Difficult Choices

Assume you were thirty years old and had your pilot’s license.  You were offered the opportunity to own one of the following two aircraft:

P-38J Lockheed Lightning

P-51D North American Mustang

And for my Brit / Anglophile Readers, a similar choice:

De Havilland Mosquito FB Mk.VI

Supermarine Spitfire Mk. IX

And for the lovers of all things German:

Messerschmidt Bf 110G

Focke-Wulf 190F

No substitutes allowed.


  1. Mustang, no question. The P-38 cost twice as much to operate and was just about 4X the PITA to fly. People tend to underestimate how little automation those warbirds had.

  2. Well!
    Starting with the Lightning I thought my choice was going to be hard until I scrolled to the picture of my favorite British plywood sweetheart, the “Wooden Wonder”.

    That was as far as I needed to go, though I did have a last second mental competition when I hit the Spifire and then again with the FW 190F.

    But no, “Mossy” is the girl for me, a multirole wonder was she.
    And I’m pleased as punch you think enough of her to put her in the contest.

  3. Have to go with the FW 190 for the general cool factor and the big radial. Plus, everyone will want a Mustang and some of us just need to be contrary. In fact, when I was a wee child making plastic models, it was always the P-38 I preferred over the P-51 because it was just so damn cool looking. But, as the first commenter has pointed out, you really don’t want to own one.
    By the way, there’s a channel on that video ad network called “Greg’s Airplanes and Automobiles” that has many lovely pieces talking about these kinds of comparisons in exquisite detail. The rabbit hole there is very deep and I have lost many hours. Here is a link to the channel https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCynGrIaI5vsJQgHJAIp9oSg

  4. Mustang. I’ve wanted to fly one of those ever since I knew they existed as a kid. It’s just a good looking plane.

  5. The Spitfire was the best pure fighter but had really poor range compared with the Mustang or Lightning. In addition to the PITA and higher cost issue, another drawback of the Lightning was supposed to be cold in the cockpit at higher altitudes, which was less of a problem in the PTO. The Mosquito has to be by far the most interesting of these. Don’t know enough about the FW 190.

    I’d only want the ME 110 if I wanted to be used for target practice.

    So probably the Mustang or Mosquito since being a member of the Black Sheep Squadron is off limits.

    PS I just learned that Lindbergh flew combat missions in a P38 even though he was a civilian. Apparently taught the pilots how to get much better range out of them and almost got shot down.

    1. Lindbergh taught the pilots to lean the engines way the hell out…. Great range, not so great engine life.

      1. No, he proved to the maintenance crews that it wasn’t a problem. Due to old time thinking, everyone was running WAY too rich. He had extensive experience doing this with aircraft, and ran multiple missions with those fighter groups to get a baseline for engine inspections to prove he was right. Actually, running as rich as they were was probably not good for them, as this tends to wash the oil film off moving parts due to blow-by, which would shorten the useful time between refurbing or junking the engines.

        Lindbergh had one confirmed air kill, and it’s thought several more that were un-credited, or given to other pilots. He still got in trouble with the brass, due to being a civilian, and was booted out of that part of the war. He came back and worked with the Marines that were flying Corsairs, where he designed bomb shackles that could hold a 4k lb bomb under the belly. He did ground attack missions with them to get a handle on what they needed in improvements for the Corsair, as he was working for the maker doing field service, just like he did for the Lightning. FDR refused to allow him to re-enlist in the ArmyAirCorp after Pearl Harbor, after he had resigned while opposing his war policies. He was a colonel, IIRC.

  6. Gotta be the Mustang.

    Even though it’s not as sexy, there’s an argument to be made for the Grumman F6F Hellcat – shot down more enemy aircraft than any other Allied fighter.

  7. Six choices. You have generously afforded us a literal roll of the dice where every one’s a winner. But I’d have to go with the Mustang, as long as it’s equipped with the Merlin engine. (Hey, you said no substitutions, you didn’t say beans about the variants. Heh.)

  8. Mustang with Merlin — assuming a large enough bank account to keep it in the air. Don’t need a Hanger Queen, but it will definitely need a Crew chief and a couple of flight mechanics.

    1. But twin very high performance V-12 engines = lots and lots of maintenance. If you want to fly regularly, you don’t take it to an aircraft maintenance shop, you hire a maintenance crew. Of course, the same is true for the other twin engine aircraft in Kim’s selection. The single-engine ones cut the engine maintenance hours in half, but it’s still a lot of hours.

