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From Bent-winged Bird to Whistling Death

Vought's F4U Corsair in WWII

by Randy Wilson

Copyright 1996 by the Confederate Air Force and Randy Wilson. All rights reserved.

Originally published in The Dispatch magazine, Volume 21, Number 3, Fall, 1996 edition. If you are interested in subscribing to The Dispatch please write to The Commemorative Air Force, ATTN: Dispatch Editor, PO Box 62000, Midland, TX 79711-2000 or call (432) 563-1000. Reproduced with permission.

No single-engined American fighter was as instantly recognizable as the Vought F4U Corsair, with its inverted gull wings and seemingly too-long nose. In the hands of U.S Marine Corps and Navy pilots in the last half of the Second World War, the Corsair was known affectionately by Allied ground forces in the Pacific as the "Bent-winged Bird" and the "Sweetheart of Okinawa." However, Japanese troops, who heard the piercing whistle of high-speed air flowing through the wing-mounted air intakes just before a Corsair dive-bombed or strafed them, had another name for it — "Whistling Death."

The company, founded by Chauncey (later changed to Chance) M. Vought in June 1917, was to become one of the oldest aircraft manufacturing companies in the United States. Its first aircraft was completed in 1918. In the 1920s and 30s, Vought produced a number of scouting and bombing designs for the U.S. Navy, including the first to bear the name Corsair, the O2U two-seat biplane, designed in 1926. In 1929, economic depression caused several aviation companies to join forces, including Boeing (which left the group in 1934), Hamilton Standard, Pratt & Whitney, Sikorsky and Vought. Chance Vought moved his plant next to Pratt & Whitney’s in Hartford, Conn., and started an association with the engine maker that led to the development of the new Corsair. Unfortunately, Chance Vought died suddenly in 1930, at the age of 40.

In 1936, the Vought engineers and workers produced their first monoplane, the SB2U Vindicator bomber, which was purchased by the U.S. Navy, France and Great Britain. In 1939, Vought production was merged with Sikorsky’s at the latter’s factory in Stratford, Conn. It was there that the new Corsair was born.

In February 1938, the U.S. Navy published a requirement for a new shipboard fighter with exceptional speed and service ceiling. The Vought design team, led by Rex Beisel, proposed two similar designs, the V-166A, powered by a 14-cylinder Pratt & Whitney R-1830, and the V-166B, powered by the new and much larger 18-cylinder Pratt & Whitney R-2800. The later engine was expected to offer 2,000 horsepower early in its development, and thus was the obvious choice for the new fighter. On June 11, 1938, the Navy ordered a prototype based on the V-166B, designated XF4U-1.

The decision to use the massive R-2800 engine also required a larger propeller to absorb the power, and the Vought team turned to an inverted gull wing for two reasons. First, the landing gear could be mounted at the low point or "knuckle" of the wing, thus reducing the length of the landing gear struts, while still providing ground clearance for the big propeller. Second, the wing joined the circular fuselage at nearly a right angle, reducing drag and eliminating the need for bulky fairings. Although the inverted gull wing had been used before, most notably on Germany’s Junkers Ju-87 "Stuka" dive bomber, the F4U Corsair was the first production fighter to use this feature.

On May 29, 1940, Vought’s chief test pilot, Lyman Bullard Jr. made the first flight in the XF4U-1. Halfway into the flight, Bullard reported a violent vibration in the tail and found it took all his strength to control the aircraft. After a safe landing, it was found that both elevator spring balance tabs had started to flutter and had torn away. The XF4U-1 was repaired and some of its tests were flown by Boone Guyton, Vought’s junior test pilot. Guyton had some interesting, if not hair-raising, experiences during spin tests of the new design, as related in his book Whistling Death, published in 1990.

On a test flight July 11, 1940, caught in bad weather and low on fuel, Guyton made a forced landing in the XF4U-1 on a golf course in Norwich, Conn. The Corsair ran off the fairway, flipping over into a wooded ravine. It took more than three months to repair the damage, but on Oct. 1, with Bullard at the controls, the XF4U-1 reached a level speed of over 404 mph, the first single-engine U.S. fighter to ever exceed the magic 400 mph in level flight. This performance and further tests with the prototype led to an order by the U.S. Navy for 585 production Corsairs, designated F4U-ls on June 30, 1941.

The production Corsairs incorporated significant changes from the prototype suggested by aerial combat in Europe. First was the need for heavier armament, and six .50 caliber machine guns were mounted in the wings. The wing fuel tanks of the prototype had to be removed to provide space for the guns and their ammunition, and a 237 gallon fuel tank was mounted near the aircraft’s center of gravity in the fuselage. This required that the cockpit be moved three feet further aft, which left the pilot with over 12 feet of nose, blocking his forward visibility on the ground and during landing. Other changes included 150 pounds of armor for the pilot and oil tank and clear panels behind the canopy to improve rearward vision.

Powered by a 2,000 horsepower R-2800-8, the first production F4U-1 flew on June 25,1942, and the U.S. Navy’s Fighter Squadron 12 (VF-12) began to equip with the new Corsair in early October. The month before, the seventh F4U-1 off the production line underwent carrier trial aboard the USS Sangamon, piloted by Lt. Cmdr. Sam Porter. Poor forward visibility, a pronounced left wing drop on final approach and a tendency to bounce badly on touchdown caused Porter to quit after only four takeoffs and landings.

