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The Bent-Wing Bird:
The F4U Corsair at War

By James P. Werbaneth
January 2009

When people look for the best fighter plane of World War II, the ones that fought in decisive air battles naturally get the first attention. The Supermarine Spitfire gained well-deserved fame in the Battle of Britain, and certainly ranks as one of the most important, and beloved, planes of the war. On the American side the P-51 Mustang, once mated with the same Rolls Royce Merlin engine that powered the Spitfire, proved to be the best all-around fighter flown by the Army Air Forces. Superbly maneuverable, it had the decided advantage of being able to fly from Britain to Berlin and back; putting one's best plane over the enemy's capital at will is an undeniable step toward victory. No one less than Herman Göring, the Reichsmarschall who could occasionally grasp reality through a haze of vanity and morphine, stated that he knew the war was lost when he saw Mustangs over Berlin.

In the Pacific, three naval fighters vault to the top of most observers' list of the best of the best. The Mitsubishi Zero provided a rude shock to Allied opposition at the start of hostilities, and set the bar by which all others were measured. Light and maneuverable with the added advantage of range over the American Wildcats, it did not age well, as American fighter development overtook it. In addition, even those early edges were gained a steep price in survivability, as the Zero lacked self-sealing fuel tanks and armor.

The Wildcat's successor, the F6F Hellcat, is often viewed as the best Allied plane of the Pacific War. Considering its combination of power and performance, and that the U.S. Navy credited its Hellcats with destroying over 5,000 enemy aircraft, it certainly deserves a place toward the top of anyone's list of the best fighters of World War II.

Along side it in the Pacific War was something completely different: The Chance Vought F4U Corsair.

F4U Corsairs in flight
Corsairs in flight.

The story of the Corsair is not just about its impressive performance and lethality as a fighter; numbers do not reveal everything. It is also about long-term, direct influence that surpasses that of any World War II aircraft, and the ability to affect the outcome of ground combat, years after the era of other piston-powered fighter planes had passed.

All the more impressive, this was accomplished by a design at one time considered thoroughly unsuited for operations from aircraft carriers.

Birth of the Corsair

The genesis of the Corsair goes back to 1938, when the United States Navy desired a carrier fighter that would match the performance of current land-based fighters. Considering that carrier planes at the time tended to be biplanes when the state of the art on land moving quickly toward all-metal monoplanes, the requirement called for a quantum leap in capability.

Three companies submitted proposals. Grumman, despite a long relationship of supplying quality fighters to the Navy that extended from the thirties through the F-14 Tomcat, nonetheless submitted the XF5-1 Skyrocket, a twin-engined design that was probably too far ahead of its time. Bell's Airabonita, a variant of the P-39 Airacobra with a tail wheel, was so awful that one test pilot called it a "dog." The third submission was from Vought-Sikorsky (renamed Chance Vought in 1944), and eventually entered service as the Corsair.

The Navy put through an order for a prototype of what would become the Corsair, on 30 June 1938. Vought's XF4U-1 design would have a 2,000-horsepower Pratt & Whitney XR-2800-4 Double Wasp radial engine, of 1,850 horsepower; this was the same power plant as the Army's P-47 Thunderbolt. Armament consisted of four machineguns, two in the nose and one in each wing. By February of the next year, Vought had a plywood mockup built at its Stratford, Connecticut plant.

From the beginning, the designers had to adjust the airframe to the massive engine and its need for an enormous Hamilton Standard propeller, at thirteen feet four inches wide, even larger than that of the P-47 but with three blades instead of four. Chief Designer Rex Beisel struggled to give the prop adequate ground clearance, recognizing that a tall, thin landing gear would not bear up under the strain of the controlled crash that is a carrier landing.

His solution was to bent the wings downward, in an inverted gull pattern, giving the Corsair its most recognizable geometric feature. Besides solving the landing gear problem, it reduced drag where wing met fuselage.

