Chance Vought ‘Corsair’ – Marine Corps Icon
Hailed in World War II as the “Bentwinged Bird” by Marine ground forces and feared as “Whistling Death” by the Japanese; the Corsair is uncontested as the finest World War II shipboard fighter. It is also acclaimed by many as the war’s best single seat piston engine fighter of any nation.
In his book, ‘Whistling Death,’ Boone Guyton, famed chief Corsair test pilot who crashed with the first test airplane spoke of, “…the struggle to prove this bent winged bird-its power and speed, its structural integrity…even from its first few minutes of flight tried to tell us: It won’t be easy.”
For the Marines who ‘proved’ the Corsair in Pacific Ocean combat, there were no easy days.
"Good read. Touched on several areas i had wondered aboutfor quite some time." 4 stars by Patrick
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Hailed in World War II as the “Bentwinged Bird” by Marine ground forces and feared as “Whistling Death” by the Japanese; the Corsair is uncontested as the finest World War II shipboard fighter.
It is also acclaimed by many as the war’s best single seat piston engine fighter of any nation. Without question, visitors to the Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum in San Diego, California typically regard the Chance Vought F4U Corsair as synonymous with Marine Corps aviation.
During World War II the Corsair scored an 11 to 1 victory ratio over its opponents; the best air to air victory ratio of all United States aircraft.
Simply The Best
In the 20 Marine Corsair squadrons, 88 Marines made Ace.
When the last Corsair was delivered in December 1952 for a total production run of 12 years, 12,571 Corsairs had been produced of which 214 were the F4U-5N version like the one on display in San Diego, California. The Corsair was in production longer than any other American propeller driven fighter; the last 94 being built for the French Navy.
Some knowledge of aviation development prior to the Corsair’s February 1943 arrival in the Solomon Island Campaign that inaugurated its phenomenal operational achievements is required to fully appreciate why the Corsair’s iconic place in aviation history is so well deserved.
In 1903, the Wright Brothers invented and flew the world’s first powered flying machine.
However, the first airplanes had no apparent commercial potential and given American isolationism, the government had no interest in allocating funds to a venture with no defined benefit.
Consequently, the Wright Brothers tried European nations where they found a lucrative market. Europe’s Old World order had begun to unravel in the previous century and would completely disintegrate in 1914 with the outbreak of WWI. Unlike America’s indifference, the potential technological leverage of the Wright Brother’s invention was of huge interest amongst the European powers where war seemed increasingly inevitable.
New weapons like the machine gun, airplane and tank would change warfare forever.
Ironically, United States ambivalence about the airplane meant that no American designed aircraft appeared in WWI.
American aviators serving in England and Europe flew British or French designed aircraft. Isolationist sentiments resumed after WWI. By the 1930’s, war clouds were again developing in Europe. However, post war isolationism led to a lagging development of American military capabilities in general and development of its aviation forces in particular.
Formed from the British Army’s Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service, England’s famous ‘Battle of Britain’ Royal Air Force, the world’s oldest independent air force, was established on April 1, 1918, several months prior to the November 11, 1918 armistice ending WWI. The aviation world was evolving, but slowly in the United States.
Vought O2U-1 Corsair
The Vought O2U-1 was the first Vought airplane to carry the name Corsair.
The O2U was built as an observation aircraft for the Navy, and the example flown by the NACA for evaluation and cowling tests was one of the last O2U-1s built. This Corsair came from the Naval Reserve squadron at Naval Air Station Anacostia, Washington, D. C.
Image by NASA, Identifier: L4256
President Calvin Coolidge (1923–1929) complaining about the War Department’s post WWI budget request to buy more aircraft is reported to have asked, “Why don't we just buy one airplane and let the pilots take turns flying it?”
In 1936, just three years after Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, the Messerschmitt Bf-109, perhaps the most famous aircraft in aviation history was revealed to the world with a fly over at the 1936 Berlin Olympics*. Because development of the Bf-109 violated the WWI Treaty of Versailles, it first flew secretively in September 1935, albeit with an English built Rolls Royce engine. Its appearance caused alarm bells to ring in America.
