From the Planes You’ve (Probably) Never Heard Of Department of Wingspan, we bring you the Vought F6U Pirate.


The first XF6U-1 prototype over Muroc Army Air Base in 1947 (US Navy)

When the US Navy sought to field their first fighter jet, they turned to Vought, the company that had produced the hugely successful F4U Corsair. The F6U Pirate would be the Navy’s first purely jet-powered fighter, and though it was ultimately unsuccessful, it paved the way for future Naval jet fighters, and gave Vought experience that would help them turn out some of the best carrier-based aircraft in the following decades (with one notable exception).

Production F6U-1, with auxiliary fins added to the horizontal stabilizer for improved yaw stability, redesigned vertical stabilizer, wingtip fuel tanks, and lengthened fuselage with afterburning engine. (US Navy)

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On September 5, 1944, the US Navy issued a requirement for a single-seat, turbojet powered fighter, and in December of that year, Vought was awarded a contract to build three aircraft that carried the company designation V-340. Since swept-wing technology had not yet been captured from the Germans, the Pirate had straight wings and tail like its piston-powered predecessors, and was propelled by a single Westinghouse turbojet engine. Designed with carrier operations in mind, the Pirate’s wings were short enough that they didn’t need to be folded for carrier storage, and with space on the carrier at a premium, the nose wheel could be retracted so the tail of one aircraft could overlap the nose of the one behind it. In an attempt to lighten the bulky fighter, the skin of the Pirate was made from a material Vought called Metalite, which consisted of two thin sheets of aluminum with a layer of balsa wood sandwiched between. And in a further attempt at adding lightness, the vertical stabilizer and rudder were constructed from a sandwich of fiberglass and balsa which was called Fabrilite.

The second production F6U-1), showing the stainless steel skin that replaced the Metalite around the afterburning engine. The only remaining example of the Pirate, this aircraft resides at the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, FL. (US Navy)

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Unfortunately, the Pirate suffered the same Achilles heel as all of the earliest jets: lack of sufficient power. The Westinghouse J34-WE-22 turbojet only produced 3,000 pounds of thrust, just one-third the aircraft’s loaded weight. To address this shortcoming, the third prototype was lengthened by eight feet to accept a Westinghouse J34-WE-30 afterburning turbojet, becoming the first US Navy jet to have an afterburner. The new power plant provided 1,200 pounds more thrust with afterburner, but the Pirate still ended up with a thrust-to-weight ratio of 0.3:1, entirely inadequate for an effective fighter. Despite Vought’s best efforts, the Pirate was obsolete before it even entered production, and only thirty aircraft were built. After evaluating the new fighter, the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics pulled no punches, saying, “The F6U-1 had proven so sub-marginal in performance that combat utilization is not feasible.” The Pirate ended its brief career by helping to develop carrier arresting gear and crash barriers, and other more ignominious fates. The thirty production jets racked up only 945 hours of total flight time, and some had a mere six hours on the airframe, just long enough to certify the aircraft for acceptance and ferry it to its final resting place.

F6U-1 Pirate languishing in the New Mexico desert after being used for shaped charge testing. This aircraft was later restored and is the only remaining example of the F6U-1. (US Navy)

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