Aviation History

The story of the de Havilland Hornet, the cool, forgotten successor of the famous Mosquito

An often forgotten aircraft that was nevertheless the pinnacle of its type. Most have heard of the Mosquito, but many forget its successor – described by the venerable Captain Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown as “Like flying a Ferrari in the sky.

The de Havilland Hornet represents in many ways the peak of piston engine fighter design. With its slim fuselage, clean lines and tightly cowled engines, great attention was paid from the outset on maximising performance.

The prototype (RR915) was built on a private venture basis and flew for the first time on Jul. 28, 1944.

Designed around the successful wooden construction principals of the de Havilland Mosquito, the Hornet was powered by a pair of 2,070 hp Merlin engines driving opposite-handed propellers and Boscombe Down trials revealed the astonishing maximum speed of 485 mph at 22,000 ft. The type also possessed superb handling characteristics, particularly in respect of its high rate of roll.

Initially conceived for operations in the Pacific Theatre against the Japanese, the conflict had ended before the aircraft reached operational status. Two main marks saw service with the RAF Fighter Command: The F Mk 1 and the F Mk 3 with the latter having increased fuel capacity and a large dorsal fin. 

The Hornet also saw service with the Royal Navy, initially as a single seat fighter (Sea Hornet F 20). The main modifications were wing-folding and the fitment of an arrester hook. Provision was also made for an oblique reconnaissance camera in the rear fuselage.

‘An often forgotten aircraft that was nevertheless the pinnacle of its type. Most have heard of the Mosquito, but many forget its successor – described by the venerable Captain Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown as “Like flying a Ferrari in the sky”,’ says Alex Patrick, an aviation expert, on Quora.

Patrick continues:

‘Besides looking bloody fantastic, it was one of the fastest piston-engined aircraft ever designed.

‘Continuing the colossal success garnered by the wartime Mosquito, de Havilland began the Hornet as a private venture in 1941.

‘Intended to improve on the Mosquito and become the main long-range fighter intended for the RAF operating in the Pacific theatre, it continued the basis of a wooden airframe and two powerful Merlin engines – however it would be smaller and more streamlined than the Mosquito, having just one seat and a narrower fuselage without a bomb bay.

‘Whilst the Mosquito, originally designed as a light bomber, was a true jack-of-all-trades, the Hornet was designed primarily as a fighter.

‘A high-overpowered aircraft. The favourite piston aircraft of Captain Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown, who flew the most different aircraft types of any pilot, he stated that you could do almost anything you wanted using just one of the Hornet’s engines, let alone using both.

‘First flying in 1944, the D.H.103 Hornet was completed too late for wartime service, entering RAF service in 1946. It was also procured by the Royal Navy, being tested rigorously on carrier landings.

‘Though it was used by a fair number of Fleet Air Arm squadrons, it was largely deemed unfit for the smaller Colossus and Majestic class of light fleet carriers.

‘Hornets saw extensive service during the Malayan Emergency in 1951, flying dozens of missions and replacing the fairly sub-par Bristol Brigands. They were usually equipped with a mix of 500lb bombs and RP-3 unguided rockets, as well as a plentiful supply of 20mm rounds for strafing guerrilla positions.’

Patrick concludes:

‘This would be their only major outing, however, and by 1955, ten years after the first ones had rolled off the production lines, the Hornets were retired from service. Nearly 400 had been built, and they served as heavy fighters, fighter-bombers, photo-reconnaissance and night fighters.

‘Most were replaced by Sea Furies in the Fleet Air Arm, and de Havilland Venoms in the fighter-bomber role in the RAF.’

Photo credit: Umeyou via Wikipedia and Crown Copyright

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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