* The bar setting Bf-109 is renowned as the prototype for the WWII era fighter; a high powered single seat, low wing all metal aircraft. The Bf-109 was a highly maneuverable aircraft, with a top speed of 300 mph.
The Bf-109 entered combat in 1937 with the Luftwaffe’s Condor Legion in the Spanish Civil War.
Subsequently, on February 1, 1938, the Navy’s design team issued a Request for Proposal to aircraft manufacturers for an internationally competitive modern era shipboard fighter. The Navy awarded a contract on June 11, 1938 to Chance Vought for the prototype F4U Corsair.
The Corsair would be the smallest possible airframe that could accommodate the most powerful engine then being developed – a technologically advanced airframe yet to be built - powered by a Pratt and Whitney R-2800 experimental engine still on its test stand.
The Pratt and Whitney R-2800 (18 cylinder, 2,800 cu. in. displacement) Double Wasp radial engine became the standard power plant for Corsairs.
The Army Air Force exerted considerable pressure on Pratt and Whitney to cancel its radial engine effort and focus on liquid cooled in-line engines. The Navy’s adamant commitment to air-cooled engines was critical in saving the Corsair program.
During Corsair production the R-2800 horsepower increased from 2,000 to a combat emergency 2,760. The R-2800 engine also powered the P-47 Thunderbolt and the F6F Hellcat.
The Corsair’s defining feature, its inverted gull wing design, was borrowed from the 1935 vintage German Junkers Ju-87 ‘Stuka’ dive bomber.
This was a way to accommodate a 3 bladed propeller over 13 feet in diameter which was needed to convert engine power into aircraft performance. This wing design reduced the problematic nose up angle of the aircraft in taxiing, take off and landing and minimized the length of the landing gear allowing it to retract into the stub wings where the wings folded for aircraft carrier stowage, and ultimately provided space for competitive World War II armament.
Vought F4U-1 Corsair
This is a "Birdcage" Corsair, so called for the canopy framing around the cockpit.
Several F4Us were flown by the NACA , but this F4U-1 only flew at Langley for two months in 1943 before going to the U. S. Navy at Norfolk Naval Air Station.
Image by NASA Identifier: L33936
When the prototype Corsair first flew on May 29, 1940, it was the world’s first aircraft to have flush fastened, e.g., rivets, butt jointed interior spot welded panels, and a fully enclosed retracting landing gear.
The Corsair’s inverted gull wing with a 90-degree angle to its centerline further reduced drag by eliminating the traditional wing fillet. These first of their kind features enabled the Corsair to be America’s first production airplane to exceed 400 mph. As engine power increased during Corsair production, its top speed reached 470 mph.
Teething problems inherent in the challenge of producing an operational fighter from an unproven engine joined to a unique airframe were compounded.
The analysis of the European WWII air war that began with Germany’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939 identified armament deficiencies that required major Corsair armament upgrades.
The Bf-109 had a 20mm cannon in each wing and two .31 inch guns mounted in the engine cowling. Its Royal Air Force contemporary, the Supermarine Spitfire had eight wing mounted .303 guns, but by early 1942 the Spitfire had a 20 mm cannon and a .303 inch gun in each wing.
The original Corsair design provided for one .30 inch and one .50 inch fuselage mounted gun synchronized to fire through the propeller arc, and one .50 inch in each wing.
The European air battles of 1940 revealed the serious inadequacies of the armament. The soon to be encountered Japanese Zero also used a combination of machine guns and 20 mm cannons. Thus, the Corsair needed multiple wing mounted heavy caliber machine guns and greater ammunition capacity.
The prototype Corsair had fuel cells in the leading edges of the wings. To accommodate three .50 inch guns in each wing the fuel cells were removed and a 237 gallon fuel tank was installed on the center of gravity in front of the cockpit. This lengthened the fuselage by moving the cockpit 32 inches to the rear which further limited pilot visibility, an especially critical factor for carrier operations.
