The F4U Corsair: The Gull-Winged Whistling Wife Killer By: Will Dabbs

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All physicians, no matter their speciality, start out in the Gross Anatomy lab. It is a surreal experience.

I started med school when I was 32. Unlike most of my comrades, I came to the table with a little living already under my belt. By the time I walked into the Gross Anatomy lab my youthful idealism was but an ancient memory. 

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It’s tough to find more raw human emotion than that which resides within your typical busy emergency department.

The long hours and the gore were obviously a given, but the emotional bit really did surprise me. I hadn’t imagined what it might be like to have to tell somebody their kid was going to die. Trust me, that’s not cool.

Lots of times folks will come see me in my medical clinic just because they don’t have anybody else to talk to.

By contrast, I was also amazed at the sorts of emotional baggage folks will bring to their doctor. One guy dropped by the clinic to tell me he was going off to kill himself and just wanted to say goodbye. There’s a surprising lot of emotion to be found in a small-town physician’s office.

Hell hath no fury like…well, you know the rest.

Arguably the most venom I have ever seen has come from spouses spurned. It is simply amazing to see the depths of unfettered hatred that can spawn from a relationship presumably originally based upon mutual love and affection. Such powerful angst can precipitate some remarkably egregious behavior.

The Weapon

The Vought F4U Corsair is an undeniably beautiful warplane. However, I sure wouldn’t want to have one of these puppies after me.

The Vought F4U Corsair was imagined from the outset as a carrier-based aircraft. The earliest versions of the plane were designed around a massive 2,000 horsepower 18-cylinder Pratt and Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp radial engine. To extract every bit of available power from that enormous engine it turned a Hamilton Standard Hydromatic three-bladed propeller that was 13 feet 4 inches in diameter.

The Corsair developed a reputation for ruggedness that endeared it to its pilots.

Little is tougher on an airplane than carrier landings, so the Corsair’s landing gear had to be stout. To be stout they had to be short. To design an airplane structure with short stocky landing gear and a 13-foot propeller necessitated the Corsair’s beautiful gull wings. The graceful gull wing design became the plane’s most arresting feature. 

The F4U Corsair was one of America’s most successful warplanes.

12,571 copies rolled off the lines at both Vought and Goodyear between 1940 and 1953. The airplane saw active service in American hands in WW2 and Korea. New Zealand and France operated the ship well into the 1960’s. During WW2 the Corsair racked up an 11-to-1 kill ratio against the Japanese. The Japanese called it “The Whistling Death” based upon the sound the wind made passing through the oil coolers. The Corsair’s 11-year production run was the longest for any American piston-driven fighter plane.

So Much, So Fast

It’s amazing these guys survived.

While the Corsair was indeed a profoundly successful fighter plane, it was also terribly unforgiving. At the time of its introduction, aviation was still in its relative infancy. On December 17, 1903, the Wright Flier had its first serious success. Wilbur Wright had tried to take the Flier up three days prior but merely coasted some 3.5 seconds before stalling the machine and pranging it up a bit. On the 17th the aircraft flew four separate times. The last flight of the day covered 852 feet in 59 seconds with Wilbur at the controls. That averages out to about 10 mph. A 20mph headwind kept the plane aloft. At the end of this momentous day a gust of wind tumbled the flimsy plane end over end, and it never flew again.

The Wright Flier was a shockingly flimsy machine.

The Flier weighed 745 pounds and sported a 12-horsepower engine. A mere 37 years later the Corsair weighed 14,000 pounds and could cruise at 446 mph. The F4U had a service ceiling of 41,500 feet. Despite the fact that Navy and Marine pilots were meticulously screened and trained to a standard unrivaled anywhere in the world, fully 56% of aircraft losses in the Corsair were not due to combat action. The combination of cutting-edge performance and raw power simply made the Corsair a challenging machine to fly.

The Guns

The AN/M2 aircraft .50 was a variation on the traditional Ma Deuce ground gun.
Early Corsairs packed three AN/M2 guns in each wing.

The armament on a Corsair has little bearing on this tale, but this is a gun website and you rightfully expect firearms-related content. Early F4U’s sported half a dozen Browning AN/M2 .50-caliber machineguns. AN stood for “Army/Navy.” Each M2 weighed 61 pounds and cycled at between 600 and 800 rounds per minute. Each of these six guns carried 400 rounds onboard. B25 Mitchell gunships could potentially carry as many as 18 of these monsters.

Later Corsairs employed four 20mm cannon as wing-mounted armament. The difference is obvious if you’re looking for it. This is a Korean War-vintage plane.

We Americans did passionately love our fifties, but by the middle of the war advances in aircraft performance and armor had rendered these beloved weapons somewhat less than ideal. Even the lightweight Japanese Zero was armed with a brace of 20mm cannon. Later versions of the Corsair packed four AN/M3 20mm automatic cannon. Each of these guns carried 231 rounds.

The AN/M3 20mm cannon packed considerably more downrange horsepower than did the traditional .50-caliber machine-gun.

The AN/M3 was an Americanized version of the Hispano-Suiza HS.404 gas-operated, delayed-blowback 20mm gun used across all fronts during WW2. The AN/M3 cycled at 650 rpm and fired a roughly quarter-pound projectile. These shells packed a high explosive incendiary filler behind a No 253 Mk IA Direct Action (Percussion) fuze. 

