Key point: These planes were very useful and their nation's carriers were happy to have them.
Designing an airplane that can fly at high speeds lugging heavy weapons loads, and yet still takeoff and land on a short flight deck a few hundred meters long has always posed a formidable engineering challenge. Sea-based fighters typically feature folding wings for easier stowage, ruggedized landing gear and arrester equipment, and greater robustness to endure the wear and tear from sea-based operations. These all literally weigh against the exquisite engineering exhibited by land-based fighters.
Yet since World War II, exceptional carrier-based fighters have repeatedly more than held their own against land-based adversaries.
To quality for this list, the carrier-based-fighter in question must not only have been effective, but also had significant operational impact. This excludes excellent carrier-based jets such as the Super Hornet or Rafale-M which haven’t seen intensive combat employment.
The airplane must also be a ‘fighter’ designed for air-to-air capability airplanes. This leaves out excellent aircraft like the SBD Dauntless dive bomber, A-1 Skyraider and A-4 Skyhawk which were attack planes foremost, even though they had their occasional air-to-air successes.
Mitsubishi A6M Zero
The A6M Zero was an elegant fighter designed for the Imperial Japanese Navy by engineer Jiro Horikoshi. Weighing less than 4,000 pounds. The Zero’s 840-horespower radial engine allowed it to traverse a remarkable 1,600 miles on internal fuel, outclimb and outrun many contemporary land-based fighters with a top speed of 346 miles per hour, and still turn on a dime.