The F4U Corsair

From failure to greatness

Vought F4U Corsair
(Photo: U.S. Navy)

The Vought F4U Corsair was one of the best U.S. warplanes of World War II. It’s also the embodiment of an ages-old story: that of the protagonist overcoming a weakness to achieve success. Originally designed as a carrier-based fighter, the Corsair was long-prevented from serving in that role due to several design flaws; persistence, however, allowed it to become an excellent fighter and fighter-bomber in another context, and the ninth most highly produced fighter of the war with 12,571 Corsairs built (some after the war, admittedly).

A Marine Corsair in flight
(Photo: U.S. Marine Corps)

The Corsair’s life began in February 1938, when the Chance Vought corporation submitted a design for a single-engine naval plane to the U.S. Navy Bureau of Aeronautics. It was the first plane to be designed specifically for the powerful, still-experimental Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp engine, and it was a sleek, fast, thoroughly modern plane. An unusually large three-bladed propeller with a diameter of 13 feet 4 inches (4.06 m) was mounted on the plane’s nose to take advantage of the engine’s 2,000 horsepower performance. (Four-bladed propellers were introduced with the F4U-U4, the last model built during the war.) The aluminum fuselage panels were spot welded in place, avoiding the use of rivets and improving aerodynamic qualities thanks to a smoother skin. (At the same time, it was the last American plane to use a fabric skin for some of its parts.) The first version of the plane became the first single-engine American fighter to exceed the average ground speed of 400 mph (652 km/h), and later models could achieve a maximum speed of 446 mph (717 km/h).

Corsairs on deck, with their pilots sleeping under the wings
(Photo: U.S. Navy)

The plane’s most distinctive visual feature, the inverted gull wing, was the necessary result of a design compromise. The large propeller blades meant that the plane’s nose had to be high up, otherwise the blades would have hit the ground. A high nose, however, would have necessitated long landing gear struts, which would have been structurally weak and unstable (the famous German Messerschmitt had long struts and suffered for it through numerous take-off accidents). (Read our earlier article) The inverted gull wing gave the nose sufficient ground clearance while the landing gears, located near the lowest point of the wings, could be mounted on short struts.

A Corsair in Marine service on Bouganville, Solomon Islands, 1944. Note how the landing gears are close to the lowest point of the wing.
(Photo: U.S. Navy)
The Corsair’s original intended armament was four .50 caliber M2 Browning machine guns. (Read our earlier article) Reports of the war in Europe, however, revealed that four such guns would not have enough firepower, so another two were added for a total of six, with three guns in each wing. Some later models were armed with four 20 mm cannons instead – these versions had greater firepower, but proved unpopular due to jamming and freezing problems, which took a long time to solve.
An F4U-1C with 20 mm cannons, recognizable by the barrels
(Photo: U.S. Navy)

In some ways, it was the very power of the Corsair that caused its greatest problems, as the engine’s massive torque made it hard to land on the short runways of aircraft carriers. If a pilot slowed down on final approach and then suddenly sped up (say, during an aborted landing), the torque from the sudden acceleration could make the left wing dip down so hard that the entire plane flipped over. Additionally, the cockpit was placed far back, behind the wings and a very long nose, which greatly limited the pilot’s visibility during landing. (Also, the cockpit was so far behind the wings that pilots found it difficult to climb in.)

A Corsair in a carrier landing mishap
(Photo: U.S. Navy)

Another problem was that the hydraulic engine cowl flaps often splattered the windscreen with oil, making landings even harder. While the Corsair was rather heavy (carrier planes tended to be, since more weight allowed them to sink faster and not overshoot the deck), it still had the tendency to “float” for a while before coming down; and when it did, the landing gear struts often made it bounce, which was definitely an unwanted quality for a carrier-based plane. These drawbacks made the plane unpopular with less experienced pilots and earned it unflattering nicknames such as “hose nose” (for its long nose), “bent-wing widow maker” and “ensign eliminator.” These problems were eventually fixed, largely thanks to input from the British, but the plane was only deployed on U.S. carriers in late 1944. The Navy found the Corsair hard to work with, and decided to go with the Grumman F6F Hellcat, which had worse combat performance, but was much easier to land on a deck.

An upside-down Corsair in the moments of a carrier landing accident
(Photo: U.S. Navy)

The Corsair was promptly handed down to the U.S Marine Corps, and the ugly duckling became a beautiful swan. Marine aviators usually flew from ground bases in the Pacific, where the long runways mooted the Corsair’s deck landing problems, and the plane quickly proved itself an excellent combatant. It was the first American plane that enjoyed a clear advantage over the Mitsubishi A6M Zero – the Zero was more maneuverable and had a better climb rate and low speeds, but the Corsair was just plain better at higher velocities, and Marine pilots eventually developed tactics to bring superior speed to bear.

