Issue 12 - F4U Corsair: Carrier crash!

Published: 11:48AM Sep 28th, 2011
By: Fred ‘Crash’ Blechman

In another article supplied by David G Powers, Fred Blechman describes the day he made his last flight in an F4U-5 Corsair, although at the time he did not know that this was the case. The dangers of flying large powerful aircraft from small carriers are perfectly illustrated by this honest account.

Issue 12 - F4U Corsair: Carrier crash!

An F4U-4 Corsair of VMF-323 lands aboard the USS Sicily (CVE-118), off the coast of Korea in 1951. This was the sister ship to CVE-108 and perfectly illustrates the narrow confines of the escort carrier deck. The author

It has been said that the most dangerous time in a pilot’s career is when he has about 600 flying hours. Prior to that time he’s very careful and deliberate. After about 600 hours flight time he tends to be more relaxed – and sometimes gets a bit careless. I had 666.2 hours of flight time, with 454.6 hours in Vought F4U Corsairs, when I crashed on the deck of an escort carrier!

It was a bright, clear dawn in the Caribbean on November 7, 1951, when eight of us in Fighter Squadron 14 (VF-14) were shot – they called it catapulted – from the escort carrier USS Kula Gulf (CVE-108). Our F4U-5 Corsairs were part of an annual training exercise called ‘LANTFLEX’ (AtLANTic FLeet EXercise).

We were the Red Squadron, flying Combat Air Patrol (CAP) to protect our small task force from any Blue Squadron (enemy) raids.

Nothing special happened. We just flew around in large, lazy circles in loose formation over the endless sparkling water, some distance from the carrier and its support vessels. I was flying F4U-5 – Navy Bureau Number 122158, Squadron Side Number 405.

After over two hours of occasional vectoring by the carrier Combat Information Centre (CIC), we headed back to home, flying in right echelon past the starboard side of the carrier’s island as we peeled off to port, setting our landing interval. We landed in turn without incident, and headed for the ready room. The Acey-Ducey – Backgammon to landlubbers – and card games came out, and we relaxed. I was not scheduled for any other flights that day, after our early launch and relatively long 2.6-hour flight.

It was late morning when things changed suddenly. Our radar had spotted a ‘snooper’, apparently a Blue patrol plane approaching our ships. “Pilots, man your planes!” was called for those scheduled on standby. Although I was not scheduled to fly, our flight deck was not spotted for the unexpected launch, so I went up on deck in case I was needed to taxi a plane to a new position on deck.

It soon became apparent that some of our planes would have to be moved. I climbed into the same number 405 I had flown earlier, just expecting to taxi around the flight deck as directed during this respotting of aircraft. I had my regular flight gear – a hardhat, G-suit and parachute, standard procedure in case of a standby launch – but no plotting board, and no briefing.

This was to be a four-plane search-and-destroy mission. Three of them got off fine, but the fourth had engine trouble. All planes were being catapulted since the wind over the short deck was not sufficient for a safe deck launch – not that cat shots were all that safe! They took the sputtering dud Corsair off the port catapult, put me on, hooked up the shuttle and cable, and shot me into the gathering clouds. Equipped with an extra gas tank, we were off for a three-hour search flight.

This turned out to be a long, boring, very tiring flight. The flight leader, to make things more interesting, put us in a tail chase – and I was the last plane in this whipping tail as the leader performed mild aerobatics. The idea was to stay in position behind the plane ahead of you. Following was relatively easy if you were in one of the up-front positions in this tail chase, but got progressively more difficult if you were further back in the stack. I was in position number four, the end of the tail, and was using lots of throttle, rudder, elevator and aileron movement, trying to stay in position. This wasn’t as bad as being in the number eight position in a tail-chase, as I had been a number of times, but it was gruelling nevertheless.

The F4U-5, the heaviest in the Corsair series, did not have boosted controls, and didn’t need them for normal flight. But it took a lot of physical effort to horse it around the sky. Also, we had gone up above the cloud layer, and the sun was beating through the bubble canopy. Combined with the natural high humidity of the Caribbean, the inside of that bird was hot and sticky. I recall popping the canopy back a few inches several times to try to cool off.

