The very last missions of the most famous warplanes took place in unlikely times and even more unlikely places

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Today we are quite used to aircraft such as the B-52 having been in service since the time of the dinosaurs but this is a relatively modern phenomenon. It was rare until well after the Second World War for a combat aircraft to serve much longer than a decade. Here’s a look at some of the more famous long-serving combat aircraft of history and the rather more obscure tales of where and when their fighting careers actually ended.

Fighters

North American P-51/F-51 Mustang

Top of the tree when it comes to longevity amongst Fighters of the Second World War, the Mustang’s usefulness and availability saw it appear in the inventories of various air arms for many years. Curiously the US Army even bought a pair of reconditioned P-51Ds as late as 1968 to operate as chase planes for the Cheyenne attack helicopter program despite the Mustang having been withdrawn from Air National Guard service 11 years earlier. Despite losing its last aerial combat action to a Corsair the Mustang outlived the Vought fighter in service, the Dominican Republic finally retired their P-51s in 1984, a mere 42 years after the type first entered service with its first operator, the RAF.

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Vought F4U Corsair

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Victor (and victim) in the final combat between piston-engined aircraft ever fought, the Corsair was second only to the Mustang in longevity. Its very long production run (1942 – 53) meant there were airframes and spares in abundance for years to come and the game-changing naval fighter of the Pacific spent its dotage flying and occasionally fighting for a variety of Central American nations. Its final combat occurred during the so-called Football war between Honduras and El Salvador. On the 17th July 1969, Ferdinando Soto shot down a Salvadorean Mustang and two Goodyear-built FG-1 Corsairs, becoming the last known pilot to destroy an enemy aircraft in a piston-engined fighter. His F4U-5 is preserved in ground-running condition in the Honduran Aviation museum after finally being retired in 1981.

Republic P-47/F-47 Thunderbolt

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Brazilian P-47 Thunderbolt post tree.

Despite being complex and expensive to operate, the P-47 was rugged, potent and reliable. After 1945 the Thunderbolt was eagerly snapped up by a swathe of nations, particularly in Central and South America. Nicaragua was a major user of the type and loaned a handful to the CIA-backed Guatemalan insurgent Air Force in 1954 who used the Thunderbolts in the early stages of a successful coup to oust the democratically elected government and install the military dictatorship of Carlos Castillo Armas. The final aerial combat for the mighty ‘Jug’ came in January 1955: during a border dispute, Gerald Delarm Amador (who has earlier flown in the same aircraft in the Guatemalan coup) shot down a Costa Rican Mustang in a Nicaraguan F-47N. This aircraft survives in the collection of the Commemorative Air Force in the US. Last user of the Thunderbolt though was Peru, the last operational Peruvian Thunderbolts were withdrawn in 1966.

Supermarine Spitfire

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Twenty years after entering service, everyone’s favourite flying British cliche was still plugging away. Only this time it wasn’t standing fast as a bastion of the free world against the massive industrial might of Nazi Germany but flying ground attack missions in Burma against Communist fighters in 1957 during the seemingly perpetual Burmese civil war. These aircraft were ex-Israeli and Italian Mk IXs supplemented with Griffon-powered Seafire Mx XVs and this was the last combat use of the aircraft.

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Post-war Spitfire air-to-air combat by comparison is somewhat bizarre as, apart from a single one shot down by an Avia S-199 (of which more later), every Spitfire shot down after the end of the Second World War was itself downed by another Spitfire. The very last Spitfire kills occurred in 1948 and early 1949 in a confusing three-way encounter in the Middle East. Some (neutral) RAF Spitfires were attacked on the ground by Egyptian Spitfires who had misidentified them as Israeli Spitfires. A later attack by five Egyptian Spitfires resulted in all five being destroyed, three by ground fire, two by British Spitfires (the last of which remains the most recent victory in air combat by an RAF pilot in an RAF aircraft). Some days later Israeli Spitfires mistook British Spitfires for Egyptian Spitfires and shot down two. In a rare non-Spitfire kill the very final Spitfire victory was scored by American Bill Schroeder in a Spitfire IX on the 7th January 1949 when he shot down an RAF Hawker Tempest (again, apparently, mistaking it for an Egyptian aircraft). A messy aerial finale for this most famous of British aircraft.

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The last military use of the Spitfire was a rather unusual evaluation that took place in 1962,  pitting it against the English Electric Lightning. Britain wanted to know how Lightnings based in Malaysia would fare in combat with Indonesian Mustangs. The trials showed that as long as the Lightning keep the fight at high speed, vintage fighters did not pose a serious threat.

