When You’re Out of F-8s, You’re Out of Fighters!
On 25 March 1955 test pilot John Konrad lifted off for the first time (and went supersonic) in the prototype Vought F8U Crusader. Over the next 32 years in United States service (and an additional 13 years with the French), the “Last of the Gunfighters” would set speed records, shoot down MiGs using guns and missiles in Vietnam, provide critical photographic proof of Soviet missiles in Cuba, take off, fly, and land in one piece with its wings folded (on more than one occasion), control drones, perform an aerial toilet paper wrap job on at least one pesky Russian trawler, and become an almost mythical aircraft universally loved by all who flew it.
In September of 1952, the United States Navy Bureau of Aeronautics (BuAer) generated a requirement for a new single-seat, jet-propelled, carrier-based fighter. The new jet was to be capable of Mach 1.2 speeds at 30,000 feet, climb rates of 25,000 feet per minute, landing speeds below 100 miles per hour, and was to be armed with four 20 millimeter cannon.
A Strong Start
BuAer ordered three Vought XF8U-1 prototypes in June of 1953. After the first prototype flew on the 25 March 1955, Vought’s development of the Crusader went so smoothly that the second prototype and the first production F8U-1 both flew on the same day- 30 September 1955. Carrier qualifications were conducted aboard the USS Forrestal (CVA-59) in April of 1956. Next the Crusader prototypes were evaluated by Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 3 (VX-3) at the Naval Air Weapons Station at China Lake in California.
On 21 August 1956 a prototype Crusader flown by Navy Commander Robert W. Windsor set a new level flight speed record of 1,015.428 miles per hour. On 6 June 1957, a VX-3 Crusader was launched from the carrier USS Bon Homme Richard (CVA-31) off the west coast. After a flight covering 2,200 miles the aircraft trapped aboard the USS Saratoga (CVA-60) off the east coast. Flight time was a record-breaking three hours and 28 minutes.
Faster Than a Speeding Astronaut
Marine Corps Major John H. Glenn completed the first supersonic transcontinental flight while flying a photo-reconnaissance F8U-1P on 16 July 1957. Glenn’s record flight, dubbed Project Bullet, took him from Naval Air Station Los Alamitos in California to Floyd Bennett Field just south of Manhattan in New York City in only three hours, 23 minutes, and 8 seconds.
The “teeth” of the Crusader were the four fuselage-mounted 20 millimeter cannon as per the BuAer requirement. A retractable tray mounting up to 32 unguided Mighty Mouse folding fin aerial rockets (FFARs) was located in the bottom of the fuselage of F8U-1s but was sealed on subsequent variants. Also eventually present were fuselage-mounted pylons capable of mounting two, and later four, AIM-9 Sidewinder heat-seeking air-to-air missiles. Later variants of the Crusader would add two wing-mounted weapons pylons.
Things That Go Boom
Crusaders were powered by an afterburning Pratt & Whitney J57 turbojet engine. The afterburner had two speeds- off or on. The on setting gave the pilot full afterburner and off…well, you get the idea. Unlike later designs, there were no zones or graduated afterburner power settings. It was all or nothing- and often a barely controlled explosion of thrust (and unwarned bystanders hitting the deck) when the burner was lit off. But when lightly loaded, the Crusader possessed nearly a 1 to 1 thrust to weight ratio.
Wings of Gold
A unique aspect of the Crusader design was its variable-incidence wing. The wing was basically hinged at the rear attachment point and the leading edge could be hydraulically raised up to 7 degrees. The raised leading edge increased the angle of attack for the wing without reducing forward visibility. The wing was also equipped with maneuvering slats and dog-tooth notches at the wing fold joints. Coupled with the all-moving horizontal tail surfaces, these design innovations enabled the Crusader to maneuver effectively over a wider range of speeds.
Gunfighters Join the Fleet
The first Atlantic Fleet squadron to fly the Crusader was VF-32 Swordsmen based at Naval Air Station (NAS) Cecil Field in Florida during 1957. The Swordsmen deployed as part of Carrier Air Wing 3 (CVW-3) to the Mediterranean later that year aboard USS Saratoga (CVA-60). The first to squadron to receive Crusaders in the Pacific Fleet was VF-154 Black Knights based at NAS Moffett Field in California. The first Marine Corps squadron to operate the F8U-1 was VMF-122 Crusaders based at Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Beaufort in South Carolina beginning in December of 1957. VMF-122 would become the first Marine Corps F8U squadron to deploy aboard a carrier in September of 1959 aboard USS Independence (CVA-62).
