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Fighter aircraft: America's 100,000

America's Hundred Thousand

America's Hundred Thousand: The US Production Fighter Aircraft of World War II by Francis H. Dean. Schiffer, 1997. 606 pp., large format, diagrams, b&w photos, $59.95 (hardcover) Available at Historic Aviation and at Amazon.com

This isn't a book for couch potatoes. It contains no tales of derring-do ("Tex dropped out of the sky upon the unsuspecting Zero") and it could do you an injury if you dozed off--it's that heavy.

Rather, it presents the best collection of facts, figures, drawings, photos, and anecdotes about U.S. World War II fighters that I have ever seen, and a whole lot more. For openers, Dean sketches American fighters of the 1920s and 1930s, along with the planes that might have fought in World War II but didn't make the grade, often because they were too goofy to be believed. He also talks about the elements that enable a fighter to fight, including a wonderfully lucid explanation of aircraft stability.

The main text is given over to the 11 planes that actually went to war, including the Brewster F2A Buffalo (509 delivered, mostly to desperate foreigners) and the humungous Northrop P-61 Black Widow (706 delivered, late in the war). Any kid with a yen for model airplanes or Combat Simulator can name the rest: the shark-faced Curtiss P-40, the rotund Grumman F4F Wildcat and F6F Hellcat, the burly Republic P-47 Thunderbolt, the incomparable North American P-51 Mustang. . . . From 1939 to 1945, U.S. manufacturers built 100,090 combat-worthy fighters. "Today," Dean notes, "no one could pay for that number even if they were desired."

In the Schiffer tradition, photograph is piled upon drawing, table upon graph--74 for the Brewster Buffalo alone, which U.S. pilots flew in just one engagement, defending Midway on June 4, 1942. The drawings are generally taken from pilot's manuals and the like, giving a pleasantly retro look to the pages.

Among such wonders, I was disappointed to find countless errors of spelling and punctuation, notably "Kittihawk" for the British Kittyhawk version of the big-jawed P-40. Never mind! Just as nobody will ever build so many fighters again, nobody is likely to attempt another such labor of love, so we'll have to be content with this one.