In addition to reputations for aircraft performance, aviation design firms had penchants for either innovation or adhering to convention.
Grumman Aircraft was known for its workman-like designs which grew more sophisticated, but at a conservative pace. There was an undeniable steppingstone progression in their fighter designs from the biplane FF-1 of 1931 up to their last piston fighter, the F8F Bearcat of 1943. Among their jets, this conservatism is reflected in the F9F Panther, it’s first jet fighter, up to the F11F Tiger. The gradual approach served Grumman quite well with its Navy customer, and the partnership proved fruitful with more daring later designs like the A-6 Intruder and F-14 Tomcat programs.
Vought Aircraft’s design philosophy, however, was utterly different. Although the company enjoyed a reputation for solid aircraft types in the early years of naval aviation, by the end of the 1930s, drastic innovation was needed. With a world war in the offing by 1938, and the Navy issued demanding requirements for the next fleet fighter. Since tactical aircraft performance was almost entirely about engine power, Vought’s team decided to build a new fighter, the F4U Corsair, around the most capable engine coming available: Pratt and Whitney’s R-2800 Double Wasp.
Employing a large-diameter propeller, the Corsair required the addition of a novel inverted gull wing design to keep the landing gear struts short and strong enough for carrier landings. The insertion of an additional fuel tank in front of the cockpit enhanced the F4U’s distinctive appearance, and ultimately produced the most effective multi-role U.S. fighter of the World War II era. Indeed, production of the Corsair did not end until 1952, well past the introduction of jet aircraft into the naval aviation inventory.
The evolution to jet-engine technology set up a challenge for all of the Navy’s aircraft designers, and Vought gamely sallied forth into this new competition. The resulting F6U Pirate was a portly design, having a deep fuselage and a short, non-folding wingspan. The real innovations, however, included an afterburner for bursts of speed, and a pioneering use of composite materials. Even with all these advancements, the Pirate proved a disappointment, and Grumman’s Panther and McDonnell’s F2H Banshee would go on to grace carrier flight decks leading up to the Korean War.
Turning to captured exotic German jet research, Vought’s team selected another unconventional approach for a Navy requirement to produce a shipboard fighter with a very high climb rate. Its trouble-plagued F7U Cutlass featured a radical tailless layout with a short fuselage comprising a cockpit along with a twin-engine compartment and a swept wing. The Cutlass, unfortunately, enjoyed only a short tenure with fleet squadrons after Korea.
Undeterred by two successive failures with jets, Vought designers responded with vigor to a Navy call for a supersonic carrier fighter after the Korea War. With jet engines now delivering promised thrust, Vought’s new F8U Crusader fighter featured a unique shoulder-mounted wing, all-flying tail, and dog-toothed outer wings to minimize supersonic drag. The high wing mount led to a robust fuselage landing gear stowage system, and its signature variable incidence wing that actually pivoted free of the fuselage for low-speed flying.
Over Vietnam, the Crusader proved a champion dogfighter, and was only superseded by the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II because the latter enjoyed more growth potential.
A spin-off of the F-8 proved to be Vought’s final creation, the A-7 Corsair II. Trotted out in response to a Navy call in the early 1960s for an inexpensive replacement to the venerable A-4 Skyhawk light attack jet, the A-7 was an altered F-8 fuselage employing a shorter wing and subsonic engine. No beauty, the Corsair II proved capable and arrived in time for the second half of the Vietnam War and continued in the fleet until Operation Desert Storm.
Vought’s heritage of extreme designs, and a go-for-broke approach to meeting aerospace challenges makes it an inspiration in engineering excellence. Outstanding examples of its aircraft –
An F4U Corsair, F8U Crusader, A-7 Corsair II, and the recently restored F7U Cutlass, are on exhibit on board Midway.
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