When the Defense Department standardized military aircraft designations in 1962, the F8U Crusader became the F-8 Crusader. F-8A was the new designator for the previous F8U-1.
Squadrons flying the RF-8A photo-reconnaissance variant of the Crusader (previously the F8U-1P), such as VFP-62 and VFP-63 Eyes of the Fleet and VMCJ-2 Playboys, formed detachments consisting of a few of their aircraft and required personnel and pilots to be deployed with each carrier air wing during the early 1960s. The first true operational Crusader flights were for Operation Blue Moon– the extremely hazardous low-level photo reconnaissance missions over Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Mission profiles dictated departure from NAS Key West in Florida, low-level photo runs over Cuba, and recovery at NAS Cecil Field in Jacksonville. Upon recovery at Jax, the film shot by the photo birds was developed and couriered direct to the Pentagon. The pictures confirmed that the Soviet Union was setting up intermediate range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) in Cuba, and later overflights monitored and confirmed the withdrawal of the missiles.
Not Perfect But Still Memorable
The list of Crusader shortcomings is not small or insignificant. Early F-8 variants were famous for springing hydraulic fluid leaks or experiencing electrical system breakdowns at the most inopportune times. The jets required every ounce of the pilot’s attention and skill when coming aboard the carriers. Yaw instability was an issue. The freely castering nose wheel was not conducive to ease of handling on a carrier deck. In order for Crusaders to come aboard safely the carriers had to work up to full speed to offset the fighter’s high approach and landing speed. The jet engine intake (located under the nose) and exhaust were both close to the deck and working around them required constant vigilance from flight deck personnel- earning F-8s the nickname of “Gator.” Of the 1,261 Crusaders built by Vought, it has been estimated that by the time they were finally retired 1,106 of them had been involved in some kind of mishap. In spite of it all, every Crusader pilot I have ever heard of loved the airplane.
Combat: The Gunfighter Engages
Crusaders found themselves in the thick of it when F-8s from VF-211 Fighting Checkmates and VF-24 Fighting Renegades operating with CVW-21 aboard USS Hancock (CVA-19), first took on North Vietnamese MiG-17s on 3 April 1965. The Navy, having developed the F-4 Phantom II at roughly the same time as the Crusader, saw the roles of the two aircraft as similar but divergent. F-8s were built for “dogfighting”; Phantoms for interception and engagement with missiles from long range. The air war in Vietnam proved that dogfights were not a thing of the past as the Navy brass had thought- and the Crusader was the best Navy jet for that kind of fight.
Fighters Moving Mud
In time both the Navy and Marines used the F-8 as a bomber in Vietnam. Able to tote bombs only on its wing-mounted pylons, the Crusader was never the “bomb truck” that the Phantom was. The F-4 was equipped with more hard points for pylons and was able to carry more weight than the Crusader. The F-8, with its high-mounted wings, also taxed ordnance-handling “red shirts” when loading ordnance onto the pylons mounted so high off the deck.
F-8s operated from all of the carrier classes (Essex, Midway, and Forrestal) conducting operations off Vietnam, although they primarily flew from the smaller deck Essex-class carriers. Phantoms were restricted to the Midway and Forrestal classes only. The compositions of many carrier air wings were adjusted to include both Crusaders and Phantoms in their makeup early in the war.
The MiG Master
While Crusaders were billed as gunfighters, they only achieved four confirmed kills in Vietnam using only their 20 millimeter cannon. High-G loads during air combat maneuvering (ACM) could and did cause the cannon feed mechanisms to jam, forcing the Crusaders to fire their AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles. F-8s also scored kills with Zuni unguided rockets. One kill was notched when a North Vietnamese pilot chose to eject from his MiG-17 rather than take on a VF-211 Crusader pilot. Although the F-8s achieved a 19 to 3 kill ratio (the best of any American aircraft) against the North Vietnamese MiGs, 170 Crusaders were lost during the war (to all causes).
