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F4U Corsair Airframe History  

History of the Chance Vought F4U Corsair Airframe

Excerpt from "Allied Aircraft Piston Engines of World War II" by Graham White, used with permission from the authorCopyright 1995 Society of Automotive Engineers. No part of this publication may be copied without written permission of the publisher.

Possibly the most charismatic of all the R-2800 powered aircraft with its distinctive gull wing layout, the Corsair was not only an aesthetically pleasing fighter but also a great performer, proving once again that form follows function.

The first aircraft to go into production powered by an R-2800, the F4U also held the distinction of being the first United States military aircraft to exceed 400 MPH in level flight.

Eventually more than 10,000 F4Us were manufactured in numerous sub variants by Chance Vought, Goodyear, and Brewster. The Brewster contract was canceled in July 1944 after 735 had been delivered because of "failure to meet requirements."

Designed in 1938 in response to a Navy design competition, the prototype XF4U celebrated its maiden flight on 29 May 1940 powered by an XR-2800-2 rated at 1,800 HP. All the R-2800s installed in production F4U-1s were unique in that they had two stage, two speed supercharging with intercooling and updraft carburetion.

Construction was typical of a late 1930s design along with many creative and innovative ideas. At the time of its first flight, the F4U was fitted with one of the world's largest propellers. This dictated the gull wing feature of the design. In order to reduce its length, the landing gear was attached at the lowest point of the "crank" in the wing. Retraction was rearward; rotating through 90 degrees and at the same time the oleo strut was compressed, making for a compact and neat installation. Wing design consisted of a main spar that passed through the fuselage where the firewall was mounted. The hydraulic folding mechanism was installed outboard of the crank in the wing. From the spar forward a D-section box member was created that took all of the primary loads. Aft of the spar was fabric covered, and unusual for an aircraft of this era the ailerons were of wood construction, fabric covered. All remaining control surfaces were metal with fabric covering. Rectangular openings mounted in the wing leading edge at the fuselage junction supplied cooling air to twin oil coolers, one in each leading edge. Induction air was also taken from the leading edge air intakes, ducted to the first stage of the supercharger. Featuring an intercooler for the two-stage supercharger, cooling air was routed from the leading edge air intakes to the air-to-air intercooler. Flow splitters were an integral part of the air intakes due to the requirement of ducting the air 90 degrees as soon as it entered the air intake plenum. At high speed these flow splitters (six per side) emitted a loud whistling noise, which prompted the Japanese to call the F4U "Whistling Death." Outer wing panels featured the armament, which usually consisted of six .50 caliber machine guns. As the war progressed hard points were designed in for rockets.

Fuselage construction was a monocoque from the firewall aft, with a circular cross section back to the cockpit, where it transitioned to an oval section. At the time of its design gestation, a new technique had been developed for spot welding aluminum that promised lower drag compared with an equivalent riveted structure; Chance Vought took advantage of this new manufacturing technique. Tail construction was conventional stressed skin. The retractable tail wheel went through a complex retraction sequence with the tail hook mounted to the chrome molybdenum steel alloy support structure of the tail wheel. The considerable loads imposed on the tail assembly during as arrested carrier landing were transmitted through the entire structure.

Because of the length of the engine, attributable to the auxiliary supercharger stage, a longer than usual engine mount was required. This also demonstrates why the firewall was mounted on the wing spar. F4U-1s featured a clean circular cowl with no external perturbances because of the wing leading edge air intakes for oil cooling, induction, and intercooler cooling requirements. All F4Us were fitted with Hamilton Standard Hydromatic propellers; F4U-1s had three blade propellers, and all subsequent aircraft had four blade propellers.

F4U-1s constituted the majority of the Corsairs flown in World War II. Power was provided by the R-2800-8, which was a B-series engine. With the introduction of ADI, R-2800-8W engines were installed (a "W" after the dash number signified the engine was fitted with water/methanol injection). F4U-2s were essentially the same as FU-1s, but specialized for night fighting featuring a radar pod on the right wing in place of one of the .50 caliber machine guns and a flame-damping exhaust for the six outlets.

First production R-2800.  Pictured left to right are E. Wilson, A. Willgoos, W. Parkins, W. Levack, B. Miller, D. Jack, and L. Hobbs. Pratt & Whitney.   Photo courtesy of Aircraft Engine Historical Society.  

The next important variant used during World War II was the F4U-4. (Only three experimental F4U-3s were manufactured. The F4U-3 was basically an F4U-1 powered by an XR-2800-16 with a turbo supercharger from the Turbo Engineering Company of New Jersey and a unique two-stage mixed-flow compressor with air-cooled radial inlet turbine.) Several significant modifications were incorporated into the F4U-4 including the use of the C-series engine in -18W form but still retaining two-stage, two-speed supercharging. The formerly clean, round cowl now featured the first of many bumps and bulges that were to feature prominently in all subsequent F4Us. This was for induction air, now routed from the cowl rather than the wing leading edge as in the F4U-1. F4U-4s were introduced in1945 and entered combat in May of that year. The last production variant was the F4U-5, which sported the unusual R-2800-32W for power. This engine personified the trend that was now becoming more and more dominant to the point where it overshadowed the main power section. In the case of the R-2800-32W, two massive "sidewinder" superchargers made up the first stage.

After a protracted development, the F4U was ready for combat in July 1942. However, the problems were not over; the Navy felt the deck-landing characteristics were unsafe due primarily to poor forward vision, and therefore the aircraft was assigned to land-based Marine units. (In some cases, F4Us departed from carriers, landing on an airstrip.) Carrier operations did not commence until December 1944. Interestingly, the British Fleet Air Arm received 2,012 F4U-1s, designated Corsair III under lend-lease and used them immediately from carriers, thus getting a nine-month head start on the U.S. Navy. Different pilot technique was partly responsible for the British successes in carrier operations; a long curving approach to the left (as used by Fleet Air Arm pilots landing Seafires on carriers) afforded the pilot sufficient forward vision to make a successful landing. Modifications to the main gear oleo struts also alleviated the tendency to bounce on landing. Because of the more cramped conditions on board British carriers, the wing tips were clipped by 8 inches to facilitate stowage. As a condition of lend-lease, all aircraft were destroyed after V-J Day. This task was accomplished by the simple means of dumping them overboard.

Flying from the usual primitive airstrips in the Pacific, Marine units quickly racked up many successes against their Japanese counterparts. Tactics played a crucial part in these successes. Dog fighting a Japanese fighter was inviting trouble; therefore, the preferred and universally successful tactic was hit-and-run without getting tangled up in a slow-speed dogfight against a more maneuverable foe.

The British Fleet Air Arm enjoyed similar success in the Mediterranean and Pacific with their F4Us, (Corsairs). In 1943, the Royal New Zealand Air Force also received F4Us and deployed them in the Pacific starting in early 1944.

Goodyear, chosen as a second source, license-built Corsairs and developed a fighter based on the F4U concept with several major changes. Perhaps the most dramatic was the substitution of a Pratt & Whitney R-4360 in place of an R-2800. Other changes included the deletion of the turtleback fuselage design for a bubble canopy; this change was first tried on the FG-1A, Goodyear designation for the F4U-1.  



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Last modified: September 18, 2012

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