When the Navy Bureau of Aeronautics (BuAer) requested a carrier-based fighter in 1938, their operational requirements pushed the envelope. BuAer’s primary objective was to acquire a plane with enough speed to match land-based aircraft while robust enough for carrier operations. A design team from Vought (later known as Chance-Vought) took up the challenge. Chief engineer Rex Beisel’s team quickly moved forward to design an airframe around the world’s most powerful engine at that time, the Pratt & Whitney XR-2800-4 (Double Wasp) with its two-stage supercharger.
The determination to make the most of the R-2800’s extraordinary power resulted in a thirteen foot, four inch diameter propeller. This created a challenge for the design team: how to provide deck clearance for that huge prop. The answer to that question was found in a new wing design: the unique inverted gull wing. Placing the landing gear in the low dip of the wing allowed clearance. The wing roots, not requiring the standard fairings, reduced drag and enhanced speed. The Corsair was the first single engine fighter to reach speeds of over 400 mph in level flight.
Having met performance challenges from BuAer, the design team altered the Corsair for combat. An extra fuel tank behind the engine moved the cockpit aft and left the pilot looking down that long locomotive nose fourteen feet from the prop. This limited forward vision on landing approaches - a dangerous prospect on carriers. Add to this a tendency of the left wing to suddenly drop upon landing along with wild bouncy landing struts and you have a combination of frustrations that explains why “widow maker” became another moniker for the Corsair. Teething problems seemed insurmountable for the Navy until engineers eventually found workable solutions.
Initially the Navy rejected the Corsair for carrier ops and gave them to the Marines and to the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy. The Royal fleet in turn developed a technique for landing Corsair’s upon carriers. Rather than setting up for a landing with a standard straight in approach, they used a continuous left handed turn that granted visibility up until moment of flare. The U.S. Navy now had a viable carrier plane.
As the war progressed, continuous refinements in the R-2800 engine and modifications in the airplane itself brought forth improved versions. One of the advantages gained was what became known as War Emergency Power which could be used when a Corsair had an enemy fighter closing in. This boost was provided by a methanol-water injection. With this, the pilot had approximately five minutes to run at the extreme threshold of horsepower (2760 in the F4U-5). War Emergency was great in those moments when speed meant the difference between life and death. Every engineering improvement like this increased our military advantage. Once broken in, the Corsair, together with the Hellcat, wrought a “sea change” in the Pacific air war. Enemy air power was curtailed dramatically.
War time demand for aircraft was unprecedented. This meant that aircraft companies rarely if ever built all of their own planes. While Chance Vought built and owned patent rights to the F4U Corsair, two other companies produced them under license. The FG-1 was Goodyear’s version of the F4U and the F3A was Brewster’s version. Produced from 1940 to 1952 and continuing in use through the Korean War, there were 12,571 built of which approximately 28 are still airworthy today.
The FG-1D that our museum has on display was named Whistling Death – a war time nickname applied to all Corsair’s by the Japanese. This name describes the distinctive whistling sound caused by air flowing over the oil coolers in each wing’s leading edge.
The sound can still be heard but is no longer ominous: the aircraft flies with a different purpose. The roar and sight of a flying Corsair is a testament to a special warbird, its’ place in history, having performed a role which was vital to the outcome of WWII. We owe a very big thank you to the Texas Flying Legends Museum for providing us with such an interesting specimen of Navy and Marine history.