Flyover Plane-Spotting

How to ID the warbirds

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Dozens of WW2 aircraft will fly over the National Mall in Washington D.C. on May 8, organized into formations and spaced at regular intervals, beginning at 12:10 p.m. EDT. See our Flyover Viewers’ Guide for tips on where to watch. Scroll down for information on each of the airplanes, in the order they will appear. (You can also download these spotter cards as a printable PDF or view them on your smartphone (at airspacemag.com/spotter).

Trainers

More World War II trainers fly today than any type of aircraft from the war, partly because so many were built and partly because as trainers, they had to be simple, forgiving, and sturdy.

  • Boeing Stearman
  • Piper L-Bird
  • North American T-6s/SNJ
  • Cessna/Beech Twin Bomber Trainer
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BOEING STEARMAN PT-17/N2S
Trained more military pilots, including Navy cadet George H.W. Bush, than any other basic WWII trainer. Biplane with fixed gear. (A&S)
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PIPER L-4 GRASSHOPPER
Utility transport/scout based on the 90-mph Piper J-3 Cub trainer. Small, cute, with a single, high wing. (A&S)
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NORTH AMERICAN AT-6/SNJ
Trainer with a 600-hp radial engine; low wing, heart-shaped horizontal tail, and greenhouse canopy. Taught pilots how to fly and shoot. (A&S)
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BEECH AT-11 KANSAN
Beautiful Beech (transport version: C-45); glassed-in nose; trained bombardiers and pilots for multi-engine flight; twin vertical stabilizers. (A&S)

Pearl Harbor

Several P-40s were able to scramble to attack Japanese fighters on December 7, 1941, the day Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. At the time, the Curtiss P-40 was one of the most advanced fighters in U.S. service.

  • Curtiss P-40 Warhawk
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CURTISS P-40 WARHAWK
As the fighter of the Flying Tigers, painted with a shark’s mouth on the air scoop under its long snout; could out-dive most adversaries. (A&S)

Doolittle Raid

Led by then Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle, 16 B-25 Mitchell medium bombers launched from the aircraft carrier Hornet to bomb Tokyo in retaliation for the attack on Pearl Harbor. Knowing they couldn’t return to the carrier, the pilots planned to land in China; after crash landing or ditching in the ocean, 69 of 80 pilots made it back to U.S. territory.

  • North American B-25 Mitchell
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NORTH AMERICAN B-25 MITCHELL
Twin-engine medium bomber famous for the Doolittle Raid. Transparent nose, glassed-in tail and waist “blisters” for gunners, big twin vertical stabilizers. (A&S)

Guadalcanal

The first major U.S. offensive in the Pacific War, the fighting in Guadalcanal was mainly a naval and Marine operation, helped along by a motley collection of airplanes, referred to as the Cactus Air Force. The campaign weakened the Japanese forces and strengthened U.S. resolve.

  • Bell P-39 Airacobra
  • P-63 Kingcobra
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BELL P-39 AIRACOBRA
Smallish, low-wing fighter with rounded wings and tail. Pretty in profile and hugely effective in the hands of Soviet pilots. (A&S)
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BELL P-63A KINGCOBRA
Showing the true potential of the P-39 design, this improved version could hit 410 mph at 25,000 feet. Mainly export. (A&S)

Battle of Midway

Between June 4 and 7, 1942, this battle between aircraft launched from carriers was the turning point of the war in the Pacific. The Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bomber was responsible for sinking four Japanese aircraft carriers.

  • Consolidated PBY Catalina
  • Grumman F4F/FM-2 Wildcat
  • Douglas SBD Dauntless
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CONSOLIDATED PBY CATALINA
Twin-engine Navy patrol bomber amphib/flying boat that sank 40 subs. Spotted the Japanese fleet at Midway. High wing. (A&S)
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GRUMMAN F4F WILDCAT
Short, stout, ship-based fighter, it was less capable than the Japanese Zero, but U.S. pilots compensated with effective tactics. (A&S)
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DOUGLAS SBD DAUNTLESS
The dive bomber that saved the day at the Battle of Midway by sinking four Japanese carriers. Look for perforated dive flaps. (A&S)

Yamamoto Shootdown

The twin-engine Lockheed P-38 Lightning was one of the most capable fighters of the war. Its long range made it the fighter chosen to intercept the Mitsubishi “Betty” bombers carrying the general staff of Admiral Isokuru Yamamoto, the commander of the Japanese fleet, on April 18, 1943.

  • Lockheed P-38 Lightning
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LOCKHEED P-38 LIGHTNING
Twin booms and a central cockpit nacelle make the P-38 the most easily recognized fighter. Flown by top U.S. ace Richard Bong. (A&S)

Ploesti Raid

A 14-month series of bombing raids against oil refineries in Ploesti, Rumania in 1943 and 1944 diminished, at a cost of hundreds of B-24 bombers, the supply of gasoline for German vehicles.

