Article on Rex Beisel

Discussion in 'Aviation' started by Thorlifter, Jan 29, 2008.

  1. Thorlifter

    Thorlifter Well-Known Member

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    For the plane destined to become the best fighter of World War II, it was an inauspicious beginning.

    Arriving before noon at Guadalcanal’s Henderson Field on February 12, 1943, after a 550-mile flight, Maj. William E. Gise’s marine fighter squadron VMF-124 discovered it had already been assigned a mission. They were the first operational unit to receive Vought’s new F4U-1 Corsairs, and hopes were running high that the sleek new gull-winged fighters would help turn the tide for the “Cactus Air Force,” which was locked in a bitter contest with Japanese air power for control of the Solomon Islands. An hour later the pilots were in the air again, escorting a PBY Catalina patrol. The next day, still without even a pause to scope out the terrain or the enemy, the Corsair pilots were ordered to escort Liberator bombers on a bombing run against Japanese ships at Bougainville.

    Those first two days had been fortuitously uneventful for Gise’s flyers; no Zeroes had appeared to challenge them. But their luck ran out the next day, in what went into the books as the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.

    In company with P-38s and P-40s, the F4Us again had the job of shepherding Liberators to Bougainville, this time to attack the Japanese airfield at Kahili. But now the Japanese were up and waiting. They shot down the four top-cover Lightnings, broke through the P-40s and bagged two, then disposed of two Liberators. A pair of Corsairs also went down. Only three Zeroes were claimed—one of them in a midair collision with a Corsair that killed both pilots.

    The Corsair’s star seemed permanently cursed by that spring. Initial flight trials aboard navy carriers yielded a string of disasters. The plane’s long nose, huge radial engine, and framed “birdcage” canopy all conspired to obstruct the pilot’s view of the deck while taxiing and landing. At anything but optimal landing speed, the gear tended to rebound dangerously on touchdown, causing the plane to bounce down the deck: during one early trial, a Corsair bounced as high as the masthead and recovered only by cramming on full power—and heading back for shore. And even on a dead-smooth landing, the plane’s tailhook sometimes bounced off the deck on its own, skipping over the arresting wire and sending the plane hurtling headlong into parked aircraft at the end of the straight flight deck.

    Worst of all, at anything below one hundred knots the left wing had a tendency to stall without warning, causing the plane to flip with sudden decisiveness. A rash of landing accidents ensued; squadron VF-12 had seven pilots killed in short order. With more than a little black humor, crews started calling the plane the “Ensign Eliminator.”

    The navy’s bureaucrats decided that the Corsair wasn’t worth the gamble. They ordered the navy logistics chain to carry spare parts only for the F6F Hellcat; in July 1943, VF-12 was ordered to convert to F6Fs and give up its Corsairs. A second navy Corsair squadron, VF-17, was ordered off of the USS Bunker Hill and sent ashore to operate from land bases. For a while the Corsair seemed destined to be another troubled wartime experiment that would go down as little more than a footnote in the annals of naval aviation.

    Corsairs would not fly off aircraft carriers again until late 1944. But by then the airplane’s superb flying characteristics had more than redeemed it from its troubled debut. By war’s end, 11,415 Corsairs had rolled off assembly lines, and marine and naval aviators flying Corsairs had claimed 2,140 enemy aircraft for a loss of 189 themselves—an 11:1 kill ratio.

    Behind this remarkable combat success was the vision and aerodynamic intuition of one man who made it happen.

    In 1938 the Vought company had been building naval aircraft for twenty years, but it wouldn’t have been anyone’s candidate for producing a world-beating modern fighter. The firm’s niche market was scout-observation types, mostly clunky looking and staggeringly slow floatplanes. The O2U/O3U biplanes, produced between 1927 and 1935, clocked a top speed of 160 mph. The OS2U Kingfisher monoplane, built from 1940 to 1942, wasn’t much better. Vought’s only production fighter, the biplane FU, was a battleship-launched floatplane built back in 1927–28; it could do 120 mph on a good day. Two follow-on biplane fighters the company produced were rejected by the navy. In 1930 Chance M. Vought died. But his company survived, and the next year brought the arrival of a man who would change everything.

    It was almost a pure accident that had brought Rex B. Beisel into the aircraft industry in the first place. The son of a coal miner from Washington state, he had lived in a tent in a mining camp and at age sixteen had gone to work in the mines himself as a “breaker boy,” earning $2.60 each day for picking rocks out of 150 tons of coal. But from that and other menial jobs (dishwasher, surveyor’s assistant, plumb*er’s helper, blueprint machine operator, mule driver) he saved enough money to put himself through the University of Wash*ing*ton and earn a degree in mechanical engineering. Upon graduation he took the civil service exam, scored extremely well, and was promptly offered a job by the navy as a draftsman in its Bureau of Aeronautics, at $4.00 a day. After some stints designing racers in the 1920s for Curtiss and Spartan, he joined Vought in 1931 as assistant chief engineer.

