A Portrait of the Corsair

In July of 1942 the first production model of the Vought-Sikorsky Corsair (F4U-1) was delivered to the Navy. Hailed by the Navy three years ago as the "fastest Navy fighter in the world" it still holds that position because no other plane has appeared to challenge this title. Actually, the Corsair promises to revolutionize all previous concepts of shipboard fighter design. Carrier-based planes have always been limited in speed by the fact that they must land and take off from short carrier decks. The limitations of landing speed have generally resulted in a serious lowering of possible top speed. Furthermore, so much extra weight is involved in wing-folding provisions, additional stress for arrested landings, and corrosion-proofing, that the weight given to armament and fuel has always affected cruising range. Thus, Navy fighters in the past have been chiefly used for fleet defense and not, as ideally, for attacking the enemy in places which our land based planes cannot reach. Navy fighters are generally ineffectual against land-based planes without these limitations.

The Corsair is powered by the same Pratt & Whitney 2,000-hp engine which gives the P-47 its magnificent performance. Its top speed is in the 400-mph class, and it weighs about 6 tons loaded, but with its highly efficient slotted flaps, it floats into a landing at a speed practical for carrier decks. Its speed, ceiling, armor, and armament make it a match for any present fighter. It will undoubtedly be used, not only for over-water fighting, but also on advance fields where its low landing speed gives it an advantage over such planes as the P-47.

Military observers, have asked with good reason, why such a potentially valuable airplane been kept so long out of actual combat, with three years elapsing between the successful prototype and the first production model is a long time. The answer lies in the fact that the F4U-1 is a great modification over the XF4U-1. During the course of the war, particularly since December 7, 1941, the Navy has learned valuable lessons and, profiting by its own experience and the experience of others in actual combat, has ordered changes incorporated in the design of the production fighter. Some are minor, others so basic as to be visible in the plane's silhouette, and the effect of the whole if incorporated on the production lines indicate that the planes we know as the F4U-1 would be actually F4U-2s, or even F4U-3s.

Many of these changes are necessarily restricted information. Note, however, that modifications to the power plant and accessories have lengthened the engine perceptibly. An interesting comparison of design can be made in this connection with the P-47. The engineers of Republic and Vought-Sikorsky, when faced with the same problem of building a plane around the enormous 2,000-hp engine, have solved it in an entirely different way. The air scoops for the P-47 are incorporated under the engine, and the whole enclosed in the massive egg-shaped cowl. The air intakes on the F4U-1 for the carburetor, cooling, and supercharger, are all in the center section, incorporated in the wing's leading edge.

Other obvious changes shown in the photographs are the cutouts at the rear of the pilot's cockpit to improve visibility aft, and the cutout at the aft end of the fuselage for the arresting hook. The arresting gear and the tail wheel have been somewhat modified, and a pneumatic tail wheel can be installed to provide for easy landings on sand and small unsurfaced fields.

A less obvious change to those who have not flown the plane, is the extensive modification of the lateral control. The problem of designing effective ailerons for high speeds was a long and arduous one to solve. The aileron shape was changed, and, more, the construction was changed from fabric-covered metal to plywood. Plywood has been discovered more efficient for surface controls at very high speeds, as it does not lose its shape under the stress of those speeds, and therefore the aerodynamic characteristics of the surfaces will be as predicted. For military planes, too, plywood has the desirable characteristic of standing up under fire. Metal and fabric skin when hit by bullets, is likely to "peel," and thus surface controls can become dangerously stripped at a time when they are needed worst. Plywood does not suffer from this disconcerting tendency. The end result of the aileron change has been that the F4U-1 "rolls over like a baby" at very high speeds, and in flight tests, maneuvered as fast as the Zero, a plane largely noteworthy for its maneuverability.

In appearance, the Corsair is one of the two or three most distinctive fighters. The inverted gull winds were not designed for grace alone, though the result is beautiful. The three-bladed Hamilton Standard propeller is very large in diameter in order to consume the power produced by the 2,000-hp engine. In order to assure that this propeller cleared the deck in landing, the designers dipped the wings before adding the dihedral of the outer panel and gave the plane the added height without dangerously stretching the landing gear.

The fuselage is very long and slender, largely because of the long engine arrangement. The engine itself is large, and the mechanical superchargers are set in behind it, thus placing the pilot well aft, almost more than half the length of the fuselage. This makes a great deal of nose to look over, and the visibility forward is said to be poor.

Reports of actual combat performance of the F4U-1 have yet to come in, but all indications are that the F4U-1 will live up to its advance publicity. The Navy is so enthusiastic, that two other corporations have been commissioned to build large numbers of the same airplane. Brewster Aeronautical Corporation will produce the Corsair under the designation of F3A-1, and Goodyear Aircraft is to build the FG-1 Corsair.

The Corsair is the latest product of many years of Vought cooperation with the Navy. In 1926, the Chance Vought Company built the first plane specifically designed according to Navy demands for battleship and cruiser use. This O2U-1 was the first of the Corsairs, and, though designed for patrol work only, set three world's records for speed and one for altitude in 1927. Other planes named Corsairs have flown for the Navy in the meantime, but the 1942 Corsair is the first fighter. In 1937 the V-143, a modification of an unsuccessful model that lost one of the Army competitions, was built.

Other Vought planes are still flying for the Navy and our allies. The OB2U-1, -2 and -3 airplanes were for years the first-line dive bombers for the Navy. Now largely used for patrol work, they have seen such wide service in the Pacific that few of the original number are left. Under the name of the Chesapeake, they were sold with slight modification to the British and are still in use by our allies. The OS2U-1, -2 and -3 airplanes were made in large numbers for battleship patrol work in their seaplane version. These planes, too, were sold to the British and other of our allies. Sturdy little planes — it was a Kingfisher that carried Rickenbacker on the wing while taxiing 40 miles in a high sea — the OS2Us are also used for training purposes.

If the latest Corsair, the F4U-1, shows the valuable qualities of endurance of its predecessors, as well as the spectacular performance promised, it will be a notable addition to our air forces.

This article was originally published in the January, 1943, issue of Air News magazine, vol 4, no 1, pp 52-53.
The original article includes 6 photos.
Photos credited to Rudy Arnold, US Navy, Vought-Sikorsky.

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