For example, is a plane bad because it is exceedingly dangerous to the pilot?
Is a jet bad because its cost was so much higher than the utility yielded?
Is a jet bad because its performance envelope was especially limited?
Is a plane bad because it was designed for a purpose that the jet never got the opportunity to fulfill?
Yes, all of these factors deserve consideration – yet none are dispositive; designating the worst fighter of all time is surely a subjective exercise, far from scientific.
Worst Fighter Ever? Meet the Century Series
Rather than name a single fighter as the worst ever, I’m going to hedge my bets, and name a small grouping of fighter jets as the worst ever: The Century Series.
The Century Series was a group of US Air Force fighters, the models between F-100 and F-106: the F-100 Super Sabre; F-101 Voodoo; F-102 Delta Dagger; F-104 Starfighter; F-105 Thunderchief, and; F-106 Delta Dart.
Of course, the collection of jets was a mixed bag – some good, some bad. But collectively, we can say the Century Series was a botched venture.
What Made the Century Series Awful
The F-102 Delta Dagger had problems from the start. Designed by Convair in the 1950s, the F-102 was an interceptor tasked with defending the United States against invading Soviet strategic bombers.
The F-102 was the USAF’s first supersonic interceptor – and their first delta wing design. But the first F-102 had problems getting off the ground. The first F-102, tested in 1953 at Edwards Air Force Base, was lost in an accident just nine days into its service career.
The second F-102, flown in January 1954 confirmed that the F-102’s initial design produced a low-quality performance; the F-102 was limited to Mach 0.98, failing to achieve supersonic speeds thanks to transonic drag. Also, the F-102s service ceiling was limited to just 48,000 feet. As initially designed, the F-102 would be unable to fulfill its role as a supersonic interceptor. A major redesign would be needed.
To fix the problems, Convair lengthened the fuselage, “pinched” the fuselage, revised the intakes, and narrowed the canopy. Additionally, a more powerful engine, the J57 was included, while the overall aircraft was lightened. The wings were also redesigned – being thinned and widened; the wing’s leading edge was redesigned to include a conical droop, with the apex at the root. The result was improved handling at low speeds.
The redesigns convinced the USAF that the F-102 was sufficiently capable; production was ordered and in total 1,000 F-102s were developed. The F-102 served during the Vietnam War, where 14 total aircraft were lost. By the mid-1960s, the F-102 was mostly serving in Air National Guard units, with a more limited front-line role.
Meet the F-104
The F-104 Starfighter was another troubled Century Series aircraft.
Introduced in 1958 as an all-weather multirole fighter, the F-104 featured a radical design, with thin, stubby wings placed far back on the fuselage.
The unique wing configuration allowed the F-104 to achieve high speeds but resulted in atrocious turning capability and dangerously high landing speeds. Although, the F-104 was ground-breaking; the Starfighter earned multiple world records for airspeed, altitude, and rate of climb – busting Mach 2 and a 100,00-foot ceiling.
So, the Starfighter was an impressive machine but it lacked the range or the payload capacity to be an effective interceptor.
More concerning was the F-104’s accident rate. Export customers like West Germany, Belgium, Italy, and Canada suffered remarkable accident rates, losing 32, 41, 37, and 46 percent of their Starfighter fleets respectively to accidents.
The USAF had high accident rates with the F-104, too; the USAF lost 25.2 aircraft per 100,000 flight hours. By comparison, other jets of the same era were lost at rates of 7.3 and 16.2 planes per 100,000 flight hours. The F-104 was removed from USAF active duty service in 1969.
In all, the Century Series was dangerous and expensive, more of a transitional series of aircraft than a staple of US air power.
Bonus Photo Essay: Meet the F-16 (Best Fighter Ever?)
Harrison Kass is the Senior Defense Editor at 19FortyFive. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, he joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison holds a BA from Lake Forest College, a JD from the University of Oregon, and an MA from New York University. He lives in Oregon and listens to Dokken. Follow him on Twitter @harrison_kass.