It was called the “Ensign Eliminator” for a reason.
The Corsair was originally designed and manufactured by the American air craft company Vought with the goal of achieving “maximum speed with minimal air resistance” in mind. The aircraft’s development began in early 1938, with its first prototype appearing in mid-1940, and had performed remarkably well during its maiden flight.
The massive 13-foot propeller (known then as the “XFU-1”) broke the speed record for a single-engined, single-seat shipborne fighter at the time, exceeding 400 miles per hour in level flight—and this didn’t go unnoticed by the Navy. Impressed, the service branch shortly ordered the aircraft’s mass production, and by the end of its run in 1952, Vought had manufactured nearly 13,000 units. The Corsair had the longest production run of any WWII era aircraft.
The aircraft, renamed FAU-1 by the US Navy, played a critical role during the intense fighting in the Pacific Theater, and its introduction into service in late 1942 coincided with the Allied forces’ advance to victory.
However, the inherent landing hazards of a high-performance Corsair onto a moving carrier deck were soon revealed, prompting the Navy to push back the warplane’s shipboard use. The problems with the landing the Corsair on a carrier became apparent right away. Because it was a fast aircraft it also had a stalling speed of just over 90 mph, while the F4f Wildcat it was slated to replace stalled at 72 mph. The Corsair also had a tendency to stall on the left wing first, resulting in a deadly snap roll. The location of the fuel tank in front of the pilot results in a cockpit situated well to the rear on the fuselage. The result was limited pilot visibility on the approach for landing. Limited as in all but non-existant. An experienced pilot would have no problems landing at an airfield but it was a challenge to get the Corsair safely aboard a carrier for two reasons.
First, the standard approach for navy aircraft landing on a carrier was a long run in on the stern of the carrier. The plane would approach over the deck waiting for the order to cut his engine by the Landing Signal Officer who was holding a pair of white paddles and positioned on the left side of the deck so the pilot could see his directions. When he cut his engine the plane would settle to the deck and catch one of the arresting wires stretched across the flight deck. With the Corsair, you had to be lined up perfect so when you did cut the power it would hit the deck before it stalled and tried to roll over on its back and kill you.
The other problem was that the landing gear was too stiff and the Corsair had a tendency to bounce off the deck and then bury its nose in the flight deck.
With an experienced pilot at the controls, all this was manageable, but at the beginning of the war, the navy was very short of experienced pilots. The aviators coming out of the flight school pipeline might have 40-80 hours of total flight time in much smaller and slower aircraft. These low-hour pilots started crashing Corsairs and killing themselves at an alarming rate.
The Corsair was so fast that the navy couldn’t give it up, and so for perhaps the first time in history, the US Marine Corps was given something brand spanking new. The Marines would get the hottest navy fighter in the skies while the navy continued to make due with F4F Wildcats and awaited the arrival of the new F6F Hellcat Grumman was promising to them. The Hellcat would prove itself to be a nearly perfect carrier fighter, it was fast, maneuverable, had excellent visibility, and a low stall speed. The Hellcat would end up shooting down 5,233 enemy aircraft in the hands of US and British pilots giving it the best record of all allied fighters in WWII.
The British were also desperate for carrier fighters too and bought several hundred Corsairs from the US navy to fly off their own carriers. We warned them about the problems, but the Brits wanted them anyway. It should be remembered that the Royal Navy was the largest in the world and they had more experience with flying off of aircraft carriers than any other navy in the world.
In dire need of a fighting squadron, the Corsair was inducted and became part of the Marine Fighting Squadron 214 (VMF-214) in the summer of 1943 and went head-to-head against the then-undefeated Mitsubishi A6M “Zero” fighters in the Solomon Islands. This is where the FAU will earn its mark as one of the best all-round performing fighters of World War II, able to excel not only in aerial combat but also in the ground attack roll giving close air support to Marines.
Not too Hard for the Marines to Fly
The Marines loved the Corsair for its speed, range, and toughness. It was well-armored and could take a lot of damage. They stripped the carrier landing specific gear off the plane like the tail hook and removed the power mechanisms to fold the wings. Trimming 50 pounds of weight off the aircraft may not seem like a lot, but those weight savings meant increased range.
In a 2004 interview, a retired Marine aviator recalled the intricacy of the Corsair and how its pilots need to be at their best game when flying the aircraft, saying: “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.”
Another retired Marine pilot also described the challenges faced when landing the Corsair on a carrier, explaining that “[i]t didn’t fight well at altitude. But at medium heights and down low, the F4U Corsair was a world-beater.”
