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Vought F-8 Crusader: America’s Last Gunfighter

Written by Matthew Copes

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According to the blue and white patches stitched to the flight suits of the men who flew them, “When you’re out of F-8s, you’re out of fighters.”

Powerful, fast, and remarkably agile, F-8 Crusaders were among the most advanced and lethal fighters in existence between the late ‘50s and early ‘70s.  

Thanks largely to their stubby noses and gaping engine inlets, F-8s weren’t as sleek as some of their early Jet Age counterparts, but they were chock full of advanced avionics and revolutionary design features.

Built by the Vought Corporation to replace the Navy and Marine Corps’ aging F7U Cutlasses, by the time F-8s first took to the skies a major sea change had taken place in the fighter arena. 

Whereas World War II and Korean War-era fighters had relied almost exclusively on heavy machine guns and cannons to down their opponents, by the mid-’50s cutting-edge air-to-air missiles were poised to dominate dogfights of the future. 

As such, guns were largely seen as little more than quaint relics of a bygone age. 

Prevailing Navy doctrine favored missiles over guns, and in some instances, limited air combat in Korea had shown guns and cannons to be glaringly deficient, except when adversarial aircraft were in relatively close proximity to one another.  

On the other hand, traditionalists rightly claimed that in close-up “knife fights,” there was just no substitute for the lethality and reliability of good old-fashioned guns.

In addition, missile, radar, and guidance technologies still had a long way to go.  

Hence, in addition to a wide array of guided missiles and unguided bombs, Crusaders would be equipped with four 20 mm cannons, earning them the title of the “Last of the Gunfighter.”

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Development

In the fall of 1952, the Navy sought design proposals for a new aircraft that would be part interceptor and part air superiority fighter.

With a stated top speed of Mach 1.2 (920 mph – 1,480 km/h), a phenomenal climb rate approaching 26,000 feet per minute, and the ability to take off and land at just 100 miles per hour (160 km/h), the Navy’s specifications were remarkably ambitious. 

At least in the early going, competition from McDonnell’s F3H Demon was stiff. 

The Demon would ultimately become the iconic F-4 Phantom, but at the time it lagged behind Vought’s design in a number of key areas. 

Meanwhile, Grumman threw its F-11 Tiger into the mix, and North America adapted its F-100 Super Sabre for carrier use and rechristened it the Super Fury. 

Led by renowned aircraft designer John Russel Clark, the Vought team got to work creating the first Crusader prototype, designated V-383.

In a huge divergence from traditional fighter design, the odd-looking aircraft featured a one-piece low aspect ratio wing mounted to the top of its fuselage. 

In addition, the leading edge of the variable-incidence wing could pivot upward approximately 7 degrees to create additional lift and reduce stall speed during carrier takeoffs and landings. 

This innovation alone helped the Crusader’s development team win the coveted Collier Trophy in 1956.

Likewise, the groundbreaking new wing significantly improved performance at various speeds and altitudes that would allow Crusaders to perform well in fighter, interceptor, and reconnaissance roles. 

Whenever possible Vought engineers incorporated titanium wing and airframe components to increase strength and minimize weight, and thanks to their single Pratt and Whitney axial flow J57 turbojet engines, Crusader’s had particularly high power-to-weight ratios.  

J57s were the first American jet engines to produce 10,000 pounds of dry thrust, while with their afterburners lit power output jumped by nearly 60%. 

After a lengthy evaluation process that ended in May of 1953, the Navy declared Vought’s design the winner.

The following month the company received an order for three prototypes, the first of which was delivered in January of 1955. 

Then in late March of that year, Vought’s Chief Experimental Test Pilot John Konrad eased the aircraft into the sky, and less than an hour into its maiden flight man and machine pushed their way past the sound barrier. 

Development proceeded smoothly, and the second prototype made its first catapult-assisted launch from USS Forrestal in early April of 1956. 

From there, Vought’s Crusader began making history almost immediately. 

In late August of 1956, Commander Robert W. Windsor pushed his F-8 to 1,016 miles per hour (1,635 km/h) over a 9.3-mile (15 km) closed course, smashing the previous record set by an F-100 by more than 100 miles per hour (161 km/h).   

Britain’s Fairey Delta still held the absolute world speed record of 1,132 mph (1,822 km/h), but the Crusader would go on to become the first operational jet capable of exceeding 1,000 mph (1,609 km/h) in level flight. 

Then in mid-July of 1957, future astronaut John Glenn, Jr. flew an F-8 on a record-breaking transcontinental flight between Los Alamitos, California, and Bennett Field in New York. 

Including refuelings, Glenn and his Crusader covered the 2,807 miles (4,517 km) in just over 3 hours and 20 minutes.  

Specifications and Armament

Just more than 54 feet (16.4 m) long and measuring 35 ½ feet (10.8 m) from wingtip to wingtip, when fully loaded with fuel and weapons Crusaders tipped the scales at nearly 35,000 pounds (15,800 kg). 

