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Corsair: a privateer; hence, a pirate.
Test pilot Boone Guyton had his hands full. Flying low over the Connecticut countryside, he alternately peered through his rain-streaked canopy and glanced at his fuel gauge. After nearly an hour of high-speed cruising tests, he was farther than expected from the Chance Vought Company's field at Stratford. The radical new fighter was fast—faster than he'd anticipated—and in the course of taking notes, Guyton hadn't noticed how far he'd flown. But now the July rainsqualls blocked his way home. And to complicate matters, he had no radio contact with any other airport.
Unable to locate an alternate landing strip, Guyton selected the longest fairway of the Norwich golf course. There was no other choice; he was running out of fuel. A former Navy pilot, Guyton knew about landing airplanes in short spaces. He set up a carrier landing pattern with full flaps and a nose-high, power-on approach. He was still unfamiliar with the experimental fighter, but it felt responsive and stable. Guyton could almost imagine the Lexington stretched out before him as he turned from base leg to final.
At 80 knots indicated, Guyton closed the throttle and three-pointed the long-nosed airplane onto the manicured green turf. For a moment he was filled with relief. It was a good landing. He carefully applied the brakes.
Abruptly his mood changed. He was not slowing perceptibly, and the trees at the end of the fairway seemed to be growing taller every second. Guyton decidedto ground-loop the airplane as a desperate means of stopping it. He jabbed one foot down on the rudder pedal. No response. The sleek, silver Vought continued straight ahead toward the looming trees. The fighter's own inertia had formed a silent conspiracy with its smooth tires and the slick grass to prevent effective braking. Guyton saw the inevitable and his reactions took over. He cut the switches left and right, turned off the fuel, and barely had time to brace himself.
With speed hardly diminished, the Vought went through the rough and headlong into the trees. There was a series of loud cracks as the heavy aircraft splintered tree trunks. Branches snapped off, mingling momentarily in midair with pieces of aluminum. The abrupt deceleration lurched the airplane on its nose, and the momentum brought the tail forward and down. Guyton's ship slid inverted, tail first, partway down a shallow ravine until the remains crunched into a large stump.
Guyton's Navy training had paid off. As a routine precaution before landing, he'd shucked off his parachute harness and locked the canopy back. There was just enough room for him to crawl out of the cockpit. Except for cuts and bruises he was unharmed. But as he stood up to survey the scene, he felt sick. An airman's concern for his plane often exceeds his joy at being alive. Boone Guyton felt that ambivalence now.
What seconds earlier had been a sleekly beautiful flying machine was a pitiful, tangled mess. The starboard wing had been wrenched off, the empennage mangled, the cockpit crumpled. The XF4U-1 seemed destroyed.
Forty-four days previously, on 29 May 1940, the experimental fighter had flown for the first time. Vought's chief test pilot, Lyman Bullard, was at the controls. Known as a careful, calculating flier, Bullard had spent days learning the intricacies of the big, gull-winged prototype. Engine and taxi tests were conducted before Bullard finally decided to fly the beast. He was by then well acquainted with the Pratt and Whitney R-2800-4 engine, and when he advanced the throttle he stampeded off the runway behind 1,805 horses. The takeoff and climb were astonishing.
Bullard had climbed to 9,000 feet and executed some standard tests. He made shallow-banked turns, cycled the landing gear, tested the flaps, and made notations on instrument readings. In a brief test of the new fighter's speed range he slowed to a near-stall, then resumed normal fast cruise. Some of these maneuvers were visible from the field, and the assembled engineers, mechanics, and officials saw nothing unusual when the bent-wing Vought entered the traffic pattern and landed.
When Bullard had shut down the engine and climbed out, he seemed nervous and on edge. He asked for a cigarette. The onlookers soon learned why. One was Boone Guyton, who recalled, "Upon inspection, we noted that the spring tabs on the elevators were not there. They had been carried away because of a brief flutter mode. Bullard commented that the airplane had shaken slightly and vibrated, but that control forces were not so high that he could not handle the landing. The tabs had fluttered off at a normal cruising speed of about 180 knots."
With this discouraging beginning did the Corsair launch its career. But the F4U's origin dated to early 1938 when the Navy Bureau of Aeronautics sponsored a design competition for a new carrier fighter. Vought submitted its entry in April-designer Rex Biesel's design V-166B, better known as the Corsair.
Pratt and Whitney's new Double Wasp radial engine was the soul of the Corsair. The radical configuration was based upon use of the Double Wasp and its three-bladed Hamilton Standard propeller. The inverted gull wing solved four problems at once. It caused the least possible aerodynamic drag with a right-angle juncture at the fuselage. It allowed a shorter landing gear than would have been possible with a straight-wing design, thereby giving sufficient ground clearance for the 13-foot, 4-inch prop. Also, the shorter landing gear could retract straight aft, avoiding space problems near the internal wing tanks. And finally, as a carrier aircraft, the F4U could fold its wings directly over the canopy with room to spare on a hanger deck. In this configuration, however, the lower overhead on British carriers would cause problems for storage.
