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The F4U Corsair – A Brief History of America’s Legendary Gull-Winged Fighter

By 1944, the Corsair was being deployed in the Pacific in ever-increasing numbers. Japanese pilots quickly learned to fear it.”

By Marc Liebman

BETWEEN Grumman and Vought Aircraft, the United States produced two of the best carrier-based fighters of World War II: the F6F Hellcat and the F4U Corsair.

After making its combat debut over Guadalcanal in February 1943 – eight full months before the first F6F Hellcats entered service – the F4U Corsair would go on to become one of the most successful fighters of all times.

The Corsair was designed to meet a 1938 U.S. Navy requirement for a single-seat shipboard fighter. The nature of the military’s request strongly suggested — at least to the Vought design team — that the Navy wanted the fastest fighter ever built. Regardless, Rex Beisel, head of the Vought engineering team designing the new fighter, made it clear that speed for the proposed aircraft was king. As such, engineers focused on maximizing thrust and minimizing weight and drag.

A prototype of the F4U Corsair. (Image source: WikiMedia Commons)

The new fighter would incorporate the largest engine under development at the time: the 18-cylinder Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp twin row radial. The powerplant pumped out an impressive 2,000 horsepower. Water/alcohol injection in later versions could add another 450 ponies to that total. To turn the power of the R-2800 into thrust, Vought’s engineers relied on data from prop manufacturer Hamilton Standard. Their calculations suggested that the new fighter needed a propeller with a 13-and-a-quarter-inch diameter in order to exceed 400 m.p.h.

Wind tunnel tests from the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (then NACA, but now known as NASA) indicated that to minimize drag, the wing had to be faired in where it joined the bottom of the circular fuselage. Several configurations were considered but each required an abnormally long landing gear which would take up precious space and be heavy and complex.

Alfred Sibila, the team’s aerodynamicist, was in a meeting early in the design process with Chief Engineer Rex Beisel and six others from the design team[1] to discuss wing placement and design. As Sibila recalled in an article on the Corsair in the February 1995 issue of Proceedingsthat “Beisel asked: ‘Why don’t they put a little bend in the wing where the landing gear attachment would be lower and the gear shorter … ?’” With that, the Corsair’s most distinguishing feature, the inverted gull-wing, was born.

An early model of the F4U. (Image source: WikiMedia Commons)

Aerodynamically, the bent-wing mounted perpendicular low on the fuselage made a lot of sense. Figuring out how to build the airplane’s structure was another engineering challenge. Vought built a a special large jig to enable the wing’s centre section and lower fuselage to be built as one unit. The result was an extremely strong structure.

The gull wing configuration had another advantage. It enabled the designers to put the airplane’s armament outside the landing gear assembly in the folding section of the wing. This enabled the design team to put the large oil coolers in the wing roots, close to the engine.

The prototype Corsair had provisions for a .30 and .50 caliber machine guns in the nose and a .50 caliber gun in each wing. Lessons from the air war in Europe dictated a change to six .50s, three in each wing. Later, 300 F4U-5s were built with two 20mm cannon in each wing. Still, most pilots (and the Navy and Marine Corps) preferred the six .50 caliber guns, each with 400 rounds per gun. With each weapon firing at about 600 rounds per minute, this arrangement gave the pilot 40 seconds of ammunition, which was far more than any of its potential opponents.

An illustration of a Vought F4U-1A Corsair flown by Gregory “Pappy” Boyington. (Image source: WikiMedia Commons)

To reduce time and go with proven components, the layout for the horizontal and vertical tails were borrowed from the OS2U-1 Kingfisher floatplane, which was already in production. And, because Vought wanted to make the plane as fast as possible, the exhaust stacks were designed to provide a small amount of thrust.

The first production contract for 584 Corsairs was awarded on June 30, 1941. The first F4U-1 was delivered to the U.S. Navy on July 31, 1942. Unknown to Vought, the Navy had made the Marines the priority recipient for the new fighters, which were destined to go to Guadalcanal where Corps aviators flew their first combat mission in the Corsair on February 13, 1943.

Even before Corsairs were sent to Guadalcanal, the Navy and the Marine Corps knew they had a world beater. The fighting in the Solomons was still fierce and the Navy wanted to get the Corsair into action where pilots could take advantage of its performance and range.

Corsairs of VMF-312 prepare to launch from the carrier USS Hollandia.  (Image source: WikiMedia Commons)

Carrier landings in the original Corsairs proved to be a challenge even though the fighter passed its initial flattop trials. Yet once on board and in the hands Navy fliers, the accident rate soared. It was discovered that compression and rebound on the landing gear struts was much too stiff causing the airplane to bounce dangerously on touchdown.