This plane flew for the first time on 29 May 1940. However, the only prototype ran out of fuel, crashed and was nearly demolished on a country club golf course on 11 July, delaying development by three months while the plane was reconstructed. Then on 1 October, on a more successful test flight, it achieved 405 miles per hour, becoming the first American plane to break 400 mph in level flight.

XF4U-1 prototype
The XF4U-1 prototype.

These events proved the worth of the XF4U-1 to more than just its designers. Test pilot Boone T. Guyton’s survival after the plane skidded through the rough and into the trees, and the ability of Vought's team to rebuild it, demonstrated the future Corsair's toughness. To the Army, its speed record showed the value of radial-engined fighters; the USAAF subsequently decided not to rely completely on liquid-cooled engines, and gave the go-ahead to the Thunderbolt.

However, reports of air combat in Europe resulted in changes to the design, adding armor, self-sealing fuel tanks and additional armament. The fuselage guns were moved to the wings, with two more added, in turn displacing fuel tanks to the fuselage. This forced Vought's engineers to move the cockpit back by three feet. Finally, the plane that would be the Corsair got a new and even more powerful engine, the R-2800-8, delivering 2,000 horsepower.

The Navy went ahead and ordered 584 of the new aircraft, redesignated F4U-1. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Brewster and Goodyear were also contracted to build the plane, Under the “VGB Program” with the respective official designations of F3A-1 and FG-1, despite being identical.

The U.S. Navy took delivery of its first Corsair on 31 July 1942, one day after the same milestone for the Grumman Hellcat. In all there would be 1,550 F4U-1's delivered.

Immediately though, the plane did not impress. Its performance could not be denied, but as a carrier plane it was most wanting. On 25 September 1942, the Navy commenced carrier qualification trials on the escort carrier USS Sangamon, with the seventh delivered Corsair, piloted by Commander Sam Porter.

The same power and speed that made it a promising combat plane created problems when it came to land the Corsair at the end of a mission. The Corsair had to come in just above stall speed, and if the pilot miscalculated and approached too slow, the plane would drop hard, very hard, usually with the left wing descending first. The shock absorbers on the landing gear would “bottom out,” and then spring back, propelling the aircraft upward like a pogo stick.

Along with this disturbing bounce, the tailhook would sometimes miss the arrester wire. This would send the plane, unimpeded, down the deck, with the potential for disaster if there were other planes already forward.

Plus, the position of the cockpit, far back from the nose, resulted in serious visibility issues. Landing a Corsair on a carrier deck added blindness to one of the most stressful practices in aviation, something that must have been even worse on the tiny deck of a “jeep carrier."

There were other tests in the same month, on the expanse of the USS Saratoga, a converted battlecruiser with one of the biggest flight decks of any American aircraft carrier of its era. These too yielded unsatisfactory results.

At the time the U.S. Navy had a clear, ready alternative to the Corsair: The Hellcat. Therefore it made the choice to deploy the Grumman fighter to its carrier air wings, while relegating the Corsair to land-based squadrons, especially those flown by Marines.

Flying Leathernecks

The Corsair entered service with the Marine Corps on 12 February 1943, equipping squadron VMF-124 on Guadalcanal. The Marines would come to prize the F4U’s ruggedness and its range at over 1,500 miles the greatest for a single-engined machine in the Pacific theater at the time and it further had the fastest rate of climb in the theater at about 3,000 feet per minute. Some Japanese opponents considered it the best American fighter of the war.

But the Corsair’s baptism by fire on February 14 did not go much better than its carrier trials. A force of U.S. Navy PB4Y Liberators was tasked with bombing Kahili airfield on Bougainville, with Army P-40’s flying low cover, Army P-38’s flying top cover, and the newly-arrived Marine F4U’s spread between, a standard escort pattern.

The outcome became known as the “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.” Near Kahili the formation was attacked by about fifty Zeros, most probably with the benefit of advanced warning. Two Navy heavy bombers went down, along with two P-40’s, a pair of Corsairs, and all four P-38’s. The Japanese lost three or four Zeros, one in a collision with a Corsair.

