In the old days (during and before WW2), Carriers used arresting wires to help aircraft land. In fact this is still used today for jet-based carriers, but I want to ask about the old days with piston-prop aircraft because they go slower and generally make this easier.
I'm pretty sure even back in WW2, most carrier aircraft had tailhooks that grabbed the wire. This is so you "brake in the back", not the front. If you braked in the front, you are much more likely to nose forward or spin around.
Well, I've seen plenty of footage where that happens because something in the front of the aircraft, the nose or front wheels, gets tangled up in those wires, causing bad accidents. Here's a good compilation that has all sorts of landing accidents, including with the wire. What tends to happen is the wire is snagged wrong and the aircraft nose dives into the deck, wrecking the propeller, and/or the aircraft goes spinning around.
I can think of several alternatives to an arresting wire:
- Reverse Pitch Propellers (reverse thrust)
- Powerful Brakes in the rear wheel, or all wheels
- Drag Chute
- Air Brake
To me the simplest solution seems to be the last one, an Air Brake. I've seen this on modern jets like the Su-27 (@ 5:06). It's basically a big flat panel that swings out and creates enormous drag. In the Su-27 they keep it near the center of mass so it doesn't induce large torques, but you can put it in the rear half of the aircraft too. That will "brake in the back" and I think it won't require any more airframe strengthening than a tailhook, since that brakes in the back too.
So why not use this simpler solution? For reference, an Essex Class Carrier has a runway of about 260 m. I actually could not find normal "landing distance" that a small aircraft (bf 109, spitfire, etc.) needs once it touches down. If someone can find that, we would be closer to an answer.