By comparison, F4 Phantoms had maximum takeoff weights exceeding 60,000 pounds (27,215 kg). 

Thanks to the abundant thrust provided by their J57 engines, production Crusaders were even faster than the performance parameters set forth by the Navy. 

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With maximum speeds approaching Mach 1.5 (1,150 miles per hour – 1,850 km/h), Crusaders were capable of climbing past 59,000 feet (18,000 m) in less than seven minutes, and combat range was a respectable 450 miles (730 km).

In addition to four 20 mm cannons, Crusader armament included up to four AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, unguided rockets, and nearly 5,000 pounds (2,270 kg) of bombs that could be carried on external hardpoints on the wings and fuselage. 

Ironically, however, despite their well-known status as gunfighters, many pilots regarded their cannons as unreliable and underpowered, and in addition, erratic high-G maneuvers often caused jams which rendered them entirely useless.  

F-8s in Service

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The first operational units received their new Crusaders on board USS Franklin D. Roosevelt in April of 1957

However, carrier trials were far hairier than expected, and a number of crashes resulted in destroyed aircraft and pilot fatalities, many of which were attributable to high landing speeds and quirky handling characteristics.  

The first fleet air arm to fly Crusaders operationally was Florida-based VF-32 which deployed to the Mediterranean on board USS Saratoga in late 1957.  

Just a few months later, Pacific Fleet units in both San Diego and northern California began getting their new birds as well. 

But though most pilots had undergone both day and night fighter training, early Crusaders were generally restricted to flying during daylight hours in relatively good weather. 

This allowed pilots to familiarize themselves with their high-performance machines without having to worry about poor visibility and weather-related issues, both of which could be addressed later on. 

F-8s first saw action during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October of 1962, when the world teetered on the edge of nuclear annihilation.  

During the tense standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union, unarmed RF-8A reconnaissance variants cut their teeth on high-speed, low-altitude photography runs over Cuba and the Gulf of Mexico. 

Each day two flights of two RF-8As departed from Key West. 

Then with their missions complete, they landed in Jacksonville where the film they’d taken was unloaded and developed before being sent off for analysis at the Pentagon. 

All told, the RF-8A’s flew for a month and a half and captured nearly 170,000 images, many of which clearly showed Soviet missile sites in Cuba just 90 miles off the Florida Keys. 

As the situation deescalated, RF-8A crews were also tasked with monitoring the Soviet withdrawal. 

Later, the pilots who flew the all-important missions were awarded either Distinguished Flying Crosses or prestigious US Navy Unit Commendations.

Next, Crusaders proved their worth in the skies over Vietnam, but in this conflict, many would trade in their cameras for guns, missiles, and bombs. 

At the time Crusaders were the best dogfighters in the Navy’s inventory, but they’d have their work cut out for them flying against the small and agile MiGs that the Soviets had supplied to their North Vietnamese comrades. 

In their first engagement, Crusaders from USS Hancock engaged MiG-17s from the North Vietnamese Air Force in early April of 1965. 

Though the battle was largely a stalemate, the gun camera of the MiG-17 flown by Lieutenant Pham Ngoc clearly showed that a cannon burst had set the F-8 flown by Lieutenant Commander Spence Thomas ablaze. 

Thomas managed to limp his damaged machine back to the air base at Da Nang, but though American pilots and their aircraft hadn’t been clear victors on that day, as aerial engagements intensified they’d set the standard by which all other Navy fighters would be judged. 

Another notable engagement took place between North Vietnamese MiG-21s and Navy Crusaders on August 1, 1968. 

During the dogfight, North Vietnamese ace Nguyen Hong Nhi fired two R-3S air-to-air missiles at a pair of F-8s, the second of which hit and downed its target. 

Following a brief dogfight with the remaining F-8, two more Crusaders came to the rescue, and in the end, Nguyen Hong Nhi’s MiG was hit by a Sidewinder, though he ejected and survived. 

But despite being capable dogfighters, some Navy and Marine Corps Crusaders were relegated to “bomb truck” duty. 

Generally, Marine Crusaders operated from land bases and flew only in the south in support of ground troops, while Navy F-8s operated from Essex-class carriers and handled long-range missions against refineries, airfields, and rail depots in the north. 

By war’s end, F-8s had officially downed 19 enemy MiGs while losing only three of their own. 

Of the F-8s that were lost, all were reportedly downed by cannon fire from older and less advanced MiG-17s. 

On the other hand, despite the “last gunfighter” moniker, only four of the F-8’s 19 confirmed kills were achieved with cannons, while the rest were credited to AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles.

During the war, 170 Crusaders were lost to all causes, most of which were due to ground fire and accidents. 

Notable Variants

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Over multiple decades Vought created a number of F-8 variants that benefited from increasingly powerful engines, upgraded radars, and more advanced weapons and avionics. 

Of these, many were RF-8G reconnaissance variants that served well into the ‘80s with Naval Reserve Units. 

