The de Havilland DH.103 Hornet was a piston engine fighter that further exploited the wooden construction techniques pioneered by de Havilland’s classic Mosquito. Entering service at the end of the Second World War, the Hornet equipped postwar RAF Fighter Command day fighter units in the UK and was later used successfully as a strike fighter in Malaya. The Sea Hornet was a carrier-capable version.
The Hornet prototype RR 915 first flew on 28 July 1944 with Geoffrey de Havilland Jr. at the controls. Powered by twin Merlin engines, it was the fastest piston-engined fighter in Royal Air Force service. The Hornet also has the distinction of being the fastest wooden aircraft ever built and the second fastest operational twin propeller-driven aircraft — being slightly slower than the unconventional German Dornier Do 335 of 1945.
The prototype achieved 485 mph (780 km/h) in level flight, which came down to 472 mph (760 km/h) in production aircraft.
The Hornet entered service in 1946 with 64 Squadron based at RAF Horsham St Faith. Next to convert to the Hornet was 19 Squadron at RAF Wittering, followed by 41 Squadron and 65 Squadron, both based at RAF Church Fenton. No. 65 Sqn was to participate in one of the first official overseas visits by an RAF unit when they visited Sweden in May 1948. Pilot conversion to the Hornet was provided by No. 226 Operational Conversion Unit (O.C.U.) which was based at RAF Molesworth.
During their relatively short operational service Hornets participated in several record attempts and air races; for example, on 15 September 1949 Flight Lieutenant H. Peebles flew from RAF Bovingdon to Gibraltar at an average speed of 357.565 mph (574.445 km/h), setting a new British point-to-point record, only to see it broken three days later when Group Captain A.P.C. Carver flew back to RAF Bovingdon, averaging 435.871 mph (701.466 km/h).
Operationally, the Hornet I (later F 1) was to last only a short time before being superseded by the F 3 version. The first Hornet F 3 was PX 366 which flew at the Farnborough Air Show in June 1946.
New units to convert to this mark were 33 Squadron, 45 Squadron (based at RAF Tengah, Singapore where, in early 1952, the unit converted to the Hornet from the unreliable Bristol Brigand) and 80 Squadron. Along with 64 Sqn these squadrons operated in Malaysia where they replaced Beaufighters and Spitfires operating against Communist guerrillas during the Malayan Emergency. Armed with rockets and/or 1,000 lb (454 kg) bombs Hornets, with their long range and good endurance, were able to spend up to two hours loitering over the target area. They also proved to be very reliable; 45 Sqn Hornets, based in Singapore achieved 4,500 operational sorties over five years. The last operational Hornet sortie was flown on 21 May 1955.
On 23 July 1954, two Hornets from RAF Kai Tak in Hong Kong were the first to arrive on the scene of a shoot down of a Cathay Pacific Skymaster off the coast of Hainan Island.
All Hornets were withdrawn from operational service by mid-1956. No complete examples of the Hornet remain in existence today, although a Hornet F 1 forward fuselage has now been reconstructed in the UK by David Collins from the scant remains collected together over a number of years.