On February 13th 1943, the Vought F4U Corsair flew its first operational mission when Guadalcanal-based Marine Fighter Squadron 124 (VMF-124) F4U-1 Corsairs escorted U. S. Army Air Corps B-24 Liberator bombers on a raid against Kahili Airfield on Bougainville. They encountered no enemy aircraft on the mission. This mission was the culmination of years of design and development work on what is perhaps the easiest of all World War II aircraft to recognize due to its unique wing design.
In June of 1938, the United States Navy signed a contract with Vought for a prototype bearing the factory designation V-166B, the XF4U-1, bureau number 1443. The F4U was the first airframe ever designed from the outset to mount the R-2800 Double Wasp engine. When the prototype was completed it had the biggest and most powerful engine, the largest three-blade propeller, and the largest wing on any naval fighter up to that point. The XF4U-1 first flew on May 29th 1940. On October 1st 1940, the XF4U-1 became the first single-engine United States fighter to fly faster than 400 miles per hour (640 kilometers per hour).
The first production F4U-1 took to the air on June 24th 1942. From the outset the F4U featured the largest and most powerful radial engine available- the 2,000 horsepower, 18-cylinder Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp. The F4U’s propeller was the Hamilton Standard Hydromatic three-blade propeller, measuring 13 feet 4 inches (4.06 meters). In order to accommodate the required folding wing and the size of the chosen propeller, Vought’s solution was an inverted gull wing, which considerably shortened the required length of the main gear legs.
The Corsair’s aerodynamics were an advance over those of contemporary naval fighters such as the F4F Wildcat. The F4U was the first U.S. Navy aircraft to feature landing gear that retracted into a fully enclosed wheel well. The oil coolers were mounted in the center-section of the wings, alongside the supercharger air intakes, and used openings in the leading edges of the wings, rather than protruding scoops. Fuselage panels were made of aluminum and were spot-welded to the fuselage frames instead of riveted to them. But the Corsair’s outer wing panels and control surfaces were fabric-covered.
There were some problems encountered during early Navy carrier suitability trials on the escort carrier USS Sangamon (CVE-26) on September 25th 1942. The combination of an aft cockpit and the Corsair’s long nose made landings hazardous for newly-trained pilots. The major hurdle was that the landing gear struts tended to allow the aircraft to bounce too high on landing. Eventually a bleed valve built into the landing gear legs eased the hydraulic pressure as the aircraft recovered aboard the carrier.
The Grumman F6F Hellcat was simpler to build and was suitable for carrier operations immediately. Because of this, the Navy chose to release the Corsair initially to the U.S. Marine Corps. The Marines desperately needed a better fighter aircraft than the F3F Buffalo and F4F Wildcat. The type was declared “ready for combat” at the end of 1942, though only qualified to operate from land bases until carrier suitability issues were worked out. Only after the British had solved the landing gear problems was the Corsair deployed regularly aboard US Navy aircraft carriers.
Whatever its issues with carrier suitability, the F4U-1 was considerably faster than the Grumman F6F Hellcat and only 13 miles per hour (21 kilometers per hour) slower than the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt. All three aircraft were powered by the same R-2800 radial engine. However, the P-47’s highest speed was reached at 30,020 feet (9,150 meters) and with the help of an intercooled turbocharger. The F4U-1 reached its maximum speed at only 19,900 feet (6,100 meters) using a single mechanically supercharged engine.
Twelve Marine Corps F4U-1s of VMF-124, commanded by Major William E. Gise, arrived at Henderson Field on Guadalcanal on February 12th, 1943. These were the early “birdcage” version of the Corsair. Their first mission, an escort of Army Air Corps B-24s to Kahili, resulted in no sightings of enemy aircraft. However, their next mission on the 14th saw the first combat engagement of the F4U. The Corsairs went back to Kahili escorting the B-24s again, along with Army Air Corps P-40s and P-38s. Japanese fighters shot down two P-40s, four P-38s, two F4Us, and two Liberators. The American fliers claimed only four of the Japanese fighters. This engagement, often referred to as the “Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre,” did not define the Corsair. The Marines learned quickly how to fight with the Corsair. VMF-124 produced the first Corsair ace, Second Lieutenant Kenneth A. Walsh, who would end the war with 21 kills.
