McDonnell F2H Banshee
|A US Navy F2H-2 Banshee over Wonsan, North Korea, 1952|
|Role||Carrier-based fighter aircraft|
|National origin||United States|
|First flight||11 January 1947|
|Retired||30 September 1959 USN
1960 USN, USMC (F2H-2P)
1961 USNR, USMCR
12 September 1962 RCN
|Status||Phased out of service|
|Primary users||United States Navy
United States Marine Corps
Royal Canadian Navy
|Developed from||McDonnell FH Phantom|
The McDonnell F2H Banshee was a single-seat carrier-based jet fighter aircraft deployed by the United States Navy and United States Marine Corps from 1948 to 1961. It was one of the primary American fighters used during the Korean War and was the only jet-powered fighter ever deployed by the Royal Canadian Navy, serving the RCN from 1955 until 1962. The aircraft's name is derived from the banshee of Celtic mythology.
Design and development
The Banshee was a development of the FH Phantom, although it was being planned before the Phantom went into production. McDonnell engineers originally intended the aircraft to be a modified Phantom that shared many parts with the earlier aircraft, but it soon became clear that the need for heavier armament, greater internal fuel capacity, and other improvements would make the idea unfeasible.
The new aircraft would use much larger and more powerful engines, a pair of newly-developed Westinghouse J34 turbojets, raising power from the J30's 1,600 lbf (7 kN) to 3,000 lbf (13 kN) each; since the larger engines had to fit within the wing roots, this required a larger and thicker wing with a span of 41 ft 6 in (12.65 m) rather than the Phantom’s span of 40 ft 0 in (12.19 m). The more powerful engines also used more fuel, so the fuselage was enlarged and strengthened to increase fuel capacity. Navy leaders decided to move away from the World War II standard .50-caliber (12.7 mm) machine gun to 20 mm (0.79 in) cannon; four of the guns were mounted low on the nose to prevent pilots from being blinded by muzzle flash when firing the guns at night, a problem that vexed the Phantom with its top-mounted guns. The Banshee was designed to accommodate an ejection seat, a capability the Phantom lacked, and it incorporated a large number of improvements to other aircraft systems. The cockpit was fully pressurized and air-conditioned, and the flaps, landing gear, folding wings, canopy, and air brakes were electrically operated rather than pneumatically operated. The front of the canopy was made of bulletproof glass that was electrically heated to prevent frost.
The aircraft incorporated a novel design feature: a “kneeling” nose landing gear consisting of a pair of very small wheels forward of the regular nosewheel. The nosewheel could be retracted so the aircraft rested on the smaller wheels, allowing it to taxi with its tail high in the air. This was intended to ease hangaring and enhance safety by directing the hot jet blast upwards while taxiing. The feature was found to be of little use operationally, however, and was omitted from later Banshee variants.
A mockup of the new fighter, originally designated XF2D-1, was completed in April 1945. The project survived the end of the war, but development work was slowed and the first of three prototypes was not built until late 1946. The aircraft made its maiden flight on the 11 January 1947 from Lambert Field, St. Louis, Missouri; the test pilot was Woodward Burke. During the first test flight, the aircraft demonstrated a climb rate of 9,000 ft/min (2,743 m/min), twice the climb rate of the F8F Bearcat, the Navy’s primary fleet defense interceptor at the time. The Navy redesignated the aircraft as the XF2H-1 in 1947 after it ordered a different jet fighter from Douglas, another Navy contractor that was also assigned the manufacturer's letter "D". An order for 56 aircraft was placed in May 1947.
Similarities to the FH-1 meant that McDonnell was able to complete the first F2H-1 in August 1948, a mere three months after the last FH-1 rolled off the assembly line. Relative to the XF2D-1, the fuselage was extended about 12 inches forward of the wing  and fuel capacity was increased by 29 gallons to 877 gallons. The empennage was slightly redesigned, reducing the size of the vertical tailplane fairing and eliminating dihedral from the horizontal stabilizers. The wing- and tail-thickness ratio was also reduced to increase the critical Mach number. The F2H-1 was retrofitted with 3,150 lbf (14 kN) thrust engines as they became available.
