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U.S. Fighter Planes Built for Speed Helped Turn the Tide

By Paul Marks, Courant Staff Writer

Reprint from The Hartford Courant, May 4, 2003, 

When the new Connecticut-made fighter plane came screaming through the skies over Guadalcanal, it outmatched the speedy Japanese Zeros that had been sending older U.S. warplanes down in flames.

The Japanese gave it a respectful nickname. They called it "Whistling Death."

The Vought F4U Corsair had a distinctive wing shape – often compared to an inverted seagull’s wing – and a distinctive high-pitched sound in flight. The whistle came from air rushing into engine cooling vents near the base of the angled wings.

Built at the Vought-Sikorsky plant in Stratford around the most powerful engine available, the R-2800 Double Wasp made by East Hartford-based Pratt & Whitney, the Corsair played a key role in breaking the Japanese hold on islands across the Pacific.

During one battle in 1945, Col. George Axtell, who commanded a squadron of Corsairs, shot down five Japanese planes within 15 minutes. Throughout World War II, the Corsair downed 11 enemy planes for every Corsair lost. Axtell and other Corsair pilots consider it the best fighter of the war.

"It was rugged and tough," he said. "It could take a lot of bullets if you had to. You could use it for anything, including dive bombing." Axtell now lives in Weaverville, N.C.

The Corsair was almost as maneuverable as the much lighter Zeros, but its superiority in combat came from its speed. Driven by its 2,000 horsepower engine, it was the first warplane capable of exceeding 400 mph in level flight. Later versions topped out above 450 mph.

Donald J. Jordan of Glastonbury, now 87, was one of the top engineers at Vought in those days, and he recalls the reason for creating those oddly shaped wings.

"In the design of the airplane, every possible compromise was made in the direction of speed," he said.

Flush riveting kept the exterior "skin" of the fuselages as smooth and streamlined as possible. Landing gears were designed with a wheel that rotated 90 degrees to retract into the wing.

Another factor was the 13-foot Hamilton Standard propeller. That let the massive engine gulp plenty of air, but the size of the vanes presented a problem. The Corsair was planned as a carrier-based plane, so the landing gears had to be kept short and sturdy, not long and gangly, to absorb the shock of hard landings.

That meant the wings had to be designed low, meeting the fuselage at the bottom to allow ground clearance for the propeller. But Jordan said wind tunnel tests showed that the smooth airflow over wings becomes disrupted in the acute angle just above the base of low-mounted wings. That costs power – and speed. The design team’s solution was to mount the wings at right angles to the plane’s body, but slanting down, then turn them upward a few feet out.

"It’s a very awkward structural design," Jordan said. "Very heavy and expensive to build."

But the war effort required a speedy attack plane, and during early test flights in October 1940, the Corsair made the 45-mile trip from Stratford to Hartford at an average speed of 405 mph. The Navy promptly ordered 584 planes.

The Corsair first saw combat in early 1943 on Guadalcanal and also played a key role in the attack on Okinawa.

Jack Bolt, who flew Corsairs with the Marines’ famed "Black Sheep" squadron, had flown earlier missions in an F4F Wildcat, whose top speed was about 318 mph. He said settling into the cockpit of the Corsair was like trading in a Chevy for a sports car.

"It was just pretty awesome," said Bolt, who lives in New Smyrna Beach, Fla. "It just was so much faster. That engine made the plane, of course. A marvelous engine"

Pratt & Whitney even developed a "combat power system" that injected water to cool the engine briefly at top speed, allowing a 20 percent increase in power for a few minutes – a critical advantage in aerial combat.

"The Zero still had a smaller radius of turn, so you didn’t dare get into a dogfight with a Zero," Bolt said. "You’d run at a speed that they couldn’t follow you."

With its six wing-mounted, .50-caliber machine guns and capability to carry rockets or 1,000-pound bombs, the Corsair served multiple roles.

During the course of World War II, the Corsair downed 2,140 Japanese aircraft.

Later, newer and faster versions of the Corsair went on to serve in the Korean War.

By the time production ended in 1952, Vought-Sikorsky and other contractors had produced 12,571 of the bent-wing fighter-bombers.

Bootstrap Aircraft contributed research to this story, including the contact information for George Axtell, Jack Bolt, and Don Jordan. Many thanks for their assistance, please visit Bootstrap Aircraft to see the restoration of a Connecticut-built F4U Corsair.



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Last modified: September 18, 2012

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