Probably the most famous Marine squadron flying the Corsair was the “Black Sheep.” Led by Marine Major Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, VMF-214 started flying their missions in September of 1943 and racked up 97 confirmed aerial victories in only 84 days. Boyington was eventually credited with 22 kills in F4Us before he was shot down himself and made a prisoner of war in January of 1944. Other notable Corsair aces included the aforementioned Kenneth Walsh, James E. Swett, and Archie Donahue (also of VMF-124), VMF-215’s Robert M. Hanson and Donald Aldrich, and VF-17’s Tommy Blackburn, Roger Hedrick, and Ira Kepford.
At war’s end, VMF-312, VMF-323, VMF-224 Corsairs were flying from Okinawa and battling Japanese kamikaze attacks- even going so far as to hack the tail off an attacking Japanese plane with its propeller. The pilot who performed this feat, Marine Lieutenant R. R. Klingman of VMF-312, landed safely despite having lost 5 inches of his propeller blades in the attack. He was awarded the Navy Cross for his efforts. Corsairs were also were flying from Navy fast carriers and escort carriers.
The F4U also fulfilled the role of fighter-bomber in the Pacific. By early 1944, Marine pilots were flying close support missions during amphibious landings. Noted aviation pioneer Charles Lindbergh flew Corsairs with the Marines as a civilian “technical advisor” in order to determine how best to increase the Corsair’s payload and range in the attack role. Lindbergh coaxed a Corsair into the air while lugging 4,000 pounds (1,800 kilograms) of bombs- only slightly less than the standard payload of the four engine B-17 bomber. Naturally and perhaps inevitably, Lindbergh flew strike missions against the Japanese during the Marshall Islands campaign.
Despite the initial decision to issue the F4U only to Marine Corps units, two Navy units, VF-12 (October 1942) and later VF-17 (April 1943) were equipped with the F4U. Both units ended up flying their first missions while shore-based. In November 1943, VF-17 reinstalled the tail hooks so its F4Us could land and refuel while flying Combat Air Patrol (CAP) for the Navy task force participating in the raid on the Japanese stronghold of Rabaul. The squadron’s pilots landed, refueled, and took off from the U.S. carriers Bunker Hill and Essex on November 11th, 1943.
The U.S. Navy did not get into combat with the F4U until September 1943. The work done by the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm meant that the British qualified the type for carrier operations first. Only after the revised landing gear strut was introduced in April 1944 did the U.S. Navy finally accept the F4U for shipboard operations. The first US Corsair unit to be based effectively on a carrier was the Marine Corps squadron VMF-124, which joined the Essex air group accompanied by VMF-213.
The Corsair was able to outperform the Japanese A6M Zero. While the Zero could turn better than the F4U at low speeds, the Corsair was faster and could both out climb and out dive the A6M. This performance advantage, combined with the ability to take severe punishment, meant that an F4U pilot flew a more forgiving aircraft that would protect him better and take more punishment than his opponent. Having 2300 rounds of ammunition for his guns never hurt either.
Between the U.S. Navy and the Marine Corps the Corsair flew 64,051 operational sorties during the war, which was 44% of total fighter sorties. Only 9,581 of those sorties (15%) were flown from carrier decks. Corsair pilots claimed 2,140 air combat victories against 189 losses to enemy aircraft, for an overall kill ratio of better than 11:1. The Corsair also performed the fighter-bomber mission effectively, delivering 15,621 tons of bombs during the war, which amounted to 70% of total bombs dropped by U.S. fighters.
