F4U Corsair: The Gullwing Legend

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by Budd Davisson

A peanut. Thatís what you feel like after youíve scaled the side of a Corsair and into the cockpit. You are so small and inconsequential compared to the airplane that you feel like a peanut. This thing is BIG! And intimidating! If looks could kill, you wouldnít even have to fire it up to become an ace!

With 2800 cubic inches of fire-breathing Pratt and Whitney perched on the end of that impossibly long nose and three of Mr. Browningís fast firing specials in each wing, the Corsair more than looked mean. It was mean. And it was tough.

As legendary as the Corsair became at the hands of heroes like Pappy Boyington, the Corsair was far from being an instant success. In fact, it actually was an instant flop as a carrier plane. The Navy refused to qualify it for carrier duty until December 1944, two years after introduction, because it demonstrated too many short comings.

For one thing, that big nose blotted out everything directly ahead, so the canopy was bulged upward allowing the pilot to move higher on landing. The airplane exhibited a really nasty rolling tendency when it stalled, so a large, fierce looking wedge was added to the right wing to help control the airflow. And, worse of all, the airplane loved to bounce on touchdown.

Carrier airplanes canít bounce. They are supposed to hit the deck and stick. But the Corsair bounced. A lot. The fix to that was a single-action landing gear leg that absorbed shock, but didnít feed any of the energy back into the airplane. Considering that the gear already had a linkage that not only rotated the wheels to fair them into the wing but also made the gear shorter so it would fit better, designing a no-bounced shock system into it was a pretty good feat. But they did it and eventually the Corsair became a double threat, launching from island runways and carriers alike.

The early Corsairs, the F4U-1A and FG-1As suspended the pilot in a metal chair many feet above the cavernous inside belly of the fuselage. If you dropped anything smaller than a basketball, down that yawning hole, it was gone.

As the Corsair matured it became more sophisticated. It grew floor boards and eventually the canopy moved forward and back at the flick of a switch. She also was equipped with ever-increasing power, and the last wartime version, the F4U-4 was to have 2,450 ponies stuffed into that cowl.

Surprisingly, the airplane has nice, slick controls with a higher roll rate than youíd expect and that ability to roll didnít disappear during a dive, which was a huge advantage considering that the Zero rolled like a turtle when fast.

Although the Corsair wasnít an exact match to the Zero in a turning fight, in the right hands, it could hold its own. However, as soon as the combat was moved into the vertical plane, the Corsair shined as it could slash and dash with the best of them and drop down on its foe like an avenging eagle only to zoom up and do it again. Plus, the Corsair could absorb an immense amount of punishment and bring its pilot home.

One of the most distinctive appearing airplanes of WWII, it was also the only one to stay in long-term production after the war. The last Corsair rolled off the line as an AU-1 ground attack machine for the USMC in 1953 after thirteen years of continuous production.

Old Hose Nose earned, and is deserving of, its legendary status

Updated: August 22, 2011 — 2:08 PM
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