Icons of Aviation History: F4U Corsair

With its long nose and bent wings, the F4U Corsair was one of the most distinctive fighters of the Second World War–and a TV series also made it one of the most famous.

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F4U-4 Corsair on display at the US Naval Aviation Museum, Pensacola FL

In 1940, the Pratt and Whitney company unveiled the XR-2800 Double Wasp engine, which used 18 radial cylinders arranged in two banks to produce 1850 horsepower, making it the most powerful engine in the world. Designers at the Vought Aircraft Company began work on a new carrier-based fighter plane built around the new engine. It was designated the V-166-B.

The design was mostly determined by the engine. The Double Wasp’s two banks of cylinders required a very long nose to fit it inside. The enormous horsepower would also need a very large propeller to efficiently transfer thrust–Vought settled on a three-bladed prop (later changed to a four-blade) with a diameter of over 13 feet. This was much larger than any other fighter plane’s propeller, and it presented an awkward problem: in a normal plane, the prop was too long and would dig into the ground. One solution would be to make the landing gear longer to hold the prop higher off the ground. But the V-166-B was intended as a carrier-based airplane, which required short but stout landing gear to absorb the impacts of rough carrier landings. So the Vought designers came up with a different solution–the “inverted gull” wings would descend sharply downwards at the fuselage, to hold the nose high off the ground, then would bend outwards.

For maximum speed, the rest of the airframe would be made as clean as possible. The landing gear was designed to rotate flat before being tucked inside the wings and covered with hydraulic doors. The oil coolers and the intakes for the supercharger were fitted into the front of the wing roots. The fuselage was built with a round cross-section to give it the smallest possible weight and surface area, and the panels were spot-welded together rather than riveted. When the prototype was flown in May 1940, it reached speeds of 405 mph, making it the fastest fighter in the world. The Navy adopted it as the F4U Corsair and in June 1941 placed an order for 584 planes. Production began in 1942.

But the Corsair immediately ran into problems. Although the Corsair was a formidable fighter, fast and maneuverable and tough, the long nose made visibility during carrier landings almost impossible (this was compounded by an annoying tendency for the engine to leak oil and smear up the windshield). The shock absorbers were also unsuitable: Corsairs often bounced hard upon landing, causing them to miss the carrier deck’s arresting wires. And the plane had some dicey stall characteristics that made low-speed landing hazardous. The Navy decided to look for another carrier fighter (which turned out to be the F6F Hellcat) and kept the Corsair as a ground-based fighter for the Marine Corps. The plane was also used by Britain, Australia and New Zealand in the Pacific. In early 1943, the Corsair entered combat in the Solomon Islands campaign. To speed production, the Goodyear company also manufactured F4U’s under a license from Vought.

As a fighter, the Corsair proved to be more than a match for the Japanese Zero. F4U pilots shot down 2,140 Japanese aircraft with a loss of only 189 Corsairs in combat. Almost half of all the fighter missions in the Pacific theater were flown by F4U’s.

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F4U-1D Corsair at Smithsonian Udvar-Hazy Center

Later versions of the Corsair were modified to carry bombloads and unguided rockets for ground attack, and the fighter-bomber versions became one of the primary close-support aircraft during the island fighting in Guadalcanal and then across the Pacific. During ground-attack runs the wind would often scream into the Corsair’s wing-edge inlets, leading the Japanese troops to dub it “Whistling Death”.

By 1944, the British had made some modifications to the Corsair and worked out procedures (including a long curving landing approach) that allowed them to operate F4U’s successfully from aircraft carriers, and the US Navy immediately followed suit.

After the end of the Second World War, the US Navy adopted the F8F Bearcat as its primary carrier fighter, later replaced by the F9F Panther jet fighter. But the F4U Corsair was kept as a fighter-bomber. When the Korean War broke out in 1950, the Corsairs saw heavy action. Although the F4U had some early success against Soviet-supplied North Korean Yakovlev fighters (and one Corsair pilot even managed to shoot down a MiG-15 jet), it was used mostly in the ground-attack role. In 1952, the last F4U rolled off the assembly line. It had been in production for ten years. By the end of the war, the Corsair had been replaced by newer jet attack fighters.

The F4U, however, wasn’t finished quite yet. In the late 1950’s, Corsairs were flown by French pilots in Indochina in the war against the Viet Minh guerrillas. After the French withdrew, many of these were sold to air forces in South America. When the “Soccer War” briefly broke out between El Salvador and Honduras in 1969, both sides were equipped with vintage F4U Corsairs.

But the Corsair probably reached the peak of its fame long after the last one had flown in combat. In 1976 the TV series “Baa Baa Black Sheep” (later renamed “Black Sheep Squadron”) premiered on NBC. Starring Robert Conrad, the series was loosely based on the exploits of Corsair ace Gregory “Pappy” Boyington during the 1943 Solomon Islands campaigns, and although it ran for only three seasons, it made both Boyington and the Corsair famous. The series used seven airworthy Corsairs, all privately owned, to film its aerial combat scenes: the Japanese “Zeros” were AT-6 Texan trainers painted to look Japanese, some of which had also been used to film the movie “Tora! Tora! Tora!”.

Today about 80 Corsairs of different models still survive, of which about half are airworthy.

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