The Most Produced
Icons in Big Numbers
Today, the world is populated by approximately 7.5 billion people of all races, colors, cultures, shapes, and sizes. In 1939, just as the curtains were going up on World War II, the population was right at 2.3 billion. It was less than a third the size it is today, yet the six-year period following 1939 saw probably the largest industrial growth of any period before or since. During WW II, the amount of “stuff” of all kinds that was built (and much of it destroyed) staggers the imagination. Nowhere is this more noticeable than in the explosive growth (and subsequent death) of the world’s airplane population.
Airplanes by the Thousands
In round numbers, it is estimated that today there are approximately 450,000 airplanes of all kinds worldwide. This is interesting, when one considers that the total worldwide production of aircraft during WW II is estimated at 786,553, which is 75 percent more than exist today, 75 years later! The United States alone produced 300,557—more than 150 percent of the output of all the Axis nations combined. The United Kingdom cranked out another 131,000, so the other side really didn’t have a chance. Or did it?
The foregoing leaves the impression that the United States led the world in combat aircraft production. If that’s true, why were only three of the 10 most produced airplanes of WW II American-made? Why is the highest U.S. score, the B-24, only the fifth most produced? In other words, the country known for popping out goodies like Sherman tanks barely made the most produced list.
Also, it is often assumed that the intense bombing of so many enemy production centers crippled their assembly processes so much that they couldn’t build enough fighters to defend themselves. If that’s the case, as the bombing campaigns increased in number and ferocity in 1944, why did Germany’s production of Bf 109s double from a year earlier, hitting more than 1,000 a month? And if Adolf Hitler’s industry was so crippled, how did Germany build another 2,800 109s in 1945, which, if annualized, would have been 8,400 airplanes rising from the ruins? A similar production curve was reflected in FW 190 numbers.
By the same token, given these numbers and what they say about the effectiveness of our strategic bombing campaigns, why did iconic airplanes like the Mitsubishi Zero, at 11,000 total, not make the list? This is where aircraft design raises its quirky head, giving Germany an edge in production. The Zero was designed without a center section. The fuselage was part of the wing, so although it made for a very lightweight fighter, the Mitsubishi couldn’t be built in small, easily protected, dispersed construction centers. German fighters were modular, which allowed spread-out construction of smaller assemblies, making it more difficult for individual bombing raids to interrupt production.
The Ten Most Produced Airplanes
So what were the 10 most produced airplanes of WW II, and why were they built more than others? Keep in mind, no matter how much research we do at this end of history, there is zero chance that the numbers we present here are wholly accurate; 75-year-old records tend to have holes in them, so totals are sometimes a best estimate.
America’s most produced airplane was the B-24. Going into production in 1941, it benefited from Ford’s assembly-line experience, which produced one bomber every 63 minutes. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Germany’s skill in planning and execution showed in that they had the second, fourth, and ninth most produced airplanes of the war. (Photo courtesy of EN-Archive)
While the Curtiss P-40 didn’t make the top 10, the production of 13,700+ deserves at least an honorable mention. (Photo courtesy of Stan Piet)