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The Corsair was one of the first aircraft to be able to outfight the best Japanese aircraft such as the Zero, and was one of the last piston-engine fighters to come off any production line in the United States, or anywhere else in the world.

The Corsair is distinctive in having a bent, gull-shaped wing. The reason for the bend was to allow more clearance for the landing gear by placing the gear at the bottom of the bend. This was important because of the very large diameter of the propeller used on the Corsair.

Vought F4U Corsair

The Corsair was one of the first aircraft to be able to outfight the best Japanese aircraft such as the Zero, and was one of the last piston-engine fighters to come off any production line in the United States, or anywhere else in the world.

Design & development

In January 1938 the US Navy announced a requirement to replace old biplanes with a much more capable carrier-borne fighter. Five companies responded to an invitation to bid for this new design. Three of those companies – Vought, Bell and Grumman – were issued contracts to build one prototype each.

Four U.S. Navy Vought F4U-4 Corsairs from fighter squadron VF-884 "Bitter Birds" fly past their parent carrier USS Boxer (CV-21) on 4 September 1951. Boxer was deployed to Korea with Carrier Air Group 101 (CVG-101) from 2 March to 24 October 1951. Original caption: "F4U's (Corsairs) returning from a combat mission over North Korea circle the USS Boxer as they wait for planes in the next strike to be launched from her flight deck - a helicopter hovers above the ship. September 4, 1951."
Four U.S. Navy Vought F4U-4 Corsairs from fighter squadron VF-884 “Bitter Birds” fly past their parent carrier USS Boxer (CV-21) on 4 September 1951. Boxer was deployed to Korea with Carrier Air Group 101 (CVG-101) from 2 March to 24 October 1951. Original caption: “F4U’s (Corsairs) returning from a combat mission over North Korea circle the USS Boxer as they wait for planes in the next strike to be launched from her flight deck – a helicopter hovers above the ship. September 4, 1951.”

Design work on the Corsair began at Vought’s Stratford, Connecticut plant. This was before the Grumman F6F Hellcat was on the drawing board, but due to a number of difficult-to-resolve flaws, it was delayed into service until after the Hellcat.

All three of the competing prototypes first flew in early 1940. A fly off evaluation commenced in July 1940, with the Bell and Grumman bids eventually being eliminated and the Corsair subsequently entering into full production.

Propeller Diameter

The Corsair was built around the same massive radial piston engine used in the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt – the Pratt & Whitney XR-2800-4 Double Wasp. The P-47 used four propellers with a diameter slightly less than that of the Corsair’s three-bladed props.

The Corsair’s propellers described a circle with a 13′ 6″ diameter, and to avoid having gear that was long and heavy, a designer named Rex Beisel decided to use an innovative inverted gull wing design, which had the benefit of also having lower drag at the wing roots.

Marines of VMF-222 on Bougainville relaxing in between strikes. April 1944
Marines of VMF-222 on Bougainville relaxing in between strikes. April 1944

Compared to the Zero, the Corsair was heavy, bulky and required more manhandling either in the air or on the ground. But it had great speed, could absorb a lot of combat damage and had a very strong wing. It was as manoeuvrable as the Zero, but with longer range, higher speed and greater resistance to fire from enemy weapons.

Prototype

On 29th May 1940 the sole Corsair prototype made it’s maiden flight but soon after suffered a forced landing due to fuel starvation. It took three months to repair the airframe – a massive delay at the time – but it eventually took to the air once again.

During testing it became the fastest single engine fighter in the world, demonstrating a top speed of 405 mph in October 1940, and later flew at 550 mph in a dive. In June 1941 an order was placed for 584 F4U-1s. The attack on Pearly Harbor followed within months and plans were quickly advanced to spread production between Vought (F4U-1), Goodyear (FG-1) and Brewster (F3A-1).

Production

The initial production version first flew in June 1942 and had an upgraded R-2800-8 engine producing 2,000 hp and a ‘birdcage’ canopy with limited visibility. Delivery to the Navy commenced the following month.

A U.S. Navy Vought F4U-1 Corsair fighter in flight, circa 1942. Via Wikimedia Commons.
A U.S. Navy Vought F4U-1 Corsair fighter in flight, circa 1942. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Armament consisted of six 50 calibre (0.5 inch) machine guns, 2,350 rounds of ammunition, 155 lb of armour, and self-sealing tanks the last two items conspicuously missing from contemporary Japanese Zeros. Later versions introduced cannon, fittings for drop tanks, bombs and rockets, more powerful engines.

The aircraft was a ‘tail-dragger’ and so visibility was limited during takeoff, landing and taxying. It also had an exceptionally long nose ahead of the cockpit. Therefore, despite the raised seating and bubble canopy, visibility proved to be an issue throughout its life.

