Flying the Corsair - with Doug Matthews

Huge! Huge and Blue! Yep, that’s what the Corsair is when first encountered. The Allies’ biggest fighter! An airline engine with weapons and a seat strapped on. As you approach it, it’s a bit intimidating - with a broad wing span spreading out in a unique “gull-wing” configuration and a massive prop - so big, they had to bend those wings downwards to get the prop far enough off the deck!

And that big nose! Starting with the first production versions of the Corsair, the already long nose was extended even more to accommodate an enlarged fuel tank. In fact, in spite of those massive, folding wings, another surprise is that there are no fuel tanks in the wings! Yet, with the addition of two external drop tanks, the Corsair has a non-combat endurance of over six hours! Amongst WWII fighters, only the P-51 Mustang could stay airborne longer.

I’ve put so much into studying these warbirds before a first flight, I have strong preconceived notions about how they will handle. The Corsair is no exception. Nicknamed the “Eliminator” and “Ensign Eater” during the war, I remind myself of the experience level of those 22 year olds that checked out in the Corsair. It was not allowed on U.S. carriers until December 1944 due to its poor slow-speed handling and landing characteristics. When asked why they permitted Corsair carrier operations a year earlier than the Yanks, the Brits responded, “We had few aircraft alternatives and we were prepared to accept the losses!”.

To get to know each aircraft I fly, I find every article and book written about the machine. I read the Pilot’s Handbook, the Maintenance Manual and the Flight Training Manual. Then I contact mechanics and pilots with lots of experience on the type. From them, I learn everything I can about the plane and its engine. Next, I write a training program (I learned a long time ago that the best way to really learn a plane is to teach it!). Lastly, I write the checklists, both Normal and Emergency.

So, with all this input, I have definite impressions of what to expect. With the Corsair, no exception! It’s a large airplane for sure! But, as a Navy fighter pilot, I’ve done the large thing before, so it’ll be ok. The Corsair is a complex machine (eight hydraulic sub-systems!). This one has the best version of the R2800 radial but I have flown R2800s before in the Hellcat and Bearcat, so no surprises there, just another 250 horsepower. Same prop as the Bearcat. Yes, it’s easy to see how this was the first fighter to exceed 400 mph in level flight! Lastly, with the eye of an engineer I look over the plane with a calculating eye. Let’s see - within that long nose is 1750 pounds of fuel and 2600 pounds of engine. So I calculate that 40% of my takeoff weight is forward of the under-carriage! Hence the warnings-“on the ground, don’t let that nose wander one inch!”. In flight, this might be of interest in the vertical. Then there’s the horizontal stabilizer. It’s been tacked on mostly aft of the vertical stabilizer like an afterthought! Hmm, I suppose that’s tied to all that weight in the nose again. Big ailerons placed far out get my attention-might roll nicely. However, that gull wing could fight a good roll rate. I note the very large wing flaps. Now for a thrust-to-weight calculation. In the P-51, I was 1 to 5hp power to weight. In the Corsair, I’m 1 to 4. I should climb well.

Love the look of that cockpit! Nicely laid out and roomy, with a throne sitting up high providing a unique perspective looking out. With my elbows in sight with the canopy closed, I have that “Range Rover” feeling. Great… easier to bail out!

On pre-flight, there is a lot to look at, but the starting procedures are simple and include unfolding the wings - my favorite part! Everybody stops to watch that! On the first taxi, I am reminded of all that weight forward and try to stay off the brakes, which would fade them due to heating. With a big crosswind component and that large vertical stabilizer, I lock the tail wheel when taxiing. With that long nose blanking everything forward, I still have to s-turn.

For takeoff, I double check that the tail wheel is locked and add power “judiciously”. For my first flight, I have decided that I can probably get airborne safely without the whole 55 inches manifold pressure and not tax my right leg too much! In combat, 60 inches was normal for takeoff, and with water injection and supercharger, they could go to 75 inches for 2500 h.p. and 450 M.P.H.! With the tail down and a bootful of right pedal, she comes off in a 3-point stance without a long roll. Safely airborne, I am reminded of the R2800 power as the machine accelerates nicely when cleaned-up. Unlike the Hellcat, there is no deceleration while the main wheels rotate 90 degrees during retraction. I climb up and check out its roll rates in turns either direction, then slow her down to see her slow-flight and stall characteristics in all configurations. (All the while, I am looking over my shoulder or into the sun for the attacking enemy!) Next, I check out her feel in aerobatics. Amazingly, the Corsair has a great roll rate in either direction. In the vertical, you can generate a lot of energy and she comes down hill with enthusiasm! I start my first loops at 300 knots and a 4-G pull, seeing a low of 140 over the top. The second loop starts at 250 kts. and I see 120 over the top. Ok, I’m happy with no altitude loss, so next time - I’ll work down to my eventual starting altitudes of 750 feet AGL for displays. She’s pretty straight forward in all regimes, so we’ll enter the circuit. (I hate to return with full ammunition trays and the tape still on my gunports!)

I approach the aerodrome for a 250-knot pitch out/battle break. Power then back to 17 inches, not to be touched again. Flaps are selected gradually, stopping as the manual suggested at 30 degrees “until greater experience is acquired”. I hit the 180 point configured for landing and at 140 knots. I use my usual “Navy arc” and descend slowing to a 100 knot fence speed for these first wheel landings (later we’ll work on 90 knots at 50 flaps). Due to an interesting undercarriage structure for carrier landings, main-wheel landings are extremely smooth. It’s hard to tell when you’re on the ground. However, once the tail starts down, those large flaps blank the rudder (even at only 30 degrees), making steering very tricky. I retract the flaps after touch down and walk the tail down normally, but with great attention! There is a lot of momentum to be generated up front and divergence is not desired here! I taxi back and launch again for some full-stall 3-point landings. Those reduce the landing roll nicely, but are best left to minimal cross-wind days.

It’s definitely a fighter. It is responsive and well behaved, yet still tricky in some ways. I try to sense what those who checked out and flew it in the war must have felt, given what they had been flying – Harvards, Martlets and Hellcats. What a great weapons platform! Of all the WWII fighters, the Corsair continued longest in production after the war (until 1953 to be exact!). This was due to its superior capabilities as a fighter-bomber in close-air support.

I have now flown her in formation, done some good “dive bombing” as well as “dog fighting” against other fighter types. Inevitably I’m asked how the Corsair compares with these other types - the Bearcat, Mustang or whatever. The Corsair is probably the best overall fighter-bomber of its era. You don’t “wear it” as comfortably as some others, but you do have a most distinct impression that this is the ultimate weapons platform of its time. And Huge!

Doug Matthews, Vintage Wings of Canada
Corsair Photo: Tim Leslie    Pilot Photo: Uknown

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