Vought won the contract in June 1938, and by February 1939 the full-scale mockup was completed. The prototype XF4U-1, Bureau of Aeronautics number 1443, was built with the original armament specifications. They reflect the Navy's uncertainty about aviation ordnance at the time: one .30-caliber and one .50-caliber machine gun firing through the propeller arc with one .50 in each wing. Wing racks for ten light air-to-air bombs and an aiming window in the bottom of the fuselage were also provided.
After the forced landing on 11 July 1940, Vought's experimental shop spared no effort in rebuilding the first Corsair. Close inspection had revealed that the center section, engine accessory section, and landing gear remained intact. This fortunate development simplified the formidable task of restoration, which proceeded on a round-the-clock basis.
The job was done in something under three months. On 1 October the Corsair set a record. On a flight from Stratford to Hartford, a distance of some 40 statute miles, the XF4U-1 clocked a blazing 405 mph, or 350 knots. The exact figure was withheld for some time, but the press learned that the U.S. Navy probably had the fastest fighter plane in the world. Since 1940 the claim has been made that the Corsair was the first American fighter to exceed the magical 400 mph mark in level flight. This was not strictly accurate. The Army Air Corps' Lockheed P-38 Lightning is the legitimate holder of that title. The Corsair was the first U.S. single-engine fighter to break the 400 mph barrier.
Some bugs remained to be excised from the F4U's big, beefy airframe. The speed and ceiling both exceeded specifications, but lateral stability and spin recovery required attention. There was also a persistent prop surge. Navy pilots flew the prototype at NAS Anacostia in October and November, presenting a long list of desired improvements. They stressed changes in armament, internal fuel, armor plate, and aileron design for greater roll rate. Meanwhile, the company conducted dive tests in January 1941, achieving speeds of 515 mph. Eventually the F4U's maximum dive speed was calculated at a Critical Mach number of 0.73. This translated to 536 mph, or 465 knots, at 10,000 feet.
One of Boone Guyton's major chores throughout the war was describing the phenomenon of compressability to new F4U pilots. He explained the technique for recovering from terminal velocity dives in which the controls seemed frozen at high and medium altitudes. The best procedure was to avoid using the elevator trim tab, which could induce a violent pitch-up in the denser air at lower altitudes and overstress the airframe. Instead, power reduction and slow, steady back pressure on the stick were advocated after waiting long enough for the controls to become effective.
The Navy's requests were complied with and met the satisfaction of BuAer during final demonstrations at Anacostia in late February 1941. The Corsair was then on its way to production. In March and April Vought and the Navy concluded contract negotiations, and on 30 June the F4U-1 was ordered into manufacture.
At this point the Corsair became caught in a time warp. The world was changing, and not at all for the better. In 1938, with no immediate threat of war, the F4U seemed destined for limited production, not unlike the P-38. Vought's emphasis was upon speed and performance, leaving production methods a secondary consideration. Therefore, thousands of engineering man-hours were devoted to the construction of the inverted gull wing and reduction of parasitic drag. And similarly, the F4U contained numerous forgings and castings. Its tailwheel forging was the largest employed in any fighter of the era. There seemed little need to solve these problems on a mass-production basis.
Three years later, the world had turned over. Europe was either under Axis occupation or waging full-scale war. Japan was on the march in Asia. America was preparing for what many saw as an inevitable entry into the conflict. Under these circumstances, it was not difficult to imagine that the Corsair would be needed before long, and needed in large numbers. The parent company simply could not provide as many of the new fighters as the Navy and Marines could absorb. Therefore, during November and December two other manufacturers were brought into the Corsair production scheme. These were Brewster Aircraft and Goodyear. Both companies required over a year to reach production, but their subsequent records contrasted markedly.
Brewster was the hard-luck company of the aviation industry. When it did win military contracts, as with its SBA dive bomber, it often could not meet the desired quota and had to sublet some of the work to other factories. The designs which reached the fleet—most notably the much maligned F2A fighter—suffered from obsolescence. Early in the war it was suspected that Brewster's Long Island plant had been infiltrated by German agents who sabotaged the production line. Whether true or not, the fact remained that Brewster didn't build many airplanes. Its Corsairs were designated F3A-1, duplicates of the F4U-1 series. The first one flew in April 1943. Deliveries lasted from June of that year to July of 1944, at which time the contract was canceled. Only 735 Brewster-built Corsairs were delivered, counting Long Island and Pennsylvania production.
Goodyear was another matter entirely. The Akron, Ohio, factory delivered 377 FG-1s in 1943, boosting the next year's figure nearly sixfold to 2,108. Another 1,453 were accepted in the eight months of hostilities during 1945, for a wartime total of 4,006. This amounted to over one-third of all Corsair production during World War II. Many FG-1s were built with nonfolding wings during the period before Corsairs were put aboard carriers, and these aircraft inevitably went to land-based Marine squadrons.
