Cold War

The Screaming McDonnell F2H Banshee

The McDonnell F2H Banshee is a single-seat carrier-based jet fighter, designed and produced by McDonnell Aircraft.

Originating from American design, it served as an early jet fighter for the United States Navy and Marine Corps. Interestingly, it was also the Royal Canadian Navy’s only jet-powered fighter.

The name “Banshee” derives from Irish mythology, symbolizing a forewarning entity.

This aircraft’s development phase spanned the mid to late 1940s, marking it as a derivative of the earlier FH Phantom.

However, the Banshee was significantly larger, more heavily armed, and boasted more powerful Westinghouse J34 turbojets.

It featured many innovations including a pressurized cockpit and an ejection seat, absent in the Phantom, alongside multiple system improvements.


This fighter even had a “kneeling” nose landing gear. The first prototype soared into the skies for its maiden flight on 11 January 1947.

Production of the Banshee ceased in September 1953 after the delivery of 895 aircraft.
Production of the F2H Banshee ceased in September 1953 after the delivery of 895 aircraft.

By August 1948, the first production model, the F2H-1, was completed.

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The F2H-2 model spawned three sub-variants, namely, the nuclear-armed F2H-2B, the F2H-2N night fighter, and the F2H-2P photo reconnaissance aircraft.

Chinese invasion of Taiwan

Introduced in late 1948, the Banshee, with its straight wing configuration, was nearly 100 mph slower than the latest land-based fighters.

However, several variants emerged, including the F2H-2N, the U.S. Navy’s first jet-powered night fighter, and the F2H-2P, its first jet-powered reconnaissance aircraft. Pilots often nicknamed the F2H the “Banjo.”

Banshees on USS Coral Sea in 1955
Banshees on USS Coral Sea in 1955

This aircraft played a key role in the Korean War, serving as an escort fighter and reconnaissance aircraft. Some radar-equipped Banshees also took on the role of all-weather fleet defense.

In 1955, USMC Banshees executed 27 overflights of potential Chinese staging areas due to invasion threats to Taiwan.

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By the mid-1950s, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps began phasing out the Banshee for more advanced jets like the Grumman F-9 Cougar and McDonnell F3H Demon

. Some retired units found a new home with the Royal Canadian Navy after production ceased in 1953. Canada introduced them in 1955 as the sole fighters, replacing the Hawker Sea Fury.

They operated from HMCS Bonaventure and shore bases as NORAD interceptors.

Canada shifted its focus towards anti-submarine warfare, reducing emphasis on fighters, and due to decreasing reliability, retired its last Banshees in September 1962 without a direct replacement.

F2H Banshee Background

The Banshee originated from the FH Phantom, the U.S. Navy’s first carrier-based jet fighter. McDonnell first proposed the Phantom in January 1943, and it made its inaugural flight on 2 January 1945.

VF-172 F2H-2 Banshee on USS Essex off Korea, 1951
VF-172 F2H Banshee on USS Essex off Korea, 1951

Before the production-standard Phantoms were delivered in January 1947, McDonnell had begun developing a successor.

On 2 March 1945, the Navy instructed McDonnell to create three prototypes of the envisioned improved derivative, named XF2D-1.

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Initially, the design team planned for this aircraft to be a simple modification of the Phantom, sharing many components.

However, it soon became apparent that heavier armament, greater internal fuel capacity, and several other enhancements were needed. Therefore, this necessitated much larger, more powerful engines, specifically the newly developed Westinghouse J34 turbojets.

These provided nearly double the total thrust, from 3,200 to 6,000 lbf, but required a larger, thicker wing to accommodate them.

McDonnell F2H Banshee poster

Additionally, the powerful engines consumed more fuel, leading to an enlarged and strengthened fuselage for increased fuel capacity, allowing for a mission radius of up to 600 miles. Early production aircraft, however, didn’t have provisions for external stores.

The Banshee’s armament included four 20 mm cannon, replacing the outdated .50 in machine guns from World War II.

These cannons were located beneath the nose, solving the issue of pilots being blinded by muzzle flash at night experienced in the Phantom.

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Starting with the tenth production aircraft, the Banshee featured an ejection seat, another upgrade from the Phantom.

Additionally, numerous improvements were made to various onboard systems. The cockpit was pressurized and air-conditioned.

“kneeling” Nose Landing Gear

The flaps, landing gear, folding wings, canopy, and air brakes were operated electrically, not pneumatically. Moreover, the aircraft had a bulletproof, electrically heated front windscreen to prevent frost.

The Banshee featured a unique “kneeling” nose landing gear, which included smaller wheels ahead of the regular nosewheel.

Typically, the aircraft could retract the regular nosewheel and rest on the smaller ones, allowing it to taxi nose down.

