Army Air Forces Aircraft: A Definitive Moment

World War II was a definitive moment in history for aircraft. For both the military and commercial industry it was the heyday of aircraft production. Before the start of the war the U.S. Army Air Corps had only a few hundred air planes. By the end of the war it was the largest Air Force ever assembled with nearly 80,000 airplanes. Aircraft production and technology improved at dramatic rates as America set the world pace for military and civil aviation. More than 100 types of aircraft were used by the Army Air Force (AAF) during World War II.

During World War II military airplanes consisted of a single wing aluminum airframe, one to four engines and equipment for navigation, armament, communications and crew accommodations. Major advancements in propulsion or engine technology were made during the war and were major sources of competition between aircraft contractors. Throughout the war improvements were made to extend the range and increase speed and altitude limits for most aircraft. Engines achieved greater performance and efficiency.

When originally developed, designations for planes were used much the same as they are today with few exceptions. For example F is the designator for a modern day fighter aircraft but in World War II, F meant a photographic plane used for reconnaissance. During World War II these designators were used: A for attack. B for Bombardment, C for Cargo, L for Liaison, P for Pursuit and T for Training. This letter indicated the function of the plane. The following number indicated sequence within a type as in P-51. If there was a letter after the number it indicated an improved model type such as B-17E.

During World War II the primary mission of attack aircraft was to support ground forces in battle and aircraft were designed with this in mind. The attack aircraft provided support and operated primarily at low altitudes.

Also considered a light bomber, the attack planes were known for their high speed, maneuverability and weapons. They carried both machine guns and bombs. The A-20, A-24 and A-26 were the attack aircraft most used by the AAF during the war.

Many different bombers were used during World War II. The B-17, B-24, B 26, and B-29 were the workhorses of the AAF fleet. Both the B-25 and B 26 were twin engine, all-metal monoplanes. The B-25 "Mitchell" and B-26 "Marauder" were medium bombers used mainly at altitudes of 8,000 to 14,000 feet. They primarily supported ground forces by targeting fortified positions, depots, railroad yards and other targets behind battle lines. They also supplemented heavier bombers on more strategic raids. The B 17 "Flying Fortress" was the first of the big bombers used during World War II. It was used mainly in Europe by 8th Air Force but in much smaller numbers in the Far East.

The B-24 "Liberator" was produced in greater numbers than any other aircraft during the war. It was used primarily in the Far East against Japan and also saw action in Europe and North Africa. The twin-tail, four engine aircraft is best known for its bombing raids on the Ploesti oil fields in August 1943.

The USAAF accepted nearly 10,000 B-25 Bombers during World War II. The "Mitchell" was used mostly in the Southwest Pacific and is most remembered for its role in the Doolittle Raid. In April 1942, Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle led a bombing raid over Tokyo after having taken off from a carrier. The raid was a big morale boost to U.S. Forces who were, at that time, being beaten regularly by the Japanese.

The B-26 "Marauder" was used mostly in Europe but also saw action in the Mediterranean and the Pacific. In early combat the aircraft took heavy losses but was still one of the most successful medium-range bombers used by the USAAF. By the end of the war, the B-26 had the lowest loss rate of any American bomber used during the war.

Staging out of bases in India and China, the B-29 "Superfortress'" were used against the Japanese primarily for daylight bombing raids. In October 1943, the 21st Bomber Command moved operations to the Marianas where the B-29s later carried out their most famous mission. In August 1945, the B-29s were used to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The dropping of the Atomic bombs ended World War II.

The C-47 "Skytrain" evolved from the DC-3 airliner. It could carry 25 paratroopers or up to 10,000 pounds of cargo. It was the standard transport and glider tug used by the USAAF during the war and was flown in every airborne forces operation of the war. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower said the C-47 was one of the four principal instruments of the allied victory during World War II.

The P-38 "Lightning" was a single-seat fighter/bomber used widely in Europe and the Far East. Originally designed to be a high-altitude interceptor, it was modified for use as a bomber and photo reconnaissance aircraft. America's top ace, Maj. Richard Bong, scored most of his 40 victories while flying the P-38.

One of America's three outstanding fighters of the war, the P-47 was used by many other Allied Air Forces including the French, British and Russians. It served in Europe, the Far East and the Mediterranean and was the first fighter to fly escort missions for B-17s. The "Thunderbolts" were known for their ability to survive heavy battle damage.

One of the premier fighters of the war was the P-51 "Mustang." It was a long-range fighter used to escort heavy bombers on missions up to 2,000 miles. The aircraft was the top USAAF air-to-air fighter in World War II.

Aircraft Manufacturer Quantity Crew Max
Unrefueled Max
Range Miles
B-17 Boeing 12,692 10 268 3,000
B-24 Consolidated 18,190 10 300 2,850
B-25 North American 9,186 6 285 1,350
B-26 Martin 5,157 7 285 1,150
B-29 Boeing 3,898 11 400 5,000
P-38 Lockheed 9,536 1 414 450*
P-39 Bell 9,588 1 385 750
P-40 Curtiss 13,738 1 370 240
P-47 Republic 15,683 1 428 1,000+
P-51 North American 14,686 1 439 2,000+**
P-61 Northrup 702 3 370 1,000+
C-46 Curtiss-Wright 3,180 4 269 1,200
C-47 Douglas 10,368 3 230 1,600
C-54 Douglas 1,162 6 265 2,900

* Without drop tanks
** With drop tanks


The Army Air Forces in World War II, Volume 6, Air Force Office of History, Craven and Cate, 1983

History of the U.S. Air Force, by Bill Yenne Bizam Publishing, 1984

Researched by Capt. Marty Hauser, U.S. Air Force Reserves, 1993