Let’s Settle This. What Was the Fastest Piston Fighter Ever?

May 12, 2023

A little while back, I wrote an article/made a video about the Republic XP-47J and titled it “The Fastest Piston Engine Fighter Ever”. It caused some comment and there were a whole raft of other aircraft suggestions, and I thought it might be worth digging into some of them.

Plus, as I pointed out in the original piece, there is some question over Republic’s claims for the XP-47J. They said the aircraft achieved a top speed of 505 mph (813km/h) during testing, which if true would make it the fastest piston engine fighter by quite a margin.

Now, the issue with Republic’s claims is that when the USAAF did their own trials they only managed top speeds of 484mph (779km/h) which is certainly pretty respectable, but quite a step down when the other contenders for the title are running so close behind.

The other factor is that the XP-47J only remained a testbed and prototype, never seeing service. So, I think we can split the contenders into several categories: test beds and actual service fighters. And to be honest, even that isn’t completely clear cut, as I hope will become apparent as this video progresses.

I feel I should also point out that this is essentially an exercise in naval gazing, because absolute top speed is largely irrelevant in combat reality. Most fighters enjoyed their best handling and performance at particular altitudes, and the skill of the pilot often revolved around understanding how his aircraft performed in relation to an opponent’s one and forcing the fight into the scenario that best suited his goal of killing the other guy.

But absolute top speed has long been a favourite “top trump” topic in aviation discussion, so let’s see if we can settle it.

And of course, we are talking about fighters, so the actual world record holder for fastest piston engine aircraft, which I believe is the P-51 Voodoo currently, doesn’t count as it is modified to be a racer, nor do the other former service aircraft modified for high speed racing.

The other issue with this whole topic is just which speeds do you believe? If you go onto the internet, you can find just about anything you want cited, generally with nothing to support a particular claim. Plus, there are other claims about things like supersonic dive speeds achieved.

Well, for clarity the speeds I will use will be those cited as the highest achieved in level flight by the types we are going to look at. And I shall be drawing the figures from The Complete Book of Fighters by William Green and Gordon Swanborough. The reason I am doing this is that all the aircraft in contention are listed in this book, and the authors were experts in the field with decades of experience, dozens of books between them and access to data that I simply do not have. However, there will be a few occasions where I quote other stated speeds not registered in the book, which I will explain when I do and hopefully it will give a more complete coverage of the topic.

Also, there are planes missing from the list. This is because I wanted to largely cover the ones that people said were the REAL fastest piston engine fighter, but I’ve put in some obscure ones that are in the running and largely overlooked.

So, with all that said and done, let’s look at the contenders, most suggested by commentators, and their standing in the rankings. I’ll be putting the XP-47J at the top because it’s listed top speed as supplied by the manufacturer puts it in the that place, but if you don’t agree with that feel free to ignore it.

Which means the slowest of the aircraft suggested as the fastest is:

  1. Grumman Bearcat F8F-1.

This carrier interceptor was a popular suggestion, probably also helped by the fact that a modified Bearcat racer was the world speed record holder for a while. But that aircraft is, as already said, excluded for its specialist status and as the service model has a listed top speed of 428mph (689km/h) at 18,800 feet (5,730m) it is the slowest of our contenders.

 

  1. Grumman Tigercat F7F-3.

Another Grumman entry, the Tigercat F7F-3 might not be high in the list with a top speed of 435mph (700km/h) at 22,200 feet (6,765m) but as it was a twin-engine carrier fighter bomber rather than a dedicated interceptor, that is a pretty impressive performance.

 

  1. Hawker Tempest II

Famously fast, the Tempest was a popular suggestion. I could cite the Tempest I as the best example of this aircraft, which recorded a top speed of 466mph (750km/h) at 24,500 feet (7,470m).

But seeing as that aircraft was essentially a failure I thought it better to go with the Tempest II which saw quite a bit of post-war service and clocked up a respectable top speed of 440mph (708 km/h) at 15,900 feet (4,845m).

  1. CAC CA-15 Kangaroo

Another aircraft I’ve written on, it is impressive to think that the Australians went from building the Wirraway trainer in 1939 to producing the Kangaroo by 1946, a piston fighter as good as any built anywhere.

Cursed as it was to be created just as the jet was coming to dominance, the Kangaroo never got a chance at service or production, remaining prototypes, but its top speed of 448mph (721km/h) at 26,400 feet (8,047m) was certainly impressive.

 

  1. Supermarine Spitfire Mk.21

It’s practically the law that any list featuring aircraft from World War Two must have the Spitfire somewhere in it, and so the Spitfire Mk.21 comes in at number 15, with a listed top speed of 454mph (731km/h) at 26,000 feet (7,925m).