The campaign in the Solomons, however, demonstrated that the Corsair and its USMC pilots could do much better, and they did.

In Aril 1943, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto decided to counterattack, after losing Guadalcanal and losing the Battle of the Bismarck Sea. I-go Sakusen (usually translated as “Operation A”), under his personal command, called for mustering all available airpower, including the air wings from carriers, at Rabaul, and inflicting massive attacks on American bases in both the Solomons and New Guinea.

On April 7, a force of sixty-seven Val dive bombers escorted by a hundred and ten Zeros was spotted by coastwatchers and radar on its way to Guadalcanal. The headquarters there sent a vivid warning to the aviators at Henderson Field and to the ships nearby: “Condition very red.”

A total of seventy-six available fighters from the USAAF, Navy and Marine Corps including Corsairs met the attackers. Yet some of the dive bombers broke through, and sank three ships off Guadalcanal and in Tulagi Harbor, the destroyer Aaron Ward, tanker Kanawa, and the Australian corvette Moa.

Japanese losses came to twelve Vals and seventeen Zeros. The Americans lost seven planes but only one pilot. Despite sinking those three ships, any Japanese success came expensively, and did nothing to slow down the American advance in any meaningful way. All the while, the Corsair was at the tip of the aerial spear.

The first Marine Corsair ace was Lieutenant Kenneth Walsh of VMF-124, who got his first three victories on 1 April 1943 against a preliminary I-go Sakusen raid. During the 7 April attack on Guadalcanal, he was shot down but rescued from the water. Then on 13 May he bagged three more planes during a Japanese photoreconnaissance mission.

Nor was he finished. Walsh was finally credited with twenty victories, and a Congressional Medal of Honor, when he was ordered home in November. In 1945 he managed to return to the Pacific for a second tour, getting his twenty-first and final kill.

The end of 1943 saw the arrival in the Solomons of the most celebrated group of Corsair aviators, VMF-214. Their commander was Major Gregory Boyington, who achieved the nickname of “Pappy” because he was a relative old man at thirty. Boyington was a former gold miner who studied engineering and wrestled at the University of Washington under the name Gregory Hallenbeck, using the name of his stepfather. Later he adopted Boyington, after his birth father.

Maj. Gregory Boyington
Maj. Gregory "Pappy" Boyington, 1943.

Hallenbeck/Boyington joined the Marines a year after graduation, serving for six years as a flight instructor. Subsequently he volunteered for the American Volunteer Group, or Flying Tigers, in China.

Boyington was seriously alcoholic, unruly, and adverse to military discipline, so upon his return from China, a desk job as a personnel officer on Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides could not have been easy. Yet he used his position to propose the formation of a new fighter squadron, and comprised of himself and other men who did not always fit the Clean Marine image.

The result as VMF-214. Originally nicknamed “Boyington’s Bastards,” they adopted the more press-friendly “Black Sheep.”

VMF-214’s organization coincided with an offensive campaign of fighter sweeps against Rabaul. The first involved formations of mixed aircraft types, and proved too costly for the results gained. Boyington proposed using packages of single aircraft types, thereby eliminating tactical problems emerging from differences of performance, and adopting generally more flexible aerial tactics.

His proposals were given the okay, and both he and VMF-214 vindicated them quickly. In less than twelve weeks of combat, the Black Sheep made headlines by shooting down ninety-four Japanese planes. Boyington’s own score climbed, and he approached the Marine record for victories.

Between his Flying Tiger and Marine service, Boyington shot down twenty-eight Japanese aircraft, and won the Congressional Medal of Honor. Unfortunately he and his Corsair were shot down on the very day that he scored his last kill. Pappy Boyington spent the rest of the war in a series of hellish POW camps.

He and his fellow Marines showed that a Corsair could fight. It was up to others half a world away to demonstrate that, early trials not withstanding, a Corsair could also operate from an aircraft carrier.

Continued in "His Majesty's Corsairs."

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