The U.S. Marine Corps had been scheduled to receive Corsairs after the Navy carrier squadrons, but with the failure of the carrier tests, priority switched to equipping Marine fighter squadrons (VMFs). In December 1941, orders for a land-based version of the Corsair, designated FG-1 had been placed with Goodyear. The FG-1 lacked the folding wings, arresting hook and other equipment required for carrier operations, but the Goodyear Corsair did not make its first flight until February 1943. Thus the Marines of VMF124 were equipped with F4U-1s and first took the design into combat at Guadalcanal on Feb.14, 1943.

Corsairs were also ordered from Brewster, who had produced the U.S. Navy’s first production monoplane fighter the F2A Buffalo. Designated the F3A-1, production of the Brewster Corsair was plagued by management problems and other problems, and on July 1, 1944, after only 735 F3As had been completed, the Navy cancelled the contract.

Reports of poor visibility from the Corsair’s cockpit caused a new canopy to be fitted from the 689th airframe on, with a new designation, F4U-1A. Soon after, water injection was added to the engine, boosting emergency power by over 10 percent for a short time. Equipped with the new version, including pneumatic tail wheel tires, the Navy’s VF-12 became deck-qualified aboard the USS Core in March 1943, but the Navy still felt the Corsair was unsuitable for general carrier use. Therefore, VF-12 gave its Corsairs to the Marines and re-equipped with Grumman F6F-3 Hellcats. Thus VF-17 became the first Navy Corsair squadron to see combat, attached to the USS Bunker Hill, but flying from land bases in New Georgia.

The Corsairs of VF-17 were credited with 154 Japanese aircraft destroyed in the 79 days the squadron flew the F4Us, and 12 of the squadron’s pilots became aces. Adm. Chester Nimitz sent a wire to the management of Vought in May 1943 which included the statement: "The battles which are being waged daily in the South Pacific have already proved beyond doubt that the Corsair is a better plane than any version of the Japanese Zero." In November 1943, while on extended combat patrol, the Corsairs of VF-17 ran low on fuel, and all landed safely on board the carriers Essex and Bunker Hill after shooting down 18 enemy torpedo bombers.

Development of a cannon-arrned Corsair resulted in 200 F4U-1Cs being produced from August 1943. The four 20mm M-2 cannons were mounted in the wings and proved effective late in the war for ground attacks flown by Marine Air Group 31. But the next major production version was to be Vought’s F4U-1D and Goodyear’s similar FG-1D, with the water-injected R-2800-8W engine, underwing pylons for two 1,000-pound bombs or two 160-gallon drop tanks, and attachment points for up to eight 5-inch air-to-ground rockets, making the Corsair into a potent fighter-bomber.

Equipped with the new versions, Marine Corsair units in the Pacific quickly demonstrated their firepower in close-air support of the infantry units. By September 1944, missions were being flown with two 1,000-pound and one 2,000-pound bomb, doubling the designed bomb load. Marine units such as VMF-214, led by Col. "Pappy" Boyington demonstrated the Corsair’s ability in the air superiority role, intercepting and hunting down most Japanese aircraft which ventured anywhere near Allied forces.

Across the Atlantic, the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm (RNFAA) had been operating Corsairs obtained via Lend Lease since November 1943, having to clip eight inches off of each wing to fit them into the smaller British carrier hangar decks with wings folded. The only major combat engagement by Corsairs in Europe came on April 3, 1944, when RNFAA Corsairs from HMS Victorious escorted bombers which attacked the German battleship Tirpitz in Norwegian waters. Two shortcomings still prevented the Corsair from being accepted for carrier use by the U.S. Navy: poor forward visibility and the tendency to bounce on landing. Vought set out to solve the bounce problem with what was called "Program Dog" in early 1944. The result was a redesigned oleo strut with long stroke but very low rebound. In April 1944 VF-301’s modified Corsairs made 113 successful carrier landings, and all existing F4U-1s had their oleo struts modified and were finally cleared for shipboard service by the U.S. Navy. By the end of the Okinawa campaign in June 1945, most U.S. carrier squadrons had re-equipped with Corsairs.

The last Corsair variant to see action in World War II was the F4U-4, powered by a 2,450 horsepower R-2800-18W. The new engine required the carburetor air intakes to be repositioned beneath the engine cowl, making identification of the new model fairly easy. Over 1,900 F4U-4s were built before the end of the war, but only a small number saw combat after May 1945. However, this model was to see action in Korea and other postwar conflicts.

The ultimate development of the Corsair during the war was caused by the threat of the Japanese kamikaze suicide attacks. Beginning in March 1944, Goodyear began constructing a variant of the FG-1, powered by the 28-cylinder, four row Pratt & Whitney R-4360-4, rated at 3,000 horsepower. The Navy ordered 412 land-based F2G-ls and 10 folding-wing F2G-2s for carrier operations. But initial test flights showed the F2G to have poor lateral control and a lower top speed than planned. Only five were completed of each version.

That the Corsair was one of the greatest American fighters of World War II is obvious from its record. In 64,051 missions, 9,581 carrier-based, the Corsair was credited with 2,140 aerial victories for a loss of only 189 planes, giving it a kill-to-loss ratio of 11.3:1. Production of F4U-4s and later Corsair variants continued at Vought until December 1952, with more than 7,800 of all types being produced. Corsairs served with distinction in the Korean campaign and remained in front line service with various countries into the 1960s, outliving all other propeller-driven fighters, land or carrier based, built in the United States.

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