Marine Corsairs on Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides
(Photo: U.S. Marine Corps)
Perhaps the most famous Corsair unit was VMF-214, the “Black Sheep” squadron led by Medal of Honor-recipient Major “Pappy” Boyington. Comprised of “orphan” pilots who were not attached to squadrons when they got together, and having few reliable planes and no mechanics, the outfit originally wanted to call themselves “Boyington’s Bastards,” a name overruled by a public information officer on the ground that it would never be printed in the newspapers.
“Pappy” Boyington getting in his Corsair (and also demonstrating how hard it was to climb into the cockpit)
(Photo: U.S. Marine Corps)
Marine Corsairs often had their tail hooks and associated gear removed to save weight, and also received planes without the hydraulic wing folding mechanism that was originally intended for carrier use. (The wings could still be folded up, but only manually.) Since the Marine Corps often used the plan in a close support role, newer models came with the ability to carry up to 4,000 lbs (1814 kg) of bombs (a significant feat for a fighter/bomber) or several rockets. The man to prove that the Corsair could take off with such a heavy load was none other than famed aviator Charles Lindbergh, who flew with the Marines as a civilian advisor (but nevertheless went on combat missions).
A later Corsair version with an impressive bomb load
(Photo: U.S. Marine Corps)
Another major Corsair user was the Royal Navy of Great Britain. British naval aviation doctrine between the world wars called for large, heavy, cumbersome planes with at least two crewmen, since flight over the open ocean required a dedicated navigator, and the planes were not expected to get into any serious dogfights. This design direction turned out to be a grave misstep, and Britain was scrambling to get any kind of agile, dogfight-capable naval plane into service. The Sea Hurricane and the Seafire, the navalized versions of the Hurricane and the Spitfire (Read our earlier article) were available, but these were interceptors and lacked the range to operate farther away from the carrier group. The Corsairs were a godsend despite their serious deck landing problems, and the Fleet Air Arm was happy to get their hands on the robust and versatile planes.
Corsairs in Royal Navy service (though still in the U.S. when the photo was taken)
(Photo: U.S. Navy)
The Corsair did, however, reveal a new problem in British service: its wings were too long, and when folded up, the wingtips hit the deckhead on some British carrier classes. The wings had to be clipped 8 inches to fit inside, and this also had the welcome side effect of diminishing the unwelcome “floating” during landing.
 
The British also figured out solutions to some of the plane’s other problems. A bulge-shaped canopy and an elevated pilot’s seat improved forward visibility, and the top cowl flaps were wired shut to keep oil from splattering over the windshield. Corsairs also took a lesson from the Supermarine Seafire, the naval version of the Spitfire, and adopted a curved landing approach pattern which allowed the pilot to keep the deck in sight as long as possible. All of these changes were shared with the U.S. Navy and contributed to the Corsair’s eventual acceptance for American carrier duty late in the war.
A Corsair landing aboard the British carrier HMS Illustrious
(Photo: Imperial War Museums)
The Royal New Zealand Air Force was another early adopter. Flying outdated planes, they were happy to get some of the Corsairs the U.S. Navy was not going to use on its carriers anyway, and which were shipped to the Pacific and assembled from parts on the New Hebrides (Vanuatu today). Interestingly, the New Zealand Corsairs had a less uniform paintjob than American, British or Canadian ones. New Zealand squadrons only comprised pilots and a small staff, but no maintenance personnel. Maintenance (including painting) was performed by separate Service Units, each of which used its own markings, leading to a greater variety.
A Corsair firing rockets at a Japanese stronghold on Okinawa
(Photo: National Archives and Records Administration)
The usefulness of the Corsair was proven by the number of varieties that were developed during and after the war. Beside gradual improvements and the introduction of a cannon-armed variant, other versions were also developed: night fighters, night bombers, photo-reconnaissance craft, radio-controlled drones, and versions equipped with radar. The Marines had a version developed specifically for ground attacks, with a heavier bomb load, more armor and other changes to decrease vulnerability to fire from the ground.
A night fighter Corsair used in Korea, equipped with air intercept radar and missiles
(Photo: U.S. Marine Corps)

The Goodyear company built a prototype and 10 more copies of a “Super Corsair,” officially the Goodyear F2G Corsair, whose 3,000 horsepower engines were 50% stronger than the original. These were initially intended to intercept Japanese kamikaze planes, but various deficiencies (and the end of the war) meant they never saw combat service, though some were used for aerial racing.

A racing Super Corsair
(Photo: Bzuk / Wikipedia)
The Corsair’s quality is attested by the fact that it kept on serving after World War II. It was used as a ground attack aircraft in the Korean War, often making nighttime attacks against enemy supply route, trucks and train, or shooting down enemy planes trying to do the same. While clearly outmatched by the MiG-15 jet fighter, one Marine aviator actually managed to down a foolhardy MiG that got into a slow-speed turning fight (though the pilot himself was shot down by other MiG’s a few minutes later).
 
The Corsair also served with the French Navy after the war, fighting in the First Indochina War, the Suez Crisis, and several other conflicts. It last saw combat in the bizarre “Football War” between Honduras and El Salvador in 1969. The short conflict, which was caused by long tensions but triggered by hooligan violence after a soccer World Cup qualifier match, saw a Honduran pilot flying a Corsair shoot down three Salvadoran planes in a single day, two of them also Corsairs.
The Corsair in which Honduran pilot Captain Fernando Soto scored the last three Corsair kills ever
(Photo: Bernardo Moncada / Wikipedia)

Veterans Day Promotion

$500 discount on all tours

WWII veterans celebrated in Normandy
(Photo: Author’s own)
On the occasion of the upcoming Veterans Day, we are offering all our available tours with a discount of $500 if you book and pay in full until November 11, 2023. Note that this offer applies only in case of new bookings, and it cannot be combined with other special promotions. If you have any questions related to this promotion or our tours, please contact our travel consultants at info@beachesofnormandy.com 
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