One of the greatest fighter aircraft of all time, the American Vought F4U "Corsair" became the stuff of legend for its part in the air wars of World War 2 (1939-1945), the Korean War (1950-1953) and several Cold War conflicts that followed. The design was attributed to Igor Sikorsky and Rex Beisel and went on to see production totals reach over 12,500 units with manufacturing ending in 1952 - an impressive total for an aircraft initially rejected by the United States Navy (USN).
The F4U originally appeared as a USN carrier-based fighter design until difficulties in landing the aircraft on a moving carrier led to its expanded use as a land-based fighter in the hands of US Marine aviators. While the United States Navy moved on to the equally-excellent Grumman F6F "Hellcat", the F4U continued to make a name for itself in the Pacific Theater - even earning the respect of its Japanese foes as one of the most feared combat aircraft in the region.
The Corsair was born from a 1938 USN requirement calling for a new high-performance carrier-based fighter and Chance Vought of United Aircraft answered the call with their Model V-166. Vought engineers gave their compact design the largest possible engine - the experimental Pratt & Whitney XR-2800 "Double Wasp" of 2,000 horsepower output. To this was added a massive three-bladed propeller unit. The inverted "gull wing" mainplane arrangement was chosen to keep the spinning propeller blades from hitting the ground and this forced full-length main landing gear legs to be used.
The engine was fitted at the front of the airframe in the traditional way with the single-seat cockpit located just aft. The wing mainplanes were seated ahead of midships while the fuselage was well-streamlined and tapered to the rear. The empennage consisted of a single, short (curved) vertical tail fin with low-set horizontal planes. The undercarriage was of the traditional "tail dragger" arrangement and wholly-retractable. Original armament included 4 x 0.50 Browning heavy machine guns. Despite the inherent strong points in the F4U design, the aircraft held an obstructed forward view (due to the wing's location and long nose) and reduced rearward vision for the pilot due to the raised fuselage spine. Pilots also noted difficulties in cockpit access because of the unique wing bend.
Vought produced two prototype aircraft - V-166A and V-166B - to which V-166A received the Pratt & Whitney R1830 "Twin Wasp" engine while V-166B was given the Pratt & Whitney R2800-2 "Double Wasp". The USN favored the B-model prototype and placed its contract within months of Vought's submission. In development, the aircraft would be known under the designation of "XF4U-1".
When first tested in 1940, V-166B exceeded 400 miles per hour (403mph) and became the first American fighter to reach such speeds. First-flight was recorded May 29th, 1940 (as the XF4U-1) and changes were soon ordered. A revised armament scheme forced a relocation of wing fuel tanks to the fuselage and this, in turn, set back the cockpit a further three feet from the nose which generated all sorts of challenges for a pilot. In 1941, Vought was given a serial production contract for 584 examples of their new aircraft (F4U-1) by the USN. However, the initial production-quality airframe did not go airborne until June 25th, 1942. Carrier trials began in September of that year and the aircraft was officially introduced into service on December 28th - a critical junction in the Allied push to victory.
The inherent dangers of landing such a high-performance aircraft on a moving carrier deck prompted the Navy to delay shipboard use of the F4U for the time being. Instead, the aircraft began operations as a land-based fighter with US Marine air group VMF-124 during February 1943 over Bougainville. In practice, the F4U made short work of the once-unbeatable Mitsubishi A6M "Zero" fighters - the pride of the Imperial Japanese Navy air service - as Zeros proved themselves poorly-protected, lacking suitable armor protection and self-sealing fuel tanks. Additionally, American fighter aircraft were much improved over the pre-war models available in the initial Japanese assaults throughout the Pacific. Improved training and a better stock of seasoned pilots coupled to a fast and powerful fighter eventually helped to turn the tide of the Pacific War over time. Indeed, the F4U proved itself the first Allied fighter to be able to counter the threat of the A6M Zero in the war - she could out-turn and out-dive most any enemy in the Pacific Theater.
In the following months, the US Marines took on even greater stocks of the new aircraft, such was the services impression of the mount. Its versatility allowed it to be utilized to great effect as a ground attacker when outfitted with 8 x 5" aerial rockets or up to 4,000lb of conventional drop stores. Jettisonable fuel tanks helped to increased overall combat ranges and bring the fight to the enemy wherever they would be found. Japanese Army forces grew so accustomed to Corsair strikes, and their accompanying dive sound, that they nicknamed the American aircraft "Whistling Death" (this sound was attributed to the rush of air at the cooler vents when the Corsair was in a high-speed diving action).
Corsair pilots managed over 500 air kills by the end of 1943 and totaled some 2,140 enemy aircraft by the end of the war in August of 1945.The highest scoring ace of the U.S. Marine Corps became Major Gregory "Pappy" Boyington who managed 28 total enemy kills. All of these totals were made possible, in part, by the 64,000 sorties recorded by F4U airmen in the whole of the war. Allied pilots eventually earned an astounding kill ratio of 11:1 against their Japanese foes.
