The Last Gunfighters – History’s Final Piston-Engine Interceptors

Although slow and obsolete, piston-engine warplanes found themselves in dogfights well into the jet age. The last known areal duel involving propellor-driven aircraft took place in 1969.

Although slow and obsolete, piston-engine warplanes found themselves in dogfights well into the jet age. The last known areal duel involving propellor-driven aircraft took place in 1969.

“Despite the arrival of jets, propellor-driven fighter planes (most of them obsolete) continued to do battle in many of the world’s hotspots for another 25 years.”

THE AGE OF the jet fighter officially began on July 26, 1944. That’s the date a German flier by the name Alfred Schreiber scored a victory against a lone RAF Mosquito over Munich. The incident stands out because the 21-year-old Luftwaffe pilot made the kill while at the controls of a  Messerschmitt Me-262 jet — one of the Third Reich’s newest super weapons. The British pilot managed to escape from the 560-mph enemy fighter, but the Allied plane suffered extensive damage and crashed during an emergency landing in Italy. Although Me-262s had entered service as early as April, the dogfight marked the first recorded air-to-air victory by a jet-powered warplane. And while piston-engine aircraft continued to perform in combat for the duration of the Second World War, from that moment on, aerial warfare was increasingly dominated by jets. Despite this, a handful propellor-driven fighter planes (most of them obsolete) continued to do battle in many of the world’s hotspots for another 25 years. In fact, some of these warbirds wouldn’t be retired from service completely until the late 1970s! Here are some of history’s last piston-powered gunfighters:

The Grumman F8F Bearcat.

The Grumman F8F Bearcat.

Grumman Bearcat

World War Two ended before the Grumman F8F could see action. The high-performance fighter entered service with the U.S. Navy in May of 1945. The first models reached a top speed of 430 mph (678 km/h); upgraded variant could travel even faster. The U.S. military equipped 24 squadrons with Bearcats in the years following the war, but withdrew the plane from service before Korea to make way for newer carrier-based jets, like the Grumman F9F Panther. Two hundred Bearcats were later exported to France. They would serve in ground attack roles during the Indochina War and later become added to the air force of South Vietnam. It’s unclear if any ever engaged another aircraft.

Israel's first fighter squadron was equipped with Czech-built World War Two vintage Messerschmitt fighters.

Israel’s first fighter squadron was equipped with Czech-built World War Two vintage Messerschmitt fighters.

Israeli ‘Messerschmitts’

Hampered by an international arms embargo, the newly-independent state of Israel was actually forced to equip its first fighter squadron with refurbished Nazi warplanes. In fact, the Israeli Avia S-199 was little more than a Czech reproduction of the German Messerschmitt Bf-109. The planes were assembled near Prague using surplus parts and were secretly sold to the Jewish state in 1948. More than 20 S-199s were ferried into the region where they ultimately proved to be ill-suited for air combat. Despite their shortcomings, Israel threw the planes into action. On their first sortie, a group of S-199s struck a formation of converted Egyptian C-47 bombers following a raid on Tel Aviv. Two of the attacking cargo planes were destroyed in the attack. Shortly afterwards, Israeli Avias were doing battle with Arab Spitfires. Incidentally, Czechoslovakia wasn’t the only European power to produce copies of the German bf-109. Spain built more than 200 during the late 1940s and early 1950s. Known as the Hispano Aviación HA-1109 and HA-1112, the aircraft continued to serve in the Spanish air force until being phased out in 1965. In fact, many of these retired aircraft appeared in the 1969 film The Battle of Britain.

The La-11.

The La-11.

Lavochkin La-11

One of the last Soviet piston-engine fighters in history, the Lavochkin La-11, enjoyed a brief but somewhat successful career as a frontline interceptor, that is until the MiG-15 was deployed in large numbers. More than 1,200 of the single-seat warplanes were produced over four years beginning in 1947. The La-11 made its combat debut in the spring of 1950 when the Soviet 106th Fighter Aviation Division arrived in Shanghai to defend Chinese airspace against incursions by Taiwanese fighters and bombers. On March 7, La-11s destroyed a ROC B-25 bomber. Days later a flight of La-11s successfully engaged a formation of Taiwanese P-51 Mustangs. On April 8, a La-11 stationed near the Baltic Sea shot down an unarmed American PB4Y-2 Privateer reconnaissance plane off the coast of Latvia. By the summer, North Koran La-11s would be in action over the 38th Parallel where they engaged American P-51s. 

A British Hawker Sea Fury like this one managed to down a MiG-15 in 1952.

A British Hawker Sea Fury like this one managed to down a MiG-15 in 1952.

Hawker’s MiG Killer

The Hawker Sea Fury was the Royal Navy’s last carrier based piston-engine fighter aircraft. With a top speed of 460 mph (740 km/h), the plane also enjoys the distinction of being the fastest propeller-driven fighter aircraft to serve in combat. While the Sea Fury was introduced to the Fleet Air Arm just weeks after Japan’s surrender in 1945, hundreds went on to see action in Korea where they performed both combat air patrols and ground attack missions. On Aug. 8, 1952, a Sea Fury from the carrier HMS Ocean engaged and destroyed a North Korean MiG-15. A naval lieutenant named Peter Carmichael scored the kill after his flight of four Sea Furies from 802 Squadron fell prey to eight MiGs over Nampo, North Korea. The Royal Navy fighters were returning to their carrier following a strike on an enemy rail yard. Carmichael, 29 at the time, was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for the action. Yet according to one reader (see comments below), the famous dogfight and who exactly scored a victory remains mired in controversy. Sea Furies were also widely exported and eventually served in the navies and air forces of Canada, Australia, Burma, Holland, Pakistan and even Cuba. The plane last saw combat during the Bay of Pigs Invasion when a pair of Cuban Sea Furies attacked and sank the vessels Houston and Rio Escondido as the ships attempted to put anti-Castro ground troops ashore. Later that day, the same two fighters along with one more intercepted and destroyed a pair of CIA B-26 bombers.

