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Vought F-8 Crusader: Last of the Gunfighters

The Vought F-8 Crusader was a single-engine, supersonic, carrier-based, high-performance jet fighter that first flew in 1955, a mere decade after the end of World War II. The Crusader was the first American fighter to break 1,000 miles per hour.

A U.S. Marine Corps F-8E Crusader launches on a March 10, 1967 scramble mission in support of ground forces 17 miles south of Da Nang, Vietnam. Image: U.S.M.C.

That it enjoyed such rarefied performance a short 10 years after the conclusion of WWII speaks to the tremendous strides made in aviation technology in the first few years of the Cold War.

Well Armed Warrior

The F-8 earned its testosterone-besotted moniker because of its primary armament. Where subsequent fighter planes were designed around missile engagements, the Crusader was first and foremost a gun platform.

In this photo, the underside of the F-8 Crusader is exposed showing the air-to-ground ordnance loaded for a combat mission in the Vietnam War. The Navy Crusader was also used by the Marine Corps which is the service branch operating the plane shown. Eventually the planes were replaced by the F-4 Phantom II. 
An ordnance-laden F-8E Crusader of Marine All-Weather Fighter Squadron 232 (VMF (AW)-232) stands ready on the flight line. Image: T. J. Mercurio/U.S.M.C.

The F-8 carried four Mk 12 20mm autocannons in the lower fuselage packing 125 rounds apiece. Each gas-operated gun weighed 101 lbs. and cycled at 1,000 rounds per minute. This gave the Crusader a sum total of 7.5 seconds’ worth of fire for combat engagements.

In this photo, U.S. Navy sailors reposition an F-8 Crusader on the deck of an aircraft carrier. The Crusader's prominent turbojet engine is plainly visible. Also shown are the variable-incidence wings that made the plane flyable in naval aviation. The planes are memorialized in the National Air and Space Museum and the USS Hornet museum. 
Flight deck boatswain signals mule driver to tow F-8 Crusader fighter aircraft to respot position aboard the attack aircraft carrier USS Bon Homme Richard (CVA-31). Image: R.D. Moeser/U.S. Navy

Additionally, the F-8 could carry four AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles on side-mounted fuselage pylons. There was also a retractable rocket tray in the belly that could carry 32 unguided 2.75-inch Mk4/Mk 40 FFAR (Folding-Fin Aerial Rockets). Uncle Sam called these nasty rascals the Mighty Mouse.

In this photo, Marines load bombs and missiles onto a Crusader during the Vietnam War. Although the plane was the first supersonic jet fighter used by the Navy and Marine Corps, it was frequently used for ground attack in combat during the Vietnam War. These jet aircraft were good in a dogfight against Vietnamese MIGs in Southeast Asia.
Marine Aircraft Group 11 ordnance men make last minute checks and arm the bombs and rockets on an F-8 Crusader fighter jet prior to its takeoff on a mission in Vietnam. Image: U.S.M.C.

One of the biggest challenges in designing a carrier fighter plane was combining rugged landing gear capable of handling the punishment of repeated violent carrier landings with ample power in a machine offering adequate forward visibility. The previous WWII-vintage Chance-Vought F4U Corsair, magnificent plane that it was, well and truly sucked in this regard.

The Corsair’s combination of a massive Pratt and Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp radial engine and a huge fuel tank mounted in front of the cockpit made for an ample snout. This made carrier landings, particularly in rough seas or periods of limited visibility, terribly hazardous. The designers of the Crusader set out to rectify that.

In this photo, an F8U Crusader escorts a Soviet Union TU-95 Bear bomber away from a U.S. Navy carrier group during the Cold War. The Crusader design was a carrier based fighter that was more than a match for the Russian MiG-17s and somilar communist aircraft of the era. It was equipped with guns and missiles for air-to-air combat. In an era of jets, the Chance Vought fighter was designed with guns. 
An F-8 Crusader fighter intercepts a Soviet TU-95 Bear-A/B aircraft near the aircraft carrier USS Oriskany (CVA-34) on May 25, 1974. Image: NARA

For starters, the narrow-track landing gear on the Crusader was mounted centrally to the fuselage rather than the wings. Like that of most modern fighters (think F-16 and F-18), this design allows the rigorous stresses of landing to be transmitted directly into the airframe rather than into the more fragile wing structure. Additionally, the cockpit was mounted well forward to afford superlative visibility on landing. Lastly, the F-8 was equipped with a most remarkable wing.

In this image, the carrier-based air superiority F-8 comes in for a landing on the USS Hancock. The fighter was able to exceed the speed of sound and could be equipped with Sidewinder missiles. In the pantheon of planes of fame, the Crusader was the fastest plane the Navy had until the Douglas F-4 Phantom II. The F-8 became the first jet to set a national speed record as an aircraft to fly from the east to west coast in slightly more than three hours.
An F-8 Crusader lands on the attack aircraft carrier USS Hancock (CVA-19) in the Gulf of Tonkin during the Vietnam War. Image: U.S. Navy

Fast planes are more challenging to land than slow ones. Whether it is an F-22 or a Cessna 150, a slower approach speed equates to more time to react to unforeseen hazards during the landing sequence. In the case of the F-8 Crusader, the Navy stipulated a 100 mph approach speed. To coax a sleek swept-wing fighter like the F-8 into such glacial performance required a pretty radical rethink of the way folks had previously made airplanes. The solution was a weird variable incidence wing structure.

