Oldies & Odd­i­ties

Air & Space Smithsonian - - Front Page -

Cor­sair vs. Cor­sair

THE LAST DOG­FIGHTS be­tween pis­ton-en­gine, pro­pel­ler-driven air­planes weren’t fought in the skies over Ger­many in the 1940s or even Korea in the 1950s. They oc­curred in Cen­tral Amer­ica in 1969, and all of the com­bat­ants were fly­ing U.s.-built Cor­sairs and Mus­tangs.

The dog­fights were among the fi­nal acts in a brief but bloody four­day con­flict be­tween Honduras and El Salvador, com­monly (but mis­lead­ingly) 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. Much to Soto’s hor­ror, the re­main­ing Sal­vado­ran air­plane slid in on his un­pro­tected tail.

The two Cor­sairs, one built by Vought and the other by Goodyear, em­barked on a clas­sic knife­fight 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 airto-air en­gage­ment be­tween Honduras and El Salvador, and Soto ended the war with the 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.

Fer­nando Soto in 1970 atop his Honduran Cor­sair, with sym­bols mark­ing his vic­to­ries. The air­craft is now in the Honduras air mu­seum, which keeps it in run­ning (but not fly­ing) con­di­tion.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.