The Buzz

The Last Time Old-School Propeller Planes Fought Each Other For Real

Forty-eight years ago, Dan Hagedorn was serving in the U.S. military at Fort Kobbe, Panama, when he learned that El Salvador had suddenly gone to war with Honduras. He soon witnessed Salvadoran students hurriedly boarding a plane home. In the new book The 100 Hour War: The Conflict Between Honduras and El Salvador in July 1969, co-written with aviation historian Mario Overall, they revisit the conflict with a fascinating eye on the war’s aerial battles.

Commonly known as the “Soccer War,” Hagedorn and Overall describe why the name is a misnomer. El Salvador invaded after a series of soccer matches between the national teams escalated into riots, but the games occurred after the Salvadoran government began planning for war. The matches were also on the surface of deeper tensions brought by the presence of Salvadoran migrant workers in Honduras — lured by the United Fruit Company and pushed out of El Salvador by wealthy right-wing landowners who feared a communist rebellion.

As Honduras began implementing land reforms, the government — supported by Honduran landowners — turned on the migrants and began expelling them. This in turn fueled anti-Honduran sentiment in El Salvador, along with fears among the country’s landowners that the migrants would return and pose a threat to their privileged positions. These elites then pushed the government to invade.

The 100 Hour War details what followed, and the book may be the most comprehensive account of the strange and interesting aerial side of the conflict, featuring numerous photos from the era and illustrations by journalist Tom Cooper. The war was the last time piston-engine planes dueled with live ammunition and intent to kill — as both sides flew American-made aircraft dating to World War II.

The Salvadoran military was seduced by Israel’s stunning victory in the Six-Day War in 1967, influencing military officers to believe they could succeed in a surprise attack against the Hondurans. The Israeli offensive “captured the Salvadoran officers’ imagination and they didn’t hesitate in incorporating many elements inspired by that campaign into their own invasion plan,” Overall and Hagedorn write. Quoting historian Thomas P. Anderson, they add that “the Salvadorans perceived themselves as ‘the Israelis of Central America,’ ambitious, technical-minded people, surrounded by ‘lazy Arabs,’ that is, their Central American neighbors.”

El Salvador’s army was prepared, its air force wasn’t. The Salvadoran army embarked on a rapid modernization program, stockpiling weapons and ammunition acquired from the United States and — unlike the Hondurans — possessed an armored force of M3A1 Stuart light tanks along with trucks upgraded with armored plates and machine guns. However, El Salvador’s officer corps was dominated by the infantry, who neglected the air force, and its small fleet of F-G1D Corsairs, F-51 Mustang IIs, C-47 Transports and civilian Cessnas — used as bombers — lacked experienced pilots and spare parts.

In the opening aerial “blitz” of the war, many Salvadoran planes got lost, missed their targets or struck random villages — causing little damage. Nevertheless, the attacks came as a shock to the Hondurans.

The Honduran army wasn’t prepared, its air force was. Honduras had an infantry-dominated officer corps as well, but the well-planned Salvadoran ground offensive caught the army off guard. Shortages of ammunition were a constant problem. Honduras’ air force performed spectacularly, however, due to the role of air chief Col. Enrique Soto Cano, who had skillfully fought the defense ministry for parts and money — which meant more cockpit time. When the army retreated, the air force was in a position to strike back. Its inventory included F4U-5N and F4U-4 Corsairs, C-47 and C-54 transports, Cessnas, and T-28A Trojan and AT-6 Texan armed trainers

Overall and Hagedorn note the war was the last time piston-engine fighter planes fought each other in air-to-air combat. While there were numerous clashes and pursuits, the most notable were three shootdowns — two Salvadoran Corsairs and one Mustang — by Honduran Maj. Fernando Soto Henriquez in his Corsair in two separate engagements on the same day. This was the end of the Salvadorans’ aspirations to gain air superiority and was utterly demoralizing. Later that day, a Salvadoran pilot was shot down by friendly anti-aircraft fire and was nearly lynched by locals who mistook him for a Honduran.

Night navigation was scary in these 1940s-vintage planes. There were few lights at night in the region in 1969, and the night dimmed further as the cities went dark given the threat of air attacks. A Honduran C-47 equipped with bombs relied entirely on time and distance calculations to reach El Salvador’s main airport. The night “was a pitch black that few not native to the area could appreciate,” Hagedorn and Overall write. The crew tossed the bombs from the airplane into the darkness and heard them explode, but it’s unknown what effect — if any — they caused, or if they were even close to the airport.