The unholy shriek of a banshee heralded the death of a family member, the unholy shriek of the McDonnell Banshee could have been a harbinger of far worse news as it was the first carrier striker capable of deploying nuclear weapons. We spoke to author Rick Burgess to find out more.
“Three F2H-2B Banshees armed with dummy Mk 7 nuclear shapes flew from USS Midway 100 miles off Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, refuelled when airborne, dropped to treetop level over Florida and flew undetected—even though the Air Force had been alerted—to a target in Lake Erie. On the return, the F-86s and F-89s trying to intercept them were baited down to 5,000 feet when the Banshees zoomed to 55,000 feet and left the Air Force interceptors spinning out as they tried to follow them to the high altitude. The Banshees refuelled over the Atlantic and landed on the Midway after a nearly 8-hour flight, a record 2,800-nautical-mile flight from and to a carrier. “
What were the best things about the Banshee?
The best things about the Banshee were its range, endurance, and altitude. Being twin-engined, the Banshee could be flown on one engine, which in a typical mission could add 30 minutes to its endurance. Later, aerial refuelling capability added more range. Its altitude capability, combined with very capable cameras, was a great advantage in photo-reconnaissance. The photo Banshee was in very high demand in the Korean War. The Banshee also was the first carrier-based tactical jet capable of delivering a nuclear weapon.
..and the worst?
The worst was the fact that the wing-tip fuel tanks could not be de-fuelled with the wings folded. If a Banshee was ready to launch on a catapult, and the launch had to be cancelled for whatever reason, the aircraft had to be pulled away with wings extended and de-fuelled, creating problems for the deck handlers doing their dangerous jobs.
What were the origins of the Banshee?
With the development of jet fighters during and after World War II, the US Navy tried to minimize the risk of failure by developing several types simultaneously. The North American FJ-1, Vought F6U, Douglas F3D Skyknight, and McDonnell FD (later FH) were the first generation. The F6U never made it into fleet service and the FJ-1 and FH-1 saw very limited fleet service. The F3D saw limited service on aircraft carriers but became a very successful land-based night fighter and electronic countermeasures aircraft. The F9F Panther and F2H Banshee—a development from the FH-1—entered fleet service before the Korean War. All of these jets are today considered “First Generation” jet fighters.
The F2H-1 Banshee and the F9F-2 Panther both were day fighters, with night-fighting handled by detachments of mostly F4U-5N Corsairs. The next Banshee, the F2H-2 equipped with a nose-mounted radar, began the divergence of fighter squadrons into day fighter and night fighter (later all-weather fighter) squadrons that eventually superseded the night-fighter detachments. The day fighters included the F9F Panther and Cougar, FJ-3 Fury, and early F8U Crusaders. The all-weather line included F2H-2/3/4 Banshees, F3H Demons, F7U Cutlasses F4D Skyrays, later F8U crusaders and F4H Phantom IIs. With the later F8Us and the F4H Phantom II, the lines merged such that by the mid-1960s all carrier-based fighters were all-weather.
How did it get its unusual name?
Some US aircraft manufacturers preferred to use a theme to assign popular names to their products. Grumman’s line of ‘cats’ is a good example: F4F Wildcat, F6F Hellcat, F7F Tigercat, F8F Bearcat, F9F Panther, F9F Cougar, XF10F Jaguar, F11F Tiger, and F-14 Tomcat. Douglas used “Sky” names such as AD Skyraider, XA2D Skyshark, A2D Skywarrior, A4D Skywarrior and F4D Skyray. McDonnell used types of spirit beings: FH Phantom, F2H Banshee, F3H Demon, F-101 Voodoo and F4H Phantom II.
How did it compare with the Panther?
The Panther was a very rugged aircraft and performed well in the armed reconnaissance sweeps and in dogfighting MiG-15s. It was used in greater numbers over Korea mainly because the Navy initially concentrated the Banshee in Atlantic Fleet squadrons. However, the Banshee’s greater range, endurance, and altitude capabilities made it a preferred fighter, including for photo escort. Carrier air group commanders praised its performance, including its reliability.
Those same qualities, plus a superior camera suite, made the Banshee a particularly superior photo-reconnaissance aircraft. It was in high demand and quickly replaced the F9F-2P in the fleet.