Although designed as ground attack aircraft, on a handful of occasions, Douglas A-1 Skyraiders mixed it up with Soviet-made fighter jets over Vietnam.

Although designed as ground attack aircraft, on a handful of occasions, Douglas A-1 Skyraiders mixed it up with Soviet-made fighter jets over Vietnam.

The Skyraider

Out of date even before she  took to the skies, the Douglas A-1 Skyraider, was designed at the close of the the Second World War as a carrier-based bomber. Ungainly, heavy and slow, the Skyraider didn’t enter service with the U.S. Navy until late 1945. Five years later, the the A-1 saw action over Korea — the first missions occurred just eight days after the outbreak of hostilities. While not the most glamourous bird in the fleet, its 8,000 lb.-payload capacity (roughly equal to that of a B-17 bomber) coupled with its ability to loiter over the battlefield for an impressive 10 hours made the Skyraider an invaluable workhorse in the ground attack role. It was a mission profile the plane would reprise successfully during the Vietnam War, even after more capable planes, like the A-6 Intruder and the A-7 Corsair II had come online. In fact, the Skyraider managed to chalk up a number of air-to-air kills in its four-decade service life; some of the last piston-engine dogfights in history involved A-1s. In 1954, two U.S. Navy carrier-based Skyraiders splashed a pair of Chinese La-9s over the South China Sea. The action occurred three days after communist fighter planes downed a Cathay Pacific DC-4 on approach to Hong Kong. Nineteen passengers and crew perished in the incident. A decade later (on June 20, 1965), U.S. Navy Skyraiders on a ground strike mission were attacked by a North Vietnamese MiG-17. During the encounter, two of the American planes brought down the Soviet-made jet. A similar dogfight occurred the following year when Skyraiders from the USS Intrepid downed yet another MiG-17. The A-1’s last known air-to-air encounter took place on Feb. 14, 1968 when a formation of planes from the USS Enterprise were ambushed by Chinese MiG-19s near Hainan Island. The American machines reportedly strayed too close to Chinese airspace while striking targets in North Vietnam. One Skyraider was lost.

The last piston-engine dogfight in history saw Corsairs fighting Corsairs over the jungles of Central America.

The last piston-engine dogfight in history saw Corsairs fighting Corsairs above the jungles of Central America.

The Last Dogfight

Ironically, history’s last known piston-engine dogfight was between two legendary American warbirds from the Second World War – the P-51 Mustang and the Corsair. When a brief shooting war broke out in July of 1969 between estranged neighbours El Salvador and Honduras following a series of bitterly contested World Cup qualifying-round soccer matches, both countries’ antiquated air forces took to the skies. On July 17, Honduran Vought F4U Corsairs engaged a flight of Salvadorian Goodyear FG-1D Corsairs and Cavalier Mustangs — militarized versions of civilian air racing P-51s. During the duel, a Honduran pilot named Fernando Soto shot down two of the Salvadorian planes. El Salvador continued to fly its surviving Corsairs into 1975; Honduras didn’t retire its fleet until 1979.

8 comments for “The Last Gunfighters – History’s Final Piston-Engine Interceptors

  1. 16 October, 2013 at 8:58 am

    Re. the La-11 shooting down of a US PB4Y-2 over the Baltic on April 8th 1950: –
    This incident (and others of a similar nature) is very thoroughly covered in a book by Larry Tart and Robert Keefe, “The Price of Vigilance: Attacks on American Surveillance Flights”. Excerpts are available online at Google Books.

  2. 16 October, 2013 at 9:17 am

    Re. the claimed kill of a North Korean Mig by Carmichael in a Sea Fury: –
    There is strong evidence that Carmichael’s “victory” did not actually happen. I find credible the account of Brian Ellis, the youngest of the four Sea Fury pilots. You can read it at http://www.britains-smallwars.com/korea/seafurydogfight.html

  3. 16 October, 2013 at 10:20 am

    A humorous aside concerning Skyraiders bombing in Vietnam: –
    There were periods when ordnance (bomb) supplies on US carriers were insufficient to fully load Skyraiders for their missions. A damaged toilet on USS Midway was scheduled to be deep sixed. Instead, it was modified to serve as an aerial bomb, and dropped by a Skyraider. The reaction of the recipients was not recorded. See: –
    http://www.eugeneleeslover.com/Humor/Toilet_bomb.html

    • 16 October, 2013 at 11:24 am

      Thanks for all of those comments, Manxjack. The Sea Fury story certainly adds some new perspective and the toilet bomb story is a bit of an added bonus. LOL

  4. 27 November, 2013 at 4:30 pm

    This was a very, very interesting post, good sir…and thee was quite an irony with the last dogfight between the opposing Corsair and Mustang. I had the pleasure of meeting and talking with a Viet Nam Skyraider pilot with over 100 sorties under his belt. He was part of a family line with the last name of… Doolittle.

    • admin
      27 November, 2013 at 4:32 pm

      Any relation to the ‘other’ Dolittle?

      • 27 November, 2013 at 4:54 pm

        Yup… The one and only. Sent you an email. 🙂

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