      Now, when I was in the Air Force I worked on the F-111D avionics. That took a heluvalot of man-hours, but it also had twin jets, the swing wing, and all of the other bits requiring work. I was told that it required 100 man-hours per hour of flight. Two officers could take one up for a 3-hour training flight, and then twenty men would work for nearly two days (on the average) before it was cleared to go up again. If it had ever really gone to war (probably in the Middle East), we would have worked until we dropped – but I think we’d have been just about out of spare parts by then. “Sorry sir, they didn’t buy enough spares back in ’68, so we’re done. Sell the airplanes to Achmed the scrap metal dealer, and _hope_ he sells one to the Soviets and those fools try to reverse engineer and copy it!”

    1. Whistling Death? Those white lines on the Corsair fuselage in front of the cockpit were tape to keep fuel and oil and whatnot from leaking out and covering the windscreen. These were all high maintenance ladies, so I’d have to go with the Mustang, When I was a teen I built several models of the P-38 Lightning, but too fussy to fly. That’s the same reason I don’t lust after the pre-1910 automobiles. Who wants to keep messing with the spark advance? With the Lightning that would be for TWO engines.

      1. I had an Uncle that flew a Corsair the last year of WWII for the Marines. He later joined the USAAF Reserve then GA Air Guard where he flew the P-51 Mustang where he turned down promotions after he made Major so he could keep flying until he retired in the mid 60’s. He would talk about how well the Corsair handled as he loved the plane. He would then talk down about the Air Guard Mustangs. The sad truth was the Air Guard Mustangs were wore out hand-me-downs that spent more time red tagged waiting on parts than mission ready.

        He taught me how to fly in a Cessna 150 tail dragger when I was in high school in the late 70’s. He would let me rent it for fuel only after I got my shirt tail cut. It was too expensive a hobby for me after I got my license and I had to give it up in my early 20’s.

  9. Lots of great planes to choose from and in the good old days I attended air shows as often as possible, in the 1960’s and 70’s watching old man pilots burn a whole lot of fuel doing incredible maneuvers all over the air. When I was in grad school at the University of Oklahoma in the summer of 1973 I went out to the Norman, Oklahoma airfield early on a Saturday morning to watch the various war birds land for an air show. A rich oil guy from Dallas got permission to do a low level roll over the runway, it was announced over the intercom, and I saw a De Havilland Mosquito come screaming in low and fast rolling over, it was loud and fun to watch and at the time I had no idea what a Mosquito was. I did a bit of reading about that wooden plane with two V-12 engines and a top speed over 400 mph. I remember, and I saw a lot of the great war birds flying that day the Mosquito had a unique sound so that would be my choice. After that it would be the P-38 cause my uncle did photo recon in those in WWII and then the Mustang because it turned out to be a fantastic fighter with the right engine.

    The other birds were great too and a couple of years ago I was visiting with a retired Air Force Lt. General who had done his time in F-100s and F-4’s, two tours in Nam and I asked how they were able to design and get those great war birds in the air within months instead of years of delays and overruns and he told me that there were too many fingers in the pie making for complications, spreading the expense over various congressional districts and lots of Pentagon employment for the last 60 years.

      1. Uncle received recognition for P-38 photo recon work when the clouds lifted at the ‘Battle of the Bulge’ and they planned effective missions. Another Uncle was on the ground at Bastogne in Artillery during that time and my grandmother had a picture of the two of them meeting up in Belgium later in January. All those nice old guys including my dad who was an Army Major are gone now and I wish I had taken more time to hear their stories.

  10. Sorry to buck the trend but as a Yank I’m going with the P-38. Robin Olds, Tommy McGuire and Richard Bong all flew the Lighting and I love the look of the aircraft since I was a young boy.

    1. Harley Earl of GM loved the look of it too – it inspired the rear fins on the ’49 Cadillac.

  11. Difficult Choices?!? What an understatement, Kim! The Mustang was a great fighter, but had only fair visibility in level flight and on the ground, sincce the nose was so long, you had to zig-zag to taxi the thing. I want to have a good view when I’m in the plane. So I’ve go to pick either the Spitfire or the Lightning… After a great gnashing of teeth, I’ll go with the Lightning.

  12. Simple Decision:
    360° view without a pesky dorsal.
    Nice roomy interior, ergonomic controls designed by pilots, reasonably reliable.
    Interior designed for somebody half my size (portraits of P-38 pilot Dick Bong show MacArthur towering over him… as well as his much taller lady ‘Marge’)
    One word — radiators?