Although the Navy accepted the F2H-1, it was the more capable F2H-2 that was most widely used. With newer Westinghouse J34-WE-34 3,250 lbf (14.5 kN) thrust engines, it had significantly improved performance. The wing was modified and strengthened to add provisions for 200 gal (760 l) wingtip fuel tanks; unlike the contemporary USN F9F Panther, the Banshee's wingtip tanks were detachable. Two armament pylons were added under each stub and outboard wing, for a total of eight, allowing the aircraft to carry a maximum stores load of 1,580 lb (454 kg), consisting of four 250 lb (113 kg) bombs and four 5-in (12.7 cm) unguided rockets. The “kneeling” nose gear was omitted from the F2H-2 and most other subsequent Banshee variants.
The F2H-2 was the foundation for three minor variants of the Banshee. The first, the F2H-2B, had strengthened wings and a strengthened inner pylon under the portside wing to allow the craft to carry a 1,650 lb (748 kg) Mark 7 nuclear bomb or a 3,230 lb (1,465 kg) Mark 8 nuclear bomb. In order to compensate for the vastly increased load, the F2H-2B was fitted with stiffer landing gear struts and a pilot-switchable power booster for the ailerons; the latter was necessary so pilots could control a roll to the left with a heavy Mark 8 nuclear bomb fitted on the left-hand pylon. One 20 mm cannon was omitted to make room for additional electronics to arm the nuclear weapon.
The F2H-2N was a night fighter variant outfitted with a 2 ft 10 in (0.86 m) longer nose that housed a Sperry Corporation AN/APS-19 radar unit. The cannons were moved rearwards in the nose to make room for the radar. One F2H-2N, BuNo 123311, was eventually returned to McDonnell to serve as the prototype for the enlarged and enhanced F2H-3 and F2H-4 series. A handful of F2H-2Ns retained the "kneeling" nose feature of the earlier F2H-1.
The F2H-2P was a photo-reconnaissance version with six cameras housed in a 2 ft 5 in (0.74 m) longer nose; it was the first jet-powered reconnaissance aircraft used by the USN. Remote controls allowed the pilot to rotate the cameras in the vertical and horizontal planes, and the aircraft could be fitted with a pair of underwing pods that each contained 20 flash cartridges for night photography. The camera bay was electrically heated to prevent frost. The F2H-2P was considered a valuable photo-reconnaissance asset due to its long maximum range for a jet aircraft, maximum operational altitude of 48,500 feet, combined with its speed that made it extremely difficult to intercept by other combat jet aircraft of the early 1950s era.
The F2H-3 was the last significant alteration. The fuselage was extended by 8 ft 0 in (2.44 m) to increase internal fuel load to 1,102 gal (4,172 l). The detachable wingtip fuel tanks were reduced in size to 170 gal (644 l) each, but due to the aircraft’s increased internal fuel capacity, these tanks were seldom used in service. The horizontal stabilizers were moved from the vertical tail down to the fuselage and incorporated significant dihedral. The F2H-3 was fitted with a Westinghouse AN/APQ-41 radar unit, enabling the fighter to be used for all-weather missions, and the cannons were moved downwards and rearwards away from the nose to accommodate the radar and increase ammunition capacity from 150 rounds per gun to 220 rounds for each upper gun and 250 rounds for each lower gun. Another four weapons pylons were added under the wings for a total of eight, and the bomb load was increased to 3,000 lb (1,361 kg). The F2H-3 also added provisions for aerial refueling consisting of a bolt-on, readily removable refueling kit that replaced the upper portside cannon with a refueling probe. These changes resulted in a longer, larger airplane that looked significantly different from its predecessors.
The last variant was the F2H-4. It had a Hughes AN/APG-37 radar and slightly more powerful Westinghouse J34-WE-38 3,600 lbf (16 kN) thrust engines that increased top speed by 30 mph (48 km/h) and dramatically increased the aircraft’s service ceiling to 56,000 ft (17,069 m). The F2H-4 was otherwise similar to the F2H-3.
