What is a Fighter?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A fighter is an aircraft which is designed to be used in aerial combat, rather than to attack targets on the ground. Fighters are a crucial part of a national air force, helping ensure aerial superiority, and fighter pilots are often figures of great public interest, because they are perceived as especially bold, daring, and talented pilots. In some militaries, women are not permitted to become fighter pilots, due to rules which prohibit women from serving in combat roles.

The Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor is a USAF air dominance fighter that incorporates stealth and supercruise technologies.
The Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor is a USAF air dominance fighter that incorporates stealth and supercruise technologies.

Several characteristics distinguish a fighter from other types of military aircraft. Fighters tend to be much smaller than other planes, with seating for only one person, and they are fast, very easy to maneuver, and often stealthy as well. Modern fighters are made with jet engines, while older fighters used props and propellers. A fighter is designed to perform in a wide variety of conditions and situations, ensuring that the plane will be able to endure the varied conditions which can emerge in aerial combat.

The F-16 Fighting Falcon is an example of a lightweight, single-seat jet fighter.
The F-16 Fighting Falcon is an example of a lightweight, single-seat jet fighter.

Well through the 1920s, fighters were known as “scouts” by most militaries, and they were mounted with what were essentially giant guns, allowing them to strafe the ground as well as other aircraft. To aim the gun, pilots actually aimed the plane; the guns were fixed in position. Because early fighters were powered with props, they posed an interesting engineering challenge, as the gun had to be designed to fire bullets through the propeller without interrupting it, in a very synchronized dance.

The Lockheed P-38 was a twin-engine heavy fighter that was used by the United States during World War II.
The Lockheed P-38 was a twin-engine heavy fighter that was used by the United States during World War II.

By the Second World War, the importance of the fighter had been realized, and a variety of scrappy little planes helped to hold the airspace over strategic locations. Fighters would be used to escort bombers, ensuring that the bombers could not be attacked by enemy aircraft, and they also accompanied convoys of ships and trucks. Fighters were also dispatched to acquire and secure the airspace over key areas like ports and airfields. Today, fighters may also escort special flights; Air Force One, for example, is typically accompanied by fighters, and fighters are used to escort foreign planes flying over controlled airspace.

Jet fighters use acoustic jamming as a defense mechanism against air-to-air missiles.
Jet fighters use acoustic jamming as a defense mechanism against air-to-air missiles.

Modern fighters have missiles for long-range targets along with cannon for closer engagements, and they are equipped with jet engines which make them fast and versatile. These planes are often on display at military air shows, since they can be quite exciting to see in action, and museums dedicated to the history of military aviation sometimes have decommissioned modern fighters on display beside older versions, so that visitors can trace the evolution of the fighter from the early 1900s to today.

The Mitsubishi "Zero" is a World War II-era Japanese fighter plane.
The Mitsubishi "Zero" is a World War II-era Japanese fighter plane.
Modern fighters are equipped with jet engines which make them fast and versatile.
Modern fighters are equipped with jet engines which make them fast and versatile.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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