  13. Wow, great choices. In the American pair, the Mustang would do. But, as Budd Davisson has said, you don’t own a Mustang. It owns you. That’s probably true of all of these planes, so it’s not a dealbreaker. For the British pair, I’d take the Mosquito just for the sheer performance, and for the Kraut choice it would have to be the FW-190 (a long-time favorite).

  14. What I would do is first I would find out which one commands the highest price on the collectors market – probably one of the twins like the P38.

    Then I would sell it and buy something actually useful and more maintainable like a Cessna 410, or a Piper Seneca.

  15. All of them wonderful and amazing planes, but since I can’t have a P-47, I’m gonna go with the FW-190. Such a beautiful bird, and I believe there’s only one left in the world still flying. You land anywhere in that thing and pilots will come out of the woodwork to look at it.

    1. I’m with Skippytony. I want dad’s P-47, the D model with the bubble top. I cried when he told me they blew them up in Germany whrn he demobilized after the war.

  16. Definitely the Mustang!
    When Ferrari introduced the 348 in Beverly Hills with a car show on Rodeo Dr., a Mustang flew over to see what the commotion was all about on the ground. Everyone, and I mean everyone, heard that glorious V-12 Merlin in the sky, stopped what they were doing, and looked up and followed it as it circled several times, and then peeled off to return from whence it came.

  17. You are a cruel man, Kim! A Spitfire or a Mosquito is an almost impossible choice. There are only 30 Mossies left in the world and a mere 4 in flyable condition, so this would be the ‘barn find’ of all barn finds. And as a plane it is far more useful than the Spitfire – range, armament, speed, and so on. But the Spitfire…. you could go anywhere and they’d roll out the red carpet and all the pilots say that they are an absolute delight to fly.

    I’m going to plump for the Mossie. One more Mossie in the world would be awesome, and you can take someone up with you.

    Regardless of choice, people will get to hear those Merlin engines and rejoice.

  18. Top three…….Mustang, Spitfire, Lightning in that order.

    And how could you have a list of WWII planes without the F4U Corsair???

    1. Because if I’d put in the Corsair, there’d have been a jillion whines about leaving out the Mustang.

  19. Will there be any money for life insurance? This is not like flying a Cessna 172.
    Even the guys who did it for a living had a high accident rate. Especially the BF109.
    Flying magazine used to have a column in the back on various aviation anecdotes- one was by a B25 pilot who was waiting at a repair depot, and a shot up P-51 came in. After the repairs were effected, there was no one there qualified on the Mustang, so he eagerly volunteered to take it up for a spin. Unfortunately about half the checklist was missing, so he had to guess about certain procedures.
    It was…enlightening.. he felt happy to get it back on the ground in one piece.
    The author Richard Bach purchased a Mustang, he was a former jet fighter pilot , he described it as voracious for maintenance. Eventually he sold it and bought a F-86 which was much easier to afford.

  20. YankMode: Mustang
    BritMode: Spitfire
    KrautMode: Focke-Wulf

    Geek’s weird personal pick: P-61 Black Widow.

    It’s the Millennium Falcon of WWII fighters.

    The heavy fighter concept never really caught on: Insufficient speed or range to hang with more nimble fighters, but they were big enough to take on the first airborne radar kits to make devastating interceptors and night fighters, and they had GUNS! GUNS! out the freaking wazoo!

      1. If you want a sexy WWII night fighter, I’d go for the Grumman F7F Tigercat. (It’d be in on a technicality – it was introduced in 1944, but didn’t actually see combat until Korea, due to problems during carrier acceptance trials.)

        Not as many guns, but almost 100 mph faster than the P-61.

  21. Yankmode: P-38 J/L. Kelly Johnson was a genius. Streamline-deco perfection. Gunther Rall (I think) said that, in the hands of a good pilot, the P-38, with all of its weapons in the nose, was the most dangerous foe.

    Britmode: Spitfire. Because, it’s a Spitfire. The tweed coat of the skies.

    Hunmode: Fw-190. Kurt Tank’s masterpiece.

  22. Love the Mustang, but gotta go with the FW-190F. Prettier than the P-51, and I’ve got a thing for radial engines.

  23. I would jump at the chance to fly any WWII military aircraft. The only ones I did get any experience with were a couple of hours of dual in a Vultee BT13 and a few minutes of unofficial stick time in a T6. Of the choices offered here I’d go with the P-38J and look wistfully at the Spit and the Mustang. There’s no way I could afford fuel, much less maintenance for any of them, so I’ll assume that problem is magically solved.