  • Consolidated B-24 Liberator
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CONSOLIDATED B-24 LIBERATOR
Long but portly, the B-24 looked like trouble. Four-engine, long-range bomber with horizontal tail and oval vertical stabilizers. (A&S)

Bomber Escort

North American P-51 Mustangs were the primary, long-range fighter escorts for Allied bombers headed to Berlin and other German cities. The first U.S. heavy bombers struck Berlin in March 1944. The formations were enormous: On that first mission, 730 bombers struck, escorted by 800 fighters.

  • North American P-51 Mustang
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NORTH AMERICAN P-51 MUSTANG
Possibly the war’s best escort fighter; had a long, pointed nose, underbelly air scoop, low, squared-off wings, and dash. (A&S)

Big Week

In a single week in February 1944, U.S. bombers flew 3,500 sorties against German aircraft manufacturing centers. Although both sides suffered losses, the Luftwaffe was badly mauled, leaving few fighters to resist the coming Normandy invasion.

  • Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress
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BOEING B-17 FLYING FORTRESS
With a dorsal spine blending into a vertical tail, the four-engine B-17 was more graceful than the B-24 and almost indestructible. (A&S)

D-Day

On June 6, 1944, British and American forces landed in Normandy to liberate western Europe from German occupation. Douglas C-47 Skytrains towed gliders and carried paratroopers across the English Channel. Medium bombers, mainly Martin B-26 Marauders, were successful against the German forces dug in behind the beaches.

  • Douglas C-47/R4D Skytrain
  • B-26
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DOUGLAS C-47/R4D SKYTRAIN
Based on the DC-3, the twin-engine C-47 carried it all: cargo, paratroops, stretchers, generals. Short, rounded nose; tail landing gear. (A&S)

Philippine Sea / Leyte Gulf

The Battle of the Philippine Sea was known as the “Marianas Turkey Shoot” because U.S. Navy Hellcat fighters shot down high numbers of Japanese aircraft, further weakening a limping Japanese air force. Four months later, the navies fought the Battle of Leyte Gulf, which finished off the Japanese surface fleet.

  • Grumman TBM Avenger
  • Grumman F6F Hellcat
  • Grumman F8F Bearcat
  • Curtis SB2C Helldiver
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GRUMMAN TBM AVENGER
Heavy, carrier-based torpedo bomber with a round gun turret aft of the greenhouse canopy. A menace to ships and submarines. (A&S)
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GRUMMAN F6F HELLCAT
Five feet longer and half again as heavy, compared to the Wildcat. It destroyed more aircraft than any other Navy fighter. (A&S)
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GRUMMAN F8F BEARCAT
Too late for WWII combat, the Bearcat set post-war records for climbing rate, and has had an illustrious career as a raceplane. (A&S)
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CURTISS SB2C HELLDIVER
The last dive bomber operated by the Navy, it replaced the Douglas Dauntless. The canopy runs almost the full length of the fuselage. (A&S)

Battle of the Bulge

In December 1944, the German army launched its last offensive, intended to drive a wedge through the Allied forces. The Allies held, but the U.S. Army lost 100,000 troops in a series of desperate battles.

  • Douglas A-26 Invader
  • Republic P-47 Thunderbolt
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DOUGLAS A-26 INVADER
The fastest U.S. bomber of the war. Only 50 feet long with a narrow fuselage and tall, squared-off tail. (A&S)
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REPUBLIC P-47 THUNDERBOLT
“The Jug”: heaviest single-engine fighter of the war, good at ground attack. Fast, despite its hefty fuselage, heavily armed, and deadly. (A&S)

Iwo Jima

The name of this Japanese island, eight miles square and 750 miles south of Tokyo, will always make Americans think of U.S. Marines. Supported by F4U Corsairs, the Marines fought a bloody, five-week battle beginning in February 1945 to secure airfields that would become emergency landing sites for B-29s carrying nuclear weapons.

  • Vought FG-1D Corsair
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VOUGHT F4U CORSAIR
Navy pilots flew it, but it will always be known as a Marine. First U.S. fighter to fly faster than 400 mph, level. Look for the dip in its wings. (A&S)

Final Air Offensive

In fighting between June and August 1944, Allied forces seized the island of Tinian, 1,500 miles south of Tokyo, and began constructing air bases. That October, B-29 bombers began arriving. The B-29 could fly a round trip between the Tinian and Tokyo in 12 hours. Although the firebombing of Tokyo caused more casualties, the two atomic bombs dropped by Boeing B-29s on Hiroshima (August 6) and on Nagasaki (August 9) ended the war.

  • Boeing B-29 Superfortress
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BOEING B-29 SUPERFORTRESS
The bomber that ended the war; the only one ever to drop atomic bombs in combat. Long, slender fuselage; tail like a B-17’s. (A&S)
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