Finally, after three hours, we were called back to land. There had been another unscheduled launch while we were airborne, so now the deck had been respotted again for our recovery. These were still the days of straight-deck carriers, when reshuffling of planes on deck was a common and necessary procedure between launches and recoveries.

We spotted Kula Gulf, steaming ahead of its bubbling, churning wake, surrounded by several smaller support vessels and their smaller, shorter white tails contrasting against the shimmering sea. A rescue helicopter, always aloft during air operations, hovered nearby.

As we approached the landing pattern in right echelon formation, flying upwind along the starboard side of the carrier for the break-off, I reflected about how well I had been doing. I mentally patted myself on the back for my good ordnance scores, and, although there had been a rash of accidents on this cruise, my slate was clean.

Landing an F4U-5 on a small escort carrier was inherently marginal. Escort carriers – CVE – with a flight deck under 500 feet long, were small compared to the larger 800- and 1000-foot light – CVL – and battle – CV – carrier decks. Escort carriers had fewer arresting wires – eight, compared to 11 for CVLs and 13 for CVs, as I recall – and their top-heavy decks on small hulls had a much greater tendency to pitch, yaw and roll, even in light seas. Every landing was a challenge.

As I peeled off to the left and set my interval for the downwind leg, I looked forward to getting down. I was very tired and sweaty. Getting back on deck, into a shower, and then sacking out – that’s what I was planning.

I dropped my wheels, flaps and hook on the downwind leg, throttled back to lose some altitude, and used the ship and its wake to judge my abeam position, direction and altitude. The ship was steaming upwind, and I was flying downwind, so it took no time at all before it was time to turn left onto the base leg.

I pulled back on the throttle, slowly dropping altitude on the base leg by referring to where the horizon cut the bridge, finally settling at the approach altitude and maintaining just enough power to hold the nose-up attitude at about 90 knots, hanging on the prop. I put the left nose of the Corsair on the aft starboard deck for an intercept course and held it there. As the ship moved forward at about 20 knots, I pulled the Corsair around to the left, watching the Landing Signal Officer (LSO) for paddle instructions.

There was no luxury of any significant straightaway in landing on those old straight-deck carriers when you were flying a long-nose Corsair in a nose-up attitude. You just couldn’t see ahead of you – only off to the side. We essentially pyloned counterclockwise around the LSO in order to keep him in sight at his port fantail location.

As I got close in, I pulled the nose left toward the ship’s centreline. This was effected by the wind over the deck, which was never straight down the deck, but about 15-degrees to port so the turbulence from the ship’s stacks and bridge did not appear in the flight path of the landing planes. This made for a very tricky last few seconds.

At this slow speed, just a few knots above stalling, it took a lot of right rudder, even though in a left turn. And you didn’t dare add power quickly – even if you thought you had to – since the 2100-horsepower engine turning the 13-foot diameter, four-bladed prop would make the aircraft roll uncontrollably to the left – the dreaded torque roll.

It took a lot of back stick, considerable power, and almost all my right rudder to hang in there. As I approached the ramp in a left turn, the LSO’s paddles and my own perception was that I was drifting to the right of the deck centreline. Too much right rudder. I cross-controlled a bit and slipped to the left just as I approached the ramp, levelled my wings, and got a mandatory ‘cut’.

“Ah, home at last,” I thought as I relaxed, dropped the nose, and pulled back to drop the tail so my hook would catch an early wire. But I relaxed too soon! Perhaps I was more tired than I realised, and didn’t pull back soon enough, or perhaps the deck lurched up at that time. Whatever the reason, my wheels hit the deck and bounced. I was flying over the arresting wires, tail up, and drifting to the left!

I heard the crash horn blare just as I popped the stick forward to get back on deck, and then quickly pulled back to get my arresting hook down. I caught the number eight wire – but on this ship, with a heavy Corsair, the arresting cable pulled out just enough for the prop to catch the uplifted barrier cable – strike two prop blades!

Epilogue

The above story turned out to be my last flight in a Corsair. Since my brief encounter with the barricade was actually considered an accident, I had to report to the flight surgeon for a quick physical. It was during this checkup that he discovered an astigmatism in my eyes and I was temporarily grounded. I was soon told that I would never fly fighters again but could possibly transfer to transport aircraft. I did stay in the Navy for several more months but decided not to take the transition to transport aircraft.

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