Spitfire vs Bf 109 and F-14 vs Su-27: the difference is always the pilot

May 31 2013 - 29 Comments

It’s not always the best aircraft that wins in an air-to-air engagement.

Most of the times it is the training the pilot has received and his/her skills, experience to make the difference: that’s why a well trained pilot with a less capable aircraft can defeat a more powerful plane piloted by a scarcely trained airman.

During World War II two of the most successful fighters of aviation history faced one against the other, in a duel that began over the coasts of Dunkirk and ended on the last days of the war: this two aircraft were the legendary Supermarine Spitfire and its German counterpart, the formidable Messerschmitt Bf 109.

SPit pr xix

Image credit: RAF BBMF

During the dogfights that raged in the skies several examples of both planes fell into the hands of the opponents giving both the Royal Air Force and the Luftwaffe, the opportunity to test the enemy plane.

The first intact Spitfire Mk I was captured by the Germans during the Dunkirk evacuation and immediately used by the Germans against Bf 109E in mock aerial combat.

Spit landing

The Spitfire, that was test flown by Maj Werner Mölders in persons, which was at the time the leading ace of the Luftwaffe with 25 aerial victories, was fitted with the old two-speed propeller and had a rate of climb inferior to that of the Spitfire Mk I fitted with the constant-speed propeller.

However German pilots discovered that if the pilot pushed down the nose of the Spitfire and applied negative “G”, the carburetor float of the Merlin engine stopped to deliver fuel with the result that the engine cut out.

On the contrary, the Bf 109E did not suffer from the same problem since his Daimler Benz DB 601 was fitted with the fuel injection system. Due to this defect, Mölders thought that, even if the Spitfire had general performance approaching that of the Bf 109, it was not that good as a fighter.

A Messerschmitt was captured intact by the RAF in November 1939, when a Bf 109E was forced down in France and taken to Farnborough for test flights against the Spitfire Mk I.

The results of the test showed that Reginald Mitchell’s fighter at altitudes around 4,000 feet was far superior to the Messerschmitt Me 109E: but the captured Messerschmitt had problems with the engine cooling system and it could not prove its ability to out-climb the Spitfire at most altitudes.

Messerschmitt Bf 109G-10

Image credit: USAF

So the British discovered that the Spitfire was better at medium altitude in a turning fight, while the Germans that the Bf 109E was better at high altitude in a high speed combat.

But those trials were valid only up to a point because when these two variants of the fighters faced one against the other was during the air battle over Britain, where the dogfights took place at altitudes between 13,000 and 20,000 feet, the altitude where the escorts for the German bombers were flown: at that height the performance of the two fighters were much closer.

However during the Battle of Britain the German fighters had a slightly advantage due to the high level of training of Luftwaffe pilots: in fact most of them, along with Mölders or Adolf Galland, were extraordinaire pilots who had gained significant experience flying with the Condor Legion during the Spanish Civil War. On the contrary the British pilots were less experienced but they flew in the skies above of their country and they fought to defend it: these two reasons, along with some strategic German mistakes, gave them a lot of motivations and brought the air duels on the same level.

During the war many other variants of these two fighters fell in the hands of each opponents, but another test was conducted early in 1944 by the RAF at Duxford. In 1944 the latest subtype of the Messerschmitt was the Bf 109G (the latest variant of the Bf 109 was the K, but it was built in small numbers and developed too late to play an important role during the war) and one of this kind of Bf 109 was tried against the new and more potent Spitfire Mk XIV powered with the Griffon 61 engine.

The result was that the Spitfire was faster than the Bf 109G at all heights, the rate of climb was the same for the two aircraft around 16,000 feet, while at the other altitudes the Spitfire Mk XIV exceeded the Bf 109G.

50 years later, in the midst of the 1990s, the technology changed the way in which the fighters fought, Air to air combat was still an important part of the training for every pilot of any air force and it is still the better way to understand how an aircraft can perform against those of their counterparts.


Image credit: Sukhoi

During the last decade of the twentieth century one of the deadliest adversary for the western air forces was the Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker.

The Su-27 belongs to the same class of the US F-14 and F-15, but unlike the American fighters it can fly at an angle of attack of 30 degrees and can also perform the “Pugachev Cobra”, an aerobatic maneuver in which the aircraft pitches the nose beyond the vertical at a rate of 70 degrees per second and after that recovers to level flight. Thanks to this maneuver, the Flanker has been the highlight of every air shows from the end of the 80s to the middle of the 90s.

