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Introducing World War II’s Whistling Death

The Vought F4U Corsair was a big reason why American forces were able to beat Japanese Zero fighters in the air.

Christian D. Orr, a military analyst, provides a history of the Vought F4U Corsair. Several of my readers have chided me, “But what about the Corsair!?!” in response to the numerous 194-piece series I have written about the best fighter planes of WWII. I have previously written about the A-7 Corsair II, so why not give the original U.S. Navy Corsair warbird her due? Okay, fair enough. In addition, the WWII Corsair served as the main character’s warplane in the 1970s T.V. series Baa Baa Black Sheep, AKA Black Sheep Squadron, which starred Robert Conrad (R.I.P.), a young John Larroquette before Night Course, a young Dana Elcar before MacGyver, and Dirk Blocker (son of Bonanza’s Dan Blocker). Hence, without further ado,

The original Corsair was designed from the start to be a real fighter plane, that is, for engaging in combat with opposing warplanes, in contrast to her “sequel” from the Vietnam War era. She was created and first produced by Chance Vought (now the Vought Aircraft Division of Triumph Aerostructures), and on May 29, 1940, she took her maiden flight. On December 28, 1942, she went into operational duty with the United States Navy and Marine Corps. The Grumman F4F Wildcat had been tenaciously holding the line for the USN/USMC against the renowned Japanese Mitsubishi A6M Zero-sen fighter jet in the Pacific Theatre of Operations during WWII until this latter date, which did not come a moment too soon. However, the Corsair, combined with the Wildcat’s internal replacement, the F6F Hellcat, allowed the United States to eventually get the upper hand in air combat against the so-called “Zeke.”

How so? Due in great part to the warbird’s distinctive gull-wing design—no pun intended—along with a larger propeller to drive the potent Pratt & Whitney R2800 Double Wasp engine, which allowed for a maximum airspeed of 453 mph (729 kph), the Corsair had a speed advantage over its Japanese rival of more than 100 mph (160 kph). The Corsair also maintained its predecessors’ superior toughness and survivability thanks to the armour and self-sealing fuel tanks that the Zero sorely lacked. There were also six wing-mounted Browning M2 “Ma Deuce” weapons. Machine guns with a calibre of 50 could ignite such “Zekes” without armour like a match.

I made up the term “Blue Death” on the spot; the F4U’s unofficial appellation was “Whistling Death.” How much “death” are we referring to here? “They accounted for over 2,100 victories in air combat with only 189 casualties, creating an overall kill ratio of more than 11:1,” writes Scott Wolff, host and editor of FighterSweep. With a kill ratio of 12:1 against that type, it performed particularly well against the Mitsubishi A6M Zero.

While the T.V. mentioned above show exaggerated a lot of information regarding the Black Sheep Squadron, or VMF-214, in particular, what is unaltered is the fact that the unit amassed a record of 203 planes destroyed or damaged, produced nine fighter aces with 97 confirmed air-to-air kills, and received a Presidential Unit Citation for their achievements—the first Marine Corps fighter unit to be so honoured. Maj. (later Col.) Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, the illustrious leader of the Black Sheep, achieved 26 of his 28 air-to-air kills in the Corsair and was awarded the Medal of Honor.

Due to the introduction of jet-to-jet combat, Corsair continued to fight in the Korean War, largely in an air-to-ground capacity. However, during that battle, one “Whistling Death” driver managed to shoot down a MiG-15 jet fighter.

Before they were withdrawn by the USN/USMC in 1953 and the Honduran Air Force in 1979, 12,571 of these aircraft had been constructed. Many of these aircraft are flying today, and the F.A.A. reports that there are 45 privately owned F4Us in the United States. The Commemorative Air Force (C.A.F.)—Dixie Wing—in Peachtree City, Georgia, the Lone Star Flight Museum in Houston, Texas, and the Stonehenge Aviation Museum in Lincoln County, Montana, are among the capable institutions that currently care for some of the airworthy American specimens.

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