Since the early 20th century, air-to-air combat has been both decisive in war and inspiring to the minds of the general public. In an age of increasingly computerized and automated battles, dogfights between pilots hark back to an earlier time when individual skill was arguably the single most important factor in many combat situations. And if duels between pilots don’t impress you, massive battles between dozens or even hundreds of planes definitely will. We list the biggest, baddest furballs ever to take place in the skies.
10. Ofira Air Battle (Yom Kippur War) 1973
The fact that the Israeli military held the lead in air-to-air combat during the Yom Kippur War was proven spectacularly when a force of 20 MiG-17s and an escort of eight, more modern MiG-21s launched a bombing raid on Ofira Air Base on October 6, 1973. They were engaged by a pair of startled Israeli F-4 Phantom pilots, who had jumped into their aircraft just in time to take off from their runway before it was destroyed. Despite the heavy odds against them, the Phantoms trounced the more agile MiGs in a close-range battle, shooting down a total of seven planes with no losses. Although it certainly wasn’t the first time that Phantoms defeated MiGs in a dogfight, it may have been the occasion when the odds were most stacked against them but they still pulled through.
9. ME-262 vs. Allied Bombers (WWII) 1945
Just as HMS Dreadnought revolutionized naval warfare, the closing years of WWII produced a weapon that would have a similar effect on air-to-air combat. This was the German ME-262, the world’s first operational jet fighter and a harbinger of wars to come. With a top speed of 540 mph and four devastating 30mm cannons, the ME-262 could tear through enemy bomber formations like tissue paper. The fighter first got a chance to show its potential on March 18, 1945, when a formation of 37 attacked a bomber group of over 1,800 Allied fighters and bombers. Despite being outnumbered nearly 50:1, the ME-262s shot down 12 bombers and one fighter for only three losses thanks to their ability to literally fly circles around their opponents. Luckily for the Allied pilots, only a few of the jets were operated for the rest of the war thanks to Nazi Germany’s supply shortages.
8. Adlertag Operation (WWII) 1940
In August 1940, continental Europe belonged to the Germans. Hitler was eager to move on to the next conquest: the destruction of the Royal Air Force, to pave the way for the invasion of Britain. On August 13th, hundreds of German bombers and escorts launched mass attacks on British airfields in the South West of England. Poor weather hindered the German operations, and they were met by Fighter Command’s radar-targeted Hurricanes and Spitfires, which took a devastating toll on their attacks. At the end of the day, German losses were 47 or 48 aircraft, while the RAF suffered relatively paltry air-to-air losses of 24 aircrew (although another 47 RAF aircraft were also destroyed on the ground). Yet, despite the attempt totally failing to deal a knockout blow to the RAF, the Luftwaffe only became more determined to destroy the British airfields. The Battle of Britain had well and truly begun.
7. Battle of El Mansoura (Yom Kippur War) 1973
One of the most controversial historical events of the Yom Kippur War was the alleged air battle between the Israeli Air Force and the Egyptian Air Force on October 14, 1973. This combat supposedly saw a force of roughly 120 attacking Israeli fighters take on over 60 Egyptian MiGs over Mansoura air base in an attempt to gain air superiority in the area. The ensuing 53-minute encounter would figure as one of the largest and longest battles between jets in history. Casualty totals are disputed, with the Egyptian forces claiming the decidedly favorable number of 17 Israeli planes destroyed versus three on their side – despite the odds being against their pilots at the start of the battle – but the IAF reporting only two of their planes shot down. If the battle really happened, maybe the high Israeli losses were Egyptian revenge for their humiliation at Ofira.
6. Second Raid on Schweinfurt (WWII) 1943
This is the first operation to be nicknamed Black Thursday by the US Air Force, and looking at the numbers killed it’s not hard to see why. In 1943, the Allied Bomber Command had decided to hit the ball bearing factories at Schweinfurt. Flying largely without escorts, an attacking force of 291 B-17 Flying Fortresses quickly lived up to their names as they were forced to fight off attacks from all sides by swarms of German fighters. Heavy 88mm cannon flak only contributed to the USAAF’s misery: a pilot later described it as “thick enough to walk on.” In total, 77 B-17s were destroyed, 121 were severely damaged, and almost 600 crewmembers were killed in action – the heaviest in terms of losses of any USAAF mission. Despite many of the bombers hitting their targets successfully, the bloodiness of the battle forced Allied Bomber Command to call off large daylight raids into Germany until February 1944.