Corsair fighter looses its load of rocket projectiles on a run against a Japanese stronghold on Okinawa.
In the lower background is the smoke of battle as Marine units move in to follow up with a Sunday punch. Lt. David D. Duncan, ca. June 1945.
Image by Lt. David D. Duncan
The first production F4U was delivered on July 31, 1942, less than two months after the Battle of Midway, but adverse carrier landing characteristics caused the Navy to reject the Corsair for carrier assignment thus restricting it to land based operations.
The battle for Guadalcanal that began on August 7, 1942 gave the Marines priority for the new fighter. The first Marine Corsair squadron (VMF-124) arrived at Guadalcanal on February 12, 1943. They entered combat the next day with an average of only 29 Corsair flight hours per pilot.
The Corsair quickly provided much needed relief for the embattled Grumman F4F-4 Wildcat whose performance (other than comparable top speeds of just less than 320 mph) was markedly inferior to its principal opponent, the Mitsubishi Zero.
The 1937 vintage Wildcat and the 1939 vintage Zero were the naval fighter aircraft adversaries when WWII air combat between Japan and the United States began in May 1942 at the Battle of Coral Sea.* This was quickly followed by the Battle of Midway in June 1942. The first Allied offensive operation against the Japanese was in the Solomon Islands in August 1942.
* The Mitsubishi Zero first entered combat in 1940 in China. The Battle of the Coral Sea (east of New Guinea and southwest of the Solomon Islands) was the first naval battle in history fought solely by carrier aircraft; neither combatant’s ships were in sight of the other or directly engaged.
The majority of Marines who made Ace during the war did so in the Wildcat, prior to the Corsair’s appearance in the Pacific at Guadalcanal.
The Marines’ significant air combat achievements were through defensive tactics to shelter the Marine ground offensive rather than any major offensive operations that would over commit the Wildcat against the superior Japanese Zero. Entering combat the Corsair’s superior performance eliminated the Zero’s advantage. It quickly established air superiority that allowed the Marines to take the offensive in the Pacific.
By late 1943 the Navy was complacent with the F6F Hellcat, Grumman’s successor to its Wildcat as their Pacific Theater carrier fighter. The Corsair had still not been released for carrier operations.
A U.S. Navy Grumman F6F-3 Hellcat of fighter squadron VF-1 over California (USA), in early 1943.
VF-1 was redesignated VF-5 in July 1943.
Image by United States Navy
Although the Hellcat was superior to the Japanese Zero and other Japanese fighters being encountered, two factors were to change the Navy’s position.
1. The Marines wanted Corsairs aboard carriers to provide its ground Marines with the indigenous close air support developed in the Solomon Islands. After the successful completion of the Solomon Islands’ campaign in early 1944, the distances for the Central Pacific Campaign already underway were too great for the Marines to use fixed base Pacific Islands in lieu of aircraft carriers to support the upcoming island hopping campaign.
The Navy was tasked to provide air support to the Marines at Tarawa in November 1943 with their Hellcats where the Marine casualty rate was the highest in the WWII Pacific Campaign. Navy air support was inadequate compared to what the Marines had been providing. Complaining about Navy air support versus Marine close air support, the Marines demanded their own air support.
Two Factors (Cont.)
2. The Navy wanted Corsairs aboard Carriers because its performance was far superior to the Hellcat in top speed and climb rate; two critical factors in combating the new Kamikaze threat against ships. American successes in the Solomon campaign and concomitant wrestling of air control in the Pacific war from the Japanese caused the Japanese to resort to suicide attacks.
But, as late as early 1944 the chief of Naval Air Operational Training was about to formally recommend that the Corsair be restricted from carriers when a last minute joint contractor/Navy effort to save the Corsair carrier deployment called Program Dog was successful. Landing issues were still the problem.