In this photo, an F-8 Crusader launches from the deck of the USS Enterprise. U.S. President John F. Kenneday was onboard to watch naval operations. These planes had fast landing speeds, but were still well suited to carrier operations. 
An F-8 Crusader, with afterburner aglow, is catapulted from the deck of USS Enterprise (CVN-65), during an air-power demonstration for President John F. Kennedy on April 14, 1962. Image: NARA

For takeoff and landing, the entire wing assembly pivoted upward seven degrees. This feature combined with leading edge flaps that deployed through 25 degrees and inboard flaps that described a 30-degree arc profoundly increased the camber of the wing and improved its subsequent low-speed maneuvering characteristics. With all this stuff cleaned up after takeoff, the plane was trim, slick, and fast. It really was an inspired solution. The wingtips also folded for storage aboard ship.

Shown are two F-8 Crusaders that are on the forward catapults of the USS Midway. The Midway was used for pilot training by the United States Navy. Naval Air Station training was the first step where visibility for the pilot was at a maximum. Service with the United States began on 21 August 1956 and was retired in 1999. 
The crew of the USS Midway (CVA-41) prepare to launch a pair of F-8 Crusader fighters, during carrier qualifications in 1963. Image: U.S. Navy

In addition, the Crusader employed one-piece stabilators in lieu of a conventional horizontal stabilizer with separate control surfaces. Most all modern fighter aircraft have since followed this design path. Dog-tooth notches in the wing roots improved yaw characteristics, while the generous use of titanium in its construction helped keep weight down. 

Operational Performance of the Crusader

The Crusader really made its mark during the Cuban Missile Crisis. RF-8A photoreconnaissance Crusaders lacked armament but carried powerful cameras that could be used to gather photographic intelligence. The Crusader’s high speed and exceptional maneuverability helped the type to survive fast runs through contested airspace.

In this photo, a RF-8 Crusader, which was a photo reconnaissance version of the F-8, rolls in to make a photo-reconnaissance run during the Vietnam War. The reconnaissance version of the aircraft was used during the Cuban Missile Crisis and other events. The national naval aviation museum at Patriots Point displayed one of these aircraft since the last operational one was retired. 
An RF-8G Crusader from Light Photographic Squadron 63 (CFP-63,) based aboard attack aircraft carrier USS Oriskany (CVA-34), rolls in for a photo run over South Vietnam in July 1966. Image: U.S. Navy

During the six weeks of the crisis, RF-8A Crusaders flew two missions per day over Cuba documenting communist missile deployment activities. These overflights produced some 160,000 images that substantively shaped national policy during this most critical time. After each successful recon mission, Navy crews stenciled the small image of a dead chicken on the side of the airplane.

In this photo, a U.S.N. F-8 escorts an Egyptian TU-16 Badger bomber away from a NATO exercise in the Mediterranean Sea. The USN was working with the British Marines and French Navy in a combined arms exercise. 
A Soviet-built TU-16 Badger of the Egyptian Air Force watches a NATO exercise in the Mediterranean Sea in 1969. It is escorted by an F-8 Crusader from the USS Shangri-La (CVS-38). Image: U.S. Navy

In action, the Crusader’s guns were not terribly reliable. Of the 19 MiGs downed by Crusader pilots during the Vietnam War, four fell to cannon fire. The rest were downed using AIM-9 Sidewinder heat-seeking air-to-air missiles. By the end of the conflict, the Crusader had a 19:3 kill ratio, the best of any American jet fighter of the war.

Ruminations on the Vought F-8

However, the F-8 Crusader was nonetheless an exceptionally dangerous airplane to fly. At the time of its introduction, jet propulsion was still in its relative infancy. Additionally, these planes were routinely flying in excess of 1,000 miles per hour a mere 60 years after the Wright Brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Regardless, the Crusader did some amazing things.

In this photo, Major John H. Glenn, Jr., U.S.M.C., received the Distinguished Flying Cross from the Secretary of the Navy. Glenn used the F-8 to become the first person to cross the continent faster than the speed of sound. John Glenn would later go on to be an integral part of the U.S. space program.
Maj. John H. Glenn, Jr., U.S.M.C., received the Distinguished Flying Cross from the Secretary of the Navy. Glenn used the F-8 to become the first person to cross the continent faster than the speed of sound.

There were several instances wherein pilots inadvertently launched with their wings folded. On 23 August 1960, a Crusader pilot forgot to deploy his wings before launch and survived to tell the tale. He jettisoned his external stores and climbed to 5,000 feet on full afterburner before returning to land at the Italian Napoli Capodichino airport.

A left-side view of an F-8B Crusader of Fighter Wing 62 in flight on November 30, 1965. Image: Lt. j.g. Kay/U.S. Navy
A left-side view of an F-8B Crusader of Fighter Wing 62 in flight on November 30, 1965. Image: Lt. j.g. Kay/U.S. Navy

This absentminded jet jockey later reported that the controls were a bit thicker than usual, but the plane remained nonetheless flyable in this configuration. Such performance speaks to the exceptional design of the Crusader and the innate foolishness of young military pilots.

The pilot of an F-8 Crusader salutes, signaling he is ready to launch from the USS Hancock (CVA-19) during operations in the South China Sea. Image: Chief Journalist R.D. Moeser/U.S. Navy
The pilot of an F-8 Crusader salutes, signaling he is ready to launch from the USS Hancock (CVA-19) during operations in the South China Sea. Image: Chief Journalist R.D. Moeser/U.S. Navy

Some 1,261 Crusaders were produced over its 30-year service life. By the time the plane was ultimately retired in 1987, some 1,106 of these had been involved in mishaps. Despite such ghastly operational numbers, the Crusader was nonetheless a seminal steppingstone to even greater things to come. 

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