Vought's own production began slowly. Partially this was due to the number of changes implemented before the program began. The cockpit was moved three feet aft to accommodate more fuselage fuel capacity, and the engine in the F4U-1 was the updated R-2800-8(B), providing 2,000 horsepower on takeoff. The first production Corsair, BuAer 02153, was flown on 25 June 1942. With a gross weight of 12,060 pounds, the early dash one demonstrated a sea-level climb rate in excess of 3,000 feet per minute, a service ceiling of 37,000 feet, and a maximum level speed of 360 knots, or 415 mph.
The Navy accepted its first two Corsairs in July 1942, with nine following in August. By the end of the year 178 had been delivered. During 1943 the production rate showed a slow but steady increase, exceeding 200 units by November. F4U deliveries peaked in July 1945 with 303 aircraft, though 300 or more Vought-built Corsairs were accepted during three other months. Total Corsair production was topped in May 1944 when the Navy accepted 254 F4Us, 220 FGs, and 122 F3As—a total of 596. Even after Brewster ceased production, combined Vought and Goodyear acceptances were seldom much below 400 per month.
Vought's flight-test section was kept working full-time during the war, and not surprisingly. Quite aside from experimental flying, production flight testing was a continual project as new Corsairs came off the assembly line. In 1940 the flight-test roster included two names: Lyman Bullard and Boone Guyton. But Guyton took over from Bullard as chief test pilot late that year, and during the war the ranks swelled to about twenty-three at any one time. These included six in experimental flight test and as many as seventeen in production test.
Vought's test pilot recruitment was a story in itself. During wartime, experienced aviators were a rare commodity. As Guyton said, "The draft left us with little to choose from for most of those years." There were general aviation instructors, former crop dusters, private pilots, and a few "young engineer types or close to engineer types." Their flight time varied from as little as forty hours up to several hundred. After check rides in Piper Cubs, the aspiring test pilots were brought up by stages through OS2Us and SB2Us. Considering that there were two fatalities in some 20,000 F4U test flights, spanning fourteen years, the program must be considered exceptionally successful.
Engine failure was the single leading cause of test-flying crashes. Guyton, who logged 1,754 Corsair flights, had two engine failures in three days during 1943. The first ended in a safe dead-stick landing from 20,000 feet. The second time, his Corsair hit short of the runway, broke in two, and spilled him out, still in his seat. He spent two months recovering in a hospital. Bill Boothby was over rough terrain when his F4U-1 suffered engine failure. Boothby bailed out but apparently snagged his ripcord on the emergency canopy release, causing his chute to catch on the tail. He went down with the airplane. Dick Burroughs made a dead-stick landing in an F4U-5 at New Haven Airport but landed short and was killed instantly when the Corsair flipped inverted.
The U-Bird first tried its sea legs on 25 September 1942. The seventh F4U-1 was flown by Lieutenant Commander Sam Porter to Chesapeake Bay where the escort carrier Sangamon (CVE-26) waited to receive him. Vought's project engineer Russ Clark and service manager Jack Hospers were both aboard to observe and lend advice. The CVE had 28 knots across her deck, and Porter made four takeoffs and landings. In a conventional deck run the takeoff distance was 280 feet.
This experiment, however brief, showed up some serious problems which would plague the Corsair for two years. Visibility, already hampered by the long nose, was further diminished by hydraulic fluid leaking from the cowl flap actuators and by engine oil from the valve push rods. It not only streaked the windscreen, but spattered on the pilot's goggles when the canopy was open. This problem was easily solved. Beginning in December, F4U-1s were built with a different flap actuator and the top portion of the cowling was permanently faired over.
The other problems remained. The Corsair's rigid landing gear oleo caused a potentially disastrous bounce in any but a smooth touchdown. It was not only noted on carriers, where hard landing are the norm, but also on runways. Though some pilots considered the F4U no more difficult to land than some other planes, many had serious trouble. Additionally, the F4U-1's low tailwheel put the big flaps close to the ground, making directional control erratic. Until these discrepancies could be cured, the Corsair would face serious opposition about going to sea.
Excerpted from CORSAIR by Barrett Tillman. Copyright © 1979 by United States Naval Institute. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|Ch. 1||Bent-wing legend||2|
|Ch. 2||Cactus Corsairs||24|
|Ch. 3||The upper Solomons||42|
|Ch. 4||The backwater war||72|
|Ch. 5||Commonwealth Corsairs||92|
|Ch. 6||With the fast carriers||106|
|Ch. 7||Corsairs against Japan||126|
|Ch. 9||Other wars||176|
|App. A||Surviving Corsairs||190|
|App. B||Corsair variants||193|
|App. D||The top Corsair aces||204|