Thanks to the rather far-fetched mid-1970s TV series Black Sheep Squadron, the bent-wing image of the Chance-Vought F4U Corsair is no doubt one of the most vivid of the World War II fighters in the minds of most Americans. The dark blue forms of the squadron’s Corsairs came on the screen every week, thrilling millions who watched the fictionalized exploits of the men of VMF-214, the United States Marine Corps fighter squadron commanded by the legendary Major Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, as they battled sinister Japanese aces in the skies over the Solomon Islands in 1943.
The events depicted in the series were contrived, but the airplanes were real, and the series was based on real men who had flown the same type of fighter against the Japanese several decades earlier when the bent-wing Corsair symbolized Marine Corps Aviation.
Development on the F4U Corsair
The Corsair was the first of several successful fighter designs built around Pratt & Whitney’s R-2800 Double Wasp engine, so called because of the double bank of nine cylinders that was designed to increase the power of the company’s famous Wasp engine. United Aircraft’s Vought division submitted the design in competition for a new fighter requirement put forth by the U.S. Navy in early 1938 for a high-performance carrier-borne fighter that would be capable of achieving and maintaining air superiority above the fleet.
To make the most efficient use of the powerful engine, Vought’s design team chose an especially large propeller, a choice that extended the length of the fuselage by several feet so the ends of the propeller blades would not reach the ground and also led to the airplane’s unique wings. The elongated nose severely restricted visibility, particularly when the airplane was on the ground, making the Corsair difficult to taxi. It also limited forward visibility during the critical approach to landing, as the end of the runway would completely disappear from the pilot’s view when the airplane was on short final. Unfortunately, the lack of forward visibility reduced the Corsair’s capabilities as a carrier airplane, although this would turn out to be a bonus for the Marines in the early days of the war when high-performance aircraft were at a premium.
The size of the prop also led to the most prominent of the Corsair features. Instead of using longer landing gear that would be difficult to stow in the wing of an airplane designed to operate off aircraft carriers, the designers decided instead to bend the wings into a gull shape so the landing-gear section of the wing would be closer to the ground than the fuselage. The bent wings allowed the use of shorter struts while keeping the propeller blades clear of the ground and gave the fighter the gull-wing appearance that distinguished Corsairs from other fighters of World War II. Only the Stuka dive-bomber used by Germany’s Luftwaffe in Europe was characterized by a similarly shaped wing.
A Top Speed of Over 400 mph
By the spring of 1940, the prototype Corsair was ready to fly, and on May 29 it took to the skies for the first time from the Vought factory at Bridgeport, Connecticut. There is confusion over the actual date of the first flight. Some sources say it was on April 29, and others set the date a month later on May 29, which is probably the correct date. The design was not without faults, and test flights often ended prematurely due to mechanical problems.
The fifth flight ended in disaster when the airplane ran out of fuel and had to be crashlanded on a golf course. Although the airframe was salvageable, the prototype suffered major damage in the crash, which caused a setback in the test program. By October, it was back in the air, and on the first day of the month the airplane made a short flight from the Vought factory at Bridgeport to Hartford and was clocked at an average ground speed of 405 miles per hour.
Modern aviation media experts claim this as the first time a fighter had flown faster than 400 miles per hour in level flight, but that’s really not true. The reported 400 miles per hour was actually ground speed, which is the actual speed of an airplane over the ground, a combination of true airspeed and a correction for a headwind or tailwind. In this instance, the Corsair’s speed was boosted by a considerable tailwind. Lockheed’s prototype XP-38 had exceeded 400 miles per hour during a cross-country flight more than a year previously. Republic’s P-47, which was still under development with the same engine, would be considerably faster. The official top speed for the first production F4Us was only 405 mph, although later models were capable of speeds in excess of 450 mph.
Marines Adopt the F4U
Design problems hampered the new fighter’s production, and it was not until June 1942 that the first production airplane rolled off the assembly line at Stratton. The Navy took delivery of its first F4U a month later. It did not take long for Navy test pilots to realize they had a problem on their hands. The Corsair was difficult to handle, and some wags later referred to it as The Ensign Eliminator due to the requirement for an experienced pilot to be able to handle it in the edges of the realm of flight.
Visibility problems caused by the long nose were the most serious. As a result, the Corsair failed to pass carrier trials, and it was two years before the Navy approved it for shipboard operations. Meanwhile, Marine Corps fighter squadrons had gone into combat in the Southwest Pacific with obsolete Grumman F4F Wildcats and needed something capable of intercepting Japanese bombers at high altitude. Since the Navy rejected the F4U as a fleet fighter, the Navy Department decided to give the Corsair to the Marines and adopt the Grumman F6F Hellcat as the Navy’s primary fighter.
Both the Navy and Marine Corps were hurting for a decent fighter in 1942, but due to heavy carrier losses at the battles of Coral Sea and Midway, naval aviation was temporarily out of the war and could wait until new carriers could be launched and made ready for sea to equip its squadrons. The Grumman F6F Hellcat, which used the same engine as the Corsair, was under development, and deliveries were projected to start soon so the Navy adopted it as its primary fleet fighter.
The Marines, on the other hand, had been sent to the South and Southwest Pacific where Pacific Ocean area of operations forces were battling the Japanese on Guadalcanal. The Corps’ F4F Wildcats lacked the performance to intercept the Japanese bombers that came over regularly to blast Henderson Field, although superior Marine pilots were able to more than hold their own against the Japanese bombers and fighters when they were able to gain altitude before the enemy aircraft reached their targets or when they came down to lower altitudes where they were more evenly matched.
Army P-39s and P-40s were also based at Henderson as part of the “Cactus Air Force,” and while in some regards they were superior to the Wildcat, which required the pilot to hand-crank the landing gear after takeoff, they were still incapable of gaining altitude in time to intercept a bomber formation. The Corsair’s performance held a lot of promise, although by the time it entered combat the battle of Guadalcanal had been decided. Consequently, Marine F4Us would see service primarily in the escort and ground-attack role rather than as interceptors.
First Combat For the Corsair
VMF-124 was the first Marine squadron to receive Corsairs, and by the end of 1942 the squadron had become operational. They were immediately deployed to Guadalcanal, arriving on the night of February 11-12. The following morning the squadron went out on a rescue mission. Before the day was out, squadron airplanes had logged nine hours in the air. On February 13, a flight of 12 Corsairs from VMF-124 escorted Thirteenth Air Force B-24 bombers to Bougainville, the longest escort mission of the war in the Solomons at the time.
The Corsair’s first exposure to air-to-air combat occurred the following day, when VMF-124 contributed several airplanes for a joint-service force made up of Army P-38s and P-40s, Navy Liberators, and the Marine F4Us. Eight American fighters and two bombers were lost, including a pair of Corsairs, one of which collided with one of the three Japanese Zekes that went down in the battle. It was an inauspicious start for the Corsair.
The February 14 losses led to a temporary cancellation of further daylight raids against Japanese positions, and the combined force of Army and Navy Liberators turned to night attack until fighter strength could be built up. Daylight missions did not resume until March 28 when eight VMF-124 Corsairs were part of a strike force against the Shetlands. The Marines missed out as seven Corsairs turned back, along with three of the eight P-38s. The rest of the force tangled with a formation of Japanese Nakijima floatplane fighters and shot down eight of them.