It was called the “Ensign Eliminator” for a reason.

The Corsair was originally designed and manufactured by the American air craft company Vought with the goal of achieving “maximum speed with minimal air resistance” in mind. The aircraft’s development began in early 1938, with its first prototype appearing in mid-1940, and had performed remarkably well during its maiden flight.

The massive 13-foot propeller (known then as the “XFU-1”) broke the speed record for a single-engined, single-seat shipborne fighter at the time, exceeding 400 miles per hour in level flight—and this didn’t go unnoticed by the Navy. Impressed, the service branch shortly ordered the aircraft’s mass production, and by the end of its run in 1952, Vought had manufactured nearly 13,000 units. The Corsair had the longest production run of any WWII era aircraft.

World-breaking Speed

The aircraft, renamed FAU-1 by the US Navy, played a critical role during the intense fighting in the Pacific Theater, and its introduction into service in late 1942 coincided with the Allied forces’ advance to victory.

F4U-1 Corsair
An earlier version of FAU-1 in flight circa 1942 (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

However, the inherent landing hazards of a high-performance Corsair onto a moving carrier deck were soon revealed, prompting the Navy to push back the warplane’s shipboard use. The problems with the landing the Corsair on a carrier became apparent right away.  Because it was a fast aircraft it also had a stalling speed of just over 90 mph, while the F4f Wildcat it was slated to replace stalled at 72 mph. The Corsair also had a tendency to stall on the left wing first, resulting in a deadly snap roll. The location of the fuel tank in front of the pilot results in a cockpit situated well to the rear on the fuselage.  The result was limited pilot visibility on the approach for landing. Limited as in all but non-existant.  An experienced pilot would have no problems landing at an airfield but it was a challenge to get the Corsair safely aboard a carrier for two reasons.

First, the standard approach for navy aircraft landing on a carrier was a long run in on the stern of the carrier.  The plane would approach over the deck waiting for the order to cut his engine by the Landing Signal Officer who was holding a pair of white paddles and positioned on the left side of the deck so the pilot could see his directions.  When he cut his engine the plane would settle to the deck and catch one of the arresting wires stretched across the flight deck.  With the Corsair, you had to be lined up perfect so when you did cut the power it would hit the deck before it stalled and tried to roll over on its back and kill you.

The other problem was that the landing gear was too stiff and the Corsair had a tendency to bounce off the deck and then bury its nose in the flight deck.

With an experienced pilot at the controls, all this was manageable, but at the beginning of the war, the navy was very short of experienced pilots. The aviators coming out of the flight school pipeline might have 40-80 hours of total flight time in much smaller and slower aircraft.  These low-hour pilots started crashing Corsairs and killing themselves at an alarming rate.