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Fighter Escort: “Little Friends”

Royal Air Force (RAF) Spitfire off the wing of a B-17.  Flown by RAF and American pilots, the short-ranged Spitfire was the USAAF’s heavy bomber escort until mid-1943.

Royal Air Force (RAF) Spitfire off the wing of a B-17. Flown by RAF and American pilots, the short-ranged Spitfire was the USAAF’s heavy bomber escort until mid-1943.

During the first half of the strategic bombing campaign, the USAAF lacked fighters that could escort its heavy bombers on strikes against targets in Germany.  As a result, heavy bomber crews took devastating losses that threatened the continuation of the campaign. 

By early 1944, improvements to the P-47 and P-38, and the introduction of droppable fuel tanks and the P-51, solved the fighter range problem.  Heavy bomber losses decreased while enemy fighter pilot casualties rose dramatically.  These Luftwaffe losses broke its fighter force, leaving it unable to counter the D-Day invasion in June 1944.


Escort fighters weave a protective umbrella above a bomber formation.

P-47 Thunderbolt accompanies a B-24 bomber. The rugged Thunderbolt entered service in Europe in mid-1943.  At that time, the P-47 could not escort bombers past the German border, but later improvements extended its range.

20th Fighter Group P-38 pilot Lt Arthur Heiden with his ground crew.  The top hat markings represent bomber escort missions.

Introduced in Europe at the end of 1943, the fast, long-range P-51 Mustang became the USAAF’s ultimate escort fighter.

Map used by Col Don Blakeslee, commander of the famous 4th Fighter Group, on an escort mission to Berlin.  The black line represented the course of the bombers, and the red line was the path of the escort fighters.  The 4th FG claimed 26 enemy planes destroyed on this mission.

Spitfire clock and propeller blade autographed by 4th Fighter Group pilots (many were volunteers who had served in the famed RAF Eagle Squadrons).  The blade was broken when Lt Steve Pisanos belly-landed after retracting his landing gear too soon after takeoff in March 1943.


USAAF fighters carried cameras that operated when the guns fired, thereby recording aerial victories and strafing attacks on the ground.


This gun camera film magazine was installed in a P-38 Lightning on an escort mission over Germany—it was hit by a 7.92mm bullet from a Bf 110’s rear gunner.

Gun camera footage of P-47 pilot Lt Richard Stearns shooting down a twin-engine Messerschmitt fighter in November 1943.  In April 1944, Stearns was downed and became a POW.





Knife made by a metalsmith in England and carried on missions by P-38 pilot Lt Royal Frey.  On February 10, 1944, Frey was shot down near Munster, Germany, and became a prisoner of war.  Frey later became the Senior Curator of the US Air Force Museum, and the Museum’s P-38 is painted in Lt Frey’s markings.

Lt Royal Frey 

Related Fact Sheets

The Memphis Belle: American Icon and 25th Mission

Memphis Belle Crew

The “Memphis Belle” and Nose Art

26th Mission: War Bond Tour

Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress”

Heavy Bomber “Firsts”

Combat Aircraft to Museum Artifact

Crippling the Nazi War Machine: USAAF Strategic Bombing in Europe

Enabling Technologies

Key Leaders

Early Operations (1942 to mid-1943) - Eighth Air Force in England

Ninth/Twelfth Air Forces in the Mediterranean

Combat Box/Communication and Life at 25K

Keeping them Flying: Mechanics and Armorers

Combined Bomber Offensive: Summer 1943 to Victory

Bigger Raids, Bigger Losses, and Crisis

Deadly Skies over Europe (Luftwaffe defense)

Bomber Crew Protection

Operation Tidalwave (Ploesti, 1 Aug 43)

Regensburg/Schweinfurt (17 Aug 43)

Black Thursday/Schweinfurt (14 Oct 43)

Fifteenth Air Force (created Sep 43)


Women’s Army Corps

Fighter Escort: Little Friends

Big Week (20-25 Feb 44)

Target Berlin

Operation Frantic: Shuttle Raids to the Soviet Union

Blind Bombing

D-Day Support

Strategic Bombing Victorious




Return to the B-17F Memphis Belle Fact Sheet

Return to the WWII Gallery list


Mask Policy:
In accordance with the updated guidance released by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Department of Defense (DoD) and Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force will require all visitors to wear face masks indoors effective July 30, 2021 until further notice.

Visitors ages three and up will be required to wear masks while indoors at the museum. This policy applies to all visitors, staff and volunteers regardless of vaccination status. Visitors may wear their own masks or a free paper mask will be provided. Cloth masks will also be available for purchase in the Museum Store.
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