The United States currently, and for the foreseeable future, leads the world in military aviation. And nothing represents this better than this, the F-22.
This aircraft is the perfect demonstration of what has been a cornerstone of American military policy since the Second World War – the establishment of air superiority.
Certainly, there have been shaky moments in achieving this along the way. But this has been a continuous learning process with each new American fighter aircraft being a step towards the F-22, and now the NGADs next-generation fighter.
But where did that line begin? What was the first American fighter aircraft?
Well, that is kind of subjective. So, I thought I’d list the candidates as best I could, and then you can decide for yourself.
The United States was the first country to have its citizens take to the air in a powered heavier-than air-vehicle when the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk in 1903. But despite this (and in fact often because of the Wright brothers) European nations very soon came to lead the field in aeronautic development.
This is understandable because the First World War meant that they had much more pressing need to get better aircraft into the air, and in considerable numbers. The United States, by contrast, largely languished and it wasn’t until it became apparent that the USA itself was likely to enter the conflict that measures to boost aircraft production were taken.
This meant that the first American fighter squadrons to fly in combat were actually equipped with French fighters, more specifically the SPAD VII.
Which makes sense as the pilots who conducted the first fighter combat mission for the then-named United States Army Air Service, were American volunteers who had been serving in the French Air Force and they simply transferred along with their aircraft.
But the War also demonstrated that the United States didn’t have their own fighter, or “Scout” as they were known then, that could take on those of the Central Powers. This meant that American fighter squadrons had to use British and French aircraft throughout the war.
But if we are going to ignore foreign designs – and as said this is basically a personally subjective opinion for you as to what counts – then we can actually go back a few years for our first contender.
The Burgess O – also known as the Burgess Gunbus.
This aircraft actually first flew in 1915, was designed and built in Essex County (nice) in Massachusetts and a grand total of 36 were built, which makes it a production aircraft.
But here I must add provisos.
Firstly, the Gunbus, despite its name, never carried a weapon, though it was as capable as any of its contemporaries of doing so, which isn’t saying much. But also, though an American aircraft, it never served the United States military.
Instead all the aircraft were purchased by the British Royal Naval Air Service, where they were used as trainers for a year before being discarded.
Perhaps a better candidate is another Burgess offering, the HT-2.
This actually originated to a requirement from the US Navy issued in 1916 for a single-seat fighter float plane. To meet this, Burgess built the HT-B, which was demonstrated to the Navy in May 1917.
The aircraft was only capable of 85mph (137km/h) but the Navy liked it and ordered a further six improved variants, the HT-2 “Speed Scout” – which is somewhat ironic because it was neither speedy nor, in reality, a “scout”, as in a fighter aircraft. Because though it was designed for the fitting of a forward firing machine gun, they never apparently carried one.
But with delivery made in late 1917, an argument could be made that the HT-2 was America’s first fighter, even if unarmed.
Mind you, the same could be said of the Heinrich Pursuit, a design developed for the US Army.
Four of these were built in 1917/18 originally intended to be scouts, but policy was for the US Air Service to use proven foreign types (probably sensibly) and so the aircraft were only used as fighter trainers and as far as I am aware remained unarmed.
However, our next entry did carry an armament. Curtiss was an early builder of aircraft and developed a series of experimental types, the S-Series, that evolved designs for potential military use. And one these, the S-6 appears to have been the first American-designed and built scout that carried an armament of twin forward-firing machine guns.
Admittedly, this was a bit of a lash up with two Lewis guns fixed to the wing struts above the pilot’s head, but it was armed.
The S-6 was, interestingly, a triplane that first flew in late 1917, as best as I can figure it, and powered by a Curtiss OXX-3 engine that produced 100hp was reportedly capable of a top speed of 100mph (161km/h). But only a single example was ever built and it never saw service with the US military.
Our next contender, the LUSAC-11 did carry armament and was made in some numbers.
Designed by George Lepère for the US Army Engineering Division, this was a two-seat staggered wing biplane of wooden and fabric construction that was intended to act as an escort fighter. Armament was two synchronized machine guns firing through the propellor arc and either one or two machine guns in the observer’s position mounted on a flexible Scarff ring.
Powered by a Liberty V-12 that produced 425hp, the LUSAC-11 had a pretty respectable speed of 133mph (214km/h).
First flight was in May 1918, and the US Army was so keen on it that they ordered 3,525 of them! I mean they were really not messing around.
But, again, it’s a little more complicated than all that.
With vast numbers of the new fighter on order, the Army thought it might be an idea to send the LUSAC to France for frontline squadron testing. A couple were sent to American squadrons and one to the French just before the end of the war for assessment…who all concluded that the LUSAC-11 was no way suitable for combat.
Fortunately, the Air Service was saved from the problem of equipping their new squadrons with fleets of an aircraft that wasn’t up to the job by the war ending. The order was slashed and in total it appears that thirty aircraft were built. These didn’t see squadron service, instead being used as run abouts and trials aircraft for new engines and technology.
So, the LUSAC-11 is arguably the first American fighter, but it didn’t serve as a fighter, nor in fighter squadrons.
See what I mean about this being subjective?
So, how about the next possibility, the Loening M-8?
This was an extremely advanced design for the day, being a two-seat monoplane fighter with a shoulder-mounted wing. First flying in August 1918 and powered by a Wright engine that produced 300hp, the M-8 was capable of a top speed of 145mph (233km/h), an exceedingly good performance in an aircraft of the time.