Carrier Trials – and Tribulations

Carrier trials (‘CarQuals’) began in September 1942 but it was soon apparent that the sporty Corsair landed at an unsafe speed, had ineffectual shock absorbers and had zero to poor visibility over the nose during approach. By this stage The Corsair’s main allied competitor – the more docile handling F6F Hellcat -was only weeks away from the first flight of the first production example.

A U.S. Navy Vought F4U-1 Corsair aircraft of Fighting Squadron VF-17 landing on the deck of the escort carrier USS Charger (CVE-30), probably during carrier qualifications. Date February 1943. Via Wikimedia Commons
A U.S. Navy Vought F4U-1 Corsair aircraft of Fighting Squadron VF-17 landing on the deck of the escort carrier USS Charger (CVE-30), probably during carrier qualifications. Date February 1943. Via Wikimedia Commons

The Navy’s VF-12 began receiving Corsairs only weeks later, but the Navy began to have reservations about the Corsair for carrier-based operations. Within months VF-12s Corsairs had been replaced by F6F Hellcats.

The Hellcat was easier to handle and had better forward visibility over its sloping nose. In short, it had no problems with carrier landings, and so was rushed into Navy service in late 1942, achieving operational readiness in February 1943, initially with VF-9 on the USS Essex.

A U.S. Navy Vought F4U-4 Corsair of Bombing Fighter Squadron 82 (VBF-82) "Checkmates", piloted by Bud Geer, is preparing to take off from the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Randolph (CV-15). VBF-82 was assigned to Carrier Air Group 82 (CVG-82) for a deployment to the Mediterranean Sea from 22 October to 21 December 1946. During that cruise, VBF-82 was redesignated VF-18A and CVG-82 was redesignated CVAG-17 on 15 November 1946. Via Wikimedia Commons
A U.S. Navy Vought F4U-4 Corsair of Bombing Fighter Squadron 82 (VBF-82) “Checkmates”, piloted by Bud Geer, is preparing to take off from the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Randolph (CV-15). VBF-82 was assigned to Carrier Air Group 82 (CVG-82) for a deployment to the Mediterranean Sea from 22 October to 21 December 1946. During that cruise, VBF-82 was redesignated VF-18A and CVG-82 was redesignated CVAG-17 on 15 November 1946. Via Wikimedia Commons

While carrier operations were now delayed for the US Navy, the US Marine Corps gladly stepped up and became the first user of the Corsair in the Pacific theatre for it’s own, mainly ground-based, operations. These were often from narrow, island airstrips dotted throughout the Pacific.

Operational history

The Corsair thus made its entry to service – and first combat operation – in World War Two in February 1943 with the USMC at Guadalcanal. The Marines would operate the Corsair in no less than 24 squadrons plus a further two specialised night-fighter squadrons.

The first Navy squadron to employ the Corsair was VF-17, which began land-based operations in April 1943. Over the next 75 days they would down 175 Japanese aircraft, producing 15 Aces in the process.

It was not until early 1945 that the F4U-1D became the first model to deployed on carriers in large numbers, once again initially by US Marines on the USS Essex during the invasion of Okinawa. Airframes for the Navy itself began arriving shortly after. Towards the war’s end, Navy Corsairs, with their great speed, took on the role of Kamikaze interceptors.

U.S. Navy Vought F4U-2 Corsairs of Night Fighting Squadron 101 (VF(N)-101), Detachment B lead other aircraft of Carrier Air Group 6 (CVG-6) as they prepare to launch from the aircraft carrier USS Intrepid (CV-11) for a raid against Truk in February 1944. Date circa 16 February 1944
U.S. Navy Vought F4U-2 Corsairs of Night Fighting Squadron 101 (VF(N)-101), Detachment B lead other aircraft of Carrier Air Group 6 (CVG-6) as they prepare to launch from the aircraft carrier USS Intrepid (CV-11) for a raid against Truk in February 1944. Date circa 16 February 1944

The Corsair featured in Rabaul, the Solomon Islands, the Marshall Islands and the invasions of Okinawa and Iwo Jima, to name a few. The Japanese gave it the title ‘Whistling Death’.

Summary

In the course of the Second World War Corsair’s flew over 64,000 combat missions, with only one sixth of those originating from aircraft carriers. They destroyed 2,140 Japanese aircraft for the loss of only 189 Corsair’s in air-to-air combat – an incredible kill ratio of eleven to one.

(By contrast the Hellcat accounted for 5,223 enemy aircraft across it’s service with the US Navy, the US Marine Corp and the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm.)