On 20 April this year an article written by Dave Majumdar for Flightglobal DEW Line, talk about Gerry Gallop, a former TOP GUN instructor and an experienced US Navy pilot who flown F-4, F-14A and B, F-15, F-16, F-18 (both Legacy and Super Hornet) and also A-4.

Once Gallop ended its career he became senior vice president and chief operating of Tactical Air Support, a private operator which operated the Su-27 for short time and during this period he had the chance to fly the Flanker.

During one of his sorties over the Ukraine, Gallop was very impressed by the acceleration and by how fast was the Russian fighter at high altitude. The power of its engines, along with its superb aerodynamics and with short range IR missile AA-11 Archer (which in the ‘90s was the best short-range AAM in the world that can be linked to the pilot’s helmet fire control system and is capable to be fired at targets until 45 degrees off the axis of the aircraft: both these capabilities were not possessed by the AIM-9M Sidewinder, the main western short range missile at the time) made of the Su-27 probably the best dogfighter of the 90s, a very tough adversary for every western jet.

When strictly compared to the F-14, the Tomcat is not less fast than the Su -27, but for the American fighter the Flanker is more than a match in a close combat. In fact, against a more maneuverable fighter like the Su-27, the Tomcat is disadvantaged even if the F-14 is a B or a D model powered with the extremely potent General Electric F110-GE-400 engines.


Image credit: U.S. Navy

Sometimes the advantage of an agile adversary can be reduced thanks to the presence of a well trained backseater, but the Tomcat gives the best of itself on long distances where the AIM-54C Phoenix can be used. As explained by some Tomcat drivers, it doesn’t matter how a more agile fighter can get a F-14 in a dogfight, because thanks to Tomcat’s combination of tactics, sensors (such as the F-14D’s AAS-42 which it has a greater range and resolution than the IRST seeker mounted by the Su-27) and weapons every enemy fighter is going to be destroyed at an unparalleled distance.

So, which was the best among these two fighters?

It is very hard to answer to this question, but as explained by the most experienced F-14 pilot, Dale “Snort” Snodgrass, in some ways the Su-27 is superior to the F-14 and to the F-15 while in some others, American fighters are better than the Flanker: but what really makes the difference is how well a pilot is trained.

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  • OG_Locc

    Meh. The Su-27 would get walloped. Just like Russian hardware in every other conflict.

    • JAFF3

      Thing is in very other conflict Russians were not flying them ?

    • Rollin’ Thoonder

      Furgotten Vietnam, so quickly eh ? Russian-made MiG-21s and Mig-17s picked off U.S. jets like flies over north Vietnam forcing USAF to introduce the Top-Gun training program at Miramar.

      • Ted

        The U.S. Navy stood TOP GUN up for Navy and Marine pilots, not the Air Force. The F-8 Crusader had a decent kill ratio in Vietnam, the A-4 probably would have too if they would have used it as a fighter.

  • Lawrence D. Wood

    The in the cockpit is always the determining factor. In early WWII, USMC fighters were the Brewster Buffalo and the Grumman F4F. Both inferior to the Japanese Zero in a dog fight, although they were heavier, which resulted in a diving gun pass and avoidance of any dog fights.
    The pilot and the tactics made the difference, otherwise, the Japanese would have wiped the skies clean of American airpower early in the War in the Pacific.
    In the 70s and 80s, the Russians had to cut their flying time, and spent more hours in simulators than flying their aircraft. Our pilots flew their airplanes. An admitted advantage on the part of the Russians upon the downfall of the Soviet Union.

    • Earl_of_Effingham

      All true, but look at the losses at Midway, Coral Sea and the Solomons campaign. It was still a bloody war of attrition. Today we cannot fight a war of attrition anymore. Those days are over. There is no excuse for resting on our laurels.

  • adam7

    Anybody interested in fighter tactics should read the material in these pages, and why the Brewster Buffalo became one of the most lethal planes in Europe, with the lecturer stating that both the Hurricane and Spitfire were easy to defeat.
    See http://www.virtualpilots.fi/hist/WW2History-CaptainWindsAirCombatTacticsLecture.html

    • David Schwartz

      “The Hurricane and Spitfire are slow and clumsy fighters at low altitudes. They seek dogfights at high altitudes (over 5,000 m.) where their characteristics are extremely good.”

