Aeroplane Heaven Vought Corsair
By Andrew Herd (25 July 2005)
t seems amazing to think of it now, but in 1938, with war fast approaching in Europe, US Navy pilots were still flying biplanes like the Grumman F3F, an aircraft which was affectionately known as the 'Flying Barrel' and would have been about as useful as one had it ever been matched in combat against monoplanes like the Me109 and the Zero. Despite the country's reluctance to enter another war, the pace of rearmament around the world could not be ignored and far sighted members of the US Navy Bureau of Aeronautics realised that hope alone wouldn't be enough to defend the nation if the worst case scenario happened - the age of the biplane had passed.
BuAer was known for issuing ambitious specification, but the one it sent to Vought-Sikorsky on first February that year gave serious pause for thought. Rex Beisel, the company's chief engineer, must have had his doubts about whether he could fulfil it or not, but Rex wasn't known for giving up easily and he quickly gathered an elite team around him to see what might be done. They had just about gotten their design organised around a Pratt & Whitney R-1830 Wasp in 1940 when BuAer changed the spec to insist on a 2,804 cubic inch Double Wasp - which was a completely new engine.
Jim Shoemaker, who had responsibility for powerplant issues, must have scratched his head some when he heard the news; the 14 cylinder R-1830 Wasp had been around since 1933 in various guises and had a reputation for extreme reliability at the price of having to use hundred octane fuel to achieve its 1000 hp. The R-2800 Double Wasp, on the other hand, had four more cylinders, developed twice the horsepower and introduced a whole new raft of problems to do with heat dissipation - and to use it was to commit the unforgiveable sin of using a new engine in a new airframe. It didn't matter which way you looked at it, putting the R-2800 in a new fighter was going to be a gamble.
One of the cardinal rules of airplane design is to limit the number of untried technologies you try at once, but Beisel knew better than to mess with BuAer, because there was any number of other contractors who could pick up the work, so the Double Wasp was it. To be fair to P&W, the new radial was an extremely well designed engine that was built on tried and tested technology and it proved to give few problems in service, soldiering on postwar in planes as diverse as the DC-6 and Martin 4-0-4, but the Corsair team had no way of knowing this at the time. The hazard of using the R-2800 was that Shoemaker calculated a 13 foot prop would be needed to absorb all the horsepower and that meant using very long gear to get ground clearance; stressing the legs to withstand deck landings and figuring out how to stow them was a huge headache until someone suggested cranking the wing... which is why the Corsair came out looking the way it did. If you want to know how they got the gear to retract, I can suggest no better way than buying the Aeroplane Heaven sim and taking a look.
The prototype flew May 1, 1940 and to begin with, everything looked rosy. The F4U-1 was fast and pilots liked it a lot - until deck landing trials started in 1941. Landing a high performance plane isn't easy at the best of times and carrier landings compound the difficulties, as it is necessary to land a taildragger fully stalled on a moving target with the hook scraping the wire off the deck. One issue was the nose, which projected fourteen feet forward of the cockpit and made it impossible to see the Deck Landing Officer on short final; another was that most F4Us dropped a wing in the stall, resulting in a spate of serious landing accidents; but the nail in the fighter's coffin was that the shocks fully compressed in a classic deck landing and if the hook didn't snag, where the resulting bounce ended up was anyone's guess. Since this could be over the side or into parked aircraft on straight deck carriers and the plane was also judged too difficult for the average pilot to master, the US Navy decided the F4U wasn't suitable for carrier operations, passing its stock onto the Marines, who achieved great things with them. This decision accounts for why the F6F Hellcat became the main US Navy fighter from 1943 onward, because although it was outclassed by the F4U, it was easier to train pilots to fly the Grumman aircraft safely. Choosing a plane that will be flown in combat by relatively inexperienced pilots isn't a straightforward decision and as Dudley Henriques pointed out to me the other day, the Grumman fighters were noted for their excellent forward visibility thanks to the way the designers tapered the nose section downward from the windshield to the cowling. The F6F didn't achieve the fame the Corsair did, but any readers who doubt the validity of the USN decision might reflect on the fact that successful though the plane was, the majority of Corsair losses did not result from enemy action. The F4U had its drawbacks.