Out of refueling necessity Corsairs had landed aboard carriers in the Pacific as early as November 1943.
However, it was the British Royal Navy, out of operational necessity that needed to deploy its 1,967 Lend Lease Corsairs, who first cleared the fighter for carrier service. The Corsair was far superior to the naval versions of the Hurricane and Spitfire.
The Royal Navy developed the Continuous Turn landing pattern that afforded a suitable view of the carrier and Landing Signal Officer despite the Corsair’s long nose until a wave off or cut engine signal was given. Enduring all other issues, by December 1943 they were operating Corsairs off the HMS Illustrious.
A Chance-Vought Corsair landing aboard HMS ILLUSTRIOUS, December 1943
Throttled back, an American built Chance-Vought Corsair starts to sink to the deck of HMS ILLUSTRIOUS prior to landing.
Image by United Kingdom Government 1943
In April 1944 the Navy likewise cleared the Corsair for shipboard use and Marine Corsairs were assigned to Navy carriers in a combat zone for the first time beginning in December 1944.
Four of the new Essex Class fast carriers were assigned two squadrons each; USS Essex (CV 9), VMF-124 and VMF-213; USS Bennington (CV 20), VMF-112 and VMF-123; USS Bunker Hill (CV 17), VMF-221 and VMF- 451; USS Wasp (CV 18), VMF-216 and VMF-217. However, the ordeal of the Corsair’s carrier saga with the Marines did not end there.
Long Term Consequences
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 caused such a massive expansion of naval aviation that from mid 1942 until late 1944, carrier training for Marines was essentially non existent.
During that period, Marine aviators received only enough training for deck and catapult operations sufficient to transit men and aircraft to Pacific combat areas by ‘jeep’ or escort carriers. By mid 1944 when over 10,000 post Pearl Harbor Marine pilots had received their wings, only a tiny percentage had any real carrier experience.
Training On The Job
When the eight Marine Corsair squadrons were deployed on the four Essex class carriers, only 1 in 50 Marine pilots were carrier qualified.
Theater training was employed, but losses were still high when newly assigned Marine pilots entered combat in early 1945 in the South China Sea area of operations. They learned combat and carrier operations on the job.
These Marine squadrons were the first Corsair units to be assigned to carriers. By March 1945, the last Pacific island invasion of WWII began at Okinawa, and every CV carrier had Marine Corsairs aboard.
A Royal Navy Vought Corsair from 1831 Naval Air Squadron being wheeled on the elevator of the aircraft carrier HMS Glory (R62) at sea off Rabaul, New Britain, 6 September 1945.
The Corsairs circled overhead during the surrender ceremony between Lieutenant General V.A.H. Sturdee, general officer commanding First Army, General H. Imamura, commander Japanese Eighth Area Army, and Vice Admiral J. Kusaka, commander Japanese South East Area Fleet.
This image is of Australian origin and is now in the public domain because its term of copyright has expired.
During the Corsair’s long gestation and production run 981 major modifications and some 20,000 minor changes were made to the airplane.
It served the Marines from WWII to Korea. In its first four years the Corsair was disparaged through its constraints, only to prove in action that its superiority demanded that they had to be eliminated. When called upon, the Corsair excelled regardless its base of operations or task; air superiority, close air support or night fighter.
No Easy Days
In his book, ‘Whistling Death,’ Boone Guyton, famed chief Corsair test pilot who crashed with the first test airplane spoke of,
“…the struggle to prove this bent winged bird-its power and speed, its structural integrity…even from its first few minutes of flight tried to tell us: It won’t be easy.”
Retired Marine General J. R. Dailey wrote, “In 1944, no deck time was allowed to Marine aviators going through flight training, and little after they reached the operational forces. This lack of any basic carrier training, coupled with the urgency of the situation and, in some part, due to the Corsair’s carrier suitability, resulted in a tragic loss of life and equipment.”
For the Marines who ‘proved’ the Corsair in Pacific Ocean combat, there were no easy days.