A proposed F2H-3P photo-reconnaissance variant was canceled before reaching production. Unlike many other early jet fighters, no two-seat version was ever produced. A proposal to increase the aircraft’s speed by adding afterburners was canceled after a test aircraft suffered extensive damage to the wing roots and tail structure when the afterburners were actuated. A much faster swept-wing version of the Banshee was canceled before it left the drawing boards.
Production ended on 24 September 1953 after a total of 895 aircraft were delivered. The F2H-3 and F2H-4 were given the new designations F-2C and F-2D respectively under the 1962 unified designation system. The designations F-2A and F-2B presumably referred to the F2H-1 and F2H-2, but these variants had already been withdrawn from service. No Banshees ever flew under the new designations; the last ones in USNR service were placed in storage before the new designations went into effect.
The F2H-2 served during the Korean War with the U.S. Navy Task Force 77 and the Marine Corps. Pilots spoke of F2H as the "banjo". Due to its good performance at high altitude, it initially proved its worth as an escort for long-range USAF bomber formations. As the war progressed, USN and USMC fighters were primarily assigned to ground attack missions, including close air support of ground troops and destruction of the North Korean army's supply lines. The North Korean air forces had been almost completely annihilated during the opening weeks of the war by the combined US and UK Far East Air Force (FEAF), mostly due to the far superior training and World War II combat experience of the US and Commonwealth pilots. From that point onwards, the combined North Korean, Chinese, and Soviet forces were unable to open new airstrips near the combat zones in South Korea because of constant FEAF airstrikes, forcing them to operate out of air bases in China. The Banshee and other USN fighters had limited exposure to hostile enemy aircraft because they operated far out of the range of enemy fighters operating from China. Air-to-Air combat missions, such as patrols in the Yalu River area, were primarily assigned to F-86 Sabres. Consequently, the Banshee would score no victories nor suffer any losses in air-to-air combat, although three F2H-2s were lost to anti-aircraft gunfire.
The F2H-2P also made a great contribution to the Korean War, particularly in USMC service. At the time of the war, accurate surface-to-air missiles had not yet been developed, the vast majority of enemy aircraft did not have onboard radar, and the speed of newer jets was rapidly making AAA guns obsolete. Air defense tactics still largely depended on being able to see the enemy, and US commanders soon discovered that a lone high-flying F2H-2P was almost impossible for ground forces to spot, much less shoot down. The aircraft was soon in very high demand for the invaluable battlefield photography it could provide. F2H-2Ps even received USAF fighter escorts when operating in areas frequented by enemy fighters. Despite being deployed constantly throughout the war, only two F2H-2Ps were lost to radar-directed AAA gunfire, with no air-to-air losses.
In the late 1940s, the USN had resisted the novel swept wing design concept, fearing that the tricky low-speed handling displayed by early swept wing airplanes would make it unsafe to operate them from aircraft carriers. Unfortunately, the USN failed to fully appreciate how much this would hamper the performance of its new jets. As a consequence of its unswept wings, the Banshee was almost 100 mph (160 km/h) slower than new Soviet jet fighters such as the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15, a serious handicap in air-to-air combat. As further testing proved that swept wing aircraft could be flown safely at low speeds, development of new swept wing USN fighters began.
The USN deployed the new radar-equipped F2H-3 and F2H-4 for all-weather fleet defense after the conclusion of the Korean War, but only as a stopgap measure until the much faster F9F Cougar, F3H Demon, and F4D Skyray could be deployed in significant numbers. Later variants of the Banshee served for only a few years on the front lines and saw no action. Similarly, the F2H-2P was superseded by the F9F-8P (later RF-9J) variant of the F9F Cougar and the F8U-1P (later RF-8A) variant of the F8U Crusader as these faster aircraft became available.
During the Korean War, the US was concerned about a general war in Europe involving the Soviet Union and the total lack of intelligence on that country, in particular the location of airfields. The US Navy devised a plan named "Operation Steve Brody," where four F2H-2P photo reconnaissance Banshees would launch from a carrier cruising on routine maneuvers off the north-east coast of Greece and fly north photographing the land mass of Russia bordering the Black Sea. In May 1952, the U.S. Navy presented the plan to Secretary of Defense Robert Lovett, with the request that he take it to President Harry Truman. Lovett refused, effectively canceling the operation.