In the end it was the British Royal Navy that worked out how to deck land the Corsair, which was to fly a curved 'Spitfire' approach right down to the fantail and that service and Chance-Vought 'debugged' the plane so successfully that the US Navy agreed to test it again on carriers in 1944. The rest, as they say, is history. In capable hands, there wasn't much the F4U couldn't take on; F4Us remained in active service in South America right into the sixties, production of this truly great airplane having ceased in 1952 with a run of ninety-some F4U-7s for the French Navy. Among the Corsair's many distinctions, it had the longest production run of any US piston-engined fighter.
Aeroplane Heaven's F4U is compatible with FS2002, FS2004, as well as CFS2 and 3. There are three purchase options: a 55 Mb 'early Corsairs pack' which has the the F4U-Birdcage, F4U-1A and F4U-1D; a 45 Mb 'late Corsairs' pack, which gets you the F4U- 5 Day/Night Fighter, F2G and F2G racer; and a 'megapack' containing the F4U-birdcage, F4U-1A, F4U-1D, F4U-5, F2G-1D, F2G-1R, F4U- 5 Day/Night Fighter, F2G and F2G racer - which involves downloading both the early and the late packs. CFS enthusiasts are in luck, because although the only variants compatible with Combat Flight Simulator are the F4U-1A and F4U-Birdcage, Aeroplane Heaven have made them available at donationware.net.
I tested both the early and late packs in FS2004. Download and installation were troublefree and checking out the start menu revealed a new Aeroplane Heaven group containing a couple of uninstall icons. The manual is a small separate download comprising a 19 page pdf that covers all the main features of the plane - pay particular attention to the part about cockpit panel view management as this is key to flying the Corsair successfully.
The sim certainly looked the part when I did my virtual walk around. Beisel's team made the airframe as small as they could, but F4U is still a physically imposing plane, with a span of 41 feet and a length of 33 feet. Last one I saw in the flesh was at the Paris airshow a few years back and while its lines can't be said to be beautiful, they exude raw power - I can't help feeling that the sheer solidity of the airframe must have given pilots the confidence they needed to fly over hundreds of miles of deserted ocean in search of the enemy. Aeroplane Heaven are well known for the quality of their visual models and the F4U is the best one they have ever done, with as much detail as you could want, right down to the gear bays and wing folding mechanism. The animation is extremely well done and includes a moving pilot's head, the wing folding mechanism, cowl flaps, exhaust flame and engine startup smoke along with all the usual stuff like rotating wheels - it is no exaggeration to say it is one of the best piston engined fighter models I have seen for FS. The icing on the cake is that the megapack includes a total of eighteen different liveries, ranging from early war Royal Navy and USMC schemes, all the way up to a 1949 pylon racer and a pair of F4Us that may well have engaged each other in the little known 'soccer war' fought between Honduras and El Salvador back in the late sixties. Most of the liveries show weathering, all have been executed with great care and the inclusion of the 'soccer warplanes' was an inspired choice.
The only photo I have of a Corsair cockpit comes from an existing plane with many modern instruments, but the developers have assembled a collection of panels which allow all the early variants to be flown from essentially the same cockpit. Aeroplane Heaven's panel design used to be their weak spot, but in this package just about the only instruments that aren't perfect are the clock and the tach, all the other gauges having superb faces with realistic hands and very believable reflections. The late version cockpit shares many of the instruments, but has a totally different layout and a bug that means the right hand two simicons don't work.
FS developers who take on piston engined fighter sims must sit with their shoulders hunched in the few weeks after release, because 4 x 3 monitor aspect ratios are not kind to this kind of panel. You don't so much get into a fighter of this era as put it on and although the F4U cockpit was roomy compared to a 109 or a Spitfire, the pilot's eyeline ran through the reflector sight and out over the top of the engine cowling. In order to get all the gauges you need in, the Corsair panel (left above) has the radio compass in front of you - a good impression of what the plane is like to taxi, in that it blocks out any forward view, but not so good for level flight. So Aeroplane Heaven have provided a 'flying view', which has the panel set much lower on the monitor, at the expense of losing many of the gauges. You get this by hitting shift-1, shift-2 and, shift-3, giving you the view above right, minus all the popups, which I stuck in because there was no space anywhere else for them in this article. If you mentally delete the popups, you will appreciate that the canopy frames aren't visible, which is unrealistic, particularly for the 'birdcage' canopy models, which had a relatively poor forward view. But - and it is a big but - I don't see how else the developers could have produced a realistic 2D panel without making the assumption that users were going to run twin monitor systems with a lower and upper panel stacked one above the other. The bottom line is that whatever view you get of a panel in FS, it has to be a compromise, particularly when the subject is a WWII fighter.
