Jet Fighters of the Great White North

“Sic Itur ad Astra”

Happy birthday Canada!

Throughout history, Canada has been one of a number of leaders in military aviation, especially with the coming of the era of fighter jet aircraft. In honor of the Royal Canadian Air Force and Canada Day, here’s a brief look at the various fighter/interceptor jets flown by the RCAF over the years, beginning in the late 1940s and carrying to today!

Boeing (McDonnell Douglas) CF-188 Hornet

Two Canadian Forces 410 Squadron CF-188B Hornet fighter flying over the Utah Test and Training Range (USA) for planned engagements during the "Tiger Meet of the Americas" on 9 August 2001. The first aircraft is painted in a special scheme commemorating the 60th anniversary of 410 Squadron. USAF Photograph by SSgt Greg L. Davis.
Two Canadian Forces 410 Squadron CF-188B Hornet fighter flying over the Utah Test and Training Range (USA) for planned engagements during the “Tiger Meet of the Americas” on 9 August 2001. The first aircraft is painted in a special scheme commemorating the 60th anniversary of 410 Squadron. USAF Photograph by SSgt Greg L. Davis.

The winner of the New Fighter Aircraft competition for Air Command (the RCAF’s designation from 1975 to 2011), McDonnell Douglas’s F/A-18 Hornet was selected in 1980 as the fighter to replace all Canadian fighters in service. Retaining most of its features that make it an effective carrier-based fighter, the RCAF’s Hornets fly with a tailhook for short-field arrested landings, and strengthened landing gear for northern undeveloped-airfield landings. Upgrades over its service life have included radio and radar modernization, cockpit overhauls and new mission computer hardware and software. Since their introduction to Air Command/RCAF, the CF-188 has flown in support of a number of NATO operations overseas, including the Gulf War in 1991, the Kosovo War in that same decade, and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. It is scheduled to be replaced by a yet-to-be-determined fighter in the next six to eight years.

Canadair CF-5 (CF-116) Freedom Fighter

CF-5A. DND Photograph.
CF-5A. DND Photograph.

The Northrop F-5 was produced under license as a light tactical attack aircraft, able to be refitted to the reconnaissance and training role for the RCAF. It featured a number of modifications that made it better suited to flying in Canadian service, including a newer nose gear, Orenda-built J85-15 engines, a brand new navigation system and an interchangeable nose pod that could house surveillance cameras. Though the acquisition of the aircraft was viewed as a step-back of sorts for the RCAF, it was well-received into Air Command (the new name of the RCAF after the amalgamation of the Canadian military into one unified service). As Air Command gradually phased out the aircraft, use of the CF-5 shifted towards functioning as a lead-in trainer for the F/A-18. All CF-5s were removed from service by 1995.

McDonnell CF-101 Voodoo

A McDonnell CF-101B Voodoo from 409 “Nighthawk” Squadron, CFB Comox, on the ramp at Canadian Forces Base Moose Jaw in the spring of 1982. DND Photograph.

The CF-101 was the controversial replacement for the canceled Avro CF-105 Arrow and the older CF-100 Canuck, superseding the latter in all-weather fighter squadrons of the RCAF. Far more maneuverable than the Arrow, the Voodoo was able to carry a diverse weapons payload including nuclear-tipped missiles and rockets. Despite the initial controversy and ill-feelings towards the American-designed and -built interceptor, the Voodoo eventually became well-liked by RCAF pilots. The Voodoo, along with the Starfighter and Freedom Fighter were all replaced in Canadian service with the F/A-18 Hornet in the 1980s.

Canadair CF-104 (CF-111/CL-90) Starfighter

417 Sqn CF-104 at CFB Moose Jaw in 1982. Author unknown.

The Lockheed F-104 was Canada’s next choice in jet-powered fighter aviation, once again license-built by Canadair. Modifications led to the CF-111 (as it was initially designated by the RCAF) functioning in the reconnaissance/nuclear strike role, instead of interception and ground attack as originally planned. First taking to the skies in mid-1961 and being introduced to service in 1962, the Starfighter flew a fairly controversial career (due to an incredibly-high accident rate, especially with European users) with the RCAF before being replaced by the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet as Canada’s next frontline fighter.

Avro CF-100 Canuck

CF-100 Mk 5 firing rockets at the Weapons Practice Unit, Cold Lake, 1957. DND Photograph.

Also known as the “Clunk”, the Canuck was Canada’s only indigenous fighter to have ever entered mass production. Designed as an all-weather interceptor with decent range, advanced radar and a fairly-rugged composition, it was able to achieve supersonic speeds in a dive (and became known as the first straight-winged jet to actually maintain brief controlled supersonic flight in 1952). Though not a very maneuverable aircraft, it was still a considerably popular aircraft within the RCAF, and later saw service with the Belgian Air Force.

McDonnell F2H Banshee

Royal Canadian Navy McDonnell F2H-3 Banshee. US Navy Photograph.

In the early 1950s, The Royal Canadian Navy still maintained a small number of aircraft carriers in its inventories, using Hawker Sea Furies as their main carrier-based fighter. With other countries involved in naval aviation already equipping their flattops with jet aircraft, the RCN decided to replace their Sea Furies with McDonnell F2H-3 Banshees, then in use with the United States Navy and United States Marine Corps. Since production had already shut down by the time their request was processed, the RCN had to make do with former USN aircraft, most of which were then geared towards an anti-submarine warfare role while in Canadian service. The Banshees were retired in 1962, having never deployed aboard a Canadian carrier.


Canadair CL-13 Sabre

Sabres of No. 430 Squadron, Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) on Zulu alert at RCAF Station Grostenquin, France, June 1960. DND Photograph.

Canada’s next step in jet-powered military aviation was arguably its most successful. The license-built North American Aviation F-86 Sabre was first flown in 1950, built in six different iterations with over 1815 CL-13s rolling off the assembly line up till 1958, when manufacturing ceased. The advent of the Korean war during the CL-13 Sabre’s infant years led to production being sped up immensely; a number of Sabres were exported to the forward operating air bases of the war, backing up the already-engaged UN-allied air fleets. The Sabre found a home with a variety of air forces around the world, including Germany, Greece, Honduras, Pakistan, Italy, and the United Kingdom among others. The Sabre was replaced in RCAF service by the CF-104 Starfighter.

de Havilland DH-100 Vampire

RCAF DH-100-F.3 Vampire. DND Photograph

Developed and built by the legendary de Havilland Aircraft Company, the DH-100 Vampire was the Royal Canadian Air Force’s first jet-powered fighter. After its first flight in 1943 and introduction into military service in 1945, the government of Canada expressed interest in the pilot-friendly “Vamp” and after a brief evaluation period in 1946, the RCAF chose the Vampire F.3 as its first foray into the jet age of military aviation. Around 86 Vamps were procured totally by the RCAF, flying for a little under a decade until their replacement by the Canadair Sabre.


One thought on “Jet Fighters of the Great White North

  1. “Rarely deployed aboard Canada’s two carriers (the HMCSs Bonaventure and Majestic) due to lack of space and funding, the Banshees were retired in 1962.”

    It was H.M.C.S. Magnificent or more affectionately referred to as the ‘Maggie’. It was the third carrier built in the Majestic class. The Banshee never operated from the ‘Maggie’. It was restricted to propeller types like the Supermarine Seafire, Fairey Firefly, Hawker Sea Fury and Grumman Avenger.

    The R.C.A.F. acquired one Vampire Mk. I and 85 Vampire Mk. III’s.

    Senior Associate Air Force Historian
    Royal Canadian Air Force


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