    One of his first jobs there was to see if the canceled F3U fighter could be reengineered into a scout-bomber. The result was a stunning success: the SBU biplane dive-bomber. It incorporated a number of highly innovative features: a variable-pitch propeller; the new NACA engine cowling developed by aerodynamicists at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (the forerunner of NASA), which greatly reduced drag; and one of Beisel’s own inventions, a series of adjustable gills on the cowling to regulate the flow of cooling air over the engine. The SBU became the first aircraft of its type to break 200 mph.
     
  2. Thorlifter

    Thorlifter Well-Known Member

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    In early 1938, when the navy issued a specification for a new high-altitude, high-speed monoplane fighter, Beisel was ready for it. The major competition—represented by Brewster’s ill-fated F2A Buffalo and the more successful Grumman F4F Wildcat—was evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Beisel aimed for a radical leap forward in performance by mating the largest possible engine with the smallest possible airframe that would still be tough enough to handle the stresses of combat and carrier landings. “Give me the right people, put them on the right jobs, pay them fair wages,” Beisel said, “and we will build a team that will lick any problem.”

    The first problem the team had to lick was a matter of basic geometry. The heart of the new fighter was the mighty Pratt Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp, arguably the finest piston engine ever built. With two rows of nine cylinders each arrayed in a radial pattern, the air-cooled power plant produced a hefty 2,000 hp. But it required a correspondingly hefty propeller—thirteen feet in diameter, which would either leave a dangerously small ground clearance or require an ungainly long landing gear.

    Beisel’s team chose a daring solution, “cranking” the wing into an inverted gull shape that brought the wing closer to the ground where the landing gear attached, thus increasing ground clearance without making the plane look like a stilt-walker in a circus sideshow. Wind tunnel tests then revealed an unexpected advantage of the configuration: with the wing root attaching higher up on the fuselage than a straight wing would, drag was significantly reduced. Beisel’s aerodynamicists were able to take further advantage of this benefit by incorporating the airplane’s oil coolers and supercharger intakes directly into the wing root, eliminating the bulky, drag-creating fairings normally used.

    The Corsair was huge in comparison to the F4F Wildcat it was designed to replace: nearly twice the gross weight (12,039 lb to the Wildcat’s 6,134) and 105 mph faster. The F4U had a rate of climb 30 percent better than the Wildcat’s, while range, endurance, and ceiling also were greater.

    Test pilot Lyman Bullard logged the XF4U-1’s first flight on May 29, 1940, less than two years after the navy’s green light. Vought, part of United Aircraft Corporation, had moved the year before from its location adjacent to its sister company Pratt Whitney in East Hartford, Connecticut, to the larger Sikorsky plant in Stratford, Connecticut; and it was on a flight between those two towns on October 1, 1940, that the XF4U-1 clocked 405 mph. The only previous American production airplane to break 400 mph in level flight was Lockheed’s twin-engine XP-38 in 1939. The next single-engine American aircraft to do so was Republic’s XP-47B in May 1941, followed by the Bell YP-59—America’s first jet—in October 1942.

    But success created its own problems. Aerodynamicists knew that at such high speeds their standard mathematical formulas for designing wings and airframes started to go wrong, but they hadn’t yet realized just how wrong. Basically, to make the equations simple enough to solve, engineers had to assume that air is incompressible—its density unaffected as pressure or speed increases. That is a reasonable assumption up to about 350 mph. But at the Corsair’s top speeds, particularly those it could hit during a dive, the assumption no longer held up and some very surprising things began to happen.

    The biggest problem was that even when the airplane was flying at less than the speed of sound, some of the air flowing over the tops of the wings could break the sound barrier. That created shock waves that, instead of generating lift, pushed the nose down, causing the dive to become steeper and steeper.

    NACA had only just begun to explore the problems of compressible flow, and it was as much art as science at this point. (Not until the 1970s and the advent of supercomputers were the complete, nonsimplified equations for compressible flow cracked mathematically.) Test pilot Boone Guyton developed a lecture for aspiring F4U pilots that distilled a lot of seat-of-the-pants experience: Resist the temptation to coax the diving U-bird into level flight by use of trim tabs, he instructed. Instead, reduce power and begin a slow, steady pull on the stick. Patience counted for much in that regime.