      Like the above states each plane has it’s own features that can work both for and against it. The Buffalo is an excellent example of this: It was considered underarmed, underpowered, and with an engine that overheats too easily. This resulted in their easy defeat in the Pacific and even in much of Europe, except Finland where low airtemps kept them from overheating and low altitude combat worked in their favor. Basically, it was place in the one location where environmental and tactical factors worked in it’s favor.

  • Brennan

    The P-40 was in every way inferior to the Japanese Zero except in two key areas–dive speed and pilot training. The combat results of the AVG under Claire Chennault and the subsequent success of the 23rd Fighter Group in China during WW II bear this out.

    • jic1

      Three areas: The P-40 was a bullet sponge, while the Zero was relatively fragile.

    • Larry Vrooman

      I disagree. Contemporary Japanese pilots felt the P-40E was equal to the A6M2 and A6M3 it faced. It was faster at low level, was superior in a dive, and had a much better roll rate above 250 mph. The role rate in particular offset the greater turn capability of the zero, when combined with sound tactics that played to the P-40s advantages. Perhaps most importantly the speed and dive advantages when properly used allowed the P-40 to dictate when the engagement would start and end. The P-40 was also a good gun platform and was very rugged, well armored and equipped with self sealing fuel tanks.

      In terms of training, early in the war the Japanese pilots were both well trained and very experienced in combat. After about 1943, the Japanese practice of leaving pilots in combat meant fewer experienced pilots were available and newer pilots were less well trained. In contrast, the US policy of rotating experienced pilots state side as instructors to pass on their experience before doing another tour, combined with greater resources in fuel and training aircraft, meant new US pilots were much more proficient and much better prepared for combat than new Japanese or German pilots.

  • Earl_of_Effingham

    Except of course the Flanker is getting continuous upgrades while our F-15 fleet is past retirement age. There are no F-14s anymore. The most modern versions of the F-16 are used by foreign powers. The excellent F-22 got cancelled after the development cost had been paid but before significant numbers had been built. Maximum waste.

    Your pilot or airplane may be three times as good but that doesn’t mean, if he gets shot down, that you have two left.

    • DMac

      Well, you have the improved iranian F-14s… those are holding up…

  • Diente Negro

    The Navy pilots I’ve talked to say that the Phoenix was not really good at intercepting agile enemy fighters and in a real shooting match against Russian pilots the pK ratio would’ve be low

  • Meh – components of weapon systems can’t be compared in isolation and even as a whole they can only be compared within a doctrinal context.

  • JAFF3

    Of course it matters !!.. & what experience have Western pilots actually got ? anyone can drop bombs on planes on the ground, they haven’t been face to face with a front line Russian MIG / SU & integrated support / fire control / Radar inception system since Korea in the 1950’s.

  • JAFF3

    F14 ? LOL perhaps on a Xbox

    • Jordan Frederick Mascarenhas

      Actually, the United States has a total of 4 SU-27s as well as MiG-29s and kept them at Area 51 in New Mexico as well as NAS Fallon in Nevada. They had mock dogfights all the time.

  • Marius

    Both Spitfire and Bf 109 remain some of the most beautiful airplanes ever built. Here there are two links modellers may find useful, with some blueprints for these two warbirds – Supermarine Spitfire drawings and Messerschmitt Bf 109 plans & drawings

  • Shelley Mckevitt

    If you really want to know and see the difference – Book a flight on The Dogfight Duo event at Goodwood – 09 and 10 May. Action Stations are hosting the event and the lucky few will get to experience an AIR to AIR encounter with a Spitfire and 109 over the Isle of Wight. Find out more http://www.goactionstations.co.uk

  • FrankW

    The F-14B or D is no match for an Su-27 in a dogfight. The Flanker has higher G, better turn rates at all altitudes, far better AoA, less drag (superior aerodynamics) , and better energy. Even the author of this article states the same. Tomcat lovers realize that even with the GE-F110, the plane was not invincible. Ask a TopGun instructor in the 1990’s when the F-14D was routinely waxed in WVR by the F-16N. It was not even close. As far as BVR, the Tomcat wins against the Flanker. However, VG is out of date. Ask yourself why no more VG planes have been designed since well over 35 years ago? I think the last one was the Tornado ADV.

