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Chance Vought F4U Corsair

CHANCE VOUGHT F4U CORSAIR...Illustration by Lance Russwurm © 1998

  The F4U Corsair originated as a US Navy proposal to United Aircraft Corporation (Parent company of Vought-Sikorsky later Chance Vought) in February of 1938 for a single engine fighter for aircraft carrier operations to replace the Brewster F2A Buffalo and Grumman F4F Wildcat. The requirement called for a high speed fighter with (what was then) extraordinary range. In May of 1940, the first prototype [Model V (for Vought)-166] flew and in October of the same year, it became the first single-engine fighter in the US to break the 400 mph mark. The trademark inverted gull wing was a result of the required huge propeller to harness all the horsepower from the engine and the squat, robust landing gear required for carrier operations. The US Navy accepted the “bent wing bird” fighter in February 1941, naming it ‘Corsair’ and production deliveries commenced with the initial flight of the first production model in June of 1942, just three weeks after the Battle of Midway.


   In trials the Corsair was found to have many problems with carrier operations most notably the fact that the pilot could not see anything in front of him over the long nose that housed the huge 2000 hp Pratt and Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp engine. Also, there were problems with the undercarriage causing the aircraft to ‘bounce’ down the carrier deck on landing. Vought’s competitor Grumman had simultaneously developed their replacement for their successful F4F Wildcat into the F6F Hellcat. What it lacked in performance compared to the Corsair, it more than made up in it being at ease on the deck of a carrier. The Navy therefore released the Corsair to the US Marines at the end of 1942 and by February of 1943, USMC Corsairs (which is what the Corsair is best known for) began operating initially from Guadalcanal and later other bases throughout the Solomon Islands. Though the initial combat mission for Marine Corps Corsairs was disastrous, the Marine pilots soon learned the Corsair’s edge over Japanese fighters.


   From 1943 onwards, Corsairs were a staple in every major battle during the Pacific campaign and due to their ruggedness and ability to carry a variety of payloads, they were successfully operated in the fighter-bomber role as ground attack platforms as well dropping over 15 tons of ordinance.


   By April 1944, sufficient changes had been made to the aircraft’s design to make it suitable for carrier operations and the US Navy began operating the Corsair from carrier decks in both USN and USMC livery until war’s end.
In November of 1943, the Royal Navy accepted the first of their Corsairs. After ineffectively attempting to adopt their successful Hawker Hurricane and Supermarine Spitfires to carrier operations, they welcomed the long range and robustness of the Corsair. It was actually the Royal Navy who worked out many of the Corsair’s carrier deck landing problems. The Royal Navy employed the Corsair from carrier decks in both the European and Pacific Theatres and it was Corsairs that flew top cover from HMS Victorious and HMS Formidable during Operation TUNGSTEN which was a series of attacks on the German battleship Tirpitz.


   In the Pacific, it was from the deck of HMS Formidable in the closing days of the Pacific war that RCNVR pilot Lieutenant Robert Hampton Gray earned the last Victoria Cross awarded in World War II. On August 9, 1945, while carrying out a dive-bombing attack on the Japanese destroyer Amakusu, Lt Robert Hampton Gray’s aircraft was hit by anti-aircraft fire and burst into flames dropping into Onagawa Bay near Tokyo, but not before one of his bombs struck, sinking the destroyer. For valour demonstrated in pressing his attack, he was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. Ironically, six days following this action, the Japanese surrendered unconditionally. A memorial to Robert Hampton Gray exists at Onagawa Wan (Bay), just a short distance from where his plane crashed. This is the only memorial dedicated to a foreign soldier on Japanese soil.


   The RNZAF also equipped 13 Squadrons with 424 Corsairs from 1944 onward.

   In the years following WWII, the Corsair continued to see limited service and when the Korean conflict erupted, it was employed once again in the ground attack role in support of United Nations forces. On September 10, 1952 Captain Jesse G Folmar even managed to shoot down a MiG 15 jet fighter with his four 20 mm cannon while flying a Corsair!
The French Navy also employed Corsairs in the post war years keeping the last one in service up until 1964. The Argentine Navy employed their Corsairs off their carrier ARA Independencia until 1968. Finally, both Honduras and El Salvador employed Corsairs during the `Football`War in 1969 and the aerial dogfights that took place would be the last between propeller driven aircraft.

   In all, just over 12,500 Corsairs were built in 16 different variants incorporating over 900 engineering changes over the life of production. Aside from Vought, Corsairs were also license-built by Goodyear Aircraft Company (FG designation) and Brewster Aeronautical Corporation (F-3 designation).

   Nicknamed “Sweetheart of Okinawa” by their Marines on the ground and “Whistling Death” by the Japanese counterpart of the Maries, US Navy and Marine Corsairs flew over 64,000 operational sorties claiming 2140 combat victories to 189 losses for a kill ration of 11:1.

   Standard WWII armament consisted of 2 Browning .50 calibre guns mounted in the nose with two more in each wing. After the initial production F4U-1 model, all 6 guns moved to the wings. In the late stages of the war and in post war Corsair models, most sported two 20 mm cannons in each wing. As well, later F4U-4 (FG-1D) models were capable of carrying two 1,000 lb bombs or eight 5 inch rockets.

Article by Patrick D. Devenish    © 2015 by the author

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