The de Havilland Hornet was One of the Fastest Prop Fighters Ever
The de Havilland Hornet was a twin-engine fighter aircraft produced by the de Havilland aircraft company of Britain. The Hornet was designed in the 1940s when de Havilland found they had the time to work on a new plane in between projects and was intended for use by the RAF in the Pacific theatre during the Second World War.
The war ended before the Hornet could be deployed in combat, but it would go on to see service in the immediate post-war era during the Malayan Emergency and also on board aircraft carriers with the Royal Navy. The Hornet also established itself as an extremely fast plane and set several flight records, partly thanks to its lightweight frame and powerful engines.
The arrival of newer jet aircraft ultimately rendered the Hornet obsolete and many retired examples were unfortunately scrapped or deteriorated. Despite this, the Hornet continues to be praised by aviation historians and pilots for its agility and speed.
In 1941, the de Havilland company had developed their successful twin-engine Mosquito fighter aircraft which had entered the Royal Air Force service and were looking for a new project to take on that could assist the British war effort. The company was also researching jet engine technology to power its new Vampire concept but the time spent waiting for a functional jet engine had temporarily stalled the project.
During the wait, de Havilland’s engineering teams began designing a concept for a high-speed, lightweight bomber in October 1941. The company sought to create an aircraft that could complete nighttime missions and rely on its speed and acrobatics rather than defensive armament to evade and outrun Luftwaffe fighters.
A design team under de Havilland’s chief engineers Ronald Eric Bishop and C.T. Wilkins began work on the new plane which was provisionally named the D.H. 101.
The designers also sought for the plane to use a pair of Napier Sabre engine units, but acquiring the Sabre proved difficult and instead the design was changed to potentially feature the Rolls Royce Griffon or Merlin engines. The prototype was also renamed the D.H. 102, but preliminary research indicated both engine options would not give the plane its desired speed and the finished result would be slower than the Mosquito.
As the initial design process continued, de Havilland decided to switch the project from a bomber to a small, single-seat fighter that would act as an updated version of the Mosquito and consequently renamed it the D.H. 103.
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By 1942, de Havilland completed a mockup of the new prototype to present to the British Air Ministry. Although the Air Ministry was not looking to fund any new aircraft at that point, opting instead to focus on producing vast quantities of existing aircraft, a specification was issued in 1943 for a new fighter concept and de Havilland’s mockup was deemed to fit the bill. The concept aircraft was then given the name Hornet by the designers.
The designers opted for the Hornet to keep its twin-piston engine design but the power plants were upgraded to two advanced versions of the Merlin that gave the aircraft a top speed of 475 miles per hour. The engines would drive two four-bladed propellers built by de Havilland. The company concluded that rather than wait for a new engine, the plane would maximise the potential of the updated Merlin option.
The aircraft also had an impressive climb rate, capable of reaching 20,000 feet within four minutes and had a projected range of around 1,480 miles.
Sections of the fuselage were constructed using balsa and plywood to ensure a lighter weight while the tail was constructed from metal.
The Hornet’s propellers were designed to rotate in opposite directions to cancel negative torque effects and prevent the plane from yawing too far to one side – an issue which had initially affected earlier versions of the Mosquito.
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Armament would consisted of four Hispano V cannons mounted at the front while the design also allowed for the Hornet to carry a small load of bombs and rockets for ground attack missions.
The cockpit was unpressurized but housed in the forward part of the fuselage and designed to eliminate as many blind spots as possible by featuring a three panel windscreen.
The first working prototype was completed in January 1944 at de Havilland’s plant in Hatfield, England and began static engine tests in the spring of that year.
Once the engine tests were completed by July 1944, the Hornet was sent for its maiden flight under the control of de Havilland’s chief test pilot Geoffrey de Havilland Jr who was also the son of the company’s founder. During the test flight, the Hornet achieved a speed of 485 miles per hour, impressing the observing RAF and Air Ministry representatives.