    • Hakan326

      You’re a funny guy, F-14 don’t get into a dogfight mate, it could lock on and destroy a SU-27 from 70 km away better avionics superior radar and BVR missiles.. Dogfights don’t happen these days.. Avionics beats Aerodynamics any day.. That’s pretty much the reason why F-15 claimed 110 victories over Russian hardware without a single loss..

  • Hakan326

    F-14 was the most impressive fighthing platform in the air..Russian fighters would not even come close..A squadron of F-14’s with a Grumman HAWKEYE in the middle was invincible ……

  • yan

    In fairness to the Bf 109 G’s performance circa 1943-1944, it was saddled with heavier guns because it’s main mission was to attack USAAF bombers, and not tangle with fighters. Faced with similar opposition the Mustang and Spitfire might also have been armed with heavier armament to the detriment of their flight performance. The Bf-109 G-6 model was inferior for anti-fighter combat and the Luftwaffe knew this; instead just concentrating on a single aircraft subtype to concentrate on numbers. The underwing 20mm cannon gondolas, in addition to the built in 13 mm machine guns in the nose and the 30 mm cannon in the airscrew, made the aircraft heavier than ideal for its body type. The Bf-109K at the end of the war could tangle with the very latest marks of Spitfire or Mustang on even or superior terms (especially level speed and rate of climb), but of course it all depended on pilot skill as this article emphasizes. And, by 1945 the lower skill level of the average German pilot did much to negatively offset their superb equipment (Me 26s, He 163, Ta-152, Fw 190D-9, Bf109K, etc.)

  • EveryManBill

    The su-27 is not more maneuverable than the f-14 unless you’re talking about roll. which is why i never understood why they didn’t put ailerons on the tomcat. Other than that, the tomcat can out turn the su-27. but the tomcat can, when the wings are swept a certain degree back close to 68 degrees, perform the pugchev’s cobra maneuver. If you look at the su-27, the only 2 things that make it possible for it to perform that move without thrust vectoring is the slight engine nacelle, and the distinct “hump” of the nose area that direct air down or up (UP for over 90 degrees aoa) from the nose area, and not so much around the nose. The tomcat has wider nacelles, a wider wingspan a certain degree above 68 and when the wings are swept back they form a more or less delta wing shape, and therefore the tomcat should have more ability to sustain a cobra.

    Also with 14-16,000 lbs of extra thrust, the GE F110 engines increased the cat’s top speed, which was without a doubt faster than both SU-27 and F-15 eagle.

    • Jordan Frederick Mascarenhas

      Funny how official records don’t show any increased top speed for the F-14B and F-14D Super Tomcat over the same Mach 2.34 of the F-14A with the crappy Pratt and Whitney TF-30 engines. I wonder what the top speed really increased to with those badass GE turbo fans!! Anyone wanna take a shot at least?

      • EveryManBill

        mach 2.6 – 2.7 perhaps? I have no idea. It was over a 30% increase in thrust so… not sure how that applies to top speed as faster you go the less aerodynamic the plane becomes due to vibrations. But i’m thinking mach 2.65 i guess

  • Insurrector8434

    The f-14s are actually MORE maneuverable than the su-27. They can too, perform the cobra maneuver with the f-110 engines. Unfortunately it’s extremely difficult to do without a fly by wire system but as John Boyd proved in his Saab Draken, you can in fact peform a cobra without a fly by wire system if you like. But it would be harder to do and would be riskier as in that case the pilot is the sole controller of the aircraft. There is no computer helping you to keep the plane stable.

    Of course, since the beginning there was the vendetta against the tomcat to destroy it’s legacy. And even after upgrades, they cut test funding. But the tomcat never got the upgrades it really should have had, such as a simplified wiring harness, less clutter inside and ease of maintenance, not to mention a fly by wire system intended to be installed into the ST-21 super tomcat, which were next gen tomcats that could have been remanufactured from F-14As already in service.

    So naturally we never really got to understand the full potential of the cat.

  • Insurrector8434

    f-14 can sustain 7.5gs at mach 2. Of course it can sustain 9gs with the wing sweep around 40-45 or so. A tomcat with it’s wings set at 40-45 degrees has lower wing loading than at 68.