The US Navy began trialing their Corsairs through squadron VF-12 in October 1942. VF-17 was stocked with the new fighters in April of 1943 and early USN use saw Corsairs operating from land bases as well until its carrier training and operation kinks were worked out. Indeed the aircraft was given such nicknames as "Ensign Eliminator" and "Ensign Killer" for its tricky handling when on deck though, otherwise, it remained a powerful, fast and highly-valued fighter. Such was the value of the aircraft that the U.S. Navy did not give up the F4U in a frontline service role until December of 1954 - after the Korean War.
While the US Marines enjoyed successes with their Corsairs from land bases, the British Fleet Air Arm (FAA) fielded the mount in its initially-intended role of carrier-based fighter. To fit aboard the space-strapped British carriers, the Corsair received wings that were some eight inches shorter than their American counterparts. British naval Corsair Mk IIs of No. 1834 Squadron were used in the April 3rd, 1944 attack on the German battleship KMS Tirpitz and, from then on, British airmen grew equally fond of their Corsairs.
The history of the Corsair did not end with the final days of World War 2 for the type was pressed into service as a close-support platform during the upcoming Korean War (1950-1953). F4Us excelled in the role despite the arrival of jet-powered aircraft for they could loiter longer and fly lower under greater control than their fast-flying, fuel-thirsty jet-powered brethren. These Corsairs attacked with machine guns and cannons as well as rockets and conventional drop bombs. Amazingly, F4U Corsairs accounted for some 80% of all US Marine and Navy ground strike missions during 1950 alone. It was not wholly uncommon for the propeller-driven Corsairs to also successfully counter the new jet-powered Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15 "Fagot" fighters emerging from the Soviet Union and fighting for North Korea. To the Corsair line was also added specialized night-fighter variants which increased the service lives of the family line considerably.
During the First Indochina War (1946-1954), French aviators relied on their F4Us against Viet Minh forces from the span of 1952 to 1954. These were operated from land-based units and provided all manner of Close-Air Support (CAS) for fighting French forces on the ground. Additional service saw Corsairs in action during the Suez Crisis (1956) in the Middle East, in the Algerian War (1954-1962) and over Tunisia (1961).
Beyond production by Vought - whose lines struggled with the massive American military requirement during World War 2 - the F4U was produced by both Brewster (F3A-1) and Goodyear (FG-1). Marks began with the original F4U-1 (known as "Corsair Mk I" in the Fleet Air Arm) and these were followed by the late first-batch F4U-1A (Corsair Mk II) and 700 Brewster-built F3A-1 (Corsair Mk III). Fighter-bomber forms then emerged as the F4U-1C (4 x 20mm cannon armament) and F4U-1D (P&W R2800-8W water-injected engine) which carried 2 x 1,000lb bombs or 8 x 5" rockets. The F4U-1P was a photo-reconnaissance mount. An experimental night fighter version became the X4FU-2. Another night fighter form was the F4U-2 based on the F4U-1. The final World War 2 Corsair model became the F4U-4 which appeared in late 1944. XF4U-2 was a late-war night fighter which served through VFN-75 and VFN-101.
The F4U-4C were 300 Corsairs outfitted with 4 x 20mm M2 cannons instead of the original 6 x machine gun armament. Additional night fighters emerged as the F4U-4E and F4U-4N. The F4U-4P was another photo-reconnaissance mount. Appearing in 1945 was the F4U-5 which arrived late in the year and thusly missed out on actions in World War 2 altogether. The P&W R-2800-32(E) engine outputted at 2,850 horsepower.
The F4U-N was outfitted with radar and saw production reach 214 units. The F4U-5NL was developed as an arctic warfare variant evolved from the F4U-5N. The F4U-5P was an extended range photo-reconnaissance mount. The F4U-6 was a dedicated USMC ground attack variant which was eventually redesignated under the AU-1 marker. The F4U-7 was a French Navy-inspired development. The F4U-K and FG-1K both served as drones.
Special interceptor versions, particularly to deal with the rising threat of Imperial Japanese Navy kamikaze suicide strikes, became the Goodyear F2G-1 and F2G-2 (detailed elsewhere on this site). These were fielded with the P&W R-4360 "Wasp Major" 28-cylinder engine of 3,000 horsepower, nearly fifty percent greater power than the original Corsair product. Slight changes differentiated the two marks though neither ever saw combat in World War 2 with only ten examples emerging from testing and the war ending.
Beyond the United States, United Kingdom and France, the Corsair was in play with the Argentine Navy, the El Salvadorian Air Force, the Honduran Air Force and the New Zealand Air Force. The last known flying, military-grade F4U was retired in 1979 with Honduras while New Zealand fielded the F4U across thirteen total squadrons from 1944 to 1949.
In popular culture, the Corsair served as the subject of the late-1970s television series "Black Sheep Squadron" (originally known as "Baa Baa Black Sheep"). The show chronicled the experiences of "Pappy" Boyington (played by Robert Conrad) during his Pacific Theater career.