Keeping Them Flying
There were five primary variants of the Crusader and several other variants that were major rebuild/upgrade programs of previously manufactured aircraft. Vought delivered the last of the 1,219 Crusaders built for the United States forces to VF-124, based at NAS Miramar in California, on 3 September 1964. This F-8 would be one of the airframes used by the fledgling TOPGUN command at Miramar. After nearly two decades of service the last operational Crusader fighter squadrons to switch to F-4 Phantom IIs were VF-191 Satan’s Kittens and VF-194 Red Lightning. They were deployed as part of CVW-19 aboard USS Oriskany (CVA-34) for her final WestPac deployment ending in March of 1976.
Not Done Just Yet
Navy Reserve fighter squadrons all over the country began using early F-8A and F-8B Crusaders in 1965. Many of these weary F-8s were hangar queens and were not fully operational- and in some cases dangerous. When the North Koreans seized the intelligence ship USS Pueblo (AGER-2) in 1968 several reserve squadrons were mobilized and it became obvious that the reserve Crusaders just weren’t up to the task. CDR Jack D. Woodul, also known as Youthly Puresome, described his time flying Crusaders in the reserves in an exclusive interview with Avgeekery.com, which you can enjoy right here.
Building Better Reserves
The result of the Pueblo callups was a major reorganization of the reserves beginning in July of 1970. Two reserve carrier air wings (CVWRs) were created. CVWR-20 became an Atlantic Fleet asset and CVWR-30 became part of the Pacific Fleet. Each CVWR was made up of eight squadrons–two fighter squadrons, three attack squadrons, one early warning squadron, one tanker squadron, and one light photo squadron. Eventually an electronic attack squadron was added to each CVWR as well.
The Last and the Best Crusaders
Beginning in 1970 newer and more reliable Crusaders equipped three of the squadrons in each CVWR- both fighter squadrons and the light photo squadron. VF-201 Hunters and VF-202 Superheats, based at NAS Dallas in Texas, were part of CVWR-20. VF-301 Devil’s Disciples and VF-302 Stallions, based at NAS Miramar in California, were part of CVWR-30. All four reserve fighter squadrons flew the F-8H and later the F-8J. Light photographic squadrons VFP-206 Hawkeyes and VFP-306 Peeping Toms were based at Andrews Air Force Base (AFB) near Washington DC. Both squadrons flew the RF-8G variant of the Crusader.
Time at Last to Bow Out
By the time the late 1970s had rolled around the Naval and Marine reserve fighter squadrons had all transitioned to F-4Bs or F-4Js. The RF-8G photo birds continued to serve in the active light photographic squadrons and with the reserves for another ten years until replaced in most cases by RF-4B Phantoms. On 29 March 1987 the last Crusader-equipped reserve squadron (VFP-206) retired the very last operational RF-8G, after which the aircraft was handed over to the Smithsonian.
Still Serving Abroad
In addition to the United States Navy and Marines, France and the Philippines operated F-8 Crusaders. The French Crusaders were new-build F-8Es with some modification for use by the French off their small-deck carriers. Upgraded and improved throughout their service lives, the French F-8s were finally retired in 1999. The Philippines operated 35 refurbished F-8Hs between 1977 and 1988, when they were grounded. In 1991 they were badly damaged during the Mount Pinatubo eruption and scrapped.
Our Favorite Gator Sea Story
In the anecdote department we have this bit of Cold War history. During the 1960s and 1970s in particular, Russian intelligence gathering ships (AGIs or “trawlers”) would mercilessly dog American carrier task groups (especially the carriers themselves) just about everywhere they operated. Often closing close aboard and forcing ships to avoid them (especially during flight ops), the AGIs were a pain in the…neck. Deciding to directly address the issue, one Crusader pilot deployed in the Mediterranean loaded several rolls of toilet paper into the lightening holes inside his aircraft’s speed brake. One low-level pass over the trawler with an open speed brake later the AGI was liberally draped with T.P. Does anyone have a picture of that AGI after the wrap job or the mission marking stenciled on the F-8 afterward?