Later, in 1955, there was another crisis involving the possible invasion of Taiwan by Communist China. Marine Banshees were chosen for secret overflights of areas where the Communist Chinese would be preparing such an invasion. Unlike the purposed photo-flights over the Soviet Union in 1952, these missions were escorted by other Marine Banshee fighters based in South Korea. Twenty-seven missions took place without incident.
Surviving examples are located on display in private collections and at several naval air stations and marine corps air stations in the United States, including two examples on display at the National Museum of Naval Aviation at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida and one example at the Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, California.
In 1951, the RCN expressed interest in replacing their obsolete Hawker Sea Furies with Banshees, drafting a $40 million deal for 60 new aircraft. Unfortunately, due to fiscal wrangling in the Canadian Cabinet, the purchase was not approved until after Banshee production had been shut down in 1953. The RCN was forced to acquire second-hand USN aircraft, 39 at a cost of $25 million. The aircraft were delivered from 1955 to 1958, and flew from HMCS Bonaventure or as NORAD interceptors from shore bases.
In order to improve the Banshee's capabilities as a long-range interceptor, the RCN equipped the aircraft with the AIM-9 Sidewinder missile. The RCN conducted sea trials of the Sidewinder in November 1959, during which several remotely piloted drone aircraft were shot down.
The Banshee, although initially well liked by its Canadian pilots for its flying qualities, began to suffer from problems in RCN service. A Banshee and its pilot were lost after an inflight structural failure of the folding wing mechanism, and another Banshee suffered an apparent brake failure aboard Bonaventure and rolled off the carrier's deck, falling into the ocean and drowning its pilot. The RCN would eventually lose 12 of its original 39 Banshees to accidents, a loss rate of over 30%.
Utilization of the Banshees fell as the RCN shifted its primary focus to anti-submarine warfare (ASW). Bonaventure was too small to accommodate many Banshees while carrying a sufficient number of CS2F Trackers to conduct around-the-clock ASW patrols, so the carrier frequently left port with no Banshees aboard. Furthermore, the Canadian military was coming under increasing political pressure to cut its budget, and the increasingly obsolescent Banshees were becoming expensive to maintain as years of punishing carrier service and the harsh North Atlantic climate took their toll. The last RCN Banshees were retired without replacement in September 1962. They were the only jet-powered carrier-based fighters ever deployed by the RCN.
Banshees were the primary aircraft of the short-lived RCN Grey Ghosts aerobatic team. The team's name was a play on the Banshee name and the RCN color scheme. The RCN's Banshee fleet was too small to maintain a special contingent of aircraft for airshow service, so the team simply flew whichever active-duty Banshees were available at the time of each show.
Three of the former RCN Banshees survive today:
- 126464 at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa, Ontario
- 126402 at the Shearwater Aviation Museum at CFB Shearwater in the Halifax Regional Municipality, Nova Scotia
- 126334 in the Naval Museum of Alberta gallery of the The Military Museums in Calgary, Alberta
The remaining RCN Banshees were cut up for scrap or destroyed as practice targets.
- XF2H-1 (XF2D-1)
- Prototype aircraft (originally designated XF2D-1), three built.
- Single-seat fighter version, two 3,000 lbf (1,400 kgf) Westinghouse J34-WE-22 turbojet engines. Initial production version, 56 built.
- Improved version with detachable wingtip fuel tanks, eight underwing weapons pylons for 1,580 lb (454 kg) stores capability, 3,250 lbf (1,475 kgf) Westinghouse J34-WE-34 turbojet engines. Second production version, 308 built.
- Single-seat fighter-bomber version, strengthened portside weapons pylon for 3,230 lb (1,465 kg) Mark 8 nuclear bomb, 25 built.
- Single-seat night fighter version with APS-19 radar housed in lengthened nose, 14 built.
- Single-seat photo-reconnaissance version with lengthened nose housing six cameras, 89 built.
- F2H-3 (F-2C)
- Single-seat all-weather fighter version, lengthened fuselage, redesigned tail, increased fuel capacity, eight underwing weapons pylons for 3,000 lb (1,361 kg) bomb load, APQ-41 radar in enlarged nose. 250 built. Redesignated as F-2C in 1962.