What Became of All Those Planes?

It’s tough to grasp the scope of American war production during World War 2. There’s never been anything like it before or since.

At peak production during World War 2 American industry was churning out some 8,000 warplanes a month. The sheer volume of sundry stuff produced in this country has never been rivaled before or since in all of human history. With the end of hostilities all of those magnificent aircraft were suddenly superfluous. 

The raw volume of surplus aircraft scrapped after the war boggles the mind. More than 5,000 warplanes were destroyed at Kingman, AZ, alone.

P38 Lightnings, B25 Mitchells, P51 Mustangs, and B17 Fortresses were undeniably sexy cool, but they were not designed for efficiency. Their immensely powerful engines guzzled fuel and oil. Maintaining these large complicated machines was expensive. At a time when the planet was covered in the detritus of combat, nobody really wanted these things. Nowadays a restored WW2-era fighter plane might set you back a couple million dollars. Back then, however, most of them were simply scrapped. A shockingly large number of military aircraft were flown straight from the factories to the scrapyards. Makes a guy kind of ill to think about it today.

Uncle Sam purportedly tried selling these old planes for a while but eventually just gave up and scrapped them all.

There was supposedly a three-year period wherein folks could pick up surplus warplanes cash and carry under the auspices of the War Assets Administration. I have read that a series of disposal fields was established across the country where anyone with a little folding money could freely purchase a Mustang, Thunderbolt, Lightning, or Corsair, bereft of guns of course. After a while the program was hemorrhaging capital and the remaining inventory was turned into beer cans. For that brief period, however, a fully operational Corsair could be had for a bit north of $1,000. That’s about $12,400 today.

The Murder

I have read the following story from two sources in print. I was unable to find any reference to it online. If you know it to be apocryphal then try to suspend your skepticism and just enjoy the tale. 

This isn’t the murderous wife-slaying oil tycoon from our story. This is Larry Hagman playing JR Ewing from the cheesy TV show Dallas. However, the parallels remain the same.

The murderer was a Texas oil tycoon, part of the nouveau rich made ridiculously wealthy by the recent global hemoclysm and its insatiable demand for petroleum. His wife was a shrew of sorts, the kind of woman who gravitates toward this kind of man and then becomes intolerable in short order. She had grown accustomed to the trappings of wealth, and he had grown weary of her company. Arguments became the norm, and they grew distant as a result.

The concept of the trophy wife is apparently fairly timeless. This Lucas Cranach painting from 1550 is titled “The Ill-Matched Couple.” Note that his hand is on her chest, while hers is in his purse. Eww…
Behold the recognized master of the art of the trophy wife. Hugh Hefner was married three times to women like this. He maintained robust friendships with countless others.

The man assuaged himself with a mistress. He had money, and that reliably attracted pretty girls. Had the guy been blessed with a bit more insight he might have appreciated that it was this very romantic calculus that had landed him in his current sordid state. Alas, this time-tested technique seldom if ever satisfies, yet humans have monotonously pursued such from the very dawn of time.

Female pilots really weren’t terribly common prior to World War 2. In fact, female anything other than housewives were a good bit rarer back then.

For her part, she craved adventure. Women had only earned the right to vote some 27 years previously, and gender emancipation was just finding its level. Thanks to the demands of total war, women had been granted opportunities to experience the workforce and the world that might have been unimaginable a mere decade earlier. Once that genie was out of the bottle there was no putting it back. In this young lady’s case, she liked to fly.

The J3 cub is a Cracker Jack airplane. However, the Cub’s 65hp Continental A-65-8 four-cylinder engine was an entirely different beast from the 2,000-hp monster that powered the Corsair warplane.

She had possession of a Taylor Cub and fancied herself quite the competent pilot. On the occasion of her birthday her husband purportedly threw a party. On the surface at least they were still the perfect happy power couple. Friends and relatives came from all around to the expansive ranch to celebrate. Imagine her delight when she found that her husband had gifted her an F4U Corsair fighter plane of her very own.

The Killing

The F4U Corsair was notoriously unforgiving through major power changes.

Everything in the universe is physics. If you open the throttle on a 2000-horsepower engine swinging a 13-foot prop all that torque has to go someplace. When Corsair pilots were on approach to an aircraft carrier they typically put their props to flat pitch and cranked in 20 degrees of right rudder trim, compensating for the tendency to crab with left rudder pedal. This way if they had to advance the throttle suddenly for a go-around the engine torque wouldn’t roll the big plane inverted with catastrophic result. Apparently nobody explained that to this oilman’s wife.

A vintage surplus warplane makes an unconventional but effective murder weapon in the wrong hands.

As the story goes the delighted woman climbed aboard, fired up that big Pratt and Whitney Double Wasp, and lined up on the grass runway on the ranch. When she pushed the throttle forward to take off in front of her accumulated guests the big fighter purportedly ground looped and exploded, quite effectively rendering the oil man a widower. After the requisite period of mourning the clever killer allegedly married his girlfriend, likely to start the entire sordid process over anew. And that, my friends, is how a put-upon Texas oil tycoon supposedly murdered his wife with a surplus Corsair fighter plane.