 

  1. North American F-82G

In 14th place is the North American F-82 Twin Mustang.

Wanting to get a long-range, all-weather interceptor into service in short order, North American took the expedient of basically stringing two P-51s together.

OK, it was a bit more complex than that, but there is no denying that the F-82, despite its unusual configuration was fast, with a top speed of 456 mph (734km/h) at 21,000 feet (6,400m).

 

  1. Martin Baker MB.5 / Hawker Sea Fury / FMA I.Ae30

As we close in and the speeds margins get tighter, we get our first draw, and in joint 13th place we find the Martin Baker MB.5, the Hawker Sea Fury and the I.Ae30, all with top recorded speeds of 460mph (740km/h).

The MB.5 was one of the great “what-if” aircraft, almost appearing to be a Mustang with a Griffon engine.

Indeed, one test pilot of the type expressed disappointment that it never achieved service in 1944 as was theoretically possible.

Alas, the MB.5 didn’t get into service, mainly because existing aircraft were good enough already, and the single prototype was ultimately used as a ground target.

The Sea Fury was a more popular suggestion for the title by commentators, and though it was too late for service in World War Two it certainly was one of the most formidable piston engine aircraft to ever see combat, including famously shooting down MiG-15 jets during the Korean War.

Tough, dependable and yet still surprisingly fast, the Sea Fury provided good service throughout the late 1940s and 1950s with a number of operators and would go on to be a popular option for speed racing.

As for our final 13th place, the I.Ae.30 was a beautiful twin-engine heavy fighter built by the Argentines in the post-war era which unfortunately got killed off by financial issues.

 

  1. Focke Wulf Ta 152H

The first German contender and the final development of the famous Fw 190 series, the Ta 152 was a high-altitude interceptor which packed a heavy hitting punch of a 30mm and two 20mm cannon in its skinny-looking fuselage. And this was all combined with a listed top speed of 462mph (744km/h) at 31,170 feet (9,500m), making the Ta 152 a real hot rod.

It also, unlike later contenders, actually saw front line use, being credited with achieving seven kills for four losses and proving as formidable at low-level altitudes as at high, proving a match for the formidable Hawker Tempest in dogfights. Considering the state of the German fighter corps by the time the Ta 152 entered service in late 1944, the ability to actually prove useful in combat against overwhelming allied airpower makes it, in my opinion, the most formidable German piston-engine fighter of the Second World War.

 

  1. Yakovlev Yak-3M-108

We have a nasty tendency in the English-speaking world to overlook the Russian fighters, and that really needs addressing because the Soviets built some damn good fighters. And in the Yak-3M-108, a bloody fast one!

The Yak-3 is suitably famous for the role they played in fighting over the Eastern Front, with almost 5,000 of the type built, but the -108 variant sought to push the design to the limit of what it could achieve. Fitted with a VK-108 engine and armed with a 23mm cannon, the 3M-108 was, according to Green and Swanborough, capable of a top speed of 463mph (745km/h) at 19,685 feet (6,000m).

Unfortunately, it never really worked out due to issues with engine cooling and the type remained prototype only.

 

  1. Kyushu J7W Shinden

An aircraft I have to get around to doing a dedicated video on one day – though that is true of a number of these here featured – the Shinden is a truly remarkable design that looks more like something out of a manga cartoon than an actual flying aircraft. And truth be told, it shouldn’t be in this list, but there have been a number of commentators who insist that it ranks as the fastest piston engine fighter, so I’m putting it in to basically explain why it doesn’t count.

Again, designed as a high-altitude interceptor to tackle the formidable B-29, the Shinden was intended to be armed with four 30mm cannon. But only a couple of prototypes were ever built which I am fairly confident wouldn’t have been armed and in total three flights were made in literally the last days of the Second World War.

The Shinden might have looked futuristic, but the limited reports sound like the design had severe issues and I highly doubt it would have ever got into service as these sort of pusher designs were experimented with by many nations and yet I believe only one, the Saab 21, was ever adopted.

Additionally, the exact top speed doesn’t seem to have been reliably recorded, and Green and Swanborough state that their listed speed of 466mph (750km/h) is an estimate. So, though some people think the J7W is the Second World Wars fastest piston engine fighter, it wasn’t either the fastest nor, in fact, a fighter as I am pretty sure it was never armed.

 

  1. F4U-5 Corsair and P-47M

In joint ninth place we have two solid American contenders.

The F4U-5 was the ultimate development of the formidable Vought Corsair, taking the already legendary F4U-4 and making it even better.