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Hawker Sea Fury

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A surprisingly high achiever, given that the F-86 and MiG-15 were both flying by the time it entered service, the Sea Fury was exported to a swathe of nations across the globe. Its final combat action came over Cuba during the infamous CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion. Despite air strikes that destroyed all but three of the Sea Furies, and their best fighter pilots being in Czechoslovakia (learning to fly the MiG-21), the Cuban aircraft wreaked havoc on the invasion force. Cuba’s main ‘fighter’ was the T-33 jet trainer and this scored the majority of kills but two B-26s were shot down by Sea Furies on the 17th April 1961, the second and last being achieved by Lieutenant Douglas Rudd at 9.30 am. Having already been credited with a MiG-15 shot down over Korea in Royal Navy service, this makes the Sea Fury one of very few aircraft to have scored victories for both sides during the Cold War. The Sea Fury’s career ultimately ended over Germany, sixteen civil-registered examples were operated as target tugs until 1970.

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Grumman F6F Hellcat

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Sidelined by 1945 by the superior Corsair and replaced by its successor the Bearcat, the Hellcat saw no air to air combat after 1945. It was however used as a guided missile(!): in late 1952 F6F-5K drones, flying from USS Boxer and each carrying a 2,000 lb bomb, were used to attack bridges in Korea, radio controlled from an escorting Skyraider.
However, the final combat use of the F6F was in French hands: Aeronavale Hellcats were heavily committed to ground attack operations over Indochina until the French withdrew in 1955.

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Messerschmitt Bf 109

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As produced by its parent nation, 109 use ceased in May 1945 but production of the Messerschmitt fighter continued in Spain and Czechoslovakia. Spanish 109s ended up being built with Hispano-Suiza engines as the Hispano Aviación HA-1112-K1L and finally with Rolls-Royce Merlins as the Hispano Aviación HA-1112-M1L ‘Buchon’ (Pigeon). Buchons were manufactured as late as 1959 and served in Spanish colonial territories in Africa until December 1965 and may have seen some action against rebel groups (the historical record is unclear). Ultimately these aircraft achieved cinematic immortality by starring as their Bf 109E ancestors in the 1968 film ‘Battle of Britain’.

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Meanwhile in Czechoslovakia the Avia aircraft company found itself with a fully operational 109 production line and restarted production for its own Air Force. Faced with a shortage of Daimler Benz engines (due to an explosion at a storage facility) Avia re-engineered the 109 airframe to accept the Junkers Jumo 211, such as was fitted to the Heinkel He 111 bomber, the resulting aircraft being known as the Avia S-199. Despite allegedly atrocious handling characteristics, performance was good and over 500 were produced and served in Czech units until 1957. Rather more excitingly the nascent Israeli Air Force got hold of a few and, despite low serviceability and general unpopularity, Avia S-199s officially scored six kills against aircraft from Egypt, Syria and Jordan, including the first ever Israeli air-to-air victory. Last aircraft shot down by an S-199 was its old rival, a Spitfire, destroyed by Rudy Augarten on the 16th October 1948. It is somewhat ironic that the final combat use of this Nazi fighting machine should occur in the defence of a Jewish state.

Bombers

Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress

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It is a pleasing irony that an aircraft most famous for starting fires all over Europe for a couple of years then spent decades putting fires out. The career of the Flying Fortress in its intended role was limited after 1945, the advent of the B-29 rendered it obsolescent in its home nation, yet it was too big, expensive to operate, and sophisticated for most developing nations. As a result most of the B-17s operated by air forces after 1945 were utilised as transport craft. The one great exception was Israel which operated three Fortresses for years, bombing Cairo in 1948 to great psychological, though militarily insignificant, effect. The mighty B-17 ended its conventional bombing career by attacking Egyptian targets during the Suez crisis in late 1956.

However, the Fortress’s ‘bombing’ career did not end there. Various private operators bought up surplus B-17s to use as firefighting aircraft. With its prodigious load carrying ability and pleasant flying characteristics the Fortress was a popular choice of air tanker and its immensely strong structure was well able to deal with the punishingly turbulent air in the vicinity of a fire. The final B-17 firefighting operations were flown as late as 1985 and most of the preserved airworthy B-17s today are ex-firefighting aircraft.

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Consolidated B-24 Liberator

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With its roomy fuselage and massive range the Liberator was an attractive prospect for many operators and the B-24 flew in the air arms of 19 nations. The B-24’s last use in anger was with both sides during the Chinese civil war until 1949. Last operator of the Liberator though was India. Lacking a heavy bomber, during 1948 the Indian Air Force realised there were a large number of ex-RAF Liberators abandoned since 1945 as scrap at Kanpur airfield. Despite their state 42 of these aircraft were flown (by a single pilot, Jamshed Munshi, who had no previous experience flying B-24s – or indeed any four-engine aircraft) to HAL aircraft for refurbishment. The only incident during these undoubtedly risky trips was a small in-flight fire in the cockpit that was extinguished with a flask of coffee. Post refurbishment the Liberators served until 1968, and despite never engaging in combat, they were used for leaflet dropping during India’s annexation of Goa in 1961.