U.S. Navy Vought F4U-4 Corsairs of Bombing Fighting Squadron 3 (VBF-3) "Swordsmen" lined up with wings folded on the flight deck of the escort carrier USS Solomons (CVE-67) in July 1945. USS Solomons was engaged in qualifying U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Ccorps pilots in carrier landings off Port Everglades, Florida (USA). Date15 July 1945
U.S. Navy Vought F4U-4 Corsairs of Bombing Fighting Squadron 3 (VBF-3) “Swordsmen” lined up with wings folded on the flight deck of the escort carrier USS Solomons (CVE-67) in July 1945. USS Solomons was engaged in qualifying U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Ccorps pilots in carrier landings off Port Everglades, Florida (USA).
Date 15 July 1945

The Royal Navy equipped 19 Fleet Air Arm squadrons with the type, with 1,977 being built especially for the British. The Royal New Zealand Air Force were also operators of the Corsair in the War.

Korean War

The Corsair was a great close-in dog-fighter and one even shot down a MiG-15 jet fighter over Korea. In Korea all of the allied Aces flew jet-powered F-86 Sabres for the Air Force. Except one. The sole Navy Ace flew a Corsair.

Post War

Corsairs made frequent appearances at airshows and air races in the post-war 1940s and post (Korean) war 1950s, where they thrilled the crowds with their dynamic appearance and performance.

U.S. Navy Vought F4U-1A Corsairs of Fighter Squadron 17 (VF-17) "Jolly Rogers" in the Southwest Pacific, possibly over Bougainville in early March 1944. Plane no. 29 is BuNo 55995, flown by Lieutenant Junior Grade Ira C. Kepford, then the Navy's leading "Ace," with sixteen "kills." Pilot of plane no. 8 is thought to be Hal Jackson. Plane no. 3, flown by Jim Streig, has an odd "star and bar" insignia, perhaps with the red outline that was replaced with blue the previous summer. The photo is dated 15 April 1944, but was probably taken early in the previous month.Date circa March 1944. Via Wikimedia Commons.
U.S. Navy Vought F4U-1A Corsairs of Fighter Squadron 17 (VF-17) “Jolly Rogers” in the Southwest Pacific, possibly over Bougainville in early March 1944. Plane no. 29 is BuNo 55995, flown by Lieutenant Junior Grade Ira C. Kepford, then the Navy’s leading “Ace,” with sixteen “kills.” Pilot of plane no. 8 is thought to be Hal Jackson. Plane no. 3, flown by Jim Streig, has an odd “star and bar” insignia, perhaps with the red outline that was replaced with blue the previous summer. The photo is dated 15 April 1944, but was probably taken early in the previous month.Date circa March 1944. Via Wikimedia Commons.

The final Corsair came off the production line in December 1952, bringing the production total to 12,571 airframes. The aircraft had been manufactured by Vought, Goodyear (3,941 units) and Brewster over a period of ten years.

Other Corsair Operators

Other operators of the Corsair included El Salvador, Argentina, Honduras and the French, who were users of the last variant of the Corsair, employing them in Algeria and the Suez.