Capable of a top listed speed of 470mph (756km/h) at 26,800 feet (8,170m) the -5 was just a little too late for ranking as the fastest piston engine fighter of World War Two, but like the Sea Fury was to provide excellent service as a heavy hitting fighter-bomber to US carrier air wings throughout the Korean War and for a few years after.

It is matched with the Republic P-47M.

This the fastest service version of the equally legendary P-47 Thunderbolt, which is often remembered as a sledgehammer of a ground attack aircraft, but in the -M was configured into a light weight (by P-47 standards at least) lightning quick low-level interceptor.

And for my money, the P-47M is the fastest operational piston engine fighter of the Second World War, though not the fastest ever. My thinking for this is that the -M actually got into service in enough numbers to actually see some worthwhile combat service before the end of hostilities.

Though as the numbers show, there are still a few more contenders to go, and perhaps you might think one of those is the rightful title holder.

 

  1. De Havilland Hornet F.Mk.3

Another popular suggestion, the Hornet was certainly fast, which seeing as it was almost like a single-seat evolution of the Mosquito is hardly surprising. Listed at 472mph (759km/h) at 22,000 feet (6,705m) this twin-engine long-range fighter and attack aircraft served with the RAF after World War Two, seeing action in Malaya and finally retiring in 1956.

 

  1. Mitsubishi Ki-83

Now, I am throwing this one in as a bit of a wild card. The Ki-83 was developed as a long-range heavy fighter for the Japanese Imperial forces and, to be honest, it is kind of surprising it isn’t as well-known as other contemporary aircraft, though that might be because it never got into service.

The aircraft was reportedly surprisingly agile for a big, two-seat, twin-engine design, and had a respectable speed of 438mph (704km/h) at 32,810 feet (10,000m).

But wait! I hear you cry, that is much slower than other aircraft already listed1 Yep, but we are also looking at some test bed speeds, and the lower figure represents what the Japanese achieved with it.

After the war the Americans got their hands on examples of the Ki-83 and took them home for testing. And they, by using higher octane fuels than the Japanese had available to them, managed to get 473mph (762km/h) out of the big fighter.

Not bad at all!

 

  1. Dornier Do 335

OK, so we have finally come to the most popular suggestion and, I fully suspect, the most controversial; The Do 335 Pfeil.

This remarkable aircraft is often held up as the fastest piston engine of the Second World War and certainly in the afore-mentioned video on the XP-47J was the one that by far caused the most comment. So, me putting at six is no doubt going to upset some folks.

The Do 335 was a brilliant piece of engineering and would likely made a formidable aircraft if it had got into service…because that right there is the first question.

There seems to be a perception that the Do 335 was zipping around blasting Allied aircraft all over the place. In fact, I hesitate at describing it as an operational aircraft. Notionally, the Do 335 was deployed in small numbers to service squadrons in the latter stages of the war. But there doesn’t seem to be any record of it actually doing anything other than conducting familiarization training, and the one account of an encounter, when one was nearly bounced by a flight of Hawker Tempest Vs, would indicate that was all they may have been capable of.

But let’s be generous and say that getting into an service squadron counts as the type being operational, how about it’s speed? Well, according to Green and Swanborough, the top listed speed of the Do 335A-0, which was the pre-production variant, was 455mph (732km/h) at 23,295 feet (7,100m).

I can hear the keyboards chattering already.

Here’s the thing. Online, there are a whole MASS of top speeds cited for the Pfeil. And the most common seems to be 474mph (763km/h).

Now, I haven’t really been able to run down the exact origin of this figure, but it generally is attributed to another William Green book, Aircraft of the Third Reich. I don’t have a copy of that book, but I do have some other books by Green and they don’t quote that figure, so I can’t say for sure if the citation is accurate. But we will be generous once again and accept it pending further investigation.

And that puts the Do 335 in sixth place.

 

  1. Hawker Fury Mk. I / Supermarine Spiteful F. Mk.14

Yes, I know the Fury has been put in once already, but here we can appreciate the sheer speed of a test bed. The second prototype Fury was fitted a Napier Sabre VII engine that was rated at 3,055hp.

With this the aircraft made a very respectable 483mph (777 km/h) at 18,500 feet (5,640m).

It’s not a true fighter, and the Sabre Fury never got into service, but I’m putting it in just because someone is bound to say “What about the land Fury?” in the comments.

But the other aircraft ranked at number five was certainly a service aircraft – the Supermarine Spiteful.