5. “Black Thursday” (MiG Alley, Korean War) 1951
Sometimes in war, a force runs into something that it’s really not prepared to deal with. At the beginning of 1950, the US Air Force had destroyed aerial opposition over North Korea, and their lumbering, prop-driven B-29 Superfortresses were free to strategically bomb the country’s infrastructure. However, all of this changed when the Chinese entered the war in October and deployed their MiG-15s against the US. The MiG outclassed even modern American fighters, and trying to battle it in a WWII-era bomber turned out to be a bit like bringing a toothpick to a gunfight. The most painful incident for the US Air Force was “Black Thursday,” in April of 1951, during which a Soviet force of 30 MiGs attacked 36 B-29s and 100 jet escorts, and humiliatingly crushed them, destroying 12 bombers without losses to their own side. The battle proved the obsolescence of the B-29, which was henceforth restricted to night raids over Korea.
4. MiG-29 vs. Two F-15s (Gulf War) 1991
Air-to-air combat did not generally go well for Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War. The Iraqi Air Force suffered heavy losses against the Coalition forces and was later obliterated on the ground or largely forced to flee to Iran. Possibly the only exception took place when a pair of MiG-29s took on two F-15s and an RAF Tornado on January 19. One pilot, Jameel Sayhood, is alleged by some sources to have scored one of the few Iraqi air-to-air kills of the war by shooting down the Tornado with a missile. At the time, the F-15 was widely acknowledged as the best air superiority fighter in the world, but after his wingman was destroyed, Sayhood continued attempting to tail the two pilots for several tense minutes before crashing to the ground. And people say that piloting skills are obsolete in modern warfare!
3. Air Battle Over Nis (WWII) 1944
The one time that that action genuinely heated up between America and Russia was on November 7, 1944. Russian mechanized infantry were moving towards Belgrade to support the offensive into Serbia when they were unexpectedly strafed by American P-38 Lightning fighter-bombers that had somehow veered 400 km off course and mistaken them for Germans. Suffering heavy damage, the Russians called for air support, and the result was a dogfight between nine Yak-3 fighters and an unknown number of Lightnings. The actual results of the battle remain classified, but American and Soviet sources both predictably claimed high casualty totals for each other. The American government later apologized for this “regrettable incident” – surely one of the best examples of bad navigation in WWII. It’s strange to think that despite their standing as deadly enemies for almost half a century, the one time Soviet and American units openly fought each other was a mistake.
2. Great Marianas Turkey Shoot (WWII) 1944
Early in the Pacific War, the US was on the back foot against Imperial Japan’s greater preparedness and larger number of strategically powerful carriers. That changed after the battles of Midway and the Coral Sea: instead of being up against elite Japanese pilots in the air, the Americans were now facing half-trained replacements which had been rushed into combat despite barely knowing how to fly their fragile Zero planes. The result was the naval Battle of the Philippine Sea in 1944, where aircraft from seven US carriers took on waves of 450 Japanese carrier-based aircraft and inflicted hundreds of casualties. However, the American fleet sustained only minor damage; 90 percent of its pilots made it back to their ships. Amazingly, of the 123 US aerial losses only around 40 were a result of enemy action: far more aircraft were destroyed by pilots running out of fuel and having to crash land than by their opponents.
1. St. Mihiel Air Battle (WWI) 1918
The first major military push for American troops in WWI was the reduction of the St. Mihiel salient, and it just so happened that this was also the scene of one of the first and largest major aerial battles of all time. Here, the Allies succeeded in assembling nearly 1,500 planes to counter 500 on the German side. Air power was a major factor in the Allies breaking through the salient. With the concept of air superiority being properly developed for the first time, and tanks and infantry working in concert, St. Mihiel was also the harbinger of the modern combined arms warfare that would become increasingly developed throughout the rest of the 20th century. In terms of sheer numbers of planes engaged on both sides, most modern battles don’t even come close to equaling this vintage operation.