You may have heard of the Mosquito, but have you heard of its younger, smaller but more powerful brother?
Designed to take piston engine fighter design to the pinnacle of performance, the de Haviland Hornet was a fighter that is, sadly, mostly forgotten today. With the war coming to an end just before this British aircraft entered the front lines, its staggering performance of nearly 500mph was never known by the enemy. History is full of anomalies, and the Hornet was one definitely of them.
From the Same DNA
So where did this machine, with a performance almost matching contemporary jet fighters like the Vampire, originally come from? Directly descended from the de Haviland Mosquito, this plane actually started life way back in 1941. It began as a private venture by the engineers of the de Haviland company in England. They knew they could push the Mosquito concept even further to create a high-speed twin-engined aircraft capable of dealing devastating blows deep into enemy territory. It would be a bomber, but one so fast that it would evade fighters and anti-aircraft guns alike to hit targets and get out.
A de Haviland Mosquito MK.IV
As development continued, the program became more fighter-orientated, moving away from the pure bomber originally conceived by the airplane's designers. Despite this, the D.H. 103 project (as it was designated) was angled to create a versatile platform capable of multiple roles, much like the Mosquito. It was at this point that it was realized the aircraft would make for a great naval airplane for carrier operations. In 1943, as the first prototypes were being constructed, the D.H. 103 was given the name Hornet. Like the namesake, the new aircraft would be capable providing a nasty sting.
An early prototype Hornet being tested
Towards the end of the war, in 1944 and 1945, Hornet prototypes were being tested extensively. One achieved an astounding 485mph in level flight, a speed unmatched at that time. Others were tested with various weapon loadouts. The wing was stressed to take combinations of fuel tanks, rockets and bombs. In one mission, a Hornet could carry:
- 2x 200-gallon drop tanks
- 2x 100lbs bombs
- 4x 20mm Hispano V cannons
When it came to the flight performance and characteristic assessment of the aircraft, test pilot Eric Brown (one of the world's most experienced pilots) had this to say about the state-of-the-art fighter.
"For aerobatics the Sea Hornet was absolute bliss. The excess of power was such that manoeuvres in the vertical plane can only be described as rocket-like. Even with one propeller feathered the Hornet could loop with the best single-engine fighter"
Going to Sea
A few prototypes were tested for use on carriers. This variant of the Hornet, named the Sea Hornet, would go on to have arrester wire hooks, wing folding mechanisms and strengthened landing gear legs. Great forward visibility, counter rotating props and large drag flaps all played to the plane's advantage. Subsequently, more Sea Hornets were built than other standard variants.
I had felt such absolute confidence that I was mentally relaxed... Indeed, there was something about the Sea Hornet that made me feel that I had total mastery of it
- Eric Brown
In the end, the final production variant had:
- Highly evolved Rolls Royce Merlin Engines with a staggering combined output of 4,140hp.
- Huge four-bladed props
- A laminar flow wing profile, similar to the P-51 Mustang
- Hispano V cannons capable of tearing enemy aircraft to shreds
The Hornet never received the recognition that it deserved for being a groundbreaking aeronautical design. It pioneered construction techniques as well as being a truly fantastic performer. Bookended by legendary aircraft of the second world war and the first jets of the 1950s, memory of the Hornet faded. By mid-1956, all variants of the aircraft were withdrawn from operational service. Despite this, the Hornet should be remembered for its contribution to the very top of the piston-engined fighter family tree. You have to go with Eric Brown on this one.
"In my book the Sea Hornet ranks second to none for harmony of control, performance characteristics and, perhaps most important, in inspiring confidence in its pilot. For sheer exhilarating flying enjoyment, no aircraft has ever made a deeper impression on me".
High praise for a man who flew 487 different aircraft.
If you enjoyed this article, why not share it with a friend so they can find out about this remarkable aircraft?
Article by James Whomsley
Editor of FliteTest.com
YouTube Channel: www.youtube.com/projectairaviation