory ratio of 10-to-1 over the Korean Peninsula, where nearly 800 MiG-15s were destroyed at the cost of fewer than eighty Sabres.
3. Fokker Dr 1
The Fokker Dr 1 is infamous for its missions at the hands of German World War 1 ace Baron Manfred von Richtofen — otherwise known as the Red Baron. In fact, it is the very plane he was killed in after his 80th and final victory. The triplane was built to outmaneuver Great Britain’s Sopwith Triplane — and it did. While relatively slow with a maximum speed of 115 mph at sea level, it could, according to the Red Baron himself, “maneuver like a devil.”
More impressive, perhaps, were its thick cantilever wings, which needed no struts or bracing wires, unlike most other planes during the war. While later variants of the Fokker would surpass the Red Baron’s driedecker (translation: triplane), the Fokker Dr 1 earned its reputation paving the way for aerial dogfights.
4. F-4 Phantom
The F-4 Phantom made this list not only because it was one of the most versatile fighters ever built, but also because of its bad a** Wild Weasel role during the Vietnam War. The Phantom was specifically designed to go looking for trouble, flying low and slow to light up enemy SAMs (surface-to-air missile sites).
Early models of the F-4 didn’t even have an internal gun — it was built for beyond visual range weapons. Carrying everything from the AIM-9 Sidewinder to nuclear weapons, the Phantom ushered in modern air combat as a true multi-role fighter.
During its time in service, “the F-4 established 16 speed, altitude, and time-to-climb records,” cementing its place in aviation history.
5. Supermarine Spitfire
With the Bf-109, the P-51 Mustang, and P-38 Lightning in the skies, it can be hard to choose a favorite plane from World War II, but we’re giving the glory to the Supermarine Spitfire. The British icon was built with an advanced all-metal airframe, making it fast and maneuverable. It was also full of firepower, and its role in the Battle of Britain against the German Luftwaffe gave the Allies a crucial victory when they needed it the most.
During the D-Day invasion, the Spitfire Mark IX carried 20mm cannons and .50 calibre machine guns, carrying out critical ground-attack missions — and even injuring General Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox, himself.
6. F-117 Nighthawk
While stealth technology had been explored since World War II, the F-117 Nighthawk gets credit for bringing true stealth capabilities to combat. Shrouded in secrecy during its development, the F-117 was designed to attack high-value targets without being detected by enemy radar. In 1981, it became the world’s first operational stealth aircraft.
In 1999, the U.S. lost its edge when an F-117 was shot down in Yugoslavia. The details about the event are still classified, but it’s known that the aircraft landed relatively intact, potentially allowing Russia and China to enter the stealth technology game.
The F-117 saw combat during multiple operations over two decades and it paved the way for the 5th generation stealth fighters we fly today.
7. F/A-18 Hornet
The F/A-18 Hornet was the first tactical aircraft designed to carry out both air-to-air and air-to-ground missions, making it a versatile fighter for both Naval aircraft carrier duty and Marine Corps combat operations. The Hornet could switch roles easily, a feat it performed successfully during the Persian Gulf War when it shot down two Iraqi MiG-21s in fighter mode and then took out a ground target in attack mode during a mission.
The Hornet is not only the nation’s first official strike-fighter, it’s proven to be one of the most reliable as well, operating as a fighter escort, fleet air defense, and providing both close and deep air support.
8. MQ-1 Predator
The MQ-1 Predator brought true combat drones to reality and marked the beginning of the end of man-powered aerial combat. Yeah I said it. Come at me, flyboys. With its first Hellfire kill in November, 2002, the Predator changed warfighting forever.
The Predator was operated remotely by a pilot and one or two sensor operators. It was a multi-mission, medium-altitude, long-endurance asset that primarily operated as an ISR platform, but its armament capabilities offered it the ability to strike targets as needed.
The U.S. Air Force officially retired the Predator on March 9, 2018, to give way to its super-sized follow-up, the MQ-9 Reaper, which saw the Hellfire missiles of the MQ-1 and raised it some JDAMs and the GBU-12.
9. F-15 Eagle
The F-15 Eagle boasts an undefeated record in air-to-air combat, with models still in use today despite the design being from the 1970s. Its longevity can be attributed to its unprecedented acceleration, groundbreaking maneuverability, and impressive weapons capabilities. It’s high thrust-to-weight ratio and low wing-loading allow the Eagle to turn tightly without losing airspeed while its top speed above Mach 2.5 made it the first U.S. fighter capable of vertical acceleration.
It’s avionics package and armament specs — notably including the AIM 120-D AMRAAM radar-guided missile — combined with flight performance defined air superiority and it has yet to meet an enemy capable of bringing it down.
10. F-22 Raptor
The F-22 Raptor is the most powerful air dominance fighter in the world — no, in the universe. Considered the first 5th generation fighter in the U.S. inventory, the Raptor boasts unprecedented attack capabilities, integrated avionics, and battlespace awareness, as well as stealth technologies that allow it to protect not only itself but other assets.
In air-to-air configuration, the Raptor carries six AIM 120 AMRAAMs and two AIM-9 Sidewinders, while in air-to-ground mode it can carry two GBU-32 JDAMs (while bringing along two AMRAAMs and two Sidewinders just for kicks).
The F-22’s powerful engine and sleek aerodynamic design allow it to cruise at supersonic speeds without using afterburner and its flight controls and maneuverability are unmatched by any other aircraft. Ever.
If that list doesn’t make you want to cross into the wild blue yonder, then dammit, I don’t know what will. Leave a comment and let me know.