    Fortunately, the critical Mach number of the Corsair—the speed of the airplane at which airflow over the wing went supersonic—turned out to be a fairly high .73 (536 mph at 10,000 feet), which meant that it could reach an impressive speed before the trouble started. (By comparison, the P-38 had a critical Mach number of .65 to .69; late-model Spitfires, the Hawker Tempest, the P-51B/D, and the P-47 had somewhat better critical Mach numbers than the Corsair.)

    Despite its size and complexity, the F4U shared an ironic similarity with its archenemy, the Mitsubishi A6M. The Zero was the first naval fighter with superior performance to its land-based rivals. The Corsair was the second.

    Through all the glitches, the Corsair’s pilots never lost faith: they knew they had a remarkable airplane in their hands. (Back in spring 1943, aboard USS Saratoga, Lt. Comdr. “Jumpin’ Joe” Clifton of VF-12 had nearly jumped out of his skin protesting his squadron’s enforced transition from F4Us to F6Fs: landing accidents and all, the pilots knew they had a winner in the Corsair.)

    The gremlins that had bedeviled carrier operations with the Corsair were fixed with small adjustments that showed how little they reflected defects in the plane’s fundamental design: the stiffness of the landing gear was modified to eliminate the bounce; the flat canopy was replaced with a bubble and a higher seat, giving the pilot a better view; the tailhook’s damper was modified to keep it from bouncing so high; a small strip added to the leading edge of the right wing prevented the asymmetrical stall.
     
  3. Thorlifter

    Thorlifter Well-Known Member

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    And pulling themselves together after the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, Gise’s pilots of VMF-124 soon learned that the Corsair could outperform the Zero in everything but slow speed maneuverability and slow speed rate of climb, and developed tactics that played to the Corsair’s manifest superiorities.

    One of the best of Gise’s pilots was 1st Lt. Kenneth A. Walsh, a former enlisted pilot. He became the first Corsair ace in May 1943, and then ran his tally to twenty by the end of August. He was also the first of four F4U pilots awarded the Medal of Honor. Over the next year the Corsair swept to success after success. Chief among the high-scoring squadrons were the Black Sheep of VMF-214, which produced nine aces; and the navy’s VF-17, which would claim a total of 107 enemy planes.

    In one of the Corsair’s best single days of the war, April 12, 1945, marine squadrons would claim eighty-seven kills. Four days later squadron VF-10, flying off the carrier USS Intrepid at the Battle of Okinawa, claimed thirty-three enemy aircraft; two aviators, Lt. (j.g.) Phil Kirkwood (who had just turned twenty-four the day before) and Ens. Alfred Lerch, became aces in a day, and each was awarded the Navy Cross.

    Because of their huge power, Corsairs could get off the ground with 4,000 pounds of ordnance strapped on, and so the aircraft soon excelled as fighter-bombers, too: Corsairs dropped 70 percent of all the bombs dropped by American fighters in the war.

    “The Corsair stood head and shoulders above its contemporaries,” legendary marine ace Marion Carl said. (In the postwar world, the Corsair again reigned supreme, remaining in front-line service and production, while the Hellcat, Lightning, and Thunderbolt disappeared.)

    Perhaps the most objective assessment of the Corsair was at the Joint Fighter Conference at Patuxent River, Maryland, in October 1944. Nearly a hundred army and navy pilots swapped cockpits and compared notes. When the results were tallied, the F4U stood tall. Best all-round fighter below 25,000 feet: Bearcat, Mustang, and Corsair, all within 3 percent of one other. Best above 25,000: the P-47 got nearly half the votes followed by the Mustang and F4U in distant third. Perhaps most surprisingly, in the best fighter-bomber category the Corsair led the P-47 nearly two to one. Additionally, the F4U ranked second only to the P-47 as best strafer.

    One of the participants was army major Rex T. Barber, the P-38 ace best known for shooting down Adm. Isoroku Yama*moto on April 18, 1943. Though a hard-core P-38 partisan, Barber later said that if the U.S. government had had to buy just one fighter aircraft in World War II, it should have been the Corsair.
     
  4. renrich

    renrich Active Member

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    Outstanding post Thor. I had never heard the Corsair dropped 70 % of the bombs.
     
  5. Thorlifter

    Thorlifter Well-Known Member

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    I had always read the F4U was the first American fighter to exceed 400mph in level flight. According to this article, the XP-38 did it the year before.
     
  6. ccheese

    ccheese Member In Perpetuity
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    Good post, TL...... very good. The bent-winged bird was always a favorite
    of mine.

    Charles
     
  7. renrich

    renrich Active Member

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    The Corsair was the first single engined US fighter to exceed 400 mph. That was after Boone Guyton ran out of fuel, put it down on a golf course and wrecked the prototype. They rebuilt it in a few months and then he flew it over a measured mile. I don't know what altitude at which he did that.
     
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