If somebody mentions the Vought Corsair, the first aircraft that comes to mind would probably be the F4U Corsair, the bent-winged behemoth that clawed its way through the Japanese navy during WWII and served into the Korean War. The name might also conjure up memories of the A-7 Corsair II, a worthy heir to the Corsair name that served as a powerful ground attack aircraft from the Vietnam War all the way through the Gulf War of 1991. While those are the two best-known Corsairs, they are not the only Corsairs. Vought used the Corsair name for a total of four aircraft, beginning in the 1920s.


A Vought O2U-2 of Scouting Squadron 3-B, takes off from USS Lexington (CV-2) in 1929. (US Navy)

Chauncey “Chance” Vought got his start in the airplane business when he teamed with Birdseye Lewis to form the Lewis and Vought Corporation in 1917 as the US entered WWI. Lewis soon left the company, but Vought continued, and famously supplied the US Navy with its first carrier-borne fighter, the Vought VE-7. Vought followed the success of the VE-7 with the Vought O2U Corsair, an observation and scout biplane and the first in the line of Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force Corsairs. The O2U was a traditional tube-framed biplane powered by a Pratt & Whitney radial engine (most used either the R-1340 Wasp or R-1690 Hornet) and had a top speed of 167 mph. It could be fitted with either fixed landing gear or floats, and it was exported to a number of Latin American and European countries.

Vought O2U Corsairs do battle with King Kong atop the Empire State Building

Corsairs saw combat in China and Peru and Thailand, and Mexico used them to help put down a military coup d’etat in 1929. A total of 580 were built in a number of variants, and though the O2U and its SU scout counterpart served into the early days of WWII, it never saw combat in American service. However, they did take part in the battle against a giant gorilla perched atop the Empire State Building in the 1933 movie King Kong.

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A Vought SBU-1 Corsair takes off (San Diego Air and Space Museum)

By 1932, the US Navy was looking for an all-metal biplane fighter, and Vought responded with the XF3U. But the Navy decided that it no longer wanted to use two-seat fighters, and the program was canceled. Not to let the good work go to waste, Vought converted the XF3U into a dive bomber, and the SBU Corsair was born. Unlike its earlier biplane predecessors, the SBU featured an enclosed cockpit, and its R-1535 Twin Wasp Junior 14-cylinder engine gave it a top speed of 205 mph, the first Navy scout bomber to exceed 200 mph. In addition to its metal construction, the SBU offered other technological advances such as an adjustable NACA cowling and a variable-pitch propeller. The SBU Corsair took its maiden flight in 1933, but was obsolete by the beginning of WWII, and finished its days as a trainer.

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(Photo by the author)

In 1938, with the threat of war looming in Europe, the US Navy requested proposals for a single-engine fighter that would be heavily armed and fly as fast as possible. Vought replied with their V-166B, the prototype of what would become one of the most famous and effective fighters of the Pacific war, the F4U Corsair. The F4U boasted a 2,000 horsepower Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp 18-cylinder radial, the biggest engine available, and the largest propeller ever put on a Navy fighter, a massive, 14-foot diameter Hamilton Standard variable pitch prop with four blades (the prototype had a slightly smaller three-bladed propeller). The F4U is instantly recognizable for its inverted gull wing, but that design was not for any sort of aerodynamic advantage; it was to raise the nose of the fighter and keep the massive prop from striking the ground. The F4U entered service with the Navy, but poor visibility over the long nose caused problems with carrier landings, and the Corsair’s first combat missions were flown by ground-based Marines. Once the landing difficulties were sorted out (by the Royal Navy), the Corsair rejoined the Navy, where it quickly became one of the deadliest fighters of the war, with Navy pilots enjoying an 11:1 kill ratio over their Japanese adversaries, who nicknamed the Corsair “Whistling Death.” But the end of WWII did not mean the end of the remarkable Corsair. F4Us continued to provide tactical bombing and close air support into the Korean War, and were finally retired in 1953 after more than 12,500 had been produced by Vought and Goodyear.

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Vought F4U Corsairs prepare to take off from the deck of the USS Princeton (CV-37) during the Korean War in 1951 (US Navy)

A U.S. Navy LTV A-7E Corsair II of Attack Squadron 146 (VA-146) “Blue Diamonds” in flight in 1974 (US Navy)

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The ground attack lineage of the F4U was carried on by the only jet-powered Corsair, the LTV A-7 Corsair II (Vought, through mergers, had become known as Ling-Temco-Vought). The A-7 was developed as a replacement for the Douglas A-4 Skyhawk to create a powerful and accurate tactical fighter-bomber with greater range and a heavier payload. With its high wing and gaping chin air intake, the Corsair II resembled a huskier sibling of the Vought F-8 Crusader, and its Allison TF41 turbofan (a license-built version of the Rolls-Royce Spey) gave it a top speed of 690 mph. The Corsair II entered service with the US Navy in 1967, and eventually served both the Navy and the US Air Force. It first saw action in the Vietnam War, where it proved to be a potent ground attack bomber and close support asset. The Corsair II fought until the very last days of the Vietnam War, and Air Force A-7Es were relegated to reserve units following the conflict. The Navy, however, continued flying the Corsair II, and it saw action in the skies over Grenada, Lebanon and Libya, and made its final combat sorties during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. A total of 1,569 Corsair IIs were produced, and it was retired from Navy service in 1991 and Air National Guard service in 1993.

U.S. Air Force LTV A-7D Corsair IIs of the 354th Tactical Fighter Wing in 1971 (US Air Force)
Family photo: a F4U Corsair flies alongside a trio of A-7 Corsair IIs prior to the A-7's first deployment to Southeast Asia in 1967 (US Navy)

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Wingspan will be taking a couple of weeks off for the holidays. Look for return flights starting back up in January. Happy Holidays to all, and thanks for reading!


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