  24. P-38 or p-51…. P51 by a nose. I knew a P-38 pilot and his stories were of a superior plane that flew like a Caddy… even though that description is also applied to the P-51. Why the P-51, then? I’ve seen it fly more often, usually as part of a ‘Legacy’ flight with an F-16 or F-22 and the thrill is awesome…. Silly reason I guess. There is a wonderful video of how to fly the P-38 by the Tillamook Air Museum and a test flight over Tillamook. I’ll see if I can find the link.

    Well, they seem to have removed the video. Here’s a link to a discussion of it and the Pilot who tragically died in a P-38 accident not long after the video was made. I was not aware of his death. Sad.


    Here’s a small portion of the original 30 min. Video, just to give you the idea of the pilot and commentary. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IRR8ePUCnC8

  25. Out of these choices, the P-38.

    Multi-engine aircraft always increase your survivability. There’s few more uncomfortable feelings than flying over rough terrain at night in a mostly unpopulated area with few lights, and having your only engine start running rough.

    With two engines, even with an engine failure due to whatever mechanical cause, you are still making it back to a runway, and there is a lot to be said about that when you have so much invested.

    The P-38 has good visibility, good range even without drop tanks, the 20mm cannon plus forward firing M2’s that don’t have to be zeroed to a certain range, and better landing characteristics with the tricycle gear.

    Don’t get me wrong, the P-51 is an excellent airplane and I’d be happy to fly it. But tailwheel aircraft are far more squirly in high wind conditions, and for an air to ground attack role (that we may need in the future) the 20mm and centerline armament is a big selling point for me.

  26. Instead of the near worthless Me-110, a better choice would have been the Dornier DO-335 Arrow.

    A big problem with the Lightning was the fuel tank valve system. Lockheed really screwed this up, a legacy of building bigger planes. Lots of planes and pilots lost due to this stupid design. The last Lightning lost was due to this problem. Jeffry Ethell crashed when he ran one engine out of fuel while circling an airport in OR. Probably lost control while trying to reach the valves and select another tank. Plane ended up in a flat spin before it impacted the ground. He had about 7 hours in a prior p-38 familiarization session before this day. Sad thing was his father, who was a high time ww2 p-38 pilot, was watching from the airfield when this happened in 1997.

    I was observing the Reno Races in the early 80’s when Lefty Gardner blew an engine in “White Lightnin”, his all white p-38, while doing his flying exhibition, not an actual race, IIRC. He landed somewhat normally and coasted into his pit, after calling a mayday. The pit crew immediately opened the engine cowlings, and there was a hole in the side of the crankcase you could have fit your head into. ’83-’85 timeframe, I think. This plane is now the “Red Bull” P-38. Lefty sold it after his son had an inflight engine fire in ’01, and did a belly landing in a field.

    (The aircraft was Lefty’s retirement fund. Lots more fun than looking at a bank balance for a few decades! )

  27. Jeffrey’s dad flew in West Europe, and he had an interesting technique to handle Bf-109 Messerschmidts. He would try to sucker them into following him in a climbing turn (don’t recall which direction, but one direction worked against the engine torque), and when it got slow enough, it would stall and fall off out of control for a short time. When he saw the stall, he would close one throttle and stomp on that side rudder pedal, and the p-38 would rotate around the cockpit. When it got 180 degrees around, open up the closed throttle and the plane would be heading downhill at an acceleration the German couldn’t overcome. Nothing out dove the Lightning.

  28. The Mosquito, without question.

    Because the only thing that sounds better than a Merlin V-12, is two of them.

  29. Mustang at least in part due to my father having flown them. He flew Mosquitos briefly, too, but, the Mustang more.

    He flew two on the list and shot down one, the ME-110.

  30. P 51. All are good but I feel the 51 is the best. Have seen several flying and they all get attention.

  31. Well, since you didn’t include the P-47, It’ll have to be the FW-190F.
    Round engine and damned fast, you know.

  32. I’m late to this party, but this is easy:
    Yank: P-38, because it’s beautiful, unique, much rarer than the Mustang, and has the distinction of downing more of Hirohito’s airmen than any other aircraft.

    Brit: Spitfire. Duh. Beautiful and iconic.

    German: FW-190. Maybe my favorite plane of the war, of any side. Tucking that big radial into a streamlined cowling, the graceful tail, and the ability to fly with anything the Allies had. Gorgeous. Sadly, I don’t think there’s an original flying anywhere in the world anymore. And I’d prefer the more stripped, fighter versions, rather than an F loaded with bomb-racks.

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