Take the High Ground!


The Argument

What was the best piston-engine aircraft of World War 2? The debate is literally endless. Success in aerial combat often had to do more with the skill of the pilot than the platform he flew IMHO. The Grumman F8F Bearcat made its appearance at the end of the war and it was a beast. But it didn’t get much time to demonstrate what it could do. Just over 1,000 were built.

The venerable P-47 saw service in the Pacific and over Europe and flew nearly countless sorties, and certainly is in the running for best. Once the engine was improved and they moved to a four-blade prop it moved from the good category to the great category.

Then there was the Bayerische Flugzeugwerke (BFW)
Messerschmitt AG, Bf 109, which racked up thousands of enemy aircraft downed between 1937 and 1945. By the end of the war, flown by inexperienced pilots, its effectiveness was diminished.  And to be fair, a lot of the air-to-air kills were in the Eastern Theater where the Russians didn’t pose much of a threat to the German aces.



The last dogfights between piston-engine, propeller-driven airplanes occurred in Central America in 1969, where adversaries flew U.S.-built Corsairs and Mustangs.

The dogfights were among the final acts in a brief and bloody four-day conflict between Honduras and El Salvador, commonly known as the Football War. Although a pair of soccer games between the two nations sparked the initial riots, the war was the culmination of longstanding tension over immigration and land reform.

Honduras boasted the more impressive and better-established air force. Nearly a dozen were military-surplus Vought F4U-4, F4U-5, and F4U-5N Corsairs bought privately and imported through American aid programs. Several had flown in the Korean War.

The Salvadoran air force also had Corsairs—about half a dozen Goodyear-built models called FG-1Ds, worn out and all but decommissioned. To replace them, buyers returned from the United States shortly before the war began with a handful of demilitarized P-51s, sold as Cavalier Mustang IIs.

Hostilities commenced at dusk on July 14, 1969, when a Salvadoran Douglas C-47 transport, escorted by two Cavalier Mustangs, pushed out 100-pound bombs over Toncontin Airport in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital. Although this and several other early evening aerial attacks caught the Hondurans by surprise, the damage was primarily psychological.

Over the next two days, the Salvadoran and Honduran air forces devoted most of their sorties to bombing missions and close air support. But on the third full day of fighting, Honduran Captain Fernando Soto and his wingman, Captain Edgardo Acosta, came to the aid of a third Corsair pilot who’d been jumped by a pair of Salvadoran Mustangs while strafing targets south of Tegucigalpa.

Soto was among the most experienced pilots in the Honduran air force. He pounced on one of the two Mustangs, turned inside it “real, real easy,” he recalled later, and, with three bursts from his four 20-millimeter cannon, knocked off its left wing. The Mustang pilot, Captain Douglas Varela, was reportedly killed when his parachute failed to deploy fully.

Later that afternoon, Soto and Acosta spotted a pair of Salvadoran pilots flying Goodyear Corsairs. They jettisoned their wing-mounted bombs and used their Pratt & Whitney R-2800‑32W Double Wasp engines to climb above the Salvadoran fighters. During his diving pass, Soto flamed one of the FG-1Ds. (The pilot parachuted to safety.)

But Soto had no time to savor his victory. He quickly realized that Acosta had remained at altitude to check two Salvadoran Mustangs that had arrived on the scene. The Salvadoran airplane slid in on his unprotected tail.

The two Corsairs, one built by Vought and the other by Goodyear, embarked on a classic knife fight in a phone booth: each zooming, diving, and twisting to get a clear shot at the other. After what seemed to him “like a century,” Soto performed a split-S that lined him up behind his quarry. He let loose a stream of cannon fire, and Captain Guillermo Reynaldo Cortez died in the fireball.

This action was the last air-to-air engagement between Honduras and El Salvador, and Soto ended the war with only three recorded aerial kills. He went on to become director of civil aeronautics and was declared a national hero by the National Congress of Honduras in 2003. He died three years later.

The Hondurans continued to fly Corsairs for a decade after the Football War. Soto’s airplane, FAH-609, was transferred by legislative decree to the Air Museum of Honduras. Although FAH-609 last flew in 1981, its fuselage still carries the white silhouettes of three airplanes—two Corsairs and one Mustang, the kill markings graphically symbolizing the end of the era of propeller-driven dogfights.




  1. What a beast! The P-47N had an empty weight of 11,000 lbs and may have been the heaviest single engine fighter of WW2. The BF-109 was designed to fight in Europe from home or forward bases. The fuel capacity was around 105 gallons compared to a P-47′ 300+ gallons.

    Was the biggest difference, in all theaters by all adversaries, tactics? Use your aircraft’s advantages and avoid maneuvers that favored your opponent? Who did that better?

  2. Early in the Pacific War, the Zero was undoubtedly the better fighter, but that mostly was due to the experienced pilots.

    When faced with experienced F4F pilots, suddenly the Zero was at par. Then the F6F came out, and Japan lost many of its experienced pilots and the tide turned.

    I’ll just say it. The best piston-engine fighters of WWII were all three powered by the Pratt & Whitney R-2800‑32W Double Wasp engine. Probably the best piston engine in the war. Much more reliable and resistant to battle damage than a Rolls Royce Merlin or an Allison. Each plane flew in a different environment than the other. The F6F was the best carrier plane mid-war, and the Corsair flew against not-the-best pilots late war, and the P-47 was probably the best land-based single-engine fighter (the P-38 being, hands down, the best twin-engine fighter.)

  3. By the numbers… the P-39 is the best. “Winkle” Brown loved it, too. Hilarious but true.

    The Brits will of course tell you that the P-51 was mediocre and the P-47 an abomination.

    The 109 and 190 were very good in 1940, but by the end of the war were no longer top-rank aircraft.

    We won the war by coming out of it better than anyone else though, so we get to pick one of ours.


  4. Folks that have flown both the P-51 and F-4U, if they are honest, will say the Corsair is the better fighter… Merle actually traded his Mustang for a Corsair back in the 70s.

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