- Proposed photo-reconnaissance version of the F2H-3; not built.
- F2H-4 (F-2D)
- Improved all-weather fighter version, 3,600 lbf (1,630 kg) thrust Westinghouse J34-WE-38 turbojet engines, APG-37 radar, otherwise similar to F2H-3. Final production version, 150 built. Redesignated as F-2D in 1962.
- Unofficial designation for a proposed swept-wing version with the wings, tail and afterburners of McDonnell's XF-88 Voodoo; not built.
- Royal Canadian Navy
- VF-870 (F2H-3)
- VF-871 (F2H-3)
- VX-10 (Test Squadron) (F2H-3)
- United States Navy
- VX-3 (Evaluation) (F2H-1, F2H-4)
- VF-11 (F2H-2, F2H-4)
- VF-12 (F2H-2)
- VF-22 (F2H-2, F2H-4)
- VF-23 (F2H-3)
- VF-31 (F2H-3)
- VF-41 (F2H-3)
- VF-52 (F2H-3) "SeaLancers"
- VF-62 (F2H-2, F2H-2P)
- VF-92 (F2H-3, F2H-4)
- VF-101 (F2H-1, F2H-2B)
- VF-114 (F2H-3)
- VF-141 (F2H-3)
- VF-152 (F2H-3)
- VF-171 (F2H-1, F2H-2)
- VF-172 (F2H-1, F2H-2, F2H-2B, F2H-4)
- VC-3 (F2H-3)
- VC-4 (F2H-2B, F2H-2N, F2H-3, F2H-4)
- VC-61 (F2H-2P)
- VC-62 (F2H-2P)
- United States Marine Corps
Aircraft on display
- Crew: one
- Length: 48 ft 2 in (14.68 m)
- Wingspan: 41 ft 9 in (12.73 m)
- Height: 14 ft 6 in (4.42 m)
- Wing area: 294 ft² (27.3 m²)
- Empty weight: 13,183 lb (5,980 kg)
- Loaded weight: 21,013 lb (9,531 kg)
- Max. takeoff weight: 25,214 lb (11,437 kg)
- Powerplant: 2 × Westinghouse J34-WE-34 turbojets, 3,250 lbf (14.5 kN) each
- Maximum speed: 580 mph (504 kn, 933 km/h) at sea level
- Cruise speed: 461 mph
- Range: 1,716 mi (1,492 nmi, 2,760 km)
- Service ceiling: 46,600 ft (14,205 m)
- Rate of climb: 6,000 ft/min (30 m/s) from sea level
- Guns: 4 × 20 mm (0.79 in) Colt Mk 16 cannon, 220 rounds/gun (upper pair), 250 rounds/gun (lower pair)
- 8 × 60 lb High Explosive rockets or
- 6 × 500 lb bombs and 2 × 60 lb H.E. rockets
- Missiles: 2 × AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles (in RCN service)
The aircraft played a central role in the 1953 James A. Michener novel The Bridges at Toko-Ri. The subsequent 1955 movie of the same name used F9F Panthers in place of Banshees for all flight sequences, although parked Banshees are visible in the background of several scenes.
- Related development
- Aircraft of comparable role, configuration and era
- Related lists
- List of fighter aircraft
- List of military aircraft of the United States
- List of military aircraft of the United States (naval)
- Mesko 2002, p. 48.
- Mesko 2002, p. 10.
- Mills 1991, p. 227.
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- Francillon 1979, pp. 427–429.
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- Wagner 1982, p. 504
- F2H-2 Standard Aircraft Characteristics chart dated 1 November 1949
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- "McDonnell F2H-2 'Banshee'". Flying Leatherneck Historical Foundation and Aviation Museum, 2008. Retrieved: 1 March 2009.
- "F2H Banshee/126334." Warbird Registry. Retrieved: 29 October 2012.
- "F2H Banshee/126402." Shearwater Aviation Museum. Retrieved: 29 October 2012.
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- "F2H Banshee/124988." Flying Letherneck Museum. Retrieved: 15 January 2015.
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