More than 40 F-8E air superiority fighters were built for the French Navy, and in the United States a number of early A variants went out with prodigious bangs after being converted into remotely controlled target drones. 

But in an ironic twist of fate, the most potent Crusader of all may have been the one that never entered service – the XF8U-3 Crusader III.

Dubbed the “Super Crusader,” when the first prototype made its maiden flight in the summer of 1958, it became immediately apparent that it was not only noticeably bigger than the Crusader I, but faster and more maneuverable as well. 

But though the experimental Crusader III looked like a larger version of the Crusader I, underneath its thin aluminum skin it was almost an entirely different aircraft. 

Powered by an upgraded J75-P-5A producing 16,500 pounds of dry thrust and nearly 30,000 pounds with the afterburner engaged, the Super Crusader recorded a top speed of 1,835 mph (2,950 km/h), and some engineers felt that with a little tweaking it could top 2,000 miles per hour (3,218 km/h). 

In addition to a higher climb rate, top speed, and service ceiling, Super Crusaders would have had longer ranges, more advanced avionics, and better all-weather capability than nearly anything else the Navy had.

Likewise, Super Crusaders would have been far less expensive to manufacture and maintain, and some estimates suggested that they’d have used 40% less fuel than comparably equipped F-4 Phantoms. 

But perhaps most tellingly, the Crusader III regularly defeated early-model Phantoms in mock dogfights. 

In fact, in some circles the Super Crusader is still referred to as the best plane the Navy ever canceled. 

Design Flaws and “Mishaps”

Despite impressive performance, Crusader’s weren’t the easiest airplanes to fly. 

By the time the last F-8 had been retired, more than 1,000 of the 1,219 built had been involved in what the Navy referred to as “mishaps.” 

Few of these incidents resulted in death or destroyed aircraft, but especially for inexperienced pilots, Crusaders were particularly difficult to control during takeoffs and landings. 

After steam catapult-assisted carrier launches, early variants had a tendency to “swap ends.” 

In other words, due to a lack of yaw stability, the aircraft’s tail often swung around toward its nose. 

In conjunction with the Crusader’s notoriously poor low-speed response, this harrowing phenomenon often resulted in last-minute ejections and aircraft nose diving into the sea below the carrier’s bow.

Thankfully, this stability issue was solved by the addition of two ventral fins on the underside of the fuselage just forward of the exhaust nozzle. 

High sink rates often made touchdowns bone-jarring affairs as well, and the pilots’ struggles weren’t necessarily over just because they were back on deck. 

In fact, many naval aviators complained about the position of the forward castering landing gear which protruded from the fuselage well aft of the cockpit. 

The resulting overhang made F-8s awkward to maneuver in tight quarters.

When guided by deck crews, pilots often found themselves and the tips of their aircraft suspended in space over the ocean below, despite the fact that the nose strut was safely on the deck behind them. 

In addition, arriers often had to steam at full speed away from the incoming aircraft to lower their relative speeds while landing.

Worse yet, before the introduction of nuclear powered carriers, flight decks were often awash in thick black smoke from the oil burning engines which could severely limit visibility and make already tense landings even more nerve racking.  

In instances like these, pilots often had to rely exclusively on instructions from landing signal officers. 

But though they were handfuls even for experienced pilots, F-8s were equally dangerous to deck crews. 

Due to their powerful engines and deck-level intakes, F-8s were capable of ingesting foreign matter and even deck personnel who carelessly wandered into the danger zone, hence they were often referred to as “gators” and “ensign eliminators.” 

To reduce their footprint both above and below deck, Crusaders were equipped with folding wing tips. 

On at least one occasion, a Crusader took off with its wingtips in the “up” position.

Later back on deck safely, the pilot said that he’d been alarmed to discover that his aircraft was particularly sluggish and unresponsive just after getting airborne.  

Then peering out the cockpit he immediately realized why. 

Luckily the decreased lift and lack of maneuverability were overcome by added power when the pilot prudently lit the engine’s afterburner. 

Just a few minutes later he landed without incident, but one wonders what his punishment was for taking off with folded wings in the first place. 

In the end, the Crusader’s inherent flaws, less than favorable flight conditions and stupid mistakes all contributed to its high accident rate. 

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The Last Crusade

All told, more than 1,200 Crusaders were manufactured, the last of which was delivered to Naval Air Station Miramar in early September of 1964. 

In an era of great advances, huge military budgets and premature obsolescence, Crusaders were the first post-Korean War aircraft to have relatively long tenures with the Navy.

Several modified F-8s were used by NASA in the early 1970s to test digital avionics and advanced wing designs, while most were officially retired in the mid-’70s.

The last operational F-8 was a reconnaissance variant that ultimately ended up on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. 

Crusaders served with the Philippine Air Force and French Navy well into the ‘90s, though by then in the United States, they’d long since been replaced by F-14 Tomcats and F-18 Hornets. 

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