July 17, 1969 is a not a day that many associate as one of any great significance. But in terms of aerial warfare, it was. Because that day saw the last kills made in aerial combat between piston-engine aircraft. And even more remarkably, these occurred in two dogfights and were all achieved by the same pilot.
This is the story of Captain Fernando Soto Henríquez of the Honduran Air Force and his scoring of three air-to-air kills in a single day. The event was also a critical point in the Honduran-Salvadorian War that was raging at the time.
Before I start, I suspect many of you know of this conflict by the title of the “Football” or “Soccer War”. I will be delving more into the history of this conflict in a future article. But for now, I will just say that that term is not well liked by the people of the nations who fought, and so I will refer to the conflict as “The Hundred-Hour War”.
On July 14, 1969, the El Salvadorian military invaded neighbouring Honduras after a period of prolonged tension between the two countries. The attack caught the Hondurans largely by surprise, and they fell back before it. But over the next two days resistance stiffened and the Salvadoreans found themselves under pressure internationally as the Organization of American States (OAS) pushed for a ceasefire.
Needing to break the Honduran defences to achieve as favourable a position as possible before a ceasefire could be imposed upon them by the OAS, the Salvadorean High Command ordered an all-out attack on July 17. On the conflict’s eastern front, Salvadorean artillery lashed Honduran positions located on the Inter-American Highway between the towns of La Guacimada and Santa Lucía.
This was followed by infantry attacks, and heavy fighting ensued. Desperate for help, the Honduran commanders requested immediate air support. In response, three Honduran Air Force F4U-5N Corsairs were dispatched to help.
This represented a major proportion of the Honduran Air Force’s strength at the time. The Hondurans had started the conflict with a total eleven Corsairs as their frontline fighter strength. One of these had been interned in Guatamala on July 15 after landing there because of battle damage.
The Corsair was (and is) a magnificent aircraft. The F4U-5Ns that were flying to engage the Salvadorean ground forces were the most modern that Honduras had. But that is a relative description, as the aircraft dated from the mid-1940s and thus by 1969 these aircraft had seen a lot of hard use. This showed itself in some odd ways. Throughout the conflict, Honduran Corsairs had reported problems with their 20mm cannon inexplicably jamming.
At 1145 as they flew into the combat zone, Soto ordered the two pilots flying with him – Captains Edgardo Acosta and Francisco Zepeda – to test fire their weapons. Somewhat unsurprisingly Zepeda’s cannons failed. Soto ordered him to return to base while he and Acosta completed their mission. Zepeda broke off and turned for home.
But he was to soon be fighting for his life.
As the three Corsairs had been approaching the combat zone, two Salvadorean fighters were coming in from the opposite direction. The aircraft were Cavalier Mustang IIs. Only delivered in 1968, the five Salvadorean Mustang IIs were the most up to date aircraft that participated in the war.
Updated conversions of P-51D fighters, arguably the most famous American aircraft of the Second World War, these had originally been formidable dogfighters. The Mustang IIs upgrade had converted the airframes to increase their ground attack capability, principally for Counter Insurgency work with allies of the United States. They had also been fitted with fixed wing tip fuel tanks to increase the range and loiter times of the aircraft.
Now the two approaching Mustangs, piloted by Captains Douglas Varela and Leonel Lovo, dropped down to launch their own ground support mission in support of the Salvadorean assault. They could not believe their luck, because in front of them was a single Honduran Corsair, seemingly easy prey.
Zepeda was paying attention, however, and as the two Mustangs dropped down behind him, he began to evade hard. Varela managed to get into a firing position and opened fire with his .50 calibre Browning machine guns, but Zepeda managed to dodge the fusillade.
By now Zepeda was, understandably, totally absorbed in flying for his life, but as Varela lined up for more shots on him, he was able to start yelling for help over the radio. Hearing him, Soto and Acosta jettisoned their bombs and turned about to come to his assistance. While Zepeda threw his aircraft around desperately with Varela in hot pursuit, Soto rapidly closed on the Salvadorean.
Swooping behind the Mustang, he opened fire, scoring hits with his 20mm cannon. Varela immediately began to try to evade by turning tightly and diving. But it was here that the additions made to the Mustang II proved fatal.
