The F4U Corsair
The F4U Corsair was one of the great fighters of World War II — one of those classics that captures everyone’s imagination.
But the Corsair was “a difficult airplane to fly” said retired Marine Maj. Walter Attebery in a 2004 interview. “It demanded your constant attention, even when cruising in smooth air at altitude. You needed to master the Corsair, but when you did, it performed superbly.”
“It was tough landing on the carrier,” said retired Marine Col. John J. Geuss in an Oct. 13 interview. “It didn’t fight well at altitude. But at medium heights and down low, the F4U Corsair was a world-beater.”
Delays in making the plane suitable for operation from ships’ decks are the reason so many Corsairs went first to the Marines, who typically operated from land bases in the Pacific war. But despite its teething troubles, the Corsair readily won over Navy pilots as well as leathernecks. From the rumble of its 2,000-horsepower Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp radial engine to the “bend” in its inverted gull wing, the Corsair was special. No other fighter looked like it. No other fighter performed like it.
In World War II, the Corsair is credited with downing 2,140 enemy aircraft with just 189 losses, an 11:1 air combat ratio. Although the F6F Hellcat is credited with a 19:1 ratio, some believe Corsair pilots faced more formidable adversaries under more difficult conditions.
The Corsair went on to serve in Korea, enjoyed the longest production run of any U.S. piston-engined fighter – from 1942 to 1953 – and was the last prop-driven fighter built in the West. The only piston-engined fighter in production at a later date was Yugoslavia’s Ikarus S-49, a design strongly influenced by the Soviet Yakovlev Yak-9.
The XF4U-1 prototype was the first Navy aircraft built around the R-2800, the heavyweight engine that powered the Army Air Corps’ P-47 Thunderbolt. The Vought fighter had a propeller of 13 feet, 4-inches in diameter, wider than the Thunderbolt’s but initially with three blades.
Chief designer Rex Beisel searched for a way to give the big propeller ground clearance without making the landing gear too stalky, since it had to withstand carrier landings. Beisel’s solution: the wing was gulled downward, the inverted gull configuration having the added benefit of reducing drag at the juncture of wing and body. The wings folded for carrier stowage, not to the rear as on the F6F Hellcat but upward as on most shipboard aircraft.
The Corsair was heavier than the Japanese Mitsubishi A6M Zero that became its principal adversary. The Zero was more maneuverable at slow speeds than the Corsair (and virtually every other Allied fighter). The Corsair was more maneuverable at high speeds and had better speed, range, and staying power than the Zero. Visibility remained a problem throughout the Corsair’s life, despite repeated changes in cockpit configuration.
At Stratford, Conn., on May 29, 1940, test pilot Lyman A. Bullard made the maiden flight of the new fighter, which was manufactured in Stratford throughout the war and, during the postwar era, in Dallas.
The silver prototype reached a speed of 405 miles per hour on Oct. 1, 1940 — faster, then, than any fighter in the world. On June 30, 1941, an order was placed for 584 F4U-1s. Plans were established for Goodyear and Brewster to produce versions designated FG-1 and F3A-1. Vought produced several sub-variants of the F4U-1 through -4 during the war and F4U-5 through -7 afterward.
Marine pilot Geuss flew Corsairs in combat in World War II and Korea, beginning on Okinawa with squadron VMF-311 “Hell’s Belles,” commanded by air ace Maj. Michael R. “Red Mike” Yunck. “We had the F4U-1C with four 20 mm cannons,” said Geuss. “The cannons had a very, very slow rate of fire. On the -1C, the wing vibrated up and down when you fired the guns.”
The guns jammed when one pilot in Geuss’s squadron found himself behind a Japanese fighter. The Marine edged up close to his adversary and chewed its tail off with his Corsair’s big propeller.
Geuss said the first Corsairs went to the Marines for land-based operations because the F4U wasn’t ready for carrier decks. “The landing gear was too stiff,” Geuss said. “The oleos wouldn’t bottom out. The airplane would bounce so high the tailhook wouldn’t hold and it would keep bouncing across the deck until it hit the barrier.”
While F4U-1 versions were still coming off the production line, Vought redesigned the main landing gear, tail wheel and tailhook. Early spin and stall problems were resolved solved through the addition of a small, 6-inch stall strip to the leading edge of the outer starboard wing, just inboard of the gun ports. A “blown” (partial bubble) canopy replaced the original “birdcage.” The F4U-2 night fighter and subsequent models lacked problems that plagued early Corsairs.
Coming Aboard the Carrier
“The cannons on my F4U-4B in Korea were much more efficient than on the -1C in World War II,” said Geuss. But even with the F4U-4, the final World War II version, and the postwar F4U-5, shipboard operations never got easier.
“You take off,” said Geuss. “You join up. You circle the carrier. You look down from 2,000 feet and say to yourself, ‘I know I’ve been trained but how in hell am I going to get down on that postage stamp?’
“You come in at about 90 knots, which is about 10 knots above stalling speed, If you turn into the groove with the nose cocked up the only thing you see is the two LSOs [landing signal officers] at the ass-end of the platform, plus about 200,000 square miles of ocean.
“In the Corsair, you can see the LSO but you can’t see the deck. You can’t see the deck at all. Because of its nose, the Corsair made you blind in a way that no other airplane did — not even the F6F Hellcat or F8F Bearcat, because you can see right over the nose of both of them.
“The LSO gives you directions with his paddles — you’re too high, you’re too low. You’re thinking, ‘Where’s the deck at?’ You watch the paddles and make tiny movements with stick and throttle. And then, suddenly, everything comes together and you plunk yourself down aboard the carrier.”
Among myths is that the Corsair was intended as a backup to the Hellcat. It was actually the other way around. The tardiness of the F4U is often exaggerated. The Corsair entered the war at Guadalcanal in February 1943 — early enough for pilots and plane captains to experience some of the most grueling conditions of the war.
The Navy applied the F4U-3 appellation to three high-altitude aircraft planned in March 1943. The project stalled and only one was completed.
Postwar Corsairs included the F4U-5, F4U-5N night fighter, and F4U-5NL winterized variant. After this came the XF4U-6 close support ship (later redesignated AU-1) used solely by the Marine Corps, and the F4U-7 delivered to France. During the Korean War an F4U Corsair shot down a MiG-15 jet fighter, no small accomplishment.
The ultimate Corsair, the Goodyear F2G-1 with a more powerful engine and a true bubble canopy, was a stellar performer at racing events but never saw combat. Sadly, one was in the news recently when an F2G-1 crashed on Sept. 7 in North Dakota, killing well-known warbird pilot Bob Odegaard.
About 30 Corsairs are in airworthy condition around the world today and are always a welcome sight at air shows and open house events.