The McDonnell F2H Banshee was a military carrier-based jet fighter aircraft, used by the United States Navy from 1948 to 1959 and by the Royal Canadian Navy from 1955 until 1962. The Banshee had unswept wings, a single seat, and two engines. Together with the F9F Panther, the Banshee was one of the USN's primary single-seat fighters during the Korean War. The plane was named for a female demon of Celtic myhthology. When the wail of the banshee was heard, it was a harbinger of death.
A mock-up of the new fighter, 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; test pilot was Woodward Burke. The Navy redesignated the aircraft as the XF2H-1 as the manufacturer's designator "D" was already assigned to the Douglas Aircraft Company. After some problems with the tailplane were resolved, an order for 56 craft was placed in May 1947.
The F2H-1 was first delivered in August 1948 for service evaluation by Navy pilots. Relative to the XF2D-1, the fuselage was extended 14 in (0.36 m) forward of the wing to provide the capacity for an additional 351 US gallons (1,330 L) of fuel. The F2H-1 was retrofitted with 3,150 lbf (14 kN) thrust engines as they became available.
Despite the Navy's accepting the F2H-1, it was the more capable F2H-2 that was most widely used; 306 of this type were built. With newer 3,250 lbf (14.5 kN) thrust engines, it had improved performance. The wing was also modified to add provisions for weapons pylons and 200 US gallon (757 L) wingtip fuel tanks. Unlike the contemporary F9F Panther, the Banshee's wingtip tanks were detachable, although most historical photographs show the aircraft flying with the tanks in place.
The F2H-2 was the foundation for three minor variants of the Banshee. The F2H-2B had strengthened wings to allow it to carry a small nuclear weapon, a mission it was thankfully never asked to carry out. A total of 35 were produced. The F2H-2N was a night fighter variant outfitted with a 2 ft, 10 in (0.86 m) longer nose to accommodate internal radar equipment; 14 were produced. 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. 81 were built.
The F2H-3 was the last significant alteration. The fuselage was extended by 8 feet (2.4 m) to increase internal fuel load from 877 US gallons (3,320 L) to 1,102 US gallons (4,172 L), allowing the aircraft to complete many missions without the wing-tip tanks seen in most photographs of earlier variants. The horizontal stabilizer was moved from the vertical tail down to the fuselage and incorporated significant dihedral. The Banshee was also fitted with Westinghouse radar equipment, 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. These changes resulted in an airplane that looked significantly different from its predecessors. 250 F2H-3s were built.
The last variant was the F2H-4. It had a Hughes radar in place of the earlier Westinghouse set, and also had slightly more powerful 3,600 lbf (16.0 kN) thrust engines. The F2H-4 was externally identical to the F2H-3. 150 were built.
A proposed F2H-3P photo-reconnaissance variant was canceled before reaching production. Unlike most other early jet fighters, no two-seat version was ever produced.
Production ended in 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-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 airplane 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 (161 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 only served for 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.
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. After the retirement of the F2H-3, the Canadian military would not deploy another aircraft armed with the Sidewinder missile until the introduction of the CF-18 Hornet in 1982.
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 in-flight 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:
The remaining RCN Banshees were cut up for scrap or destroyed as practice targets.