The Vought F4U Corsair is an American fighter aircraft that saw service primarily in World War II and the Korean War. Demand for the aircraft soon overwhelmed Vought's manufacturing capability, resulting in production by Goodyear and Brewster: Goodyear-built Corsairs were designated FG and Brewster-built aircraft F3A. From the first prototype delivery to the U.S. Navy in 1940, to final delivery in 1953 to the French, 12,571 F4U Corsairs were manufactured, in 16 separate models, in the longest production run of any piston-engined fighter in U.S. history (1942–53).
The Corsair was designed as a carrier-based aircraft but its difficult carrier landing performance rendered it unsuitable for Navy use until the carrier landing issues were overcome by the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm. The Corsair thus came to and retained prominence in its area of greatest deployment: land based use by the U.S. Marines. The role of the dominant U.S. carrier based fighter in the second part of the war was thus filled by the Grumman F6F Hellcat, powered by the same Double Wasp engine first flown on the Corsair's first prototype in 1940. The Corsair served to a lesser degree in the U.S. Navy. In addition to its use by the U.S. and British, the Corsair was also used by the Royal New Zealand Air Force, the French Navy Aéronavale and other, smaller, air forces until the 1960s. Some Japanese pilots regarded it as the most formidable American fighter of World War II, and the U.S. Navy counted an 11:1 kill ratio with the F4U Corsair.
After the carrier landing issues had been tackled, it quickly became the most capable carrier-based fighter-bomber of World War II. The Corsair served almost exclusively as a fighter-bomber throughout the Korean War and during the French colonial wars in Indochina and Algeria.
In February 1938 the U.S. Navy Bureau of Aeronautics published two requests for proposal for twin-engined and single-engined fighters. For the single-engined fighter the Navy requested the maximum obtainable speed, and a stalling speed not higher than 70 miles per hour (110 km/h). A range of 1,000 miles (1,600 km) was specified. The fighter had to carry four guns, or three with increased ammunition. Provision had to be made for anti-aircraft bombs to be carried in the wing. These small bombs would, according to thinking in the 1930s, be dropped on enemy aircraft formations.
The XF4U-1 prototype in 1940/41, showing its more forward cockpit location
In June 1938, the U.S. Navy signed a contract with Vought for a prototype bearing the factory designation V-166B, the XF4U-1, BuNo 1443. The Corsair design team was headed up by Rex Beisel. After mock-up inspection in February 1939, construction of the XF4U-1 powered by an XR-2800-4 prototype of the Pratt & Whitney Double Wasp twin-row, 18-cylinder radial engine, rated at 1,805 hp (1,346 kW) went ahead quickly, as the very first airframe ever designed from the start to have a Double Wasp engine fitted for flight. When the prototype was completed it had the biggest and most powerful engine, largest propeller and probably the largest wing on any naval fighter to date. The first flight of the XF4U-1 was made on 29 May 1940, with Lyman A. Bullard, Jr. at the controls. The maiden flight proceeded normally until a hurried landing was made when the elevator trim tabs failed because of flutter.
On 1 October 1940, the XF4U-1 became the first single-engine U.S. fighter to fly faster than 400 mph (640 km/h) by setting an average ground speed of 405 miles per hour (652 km/h) during a northeastwards flight from Stratford to Hartford. The USAAC's twin engine Lockheed P-38 Lightning had flown over 400 mph in January–February 1939. The XF4U-1 also had an excellent rate of climb but testing revealed that some requirements would have to be rewritten. In full-power dive tests, speeds of up to 550 miles per hour (890 km/h) were achieved but not without damage to the control surfaces and access panels and, in one case, an engine failure. The spin recovery standards also had to be relaxed as recovery from the required two-turn spin proved impossible without resorting to an anti-spin chute. The problems clearly meant delays in getting the design into production.
Reports coming back from the war in Europe indicated that an armament of two .30 in (7.62 mm) synchronized engine cowling-mount machine guns, and two .50 in (12.7 mm) machine guns (one in each outer wing panel) was insufficient. The U.S. Navy's November 1940 production proposals specified heavier armament. The increased armament consisted of three .50 caliber machine guns mounted in each wing panel. This improvement greatly increased the ability of the Corsair to effectively shoot down enemy aircraft.
Formal U.S. Navy acceptance trials for the XF4U-1 began in February 1941. The Navy entered into a letter of intent on 3 March 1941, received Vought's production proposal on 2 April and awarded Vought a contract for 584 F4U-1 fighters, which were given the name "Corsair" — inherited from the firm's late-1920s Vought O2U naval biplane scout which first bore the name — on 30 June of the same year. The first production F4U-1 performed its initial flight a year later, on 24 June 1942. It was a remarkable achievement for Vought; compared to land-based counterparts, carrier aircraft are "overbuilt" and heavier, to withstand the extreme stress of deck landings.