Consolidated PB4Y Privateer

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Although essentially an offshoot of the Liberator, the Privateer had a busy postwar career so warrants its own entry. Despite being used by the French as a bomber in Indochina until 1954, the Privateer’s main strength was its vast range and it was used extensively as a long-range patrol, reconnaissance and intelligence aircraft, a US Navy example being shot down by Lavochkin La-11s in 1950 off the coast of Latvia. Final combat involving the Privateer occurred as late as February 1961 when a Taiwanese PB4Y was shot down by a Burmese Sea Fury while it was attempting to carry supplies to Nationalist Chinese forces fighting in Northern Burma.
Like the B-17 the Privateer was a popular choice for firefighting but it outlived the Boeing aircraft in this role for decades. It was only a fatal accident in 2002 (caused by poor maintenance and not due to a fault of the aircraft), that brought the PB4Y’s career attacking fires to an abrupt end some sixty years after the aircraft first flew.

Avro Lancaster

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Post-war use of the Lancaster was relatively limited, Canada and France both used the aircraft for long range maritime patrol but it was Argentina that was the last to take the bomber into combat. During the Revolución Libertadora of 1955, Argentine Lancasters flew bombing sorties for both sides in the ultimately successful coup d’etat that ousted Juan Peron from office and installed a military dictatorship. The final flight of an operational Lancaster occurred in 1965 in Argentina, the fleet being finally struck off charge in 1966. One Lancaster was modified as an air tanker in Canada to fight fires but its career was brief and by 1974 it had been sold into preservation.

de Havilland Mosquito

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The ‘Wooden Wonder’ also saw its last combat in Israeli hands. Despite the punishing effects of the Middle Eastern climate on its wooden airframe, the Israeli air force was an enthusiastic Mosquito operator. Its unrivalled performance made it essentially immune from air attack and Mosquitoes were heavily employed in the reconnaissance role until the end of 1956. Even after Arab air forces introduced the MiG-15 jet fighter, Israeli Mosquitoes flew deep into their neighbour’s territory and not one was ever lost to enemy action during these missions. Final combat use of the Mosquito came during November 1956 when, as part of Operation Kadesh, the Israeli contribution to the Suez action, 110 squadron Mosquito FB.VIs attacked Egyptian armour and encampments in the Sinai in force repeatedly over four days. 110 squadron was disbanded less than two months later and the Mosquitoes sent to storage.

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7 comments

  1. Michael Carley

    Brilliant article, but a little issue here:

    “Post-war Spitfire air-to-air combat by comparison is somewhat bizarre as every Spitfire shot down after the end of the Second World War was itself downed by another Spitfire.”

    “Last aircraft shot down by an S-199 was its old rival, a Spitfire, destroyed by Rudy Augarten on the 16th October 1948.”

  2. Marcin

    Interesting read 🙂 But there is one thing that must be wrong:
    1. “Post-war Spitfire air-to-air combat by comparison is somewhat bizarre as every Spitfire shot down after the end of the Second World War was itself downed by another Spitfire.”
    2. “Last aircraft shot down by an S-199 was its old rival, a Spitfire, destroyed by Rudy Augarten on the 16th October 1948.”
    Which one is correct?

  3. Jim Smith

    Met a spook when I was with the British Embassy in Washington. He and some mates had been sent off to assist a South American AF. As described to me, the training plane was the T-41 (military version of the Cessna 172). There was no intermediate trainer between this and the operational aircraft – a mix of Mustang, Corsair and Thunderbolt. Not surprisingly, the T-41 qualified pilots were terrified and not able to cope with the tailwheel conversion onto the front line fleet!

    These guys were in, to quote, “Hog Heaven”, providing air defence for said country, burning holes in the sky in WW2 heavy metal. Not sure how long it lasted, or how they resolved the pilot competence issue. Country involved might have been Columbia, Ecuador or Honduras, all T-41 operators.

  4. Chris Boland

    Nice feature. There are a couple of things you could have mentioned, if I recall correctly. The B-29 was eventually retired as a tanker in 1960 – in Vietnam, I believe. Arguably, in Tu-4 form, it continued to serve as a drone carrier in China till the late 80s. The Irish Air Corps used Spitfire trainers till 1960. If you count the Vampire and the P-80 as World War 2 types they and their derivatives were in service even longer.

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