If you have an interest in military aviation history you have probably come across the topic of “How would a propellor fighter – say one from World War Two – do against a modern jet?” It seems to crop up periodically and leads to all sorts of speculation.
You will hear that maybe the prop fighter, slower but more agile, will be able to evade the modern aircraft and that perhaps with its lower heat signature things like heat seeking missiles won’t be able to lock onto it.
And there are cases of prop aircraft getting the better of jet aircraft with much better performance than them, principally in Korea and Vietnam.
But with modern fighters, there are two problems with the scenario.
Firstly, modern heat seekers are unbelievably sensitive, they have no problem locking onto piston engines.
Secondly, no matter how agile the prop aircraft is, a modern jet is quite capable of getting onto it for a gun kill down just off the dirt.
We know this because it has happened.
In 1992 two coups were launched in Venezuela against the President, Carlos Andrés Pérez, who had become unpopular due to enacting spending cuts that had pushed prices up, marginalising the working classes in the country.
The first attempt, launched in February of that year, was commanded by Major Hugo Chávez and sought to make Rafael Caldera president.
Caldera had served already in the role between 1969 and 1974 and had been able to heal many of the divisions that had been tearing Venezuela apart at the time.
However, the coup miscarried, and Chávez was arrested and put in prison. But this didn’t detract from the fact that there was still widespread dissent in the country, nor that Chávez still enjoyed some support in the Venezuelan army. In fact, his public declarations during and at the failure of the coup attempt raised his profile both in the military and with the people of Venezuela.
On November 27, a second coup was launched. This was led by officers from the Air Force and Navy and enjoyed some initial success when they managed to seize some air force bases and a television station.
With the aircraft available and pilots committed to their cause, the rebels launched air attacks on loyalist strongholds, principally army barracks and major police stations. The rebels used Mirage jets, Tucanos and, as seen here, OV-10 Broncos.
The Bronco is an excellent light attack aircraft. Capable of flying at low speeds and altitudes, it was developed in the 1960s by the United States to provide a rugged, simple, close air support aircraft for counterinsurgency. It is also extremely agile. Though, as became apparent, not agile enough.
The rebels initial success began to come apart when loyalist forces launched counterattacks, pushing them from their captured key points. And one of the critical events was a loyalist pilot getting airborne in his F-16 fighter. This is an excellent air combat aircraft that can fly at twice the speed of sound.
Fitted with modem radar and air-to-air missiles, it was the most formidable aircraft in the Venezuelans arsenal in 1992. This led to the graphic demonstration of how an agile prop aircraft can get as low and slow as it can but, at the end of the day, it is just buying time.
To be fair, the Bronco has no real weaponry for fighting back, so it was hardly a fair fight. But if it did, a modern fighter would just stand off and use its better performance to control the fight anyway – unless the pilot was dumb.
The second coup was thwarted and before the end of the day the remaining rebels fled to Peru. The death toll for the attempt was 172. Chávez remained in prison, though only for a few years.
Caldera was elected president in 1994 and released Chávez, who would go on to become President himself in 1999.
But I’d certainly say this incident resolves the “prop vs. jet” debate.
Ed Nash has spent years traveling around the world. Between June 2015 and July 2016 he volunteered with the Kurdish YPG in its battle against ISIS in Syria; his book on his experiences, Desert Sniper, was published by Little, Brown in September 2018.