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The great P-51D / F4U-4 debate continues...64 years on!

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Published Mon, Mar 24 2008 12:12 AM

Which was the greatest production WWII single-engined piston fighter. The P-51D Mustang or the F4U-4 Corsair?One of the problems with this good-natured debate is that they were both remarkable combat aircraft. I am biased because I grew up with the Corsair. They were overhead my home town during the war. Then most of  the 440 surviving lend-lease aircraft that the RNZAF used in the South-West Pacific, were flown into my home aerodrome of Rukahia, near Hamilton, New Zealand. Most were melted down for use in kitchen-ware and the like. I spent much time climbing all over them and sitting in the cockpit dreaming of being a fighter pilot. One of those surviving RNZAF aircraft is still active in NZ today. And we also have a pristine flying P-51D as well. I have known many chaps who flew the F4U, and still E-chat to one WWII veteran. A chap said to me recently that it was not a fair comparison as the Corsair had much greater BHP. But the current Flightglobal debate is not about which was the better aircraft between those which had the same power; it is about which was the better product...isn't it?

The F4U-4's max. level speed at 26,000 feet is 446 mph. (387 knots). That is 25 knots faster than the P-51D, and even if the Corsair came down to the Mustang's best speed altitude, it is still about 10 knots faster. The F4U-4 could climb at 4,170 feet/minute; 20% better than the Mustang. In level flight, the Corsair accelerates better. 2.4 mph/second as against 2.2. Both types had very high critical Mach numbers. One NZ Corsair pilot claimed to have exceeded Mach one in a very high altitude dive; but it was never proven. Operating from land, the F4U-4 could haul up to a staggering 6,000 lbs of external ordnance. That is near to half of a Lancaster's standard bombload!

The Corsair's standard combat radius was about that of the P-47 Thunderbolt. Of course the Mustang could range out much further, but bear in mind it had that large rear fuselage tank which, until it was lightened and the centre-of-gravity moved forward, made the aircraft longitudinally unstable and in no state to engage in serious air combat. A good chum of mine who was with the NZ 485 Squadron in the UK, and who had flown the P-51D, described to me how, at max. take-off weight, the Mustang's rate of climb was abysmal. But to be fair, the aircraft was really "tankering fuel" to get range. Had it been decided to allocate the F4U-4 to undertake long-haul escort duties in Europe, it could have been configured to carry vastly more fuel in drop-tanks and ranged out to huge distances. The Stromberg pressure-injection carburettor was a masterpiece of design and was very efficient at fuel metering when in the Lean mode. At cruise power settings I think, from memory, the P&W R-2800's SFC was only about 0.43 pounds/bhp/hour. So if you cruise the Corsair at, say, 40%, its hourly fuel burn is around 55 imp. gallons per hour.

All the official "experts" agree that the Corsair is the superior handling aeroplane and has ample pre-stall buffet in high angle-of-attack and/or high G accelerated situations. Whilst it may drop a wing, it is easily corrected unlike the Mustang which is prone to roll inverted very rapidly, particularly if a large power increase is made. Very nasty in the hands of some kid with maybe 300 hours total.... Various pilots who have flown comparitive tests between many WWII types, rate the F4U-4 as the best in a combat situation. Some think the Yak-3 in expert hands would have given the Corsair a run for its money; but only at lower altitudes. I suspect that the La-7 would also have done well pitted against the Corsair. But both these Russian types were light, short-range machines. I have long been convinced that the oft-touted claim that the in-line liquid-cooled engines were more suitable for fighters, is a myth. The Fw-190 was Germany's best production single-engine fighter and it had a twin-row radial. The USAAF/Navy and Marine Corps rated the Corsair as top when it came to taking battle damage and keeping airborne. The R-2800 can keep running with a couple of cylinders shot away. The aircraft's vulnerable area is its oil cooling plumbing of course, but there is not much you can do about that except sheild vulnerable lines against shrapnel. Of note is that even MiG 15 pilots in Korea were very wary of the Corsair and would have had no hope against it if their airspeed fell below 300 knots. Oh yes; I almost forgot to mention, The Corsair could also operate from those big floating flat-decked thingys...try that in your P-51D! In conclusion I shall iterate that both types are magnificent...it is just that the F4U-4 is a tad betterer! 

Radials Rule...dakota67 out.