Have Gun, Will Dogfight
“The Last of the Gunfighters” sounds like a Gary Cooper movie or a Zane Grey novel. But the top result in a Google search for that phrase is the Wikipedia page for a six-decade-old jet fighter, the Vought F-8 Crusader. Adopted by the U.S. Navy in 1957, this single-engine, 1,000-mph dogfighter downed 19 MiGs during the Vietnam War and was an accurate, deadly strafer. Yet despite its service record, speed, and recognition for excellence—it won the 1956 Collier Trophy—the Crusader has fallen into obscurity.
Why? In a word that isn’t even a word: F-4.
Retired Marine Corps General Jack Dailey, the director of the National Air and Space Museum, flew the F-8 in the mid-1960s. “Everybody who flew that airplane loved it,” he says. “It was a single-seater, the way fighter pilots thought a fighter was supposed to be.” But upon Dailey’s arrival in Vietnam, he was assigned to an RF-4. He says the Crusader missed its war: It was too late for Korea, and by the time the Vietnam conflict got going, U.S. naval aviation was already well into its transition to the twin-engine, multi-role F-4 Phantom (see “Any Mission at Mach 2,” Feb./Mar. 2015).
With a top speed of Mach 2.2, the F-4 could intercept airborne threats to the fleet faster and farther from the ships than the Crusader could, and it had the ability to fire at an enemy head on. Also, that second engine gave the F-4 better survivability—critical for pilots flying in combat and over wide stretches of ocean.
Of course, the F-8 still had something F-4 pilots desperately wanted but didn’t get for several years: guns. Four of them, firing 20mm rounds.
“There was this strange idea in the Department of Defense that the gun was passé,” says military aviation historian Richard P. Hallion. “And the gun has never been passé.” Compared to the missiles of today, he says, the air-to-air missiles arming F-4s and F-8s during Vietnam were primitive and unreliable.
Peter Mersky, the author of F-8 Crusader Units of the Vietnam War, says that even though only two of the Crusader’s 19 MiG kills in Vietnam were made solely with guns, the F-8’s cannon were more than just a confidence booster for pilots. “The two official F-8 gun kills have since been augmented by other unofficially credited kills that used a combination of 20mm fire and a well-placed Sidewinder hit,” Mersky says.
The single-engine, single-seat F-8—originally the F8U-1 under the old Navy numbering system—was one of several aircraft born of the lessons of Korea, according to Hallion.
Former Senator John Glenn flew the F-8 as a U.S. Marine Corps major and test pilot at the naval air base at Patuxent River, Maryland, in the mid-1950s, and was an immediate fan. “I’d like to think what I could have done had I had it in Korea when we were flying against the MiGs, compared to the F-86s,” he says. “With four 20mm cannons, it would have been better armed than the MiG. In dogfights I don’t know that it would have been much better in ability to turn, but it would have been better at controlling the battle because it could go higher and faster.”
The higher, faster F-8 was the Navy’s answer to the Air Force’s supersonic air superiority stud, the F-100 Super Sabre. You could almost hear Vought lead engineer Russell Clark and the rest of the design team say “Oh yeah?” on March 25, 1955, when test pilot John Konrad took the prototype, XF8-U, supersonic on its first flight. The following year, Navy test pilot R.W. “Duke” Windsor took the Crusader to 1,015 mph, a national speed record and an achievement that took the postwar Thompson Trophy away from the F-100.
Glenn, who was in charge of F-8 armament testing, recalls early problems with the cannons mounted on the side of the engine duct at the front of the aircraft. “When we fired the gun on the ground at a target it did okay, but when we did a two-second burst-fire with all four guns, the duct would flex and you had a big circular random pattern.” Vought beefed up the duct for later aircraft, but the initial solution was to send a cross-eyed airplane to the fleet. Glenn says, “To make up for that flexing we [made it] so when you looked down the boresight on the ground it was cross-eyed to the other side. We [adjusted the boresight by taking] the average of how far they were off-target when we did the two-second burst-fire.”
In 1957, Glenn famously completed Project Bullet, briefly stealing the transcontinental speed record back from the Air Force by flying an F-8 nonstop coast to coast in afterburner the entire trip, except during the three aerial refuelings required.
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“F8E Launch-VF33-CVAN65-1964” by Casey17 – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:F8E_Launch-VF33-CVAN65-1964.jpg#/media/File:F8E_Launch-VF33-CVAN65-1964.jpg