During the Korean War, the Corsair was used primarily in the close-support role. The AU-1 Corsair was developed from the F4U-5, itself a late war-developed version of the Corsair. As a ground-attack aircraft which normally operated at low altitudes, the AU-1’s Pratt & Whitney R-2800-83W engine used a single-stage, manually controlled supercharger as opposed to the two-stage automatic supercharger of the F4U-5. Corsair versions used by the Marines and Navy in Korea included the F4U-4B, F4U-4C, F4U-4P, F4U-5N, F4U-5NL, and AU-1.
Despite the emphasis on close support and attack missions for the Corsair, there were occasional aerial confrontations. F4Us took on Soviet-built Yakovlev Yak-9 fighters early in the war. Once the MiG-15 jet started showing up, the Corsair was no longer considered capable of taking on the role of fighter aircraft. But on September 10th 1952, one MiG-15 made the mistake of getting low and slow in front of a Corsair piloted by Marine Captain Jesse G. Folmar. Folmar shot the MiG-15 down but was shot down himself by four other MiG-15s soon thereafter. Folmar was rescued and was back in the cockpit the next day.
Night-fighting F4U-5N and F4U-5NL Corsairs were used to attack enemy supply lines, truck convoys, and trains. They also did their best to rid the night skies of “Bedcheck Charlies”, the harassing (if not actually dangerous) flights meant to keep the UN troops from resting. Detachments of U.S. Navy F4U-5Ns were often based at shore bases. Lieutenant Guy P. Bordelon of VC-3 Detachment D from the USS Princeton (CV-37) flying from K-6 in South Korea, became the Navy’s only ace of the war and the only ace of the war to fly a propeller-driven aircraft after five aerial victories in the night skies over Korea. Navy and Marine Corsairs were credited with a total of 12 enemy aircraft shot down.
Lieutenant Thomas Jerome Hudner Junior, flying an F4U-4 of VF-32 off the USS Leyte, crash landed his Corsair in an attempt to rescue his squadron mate, Ensign Jesse Leroy Brown, whose aircraft had been forced down by antiaircraft fire near Changjin Korea. Brown was the U.S. Navy’s first African-American naval aviator. Hudner was unable to free the wounded Brown from his heavily damaged aircraft and Brown did not survive. Hudner was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his attempt to save his fellow naval aviator.
Beginning in 1943, the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm also received Corsairs and flew them successfully from Royal Navy carriers in combat with the British Pacific Fleet and in Norway. These were “clipped-wing” Corsairs, the wingtips shortened 8 inches (20 centimeters) to clear the lower overhead height of the hangar decks on Royal Navy carriers. In addition to its use by the U.S. and the British, the Corsair was also used by the Royal New Zealand Air Force, the French Navy Aéronavale, and other smaller air forces until the 1960s. The Corsair served almost exclusively as a fighter-bomber throughout the Korean War and during the French colonial wars in Indochina and Algeria. Corsairs even squared off against each other during the “Soccer War” between Honduras and El Salvador in 1969.
The infantrymen the Corsair supported so effectively nicknamed the Corsair “The Sweetheart of the Marianas” and “The Angel of Okinawa” for its roles in these campaigns. Among Navy and Marine aviators, the aircraft was nicknamed “Ensign Eliminator” and “Bent-Wing Eliminator” because it required many more hours of flight training to master than other Navy carrier-borne aircraft. It was also called simply “U-bird”, Hosenose”, “The Hog”, or “Bent Wing Bird.”
Demand for the F4U overwhelmed Vought’s manufacturing capability early in the war. Goodyear and Brewster both built Corsairs in addition to Vought. Goodyear-built Corsairs were designated FG and Brewster-built aircraft were designated F3A. From the first prototype delivery to the U.S. Navy in 1940, to the final delivery of the F4U-7 to the French in 1953, 12,571 F4U Corsairs were manufactured in 16 separate models. This is the longest production run of any piston engine fighter in U.S. History- from 1942 to 1953.