A second prototype was sent for a test flight using more realistic mockup equipment a Hornet would carry in flight, such as a fuel drop tank and 1,000 pounds worth of bombs. Even with the additional weight, the Hornet still achieved a fast speed compared to similar aircraft designs in RAF service.
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Impressed with the results, the Air Ministry gave the go-ahead for production and by the end of 1944, the first production unit of the Hornet was ready for release and the RAF placed orders for the new plane.
Although the Hornet’s design was a success, it entered mass production and military service by the end of the war in Europe. There was talk of deploying the Hornet to RAF squadrons in the Far East, but Japan surrendered before this could be effectuated.
The Hornet began its RAF service in 1946 with No. 64 Squadron. The first variant of the Hornet did not serve for long, but it was noted for its incredible speed and entered by RAF pilots in several air race competitions.
In 1949, an RAF pilot set a point-to-point air speed record by flying their Hornet from RAF Bovingdon to Gibraltar at a speed of 375 mph, only to have the record broken three days later by another pilot who flew the same journey in reverse at a speed of 435 mph.
In 1951, the Hornet began to see frontline action after a number of airframes were transported from Britain to then-British colonies in the Far East. The RAF used the Hornet extensively during the Malayan Emergency in which it took part in escorting Avro Lancaster bombers during high-altitude bombing missions against communist guerrilla fighters in the jungle. The Hornets also completed bombing sorties themselves against communist positions.
They were typically armed with a mix of 500lb bombs and RP-3 unguided rockets, as well as 20 mm rounds in the forward-facing cannons for strafing and dispersing communist guerrilla positions on the ground.
Pilots found the Hornet to be an agile and reliable aircraft during escort missions and they gradually replaced the Spitfire and the Bristol Beaufighter at RAF bases in Asia.
However, by 1956 the RAF began to phase out their Hornet units in part due to the arrival of more modern jet-powered fighter and ground attack aircraft, including the de Havilland Vampire which had been fitted with a working engine by this stage.
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By the end of the Hornet’s RAF service, over 400 units had been built by de Havilland.
Despite its relatively short RAF service, the Hornet found its way into the Royal Navy’s fleet air arm in 1947 where it was modified to serve on an aircraft carrier.
De Havilland updated the design as the Sea Hornet and units were first deployed on the aircraft carriers HMS Implacable and HMS Indomitable.
Like their RAF equivalents, the Sea Hornet was used in escort or strike duties, and was praised for its speed and maneuverability. Royal Navy Sea Hornets also set air records, including a demonstration in 1951 in which a Sea Hornet flew from Gibraltar to Hampshire in 3 hours 10 minutes with an average speed of 330 mph.
However, while the Hornet demonstrated the same strong flying abilities as it had with the RAF, they were not found to be as suitable for carrier duty as more advanced aircraft were designed and tested.
By the mid to late 1950s, the Hornet was gradually withdrawn from naval service and replaced by the propeller-driven Hawker Sea Fury and later the jet-powered de Havilland Sea Venom.
Remaining Hornet units were seconded to RAF bases in Malta for support duties, with the final Hornet being withdrawn from navy service in the late 1950s.
Some surviving units were transferred to Australia as part of a research and development program to look at how planes could cope with tropical conditions. These Hornets were used extensively by the Royal Australian Air Force’s Aircraft Research and Development Unit for research. However, many of the Hornets used in these roles were unfortunately scrapped after their wood and metal frames began to deteriorate in the harsh weather conditions.
Unlike other examples of de Havilland aircraft, no Hornet airframes were preserved for public or private display after retirement, with most RAF or Royal Navy units being scrapped.
However, in 2017 a group of aviation enthusiasts in New Zealand began work on restoring a Hornet example for preservation.
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Although the Hornet was produced too late to see active service during the Second World War, it was able to prove itself to be a fast and incredibly agile plane for its era.