The big wing tip tanks turned the Mustang into a much heavier and more unbalanced aircraft than the one it was converted from. They were an advantage for ground support work, but in a dogfight, they proved a lethal liability.
Soto was able to follow the manoeuvring Mustang II down and managed to rake the cockpit and engine with cannon fire. Now burning, Varela’s aircraft crashed into the forests below.
There is some controversy on this episode, with Salvadorean sources stating that Varela was able to parachute from his stricken aircraft. They assert that he was then murdered by Honduran troops on the ground. The Hondurans state that Varela was killed in his cockpit by Soto’s cannons.
Regardless, the Salvadoreans had suffered a major blow and, though the other Mustang II was able to escape despite the best efforts of Capt. Acosta, much worse was to shortly follow.
As the fighting continued to rage on the eastern front, the Salvadoreans received intelligence that the Hondurans were planning an attack to destroy the bridge over the Goascorán River that marked the border. Such an attack, if successful, would cut off the Salvadorean forces in western Honduras, a potential catastrophe for the Salvadorean military.
To help counter this possibility, the Salvadorean Air Force were asked to provide a close air support element over the bridge. At 1400, two Salvadorean Corsairs were dispatched to the area. These were Goodyear FG-1Ds.
Broadly comparable to the Corsairs flown by the Hondurans, the five flyable FG-1s had formed the backbone of the Salvadorean Air Force before the introduction of the Mustang IIs. But though old like their Honduran opponents, they were still capable aircraft, and one had been damaged earlier in the war in the many support missions the type had flown. Additionally, their older style armament of six .50 calibre Browning heavy machine guns had none of the issues that the 20mm cannons of the Hondurans aircraft had.
The two aircraft, flown by Captains Reynaldo Cortéz and Salvador Cezeña, flew several passes over the bridge and thoroughly surveyed the surrounding terrain for any enemy troops. With nothing obvious, and satisfied there was no threat to the bridge, they decided to climb to altitude and return to base.
As they were making this decision, Soto, Zapeda and Acosta were once again headed into the area. Their mission was to strike the Salvadorean artillery that was still giving Honduran troops a hard time, but once again fate intervened. Soto ordered another gun check and, once again, Zapeda’s gun jammed. Once again, the unfortunate captain was ordered out of the combat zone while his partners completed their attack missions.
But this time, as Soto and Acosta dropped down to search for targets, they spotted the two Salvadorean Corsairs departing the area. No fighter pilot worth his salt passes up a chance to shoot down an aircraft and so the two Hondurans dropped their ordnance and throttled up to climb and catch the Salvadoreans.
These had crossed into El Salvador and though the Honduran pilots were forbidden to pursue across the border, Soto and Acosta were not going to be denied. Soto closed on the FG-1 of Captain Cezeña and fired a burst of 20mm shells into it. The plane burst into fire and Cezeña was forced to bailout.
Cortéz, realising they were under attack, swung his plane about to get onto Soto’s six, and managed to score several hits with his machine guns. Soto in response began to manoeuvre violently, expecting his wingman to clear his six. But it soon became apparent that Acosta had vanished from the scene and the fight was very much just between Soto and Cortéz.
A battle to the death developed as both pilots clawed for position.
And it was Soto who would win.
After several minutes of intense aerobatics, he managed to get his sight on target and hit Cortéz’s cockpit and wing. Cortéz continued to manoeuvre, but it seems likely he was injured as his flying became slower. Getting another chance, Soto hit the Salvadorean with more cannon shells and Cortéz’s FG-1 exploded in a fireball.
Again, there are two stories told, and the Salvadorean histories say that Cortéz deliberately crashed while attempting to land his damaged aircraft in order to save civilian lives.
However, what is not disputed is that Captain Soto had achieved a remarkable three aerial victories in a single day. This would have been an impressive feat during the Second World War, when many more combatants were in the air. But when you consider the actual impact that such an achievement made on the war, it was of huge significance.
According to Dan Hagedorn and Mario Overall, by July 17 the Salvadorean Air Force had eight primary combat aircraft available to them – four FG-1s and Four Mustang IIs.
Soto, on his own, shot down nearly 40% of these in a day.
And that would have a critical impact on the Salvadorean’s remaining efforts to end the war to their advantage. It would also mark a rather impressive end to the dogfighting days of the piston-engine fighter.