The virtual cockpit is the way to fly warbirds like this one because it gets around the 4 x 3 issue to a major extent, although it creates a different problem, which is that a monitor confines the field of view compared to that enjoyed by a real pilot and results in the user having to pan slowly around to see stuff that it should be possible to take in at a glance . A trick of FS perspective also means that you can’t pan back far enough to see what you need without moving the POV behind the seat; this being a problem which affects many VCs. In a real Corsair, your hand falls onto the canopy control, in a sim, you have to use the hat control to go look for it (or hit shift-e), unless you use TrackIR. Unless someone comes up with a different monitor format, this is a limitation we are going to have to live with, but as you can see, the VC is extremely well done and - a nice touch, this - only the late models have a solid cockpit floor. Presumably pilots of early F4Us learnt not to drop stuff. One bugette is that in the early F4Us, the prop lever moves the wrong way when you mouse it, but this should get fixed in the patch.
The flight model is very good indeed, although to enjoy it at its best you need to have all the aircraft realism options enabled. Takeoffs need flap and 45 inches of manifold pressure, the result being a comparatively short run, following which you need to manage the trim carefully because there is quite a major pitch change as the gear retracts. From there on in it is necessary to fly the plane all the time as the sim accurately reflects the fact that stability isn't exactly at the top of a fighter designer's list of desirable qualities. Having all that power on tap makes aerobatics remarkably easy and aileron rolls and loops require hardly any concentration at all. The stall is interesting: with power on and some flap, the F4U drops its left wing; clean, with power off, it drops the right one. If you enter the power on stall wings level and keep the stick back after the nose drops, the plane enters a spiral dive that can easily be converted into a spin by applying pro-spin rudder; recovery demands the full power-off/stick fully forward/opposite rudder routine, which is unusual for FS planes, which normally have benign or non-existent spin characteristics. Landing the Corsair is made trickier by the lack of forward view and demands use of the flying panel/VC and a curved approach; and landings aren't straight forward at all, because the approach is flown at 110 knots, which is fast compared to the default Cessnas and even with flaps down, you are aiming to touch wheels at 80. The trick is not to try to any three pointers until you are totally familiar with the sim, because the stall comes without warning and it pays to keep some power on until the very last moment.
The sound set is well up to the standard of the rest of the sim and has all the usual features including startup and shutdown sounds, as well as a cruise mode free from cycling effects. Just about the only thing that has been left out of the package is an aircraft carrier, but Robert Sanderson's superb freeware Sea Hurricane for FS2004 (SEAHURRI.ZIP) comes complete with a 1940's vintage aircraft carrier that is just the job - it is only when you have to practice landing on a flight deck that you will begin to appreciate how good wartime F4U pilots must have been. Sure, they had deck landing officers to wave them off if their approaches were poor, but a carrier is an uncomfortably small target when you have to land a brawny fighter with unfavorable stall characteristics on its heaving deck.
It doesn't matter which variant you fly, the Corsair is as much fun as you can have and stay legal. Once again, Aeroplane Heaven have delivered serious value for money, particularly if you buy the megapack, which contains every major variant of this famous fighter. There are a few bugs that the developer plans to address in a patch, but these are minor stuff that barely affect the operation of the sim. For Combat Flight Simulator fans there is the added attraction that two planes from the pack are not only compatible with their sim, but available as donationware. The Corsair makes a very welcome addition to the small but growing hangar of first class warbirds available for Flight Simulator and the good news is that the next release from Aeroplane Heaven will be an updated version of their very popular P-47.Andrew Herd