What was its combat history?
The Korean War was the main combat theater for the Banshee. Only four fighter Banshee-equipped fighter squadrons deployed to the war. They flew mainly armed reconnaissance fighter sweeps (train-busting, for example), combat air patrol, and photo escort. (Close air support was mainly the realm of the AD Skyraider and F4U Corsair.) They did encounter MiG-15s on a few occasions but obtained no kills and suffered no losses in aerial combat. Because of their few deployments, their combat losses also were few.
The photo Banshee made more deployments to the Korean War than the fighters because of the high demand for their capabilities. F2H-2Ps were retained in theater and some F9F-2P detachments traded their Panthers for Banshees when possible. The only Marine Corps Banshees in theater were F2H-2Ps assigned to VMCJ-1, which performed magnificently in the reconnaissance role. VMCJ-1 later flew missions over China with F2H-2Ps and a few fighter F2H-2s but were able to evade the Chinese MiG-15 interceptors.
How did it compare with the Cougar?
My research did not reveal any comparison with the Cougar. The Cougar was a significant improvement over the Panther. The F9F-8P photo Cougar did replace the F2H-2P photo version of the Banshee in the fleet, so the F9F-8P it must have had enough improvements to warrant that replacement.
How did it influence the later Phantom?
The main influence was in the concept of an all-weather fighter, the use of twin engines inside the fuselage or wing roots, and the nose-mounted air-intercept radar. The F3H Demon was a further evolution—except for the single engine—but the F-101 Voodoo shows an obvious ancestry to the F4H Phantom II, including the addition of a radar officer.
What did pilots think of the Banshee?
Pilots liked it in general, especially for its range, endurance, and altitude capabilities. Carrier air group commanders praised its capabilities. One respected aviation admiral said it was “a good airplane, not a great airplane.”
Which roles was the Banshee assigned and how effective was it at each?
See above for more detail. Since the Banshee saw little aerial combat, it is hard to judge its prowess in the dog-fighting role. For its day, it was a capable interceptor. It was an excellent ground-attack aircraft for missions like train-busting and flak suppression. It was excellent as a photo-plane escort. It was a nuclear strike aircraft and gave the Navy its first credible carrier-based nuclear strike capability. The photo Banshee was an outstanding photo-reconnaissance aircraft.
Tell me something I don’t know about the Banshee?
I can’t think of anything. I put everything I knew in the book.
What should I have asked you?
You should have asked me how many Banshees were lost in mishaps because I don’t know. Because of the COVID pandemic I was not able to gain access to archives to research that number. I suspect the number was high because it was high for most naval fighters of the 1950s. The mishap rates in that decade would be scandalous today. Two or more aircraft were lost daily on average in one year. The angled deck, the fleet replacement squadron concept, and the Naval Air Training and Operating Procedures Standardization programme made huge strides in reducing mishaps.
What drew you to write a Banshee book?
I was the co-author of two previous Osprey books, A-1 Skyraider Units of the Vietnam War and AD Skyraider Units of the Korean War. The series editor, Tony Holmes, asked me to write a similar book on the F2H Banshee, in order to complete the set of books on the US Navy and Marine Corps tactical aircraft of the Korean War. Books on the F9F Panther and F4U Corsair units in Korea had been written and the F3D Skyknight book was soon to come.
Strangest story about a Banshee?
Maybe not strange, but amazing: Three F2H-2B Banshees armed with dummy Mk7 nuclear shapes and flew from USS Midway 100 miles off Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, refuelled when airborne, dropped to treetop level over Florida and flew undetected—even though the Air Force had been alerted—to a target in Lake Erie. On the return, the F-86s and F-89s trying to intercept them were baited down to 5,000 feet when the Banshees zoomed to 55,000 feet and left the Air Force interceptors spinning out as they tried to follow them to the high altitude. The Banshees refuelled over the Atlantic and landed on the Midway after a nearly 8-hour flight, the record 2,800-nautical-mile flight from and to a carrier.
How did it compare with international rival types?
My research did not focus on this aspect, so I have little knowledge on the comparison. It is notable that the Royal Canadian Navy chose the F2H-3 for its only carrier-based jet fighter, when it could have chosen the Hawker Seahawk, de Havilland Sea Venom, or Sud-Est Aquilon.
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