Variants

XF4U-1
  • The single prototype version of the Corsair
  • Had a ‘birdcage’ canopy
  • Three 0.50 inch and one 0.30 inch machine guns
  • Used the P&W R-2800-4 Double Wasp rated at 1,805 hp
  • First flew on 29 May 1940
  • First single engine fighter to exceed 400 mph in level flight
F4U-1 (F3A-1 for Brewster versions, FG-1A for Goodyear versions)
  • The first production version of the Corsair
  • Had a low seating position with cockpit moved back by 3 feet
  • Had a ‘birdcage’ canopy
  • Late production versions had a taller, wider canopy with only two frames
  • Had six 0.50 inch machine guns
  • Used the P&W R-2800-8 Double Wasp producing 2,000 hp
  • Had 150 lb of armour plating in the cockpit area
  • Had self-sealing tanks
  • Royal Fleet Air Arm received 95
The first U.S. Marine Corps Vought F4U-1 Corsair of Marine Fighting Squadron VMF-124 Whistling Death on Guadalcanal, 13 February 1943. It had arrived on Guadalcanal on the morning of 12 February led by their commanding officer, Major William Gise. VMF-124 flew its first mission before lunch that day, with twelve F4Us escorting a PBY Catalina on a 350 km mission to pick up two downed pilots at Sandfly Bay, Vella Lavella. Date 13 February 1943 - via Wikimedia Commons.
The first U.S. Marine Corps Vought F4U-1 Corsair of Marine Fighting Squadron VMF-124 Whistling Death on Guadalcanal, 13 February 1943. It had arrived on Guadalcanal on the morning of 12 February led by their commanding officer, Major William Gise. VMF-124 flew its first mission before lunch that day, with twelve F4Us escorting a PBY Catalina on a 350 km mission to pick up two downed pilots at Sandfly Bay, Vella Lavella. Date 13 February 1943 – via Wikimedia Commons.
F4U-1A
  • Late production versions had a taller, wider canopy with only two frames
  • Pilot’s seat was raised seven inches
  • Tail-wheel strut raised six inches
  • Had stall strips on each wing leading edge
  • Main gear oleos were improved to eliminate bounding on landing
  • From the 863rd aircraft, had water injection, producing 2,250 hp
  • Could carry a central drop tank, increasing ferry range to 1,500 miles
F4U-1C
  • Intended for ground attack as well as fighter missions
  • 200 were built
  • Had four 20mm cannon with 231 rounds per gun
F4U-1D
  • Was built in parallel with the F4U-1C
  • Had the R-2800-8W Double Wasp with water injection
  • Speed increased to 425 mph
  • Carried rockets and had twin pylons for bombs
  • Had a single piece ‘blown’ clear-view canopy
  • 150 were delivered to the Fleet Air Arm
F4U-2
  • Carrier-borne night fighter
  • Five 0.50 inch machine guns
  • 34 were converted from existing F4U-1s
  • Saw combat in early 1944 in the Solomon Islands
F4U-4
  • Last model to see action in WW2
  • Had the R-2800-18W engine producing 2,100 hp
  • When a water/alcohol mixture was injected, produced 2,450 hp
  • Had an air scoop under the nose
  • Propeller changed to four-bladed type
  • Maximum speed was 448 mph
  • Could climb at 4,500 fpm
  • Had six 0.50 inch machine guns
A U.S. Navy Reserve Vought F4U-4 Corsair (BuNo 96832) in flight from NARTU Los Alamitos, California (USA), circa in 1950. Via Wikimedia Commons.
A U.S. Navy Reserve Vought F4U-4 Corsair (BuNo 96832) in flight from NARTU Los Alamitos, California (USA), circa in 1950. Via Wikimedia Commons.
F4U-4B
  • 300 of these were ordered with four 20mm cannon instead of machine guns
F4U-4E and F4U-4N
  • Night fighters with radomes on the right wingtip
  • Were often retro-fitted with cannon
  • Did not see combat in WW2 but saw service in Korea
F4U-5
  • Had a R-2800-32(e) engine producing 2,760 hp
  • Maximum speed increased to 470 mph
  • Had automatic blower controls, cowl flaps, inter-cooler doors & oil cooler
  • Had a modernised cockpit
  • Had improved trim tabs for elevator and rudder
  • Had a retractable tail-wheel
  • Cowling was lowered 2 degrees at front to assist visibility
  • 223 produced
F4U-5N
  • Night fighter variant
  • Radar-equipped
  • Flame-hider added behind exhaust
  • 214 units produced
  • Two radar altimeter antennas under aft fuselage
  • VHF antenna on tail-cone aft of rudder
F4U-5NL
  • Winterised version
  • 72 units produced
  • Fitted with rubber de-icing boots on wing and tail
F4U-5P
  • Long range photo-reconnaissance version
  • 30 units produced
F4U-7
  • Last Corsair variant produced
  • Built for French Aeronavale
  • R-2800-18W engine
  • Ten pylons under outer wings for air to surface missiles
AU-1
  • Marine attack variant
  • Extra armour, especially around seat
  • Oil coolers relocated inboard for protection from ground fire
  • Simplified supercharger, since AU-1 designed for low altitude operations
  • Five pylons under each outer wing
  • Could carry 8,200 lb of bombs
  • First produced in 1952
  • Used extensively in Korea
A U.S. Marine Corps Vought AU-1 Corsair in flight in 1952. Via Wikimedia Commons
A U.S. Marine Corps Vought AU-1 Corsair in flight in 1952. Via Wikimedia Commons

Various other minor designations exist for prototypes, test aircraft, drones and other types built but never delivered.

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Specifications

Make Vought
Model F4U Corsair
Aircraft Type Single engine fighter
Role Fighter, ground attack, night fighter
Crew complement Single pilot
First flight 24 May 1940
Retired 1953 (United States), 1979 (Honduras)
Number produced 12,571
Unit cost Unknown
Maximum weight 6,350 kg
Powerplant(s) One Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp, up to 2,760 hp
Wingspan 41′ 0″
Length 33′ 8″
Height 14′ 9″
Armament 6×0.50 inch machine gun, 4x20mm cannon, rockets, bombs
Payload Not applicable
Range 1,005 miles
Combat radius  328 miles
Service ceiling 41,500′
Cruise speed 215 mph
Maximum speed 405 up to 470 mph
Claim to fame One of the top fighters in the Pacific post 1943

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