The armament layout was a little unusual for a fighter, in that the pilot didn’t have any weapons, instead the observer had two Lewis machine guns on a flexible mount. But considering the thinking of the day, I suspect that was considered a definite advantage.
I haven’t found any sources on this aircraft to collaborate my theory here, but I am pretty sure the M-8 was designed around the concept of “no-allowance shooting” (I explain the idea more in my article on the Blackburn Roc, so check that out if you want to know more).
But in essence, combat experience in World War One had indicated that it was easier for fighters to shoot down an enemy they were turning with if their guns were mounted at an angle. That way the chasing pilot didn’t need to pull his nose in front of the target to make a deflection shot, he could line up his kill while in the turn. And looking at the M-8, it’s perfect for that.
The observer had exceptional visibility, especially above the line of flight – which is where the target would be in a turning dogfight. And he had two machine guns that he could then line up on the target and correct his aim to achieve the kill, while the pilot could concentrate on flying the aircraft and watching for threats.
All in all, I suspect it is the aircraft that the RAF wanted in the later Boulton-Paul Defiant turret fighter – except, you know, good. Because whether or not that was the intended use, the USAAS really liked the M-8 and ordered 5,000 of them.
Take that LUSAC-11.
But again, the end of the war intervened, and the order was slashed. In total the USAAS only took on two prototypes and they never saw squadron service.
But the US Navy also liked the M-8, and they ordered in total over fifty of the aircraft, in several different models.
Notionally these were observation aircraft, but the M-8 was built as a fighter, and I suspect would have proven a fair match for any contemporary of the day.
But it isn’t a clear-cut winner, so let us progress and look at our next possibility, which comes from that famous producer of aircraft, the Ordnance Engineering Corporation. If you’ve never heard of them, maybe it’s because they rebranded as Orenco in 1919.
Yeah, we will get to that.
Like Curtiss, Ordnance developed a range of evolving prototype aircraft for potential use by the US military, learning and improving as they went. In early 1918 they flew the Type B, which was a neat looking little single-seat scout that was designed to carry three machine guns.
This looked promising, and the Air Service was interested, but policy was for established fighters from Europe to be used and as a result it wasn’t picked up. But not daunted Ordnance went back to the drawing board and produced the Type D. And this was a winner.
First flying in 1919, this was powered by a Hispano-Suiza water-cooled engine that produced 300hp, had a top speed of 147mph (237km/h) and had an armament of two forward firing machine guns.
More than that though, it was a great fighter. In reports by the test pilots, they rated it as better than just about any other comparable aircraft they had flown. Impressed, the Air Service ordered fifty.
And now we get to why you’ve never heard of Ordnance or Orenco.
Though they had selected the design they wanted, the Army put the bid to build the aircraft out to tender, which was won by Curtiss. This leads us to the Curtiss-Orenco D, which in the words of aviation historian William Green is “The first single-seat fighter of indigenous US design to achieve production status”.[i]
The Curtiss built aircraft had a few changes made to the design such as increased wingspan and a more powerful version of the engine licensed produced in the United States, and the first of these entered service in 1921.
Curtiss would go on to become a major player in US fighter development over the next few decades, while Orenco went bust.
So that would seem to be a pretty solid contender for the first American fighter, again depending on how you want to define the matter, but I shall throw one more option into the ring. Because though the Curtiss-Orenco D was the first production fighter to see service, it wasn’t the mainstay of the Air Service, flying alongside European aircraft such as SPADs and Se 5s.
In June 1920 the Air Service was recognized under the National Defense Act as being a permanent combat arm of the US military and given official structure. By complete coincidence I’m sure, at the exact same time the Air Service decided it wanted an American fighter to equip all its fighter squadrons.
And that fighter was the Thomas-Morse MB-3.
You’ve heard of Thomas-Morse, right?
Yeah, we’ll get to that.
Thomas-Morse was another of those companies that had built evolving prototypes in the hopes of getting a military contract. And with the MB-3, they managed it.
Another tight little design, the MB-3 once again had the Hispano-Suiza 300hp engine and, once initial problems like fuel leaking all over the pilot were addressed, was considered an excellent fighter.
Fast at 140mph (225km/h) and judged to have exceptional agility, with two machine guns the MB-3 was as good as anything being flown by anyone. The Air Service ordered fifty of them from Thomas-Morse the same time as they achieved recognition under the Defense Act.
But wanting to replace the majority of their fighters with one common type, the Air Service put out a tender for someone to build another two hundred improved versions of the aircraft, the MB-3A, which would make the type basically the standard scout-fighter in the Service.
And that bid was won by Boeing.
Indeed, it was a hugely important decision and apparently saved Boeing from going under. Thomas-Morse, however, went on until 1929 and then was taken over by Consolidated.
Considering that Boeing are currently building the newest fighter aircraft for the USAF in the shape of the F-15EX, it would seem that the MB-3 series had a pretty substantial impact on US fighter development both for that factor and because it was the first standard American fighter in service.
And that concludes the list.
Now, I know there are some of you out there already frantically typing away. And I have to admit that there are plenty of potentials in this prospective listing that I have left out because there were LOADs of aircraft built in the period under discussion. Because let’s be honest, in those days if you owned a big enough shed, a wood saw and a canvas sowing kit, you could have a crack at building your own “aircraft company”.
So, if you have any of your own contenders, feel free to add them in the comments.
[i] Green, William and Swanborough, Gordon; “The Complete Book of Fighters; An Illustrated Encyclopedia of every fighter aircraft built and flown”; Smithmark Publishers Inc., New York (1994)