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Vought F6U Pirate

An early Navy test of jet power for fighters

The F6U Pirate fighter arrived at a critical juncture in naval aviation history, the time when propeller-driven warplanes were beginning to be replaced by jets. The result of development work that began during World War II, the Pirate was the Navy’s first fighter with an afterburner and its first to use partial composite material in its construction. It was more functional in appearance than beautiful, and it was sorely underpowered, but it contributed to scientific and technological advances.

The builder of the F6U was a planemaker with a fabled name – the Chance Vought Aircraft Co.


A Vought F6U-1 Pirate on the ground, shown late in the aircraft’s brief career. Vought photo

The company’s founder Chauncey (Chance) Milton Vought died suddenly in 1930 at age 40, but Vought’s firm prospered during the war, turning out thousands of F4U Corsair propeller-driven fighters at its Stratford, Connecticut factory.

The company had talented engineers, led by chief designer Rex M. Biesel, but they did not easily make the transition from propellers to jets. Biesel’s F6U Pirate, the planemaker’s first jet, was a departure from reciprocating-engine fighters of the period. It had tricycle landing gear and a 32-foot 10-inch straight wing that was considered short enough not to require folding for stowage on aircraft carriers.

In December 1944, while the war in the Pacific was raging and U.S. leaders were planning an invasion of Japan, the Navy issued contracts to several planemakers for the service’s first jet-powered fighters. The F6U Pirate was to be one of many Navy jets with straight wings: The sea service was late in emulating the Air Force in exploiting swept wing technology.

The war had ended by the time the first XF6U-1 Pirate was trucked from Stratford to what was then considered to be a remote and supersecret airbase at Muroc Dry Lake, California. The plane’s first flight on Oct. 2, 1946 by test pilot Boone Guyton was a fiasco: the Westinghouse J34-WE-30A engine seized and Guyton had to make a dead-stick landing. The need to repair the plane’s lubrication system, coupled with uncharacteristic flooding at Muroc, delayed flight-testing for months.

Vought built three XF6U-1s. One was used for static tests and never flew. After Navy air ace Paul Thayer joined the program at Muroc, two Pirates were flight-tested. In 1948, the first XF6U-1 was modified to become the first Navy aircraft with an afterburner, a device that re-heats jet exhaust to add extra thrust. Today, nearly all warplanes have afterburners.

Also in 1948, the two airworthy XF6U-1s went to Patuxent River, Maryland, to be evaluated by Navy pilots. By then, however, it was clear that the Pirate was not a stellar performer. Nevertheless, the Navy placed an order for 30 production F6U-1 Pirates, each armed with four 20 mm cannon. One of these became the sole F6U-1P reconnaissance version, equipped with cameras for combat photography missions.



In what company officials called the largest move ever made by American industry, Vought relocated from Stratford to Grand Prairie, Texas, in the Dallas area over a 14-month period in 1948 and 1949. According to company literature, the move involved 1,300 people and 27 million tons of equipment.

By the end of the move, Vought’s design team under Biesel was completing work on its second jet-powered aircraft, the F7U Cutlass. The move occurred in the middle of the production runs of the F6U Pirate and F4U Corsair.

This is a Vought company diagram of the jet-powered F6U-1 Pirate, as well as a vivid reminder of how much technology has changed over the years.

The Corsair remained in production until 1953, an important participant in the Korean War and the last propeller-driven fighter manufactured in the United States. The Cutlass achieved limited success as an operational Navy fighter in the 1950s but never saw combat. After arriving in Texas, Vought began design work on one of the great Navy fighters, the F8U Crusader (called the F-8 after 1962).

As for the F6U Pirate, the plane was simply obsolete before it rolled out of the factory doors. Vought completed production of 30 F6Us, but the Navy never formed a squadron of the planes. Muroc, named in reverse for the Corum brothers who settled the region, later became Edwards Air Force Base. Test pilot Thayer went on to become chief executive of Vought and its successor company, LTV.


Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...