Also, the Corsair’s long nose made it harder to see forward during take-offs and landings. The Royal Navy suggested the U.S. Navy use a more curved approach so that the pilots could better see the deck and the landing signal officer. Another modification to improve visibility in the landing pattern was increasing the height of the rails so the pilot could raise his seat to get a better view over the long nose.

A Vought design effort known as “Program Dog” gave the main landing gear struts a longer stroke with lower rebound ratios solved the tendency of the airplane to bounce on landing. Other modifications to the cowl flap actuators stopped them from leaking and spraying fluid over the canopy.

Corsairs in formation. (Image source: WikiMedia Commons)

By 1944, the Corsair was being deployed in the Pacific in ever-increasing numbers, both as a land-based fighter-bomber with the U.S. Marines and a carrier-based Navy aircraft. Japanese pilots quickly learned to fear it. They dubbed the F4U Whistling Death. While the Mitsubishi Zero could still turn inside the Corsair, the rugged F4U was more than 50 m.p.h. faster than the A6M, had a better roll rate and could outclimb the Japanese fighter by a wide margin. The Corsair’s performance enabled pilots to pick and choose when and how to engage enemy aircraft.

Against the Zero, Corsairs scored 2,129 aerial victories with just 189 losses. That’s an 11:1 ratio that’s bested only by the Hellcat’s 19:1.

Ultimately, the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm took delivery of 2,012 Corsairs as opposed to 584 Hellcats. Most of the Royal Navy Corsairs flew from British carriers in the Pacific in the latter stages of the war. Those that survived the war were returned to the U.S. Navy in late 1945 and early 1946.

A Royal Nay Fleet Air Arm Corsair aboard HMS Glory, 1945. (Image source: WikiMedia Commons)

Here are 12 facts about the F4U you may not know.

On May 29, 1940, the XF4U-1 made its maiden flight, more than two years before the F4F Hellcat and North American P-51 Mustang flew.

On a test flight on October 1, 1940, the prototype XF4U-1 flew at 404 m.p.h. making the Corsair the first U.S. single-engine airplane to exceed 400 m.p.h. in level flight.

The F4U was in production longer than any other World War II piston engine fighter. Production began in 1941 and ended in 1953 at the conclusion of the Korean War. In all, 15,575 were built.

To give the Corsair the best roll rate, Vought engineers made the original ailerons out of wood. As flight testing progressed, the ailerons were whittled, sanded and shaped to provide improved response and maneuverability. Later, Vought perfected the tooling to make ailerons out of aluminum.

A Corsair on a ground attack mission, 1945. (Image source: WikiMedia Commons)

In mid-1944, Charles Lindbergh served as a technical representative to Vought and the Navy in tests that proved that the Corsair’s bombload could safely be doubled from 2,000 to 4,000 pounds. To put this in perspective, the normal bomb load of the B-25, B-26 and the de Havilland Mosquito was 4,000 lbs.

Three companies built the Corsair – Vought, Brewster and Goodyear. The latter made the largest number of Corsairs.

One Marine pilot showed that the F4U’s massive propeller could be a weapon in its own right. During the campaign in Okinawa, R. R. Klingman of VMF-312 suffered a gun malfunction in a high-altitude engagement while trying to shoot down a Japanese Dinah reconnaissance plane. Unable shoot the target down, Klingman used his Corsair’s prop blades to shred the enemy’s tail assembly. Despite damaging his own plane in the attack, the Marine managed to make it back to base, after which he was awarded the Navy Cross.

Night fighter Corsairs. Note the radar housing pods on the wings. (Image source: WikiMedia Commons)

The Corsair was equipped with a radar and filled the role of a carrier and land-based night fighter through to the end of Korea. To accommodate the radar in the starboard wing, one of the .50 caliber machine guns was deleted. Ultimately, 214 of these night fighters were built.

A special version to fly and fight in the Arctic was built with deicing boots on the wings and a heated propeller. Designated the F4U-NL, 72 models were built and 29 converted from the F4U-5N night-fighter variant.

A U.S. Marine Corps Corsair shot down a MiG-15 in during the Korean War. French Navy Corsairs flew in combat used in Algeria, Tunisia, the Suez Crisis in 1956 as well as in Indochina. The French Navy flew them until 1964 when they transitioned to jets.

(Image source: WikiMedia Commons)

A Honduran Air Force Corsair made the last air-to-air kill by a World War II piston engine fighter on July 19, 1969. During the Football War between Honduras and El Salvador, this date, a Honduran F4U shot down an El Salvadorian Air Force Mustang along with two other Corsairs. Corsairs were operated by the Honduran Air Force until 1979 which was the last country’s air force to fly the airplane.

There are well over 100 remaining Corsairs still in existence, many of which continue to fly.

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