The Banshee faced several operational problems, with the Royal Canadian Navy losing about 30.8% of its fleet to accidents.
The F2H Banshee faced several operational problems, with the Royal Canadian Navy losing about 30.8% of its fleet to accidents.

This redirected the jet blast upwards, reducing risks to ground crews and enabling parked aircraft to overlap, conserving space.

However, this feature was often omitted in later variants due to its limited practicality and deck handling issues it presented.

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A project mockup was finished in April 1945. Despite surviving numerous post-war cancellations, the project’s pace slowed considerably. Thus, the completion of the first prototype didn’t occur until late 1946.

F2H Banshee Test Flight

On 11 January 1947, the first prototype took its maiden flight from Lambert Field, piloted by Robert M. Eldholm.

This flight showcased a climb rate of 9,000 ft/min, doubling that of the F8F Bearcat. After successful flight tests, including carrier trials, various improvements were suggested.

The Navy allowed McDonnell to use a prototype for developing afterburners and testing a modified wing.

In 1947, the prototype became the XF2H-1, following a new order from the Navy for a Douglas Aircraft Company jet fighter.

In the mid-1950s, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps started phasing out the Banshees, opting for more advanced jet aircraft like the Grumman F-9 Cougar with swept wings and the McDonnell F3H Demon.
In the mid-1950s, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps started phasing out the Banshees, opting for more advanced jet aircraft like the Grumman F-9 Cougar with swept wings and the McDonnell F3H Demon.

Subsequently, on 29 May 1947, the Navy ordered 56 aircrafts. In August 1949, an F2H-1 achieved a US Navy jet fighter altitude record of 52,000 ft but fell short of de Havilland Vampire’s 59,430 ft.

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This record was significant, highlighting the vulnerability of the Air Force’s Convair B-36 Peacemaker bombers at maximum altitude.

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In August 1948, McDonnell completed the first F2H-1 swiftly due to its similarities with the FH-1. Service evaluations began immediately.

The F2H-1 was larger and had an increased fuel capacity compared to the XF2D-1. Various design modifications were made to the empennage, wing, and tail to enhance performance. As higher thrust engines became available, they were integrated into the F2H-1.

Westinghouse J34 jet engine
Westinghouse J34 jet engine

Although satisfied with the F2H-1, the Navy predominantly used the more proficient F2H-2. This model, fueled by advanced Westinghouse J34-WE-34 engines, showcased enhanced performance, producing 3,250 lbf of thrust.

The wings received reinforcement to allow the addition of 200 US gal wingtip fuel tanks. Unlike the Grumman F9F Panther, the Banshee’s wingtip tanks were removable.

Additionally, extra armament pylons were installed under the wings, totaling eight.

This allowed the Banshee to carry up to 1,580 lb of stores, including bombs and unguided rockets. The F2H-2 and most of its subsequent variants did not feature the “kneeling” nose gear.

F2H Banshee Upgrades

The F2H-2 spawned three sub-variants, starting with the F2H-2B. It featured strengthened wings and an extra pylon to carry nuclear bombs.

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It was fitted with stiffer landing gear struts and a pilot-switchable aileron power boost to manage increased load. This model had to sacrifice one cannon for necessary electronics to arm the weapon, with 25 units being built.

Next, the F2H-2N emerged as the Navy’s first carrier-based jet night fighter, flying first on 3 February 1950.

RCN Banshee banking, showing enlarged horizontal tail with extensions characteristic of the F2H-3 and -4
RCN Banshee banking, showing enlarged horizontal tail with extensions characteristic of the F2H-3 and -4

With a longer nose for housing radar, it required a rearrangement of cannons. Only 14 of these variants were built, some retaining the “kneeling” nose feature of the F2H-1.

Lastly, the F2H-2P, a photo reconnaissance variant, made its first flight on 12 October 1950. With a longer nose for cameras, it was the Navy’s first jet-powered, carrier-based reconnaissance aircraft.

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Pilots could rotate the cameras, and the plane could carry flash cartridges for night photography. It fulfilled 40% of the USAF Fifth Air Force’s daytime reconnaissance needs due to its range, high ceiling, and speed.

The F2H-3 was designed as an all-weather fighter featuring a larger diameter Westinghouse AN/APQ-41 radar in an elongated fuselage.

This modification also expanded its internal fuel load by over 50%, allowing reduced, seldom-needed detachable wingtip fuel tanks. It first flew on March 29, 1952, with 250 units built subsequently.

3,000 lb Weapons Load

The cannons in this model shifted back to fit the larger radar, allowing for increased ammunition capacity. The redesigned horizontal stabilizers were attached lower, to the fuselage, and displayed dihedral, except on the first aircraft.

This version could carry a 3,000 lb weapons load, and was cleared for AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles. Additionally, it featured provisions for aerial refueling through an as-needed, bolt-on, in-flight refueling probe, replacing the upper port cannon.

AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles.
AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles.

The last variant, the F2H-4, incorporated a Hughes AN/APG-37 radar and more robust Westinghouse J34-WE-38 engines. These enhancements lifted the service ceiling to 56,000 ft.

Externally, it mirrored the F2H-3. McDonnell formulated at least 48 propositions, including various models for different functionalities and improvements, but few materialized.

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Plans for adding afterburners were abandoned after test flight damages. A proposed F2H-3P reconnaissance variant was also never constructed.

On 24 September 1953, with 895 units delivered, Banshee production concluded. Under the 1962 unified designation system, surviving F2H-3 and F2H-4s were renamed F-2C and F-2D. The last Banshees were in storage when the new designations were introduced.

Korean War

During the Korean War, the F2H-2 served with the US Navy’s Task Force 77 and the Marine Corps. On 23 August 1951, a Banshee completed its first combat mission from US日本藤素 S Essex.

F2H making a bombing run over Korea
F2H Banshee making a bombing run over Korea

Initially, it excelled as an escort fighter for USAF bombers, supporting United Nations Command ground forces, due to its superior high-altitude performance.

Thus, the Banshee demonstrated clear advantages over the Grumman F9F Panther.

However, from mid-1950, encounters with hostile aircraft over Korea became negligible for the F2H-2. In the war’s early weeks, UNC fighter units had nearly annihilated the North Korean air force.

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Subsequently, North Korea and its allies were forced to operate from air bases in China, being unable to use airfields near combat zones in South Korea.

Due to this, UNC squads primarily focused on ground attack missions, leveraging their air superiority, especially for close air support and interdiction of North Korean supply lines.

“MiG Alley”

The Banshee, like its contemporaries, faced significant limitations. Naval air services, including the USN, hesitated to adopt faster, swept-wing designs due to safety concerns on carriers.

Hence, the Banshee lagged, almost 100 mph slower than the newest land-based fighters. The introduction of the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15 in November 1950 further emphasized their obsolescence.

Thus, North American F-86 Sabres of the USAF Far East Air Forces primarily undertook most UNC air combat missions, such as those over “MiG Alley”.

Most retired Banshees were either scrapped or used in firefighting exercises, with only a few surviving as display models.
Most retired Banshees were either scrapped or used in firefighting exercises, with only a few surviving as display models.

Consequently, F2H fighters spent the war’s majority beyond enemy fighters’ range, achieving no victories, and losing three F2H-2s to anti-aircraft gunfire.

During the Korean War, the F2H-2P, primarily with the USMC, conducted reconnaissance missions. At that time, surface-to-air missiles weren’t deployed and few enemy planes had radar.

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Additionally, AA guns struggled against fast, high-altitude targets. Hence, air defense largely relied on visuals, making a high-flying F2H-2P nearly impossible to down.

This aircraft was highly valued for its battlefield photography capabilities. USAF fighters escorted F2H-2Ps in enemy-heavy areas. Despite constant deployment, only two F2H-2Ps were lost to radar-directed AA gunfire, with no air-to-air losses.

Royal Canadian Navy $40 Million Order

In 1951, the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) proposed a $40 million deal for 60 Banshees to replace outdated Hawker Sea Furies.

RCN Banshees overfly HMCS Bonaventure.
RCN Banshees overfly HMCS Bonaventure.

However, Parliament of Canada didn’t approve this until 1953, post-Banshee production termination. So, RCN secured 39 used US Navy F2H-3s for $25 million, delivered between 1955 and 1958.

They operated from HMCS Bonaventure or as NORAD interceptors from bases.

To enhance its interceptor role, RCN fitted Banshees with AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles. In November 1959, RCN tested the Sidewinder in sea trials, successfully downing several drones.

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Initially, Canadian pilots liked the Banshee, but it soon faced issues. Of 39 Banshees, 12 were lost to accidents, a 30.8% loss rate.

One Banshee and its pilot were lost due to a folding wing mechanism failure. Another, due to brake failure, plunged off the carrier’s deck.

Three Royal Canadian Navy McDonnell Banshee fighters in flight
Three Royal Canadian Navy McDonnell Banshee fighters in flight

Banshee usage declined as RCN prioritized anti-submarine warfare (ASW), reducing the need for Banshees.

The small carrier couldn’t accommodate Banshees while operating enough Grumman CS2F Trackers for continuous ASW patrols.

The declining budget and the Banshees’ obsolescence, operational wear, and North Atlantic’s harsh conditions also pressured their retirement in September 1962.

Banshees primarily composed the RCN Grey Ghosts aerobatic team, named playfully after the Banshee and the RCN color scheme. The team used operational Banshees as RCN couldn’t allocate specific aircraft for airshows.

Post-retirement, except for three surviving RCN Banshees, the rest were scrapped or used in firefighting exercises.