Despite its complexity, however, hundreds of highly skilled aviators had taken on the challenge of taming the Killer Corsair, including US Marines’ self-proclaimed “Black Sheep” of VMF-214 Major Gregory Boyington, who managed to strike down 28 kills.
“The Corsairs flown by VMF-214 were seldom flown by the same pilot every day. In fact, [Boyington] would always fly the plane in the poorest condition on every mission, just so a pilot under his command wouldn’t have to do so,” via The National WWII Museum.
Corsair pilots eventually had a kill ratio of 11:1 against their Japanese counterparts, which meant that for every FAU lost, it took down at least eleven enemy aircraft with it. By the end’s war in 1945, the venerable yet difficult-to-fly American warplane shot down around 2,140 enemy fighters. It also flourished after the Second World War and into the Korean War, serving as a close-air support and surveillance mission. It eventually rose to prominence as a dreadful aircraft, accounting for roughly 80 percent of all US Marine and Navy ground strike missions during 1950 alone.
The Royal Navy Debugged the Corsair
As expected the Royal Navy experienced its share of crashes landing the Corsair on its own carriers, but their long experience with carrier aviation allowed them to come up with the fixes the aircraft needed to operate safely from carriers. First, they solved the visibility problem by having the Corsair approach the carrier from the 8 O’clock position and make a sweeping left turn in for the final approach. This allowed the pilot to see the flight deck for most of the approach. The also fitted the Corsair with a higher bubble canopy which allowed the pilot to raise his seat almost 8 inches higher to see over the nose and wings a bit better.
They also added a stall strip to the right wing of the Corsair to even out its stalling characteristics, now both wings would stall together rather than just one. Because of the tight deck space on smaller British carriers, they clipped 8 inches off each wing on the Corsair. This accidentally improved Corsair’s sink rate when the power was cut to improve her chances of catching an arresting wire on landing.
Finally, they changed out a valve in the landing gear strut to make it less stiff on landing. That may seem like a lot, but it really isn’t.
The Navy Needed the Corsair late in the War.
Continuous improvements to the Corsair’s engine resulted in the Corsair having the best climb rate of any naval fighter and ended up becoming very valuable as the Kamikazes began to attack the US navy. The Hellcat simply couldn’t make it to altitude as fast as the Corsair. With its landing problems on carriers fixed, the navy assigned Marine squadrons flying the Corsairs off land to the fast carriers as Kamikaze killers, able to climb to their altitude and use their superior speed and firepower to intercept them before they could reach the fleet.
The Heart of Corsair
The earliest version of the F4U featured a 2,000 hp (1,500 kW) 18-cylinder Pratt & Whitney (P&W) R-2800 Double Wasp radial as the aircraft’s heart, the largest engine available at the time, as well as the huge Hamilton Standard Hydromatic three-blade propeller of 13 feet 4 inches (4.06 m) to ensure that it generated as much power as possible per USN requirements. The bent wings of the Corsair were not some aerodynamic trick to improve performance. The landing gear was in the wings, and they could either make the landing gear struts longer by several feet so the prop would clear the ground or get the wings lower to the ground. So they bent the wings as the easiest solution to the problem,
Rising to prominence for its speed, ruggedness, and firepower, the production and improvement of the F4U line continued throughout the years, beginning with the release of F4U-1 (known by the Fleet Air Arm as “Corsair Mk I”), which has a distinctive “birdcage” canopy; followed by F4U-1A (“Corsair Mk II”) and 700 Brewster-built F3A-1 (“Corsair Mk III”).
Variants F4U-1C and F4U-1D featured 4x20mm cannon armament and 2×1,000 lb bombs or 8×5 in rockets, respectively, effectively becoming fighter bombers. The latter is also equipped with a more powerful P&W R-2800-8W water-injected engine. A few more variants followed (including a Night Fighter version), with the F4U-4 fitted with a more powerful P&W R-2800-18W (up to 2,450 hp) appearing in late 1944, becoming the last Corsair variant to serve during WWII.
The F4U-4 measured about 33.6 ft in length, 41 ft in width, and 14.8 in height, with a maximum load of 4,000 lbs of bombs or eight 5-in rockets. It had a top speed of around 453 mph within a 900 mi range.
Apart from the United States, Corsair also notably served France, the Royal Navy, and the Royal New Zealand Air Force, as well as the navies of Argentina and El Salvador and the Honduran Air Force.