The final evolution of the Spitfire, if we don’t include the Attacker jet, the Spiteful saw limited service with the RAF after the War, though in very limited numbers. The definitive F. Mk.14, which bizarrely was the only model to see production and of which only sixteen were built, had a top reported speed of 483mph (777km/h) at 26,000 feet (7,925m).

 

  1. North American P-51H Mustang

Just as with the Spitfire, so it is with the Mustang. And with the P-51H, we get the ultimate expression of this legendary aircraft.

Generally described as a lightened P-51D in fact North American built the P-51H as essentially a completely new aircraft with very little in common with the earlier model. Every measure to strip weight was done, and the engine changed to a Packard V-1650-9 with water methanol injection.

All this meant that the -H had a top listed speed of 487mph (783km/h) at 25,000 feet (7,620m) and this makes the P-51H the fastest service piston engine fighter to ever see service, with 555 built.

The other issue is “Was it the fastest piston engine fighter of World War Two?”

Generally, it is stated that this was not the case, as the type never got to see combat. But some squadrons had received the type before the surrender of Japan and were preparing to use it in future combat operations, so an argument could be made that it was an operational fighter during World War Two.

See what I mean about this topic getting rather subjective?

 

  1. Republic XP-72

Yet another Republic offering the XP-72, sometimes nicknamed the “Ultrabolt”, was another evolution of the basic P-47, this time fitted with a Wasp Major engine that produced 3,500hp. Armament was six 0.5-calibre Browning machine guns, and all in the XP-72 has a reported top speed of 490mph (789km/h) at 25,000 feet (7,620m).

First flying in 1944 the performance of the aircraft led to a production order for the P-72 which would have had the option of having four 37mm cannon as armament instead!

However, it wasn’t to be, and the XP-72 vanished into history, another great “what-if?”

 

  1. Supermarine Spiteful F.16

And so, we come to our final offering.

Despite being big committers to the early jets, the British did have a crack at seeing if the Spiteful could be made even faster, and so went about fitting a Griffon 101 engine with a three-stage supercharger and a new five-bladed propellor to a standard F.14 to see what would happen.

With this the new model, the F.16, was recorded during testing in 1947 as hitting 494mph (795km/h) at 28,500 feet (8,687m).

But it was for naught, as jets were the way to the future and this record, the fastest achieved by a British piston engine aircraft and (if you don’t believe Republic on the XP-47J) the fastest piston engine fighter ever built.

 

So, there we have it and hopefully this clears up the argument. But having said that, and knowing the military aviation community, I doubt it. Let me know what you think, and I look forward to seeing the debate in the comments.

 

Related:

Fastest Piston Engine Fighter Ever; The Republic XP-47J Superbolt

What Was America’s First Fighter Aircraft?

 The XP-47H; Shark-Nosed Thunderbolt

 End of the Spits – The Supermarine Spiteful and Seafang

“Super Corsair” – The Goodyear F2G

The ME 209 I & II: Two Attempts to “Replace” the Luftwaffe Stalwart

The Ki-64 “Rob”; Doubled Up Engines, Evaporative Cooling…What Could Go Wrong?

The Vought V80; A Poop Fighter

The Vought V80; A Poop Fighter

In my previous article I covered the Vought O2-and-O3U Corsair, a rather successful interwar design that saw usage with a whole range of countries and a fair bit of combat. Although it was originally designed as a two-seat spotter and reconnaissance aircraft, the...

The Vought Corsair; Forgotten Original

The Vought Corsair; Forgotten Original

We’ve all heard about the Vought Corsair, right? A legendary fighter and attack aircraft, the Corsair carved its reputation in multiple campaigns of the Second World War, and in the skies of several wars afterwards. And it is often listed, with proper justifications,...

Project GAMMA; Delta Force’s Black Sheep Sibling

Project GAMMA; Delta Force’s Black Sheep Sibling

I suspect anyone reading this is aware of Delta Force, the US Army’s premier Tier One special operations unit. Since the unit’s creation in 1977, Delta Force has acquired a legendary reputation, serving in conflicts across the globe to the extent that they have caused...

Now Super Etendard For Ukraine!

Now Super Etendard For Ukraine!

My last article was on the stated intent of France to supply Ukraine with Mirage 2000 jets which they are in the process of phasing out of service. Now this week comes the news that Argentina is offering to supply Ukraine with Super Etendard attack jets! I’ll be...

Mirage 2000 for Ukraine; Macron Doubling Down

Mirage 2000 for Ukraine; Macron Doubling Down

Well, it has certainly been a hectic few months in the ongoing Russian invasion in Ukraine. The about turn on US military aid by the Senate saw a massive $95 billion assistance package approved in April, followed by the Russians attempting to open a second front with...