by David Axe · September 11, 2019
The F-35 stealth fighter suffers a litany of design and production flaws. It’s heavy and expensive. It lacks maneuverability. Its internal weapons bay is too small. At high speeds, it can tear itself apart.
But for all its problems, the F-35 isn’t the world’s worst fighter. Not by a long shot. Exactly which of history’s hundreds of fighter designs qualifies as the worst is a matter of opinion. Experts have nominated a few standout failures.
Historian Robert Farley described the United Kingdom’s Royal B.E.2, which first flew in 1912, as “one of the first military aircraft put into serious industrial production.”
From Farley work several years back:
In a sense, the B.E.2 inspired the first generation of fighters by displaying all of the qualities that no one wanted in a fighter aircraft, including poor visibility, poor reliability, difficulty of control, slow speed and weak armament.
The advent of the Fokker Eindecker made the B.E.2 positively hazardous to fly. Refinements often hurt more than they helped, with the plane becoming steadily more dangerous and accident prone as grew heavier.
It’s tough to give a failing grade to a first effort. But the B.E.2’s difficulty and poor reliability, combined with the British decision to keep it in service [through 1919], well beyond its freshness date, earn it a spot on this list.
Farley also highlighted the Soviet MiG-23, which first flew in 1967. “The MiG-23 was supposed to be the Soviet answer to the big American fighters such as the F-4 and F-111, a powerful swing-wing fighter that could also perform attack and interception roles,” Farley wrote. “And the Flogger surely was powerful.”
As Farley noted:
But the Flogger was a beast to fly and to maintain. American “Red Eagle” pilots, tasked with determining the capabilities of Soviet aircraft, considered the Flogger a disaster waiting to happen. In 1984, Lt. Gen. Robert Bond died flying a USAF-operated Flogger. A relatively large aircraft, the Flogger also lacked many of the best qualities of its predecessors, including a small visual profile.
The MiG-23 was initially intended to fill out the air forces of the Warsaw Pact, but the Soviet clients generally preferred to keep their Fishbeds. Indeed, in export terms the MiG-23 was essentially a cheap loss-leader for the Soviet engine and technical support industries, as it proved remarkably difficult to safely keep in service.
By design, engines burned out quickly, meaning that export customers who had fallen out of Soviet graces quickly lost the use of their fighters. The Flogger’s combat record in Syrian, Iraqi and Libyan service generally has not been positive. It’s hardly surprising that the MiG-23 will almost certainly leave service before its predecessor, the MiG-21.
BBC reporter Stephen Dowling nominated a pair of German designs from World War II. “Two aircraft from the final days of the Third Reich show desperate times shouldn’t always call for desperate measures,” Dowling wrote.
The Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet was a rocket-powered interceptor developed to shoot down the heavy bombers raiding Germany. The Komet could fly 100 miles per hour faster than any Allied fighter plane, but it had only three minutes worth of fuel – the aircraft had to glide back to base under its own power.
One problem was the fuel; an oxidising agent called T-Stoff helped power the plane, but it was so volatile it would combust on contact with clothing or leather. Even fuelling the aircraft was a hazard.
The Heinkel He-162 was another last-ditch design the Nazi regime called upon. The aerodynamically advanced He-162 went from first drawings to production in 90 days; the Germans drew up plans to build 3,000 of them a month.
The wooden He-162 was designed to be flown by teenage pilots with only rudimentary training, but the He-162, though an excellent design, needed careful handling. Things weren’t helped by the location of the engine – right above the cockpit – meaning escaping pilots ran the risk of being sucked into the engine.
Also a major design flaw was that the glue used to stick the plane together actually corroded the airframe.
In a story for Hush Kit, Edward Ward described an American fighter that he claimed “can be justifiably said to have been designed by a psychopath.” The Christmas Bullet from 1919.
The Christmas Bullet was a scandalous mockery of an aeroplane capable only of climbing high enough to guarantee the death of its pilot. Dr. William Whitney Christmas, M.D., was a seemingly respectable physician who had some unconventional ideas about aircraft development and coupled them with a plethora of lies both about his own achievements – he claimed for example to have invented the aileron – and his designs: he stated that he had received an offer of a million dollars to “take over” Germany’s air force, and was swamped with orders for Bullets from Europe.
Luckily for everyone, only one of his designs was to be built, less fortunately, and for no good reason, it was built twice. The Bullet was a stubbily purposeful looking aircraft and the U.S. Army had gamely yet inexplicably (this was wartime and armies seldom lend prototype military equipment to private individuals) loaned Christmas the prototype of its new Liberty L-6 engine, though they stated that they were to inspect the new aircraft before its first flight, a proviso Dr. Christmas ignored.
On first inspection the Bullet appeared quite conventional until one noticed the paper-thin wing unbraced by struts or wires, that was free to flap (“like a bird”) rather than remain rigid – this being Dr. Christmas’s great idea.
Despite the fact that even a cursory glance at the wings makes it plain that they are going to fall off, Christmas managed to persuade an out-of-work pilot named Cuthbert Mills to take the Bullet up. In a twist of fate reminiscent of the worst kind of melodrama, the doomed Mills even invited his mother along to watch him fly the new fighter.
The Bullet took off, the wings twisted and folded, and the Bullet crashed, killing its pilot. Undeterred, unrepentant and un-prosecuted Christmas built a new Bullet. It took off, the wings twisted and folded, and the Bullet crashed, killing its pilot. At least this time his mother wasn’t present. …
Whilst showing no remorse for losing the lives of two pilots, nor apparently any concern about destroying the Army’s precious new L-6 engine against their specific instructions, Christmas billed the Army $100,000 for his “revolutionary” wing design. His gifts of persuasion must have been better than his skill as a designer for they duly paid up.
David Axe serves as Defense Editor of the National Interest. He is the author of the graphic novels and
The National Interest · by David Axe · September 11, 2019