During World War I, it started to become apparent that the use of aircraft was going to revolutionise warfare. Of course, humankind had been able to fly since the Montgolfier brothers took to the air in their hot air balloon, the first tethered test of which with a pilot onboard took place towards the end of 1783.
This concept was developed over the next hundred years or so with such development including the use of airships which were essentially balloons with engines mounted on them and rudders to make them steerable. No longer were flyers at the mercy of the wind.
By the time the First World War kicked off, the use of airships as bombers had already been imagined by H. G. Wells in his novel The War in the Air, which had been published in 1908 and which envisaged destruction being rained down on cities from fleets of airships.
The Italians were the first to use them for real against Turkish forces in 1912 and the Germans commenced raids on London in 1916. It was apparent that defence against such weapons was needed.
Relatively lightweight aircraft that would suit the purpose had been in development since the Wright brothers first flew their Wright Flyer at Kitty Hawk in 1903. This type of aircraft was much more manoeuvrable than a balloon or airship and was especially useful for performing reconnaissance, enabling informed decisions to be made about what the enemy was doing. With a few alterations, it could be also be used as a weapon and proved effective against the airship bombers. The first aircraft to provide this air defence role were wood and fabric biplanes. They were very light and were also lightly armed but were relatively fast, being able to reach speeds of around 100 mph.
Air superiority in war has been desirable ever since. It enables the protection of ground forces and also provides a defence against bombers.
The rapid pace of development of fighter aircraft continued after the First World War ended and by the time the Second World War began in Europe in 1939, most fighter aircraft were monoplanes made from metal. They were much faster, reaching speeds of up to 400 mph and were also much more heavily armed with machines guns and cannons. Most of these aircraft were powered by a single-piston engine and the names of some of these aircraft have become iconic and are still revered today. They had evocative names like Spitfire, Hurricane and Mustang and were used by the allies to defend against German bombers. Of course, both sides had fighters and the Germans sent their Messerschmitt BF-109s and Focke-Wulf FW 190s to protect their bombers resulting in air-to-air combat, or dogfights taking place above the skies of England and mainland Europe.
There were also a few examples of twin-engine fighters, also known as heavy fighters, such as the P38 Lightning and the de Havilland Mosquito. These aircraft could carry heavier weapons, and could also carry bombs and rockets enabling them to take on ground attack roles.
Towards the end of the Second World War an invention was starting to be incorporated into aircraft designs that would revolutionise the aircraft industry. The Messerschmitt Me 262 was the first jet-powered fighter and flew combat missions for the Luftwaffe’s JG 7, the world’s first jet-fighter wing during the final two years of the War.
The early jet fighters were not too different in terms of capability to their piston-engine counterparts although top speeds started to increase. However, by the time the second generation of jet fighters started to be developed in the 1950s many technological advances were starting to come on stream, including a better understanding of aerodynamics leading to the use of swept-wing designs which led to even greater increases in speed.
From the 1950s and for the next three decades during what became known as the cold war, the prospect of a third world war which could very well take place using nuclear weapons was considered to be very real, leading to an even greater need for interceptor aircraft that could get off the ground and intercept a target as quickly as possible. Aircraft like the English Electric Lightning which was introduced into front line service at the end of 1959 could fly faster than the speed of sound. The first variant of the Lightning could reach Mach 1.7 or 1300 mph with later variants reaching Mach 2, 1534 mph or 2469 kph. Using afterburners on take-off also enabled the Lightning to maintain a climb rate of 20,000 feet per minute, enabling Russian bombers to be intercepted very quickly.
During the 1960s development continued at pace with other capabilities starting to being introduced such as the use of thrust vectoring which was successfully deployed on the Harrier. This fighter aircraft was introduced into front line combat in 1969 and was able to take off and land vertically, removing the need for a runway, enabling it to be refuelled and re-armed pretty much anywhere. The Harrier was also a highly successful Navy fighter being able to land on aircraft carriers and take off again without the use of a catapult.
Other significant developments during this time include more effective air-to-air missiles and better radar systems, meaning that targets could be engaged at distance, reducing the need for close-in dogfighting.
From the 1970s until the end of the century, the development of fighter aircraft included improving its ability to perform multiple roles. A single platform could now perform multiple mission types including air-to-air, air-to-ground and reconnaissance. Such aircraft include the F-16 Fighting Falcon, F-15 Eagle, Panavia Tornado, Sukhoi Su-27 and MiG-29.
Today’s fighter aircraft have all of these capabilities but have also added stealth through the use of advanced materials and futuristic shapes which enable them to fly relatively undetected by enemy radar. These advanced fighters also have a plethora of advanced technology onboard which enables the pilot to know everything about their surroundings and their targets with the idea of providing a “first-look, first-shot, first-kill capability”. Aircraft with these capabilities include the F-22 Raptor, F-35 Lightning II and the Sukhoi SU-57 which is used by the Russian Air Force. These fifth-generation aircraft are not the end of the story though, with the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia and others announcing in 2018 that the sixth generation was in development. Expected to enter service with the United States Navy sometime between 2025 and 2030, we can only dream of what their capabilities might be.