A change swept over the world of military aircraft during the Second World War and the Korean War. The age of propeller-driven, piston-engined fighters reached its peak and then faded away as jet engines and the first generation of jet fighters took to the skies. The transition was not a quick or simple one. Propeller-driven fighters kept flying for decades after the introduction of jets. Here are the last of the breed of propeller-driven aircraft.
Grumman F8F Bearcat
The Grumman F8F Bearcat was intended to build on the lessons of air combat in World War II—in particular those gained during the Battle of Midway. With an emphasis on climb rate, Grumman built the Bearcat by marrying the smallest, lightest airframe with the largest available engine. The result was a powerful, nimble interceptor well suited for carrier operations—particularly when the folding wing feature was incorporated. It performed so well that and handled so beautifully that the Bearcat was the second aircraft chosen by the US Navy’s Blue Angles demonstration team. The only real issue that faced the Bearcat was timing. A propeller driven fighter in the jet age, it was largely replaced in US service by the F9F Panther and the F2H Banshee over the course of the Korean War.
Douglas A-1 Skyraider
An oft-forgotten contribution by Douglas, the A-1 Skyraider was late development in the world of propeller driven fighters. First flying in 1946, it enjoyed a surprisingly long career before being retired in favor of the first and second generation of jet fighters. Built for the US Navy as a long range fighter/bomber with an emphasis of dive bombing and torpedo deliver, the Skyraider was not delivered in time to see action during World War II. However, it rose to prominence during the Korean War, during which it became a mainstay for carrier based precision strikes and torpedo strikes. Retired in favor of more advanced jet aircraft, they remained in service with South Vietnamese forces into the 1960s.
NATO and Western forces weren’t the only ones making the transition. While the Soviet Union developed an early interest in jet fighters, manufacturing constraints meant that propeller driven fighters remained a mainstay following World War II. The Lavochkin La-11 was among the last of these. Intended to be a long-range escort figter, the Lavochkin La-11 did see combat use against Western forces. Like so many of the last propeller fighters, it saw real combat in the skies over Korea during the Korean War in services with Chinese and North Korean forces. However, with the introduction of the MiG-15, the Lavochkin’s days were numbered and by the mid 1950s it had largely gone the way of all propeller and piston fighters. Some exceptions remained: Lavochkin propeller driven fighters remained in service in Southeast Asian through the 1960s.
Hawker Sea Fury
The Royal Navy’s last propeller driven fighter and interceptor, the Hawker Sea Fury was developed during the Second World War but didn’t see active service until the the Korean War. Tasked with carrier defense and interception, the Hawker’s robust design and flexibility made it an ideal choice in this role. While Royal Navy air operations in the Korean War were limited, the Hawker Sea Fury did score some notable successes. The most notable of these came in 1952, when a Sea Fury piloted by Lieutenant Peter Carmichael became on of the very few propeller fighters to shoot down a jet fighter. In this case the enemy aircraft was a MiG-15, which was state of the art for its time. Even with that success, its days were numbered and the Royal Navy retired it in 1955 in favor of the Supermarine Attacker.
CAC CA-15 Kangaroo
The only Australian entry on this list, the CAC CA-15 Kangaroo is one of the last propeller driven fighters developed. First flying in March of 1946, the Kangaroo missed wartime service with the Australian forces. Inspired by the P-51 Mustang in design and powered by an Rolls-Royce Griffin engine, the CA-15 Kangaroo had a lot of potential. One test flight over Melbourne allegedly reached a top speed of over 500 miles per hour, greatly exceeding most of its contemporaries. However the project was plagued by technical issues, which slowed development. With the growing realization that jet fighters were the future, the CA-15 Kangaroo was eventually abandoned. No examples remain today; the sole prototype was scrapped in 1950 and the engine returned to Rolls Royce.
The Focke-Wulf Ta-152 was one of the last propeller driven fighters to enter World War II. Introduced into Luftwaffe service in January of 1945, only 45 aircraft were ever delivered out of the 220 supposedly produced and ordered. This may have been a boon to the Allies, as the Ta-152 was one of the best performing fighter-interceptors of the war. Designed for high altitude operations, it had a service ceiling of nearly 50,000 feet and a top speed of 472 miles per hour. By the standards of the day, these numbers were frightening, rivaling any other fighter of the war. One of its very few combat engagements came in April 1945, when a flight of three Ta-152s ambushed and downed four Hawker Tempests. The British aircraft had been strafing a railway yard in Germany.
Sadly, one of the last propeller fighters is also one of the rarest now. Only one Ta-152 remains, in the possession of the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum. As of 2017, it is undergoing restoration in Suitland, Maryland.
Dornier Do 335
Another German fighter introduced relatively late in the war, the Dornier Do 335 has a design that sets it apart among that ultimate generation of propeller driven fighters. Operating on the push-pull principle, the unique fore and aft propeller design gave the Do 335 some unique characteristics. This may have been the fastest propeller driven fighter of the war, as testified during its only recorded combat engagement. A sole Dornier Do 335 encountered a flight of four Hawker Hurricanes, piloted by the Free French Air Force. Realizing he was outnumbered and outgunned, the pilot of the Do 335 executed a tight turn and beat a hasty retreat at speeds the Hawkers simply couldn’t match. Production had ceased in 1945 as the war entered its end stages. Today only one Do 335 remains, in the possession of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.
de Havilland DH.103 Hornet
Even in the final year of the war, the Allies continued their own research into the last propeller fighters in military service. Among those was the de Havilland DH.103 Hornet, which marked a different approach to British fighter design. The twin engine twin propellered fighter saw a little action in Europe during the war, and went on to serve with distinction with the RAF during the Malayan Emergency. Fast enough to compete with any German fighter and heavily armed, the Hornet impressed both pilots and military leaders. Pilots in particular admired its power and maneuverability—fitting for a fighter that represented the pinnacle of propeller and piston design.
Sadly, no fully intact Hornets remain, as they were scrapped during the 1950s.
Martin-Baker M.B.5 Prototype Fighter/Interceptor
During World War II, rumors of superweapons and advanced aircraft in testing abounded. While most of these whispered stories centered on the nascent jet fighters that would come to define the post-war era, some of them should have been about the most advanced and last propeller fighters. The Martin-Baker M.B.5 prototype fighter was among these. Building on the lessons learned during the Battle of Britain, British engineers developed a next-generation propeller and piston fighter that may have outperformed any of its contemporaries. Fast, high powered, and capable of intense acrobatic flight, the M.B.5 may have proved a game changer for the British had it been introduced earlier in the war. Sadly its first test flight didn’t take place until 1944, and only one M.B.5 was ever produced. All we have left are the factory schematics and the stories of those who flew it. By all accounts, this may have been the best propeller and piston fighter, period.