On Jun. 2, 1958, one of the greatest “What If” Airplanes in Naval Aviation history first took wing. The XF8U-3 Super Crusader was an amazing aircraft, clearly outperforming its competitor the XF4H-1 Phantom II.
On Jun. 2, 1958, one of the greatest “What If” Airplanes in Naval Aviation history first took wing. The XF8U-3 Super Crusader was an amazing aircraft, clearly outperforming its competitor the XF4H-1 Phantom II. Both were designed for a specific mission, Fleet Air Defense in an era of the Soviet Bomber and Cruise Missile threat to the Fleet. With the Navy only able to afford one, the Phantom was chosen and what Navy Acquisition Veteran George Spangenberg called the “Greatest Airplane the Navy never bought” was put to pasture as a Test Aircraft for NASA.
This is the story of the “Great Shoot Out” and how it came about.
As the 1950s neared its end, Vought was clearly in the ascendancy as a supplier of Naval Aircraft. It’s Crusader provided the United States Navy with its first truly supersonic aircraft capable of breaking the Sound Barrier in level flight in an operationally useful manner. Other types such as the Douglas F4D, Grumman F11F and McDonnel F3H were capable of exceeding Mach 1, but were highly limited in Supersonic flight duration thanks to the fuel demands of their afterburners and limited fuel capacity. The Crusader managed to edge out the competition, with only the F3H remaining in carrier use as a fighter as the 50s turned to the 1960s. A new Generation of combat aircraft were coming along, but the F8U Crusader was well on its way of becoming one of the primary fighter aircraft of Naval Aviation.
Amidst this bright success for Vought, its competitor McDonnell found itself dealing with the procurement fiasco which was the F3H Demon, an appropriately named aircraft keeping in the company’s supernatural naming convention, but one which proved underpowered and limited in performance. The F3H became one of the fleet’s primary night and adverse weather interceptors, but its development problems saw the type eclipsed as a fighter by Vought’s better performing F8U. Grumman lagged as well, its F11F being short ranged, and Grumman itself busy developing the Navy’s next generation of all-weather Attack and Airborne Early Warning Aircraft.
Thus, the stage was set for two companies to submit two VERY different designs to the US Navy. The XF8U-3 reflected the single seat, single engine fighter design philosophy of its day, designed for maximum possible performance and carrying a main armament of 3 Radar Guided Sparrow Missiles (supplemented by cheek mounted Sidewinder’s like a legacy Crusader) and a single pilot to operate the aircraft and its systems. The Phantom was designed to a more updated Interceptor philosophy which saw the aircraft equipped with a Pilot, Radar Intercept Officer, and TWO Engines. Capable of carrying 4 Radar Guided Sparrows, plus a supplementary battery of 4 Heat Seeking Sidewinders, the Phantom was developed from a McDonnell concept for a multi-mission design with numerous wing hardpoints for various missions.
The Original single seat AH-1 Phantom concept underwent quite a metamorphosis as it morphed into a two seat, twin engine interceptor. Yet the retention of multiple wing hardpoints paid dividends downstream. When facing off, it was clear that the XF4H-1 Phantom had a higher growth potential along with the added benefit of a multiple crew members to deal with the complexities of flying, operating, and guiding its primary armament of Sparrow Missiles to hostile threats to the fleet.
Though the Super Crusader was faster, had longer range with internal fuel than the Phantom did with a centerline tank, and cost less than the Phantom, the Navy made a choice to focus its resources on the Phantom. The extra crew member would become a crucial asset for the Navy, as the Naval Flight Officer community was welcomed to the fold of Naval Aviation. Naval Flight Officers have managed to save countless aircraft due to timely verbal intervention, and by cooperating with their pilots are able to achieve a crew synergy which vastly enhances the effectiveness of a two-seat platform when compared to a single seater.
A growing list of Air Arms around the world have come to follow this philosophy, especially for the Air to Ground Strike Mission, something reflected in the force structure of Air Arms equipped with two-seat variants of nominally single seat aircraft. When looking at high demand missions, many Air Forces have concluded the value of the extra human outweighs any performance degradation caused by the presence of the backseater.
The Super Crusader remains one of the most fascinating What If aircraft in US Naval Aviation history. Had the XF8U-3 been purchased by the Navy, it could have been developed in a manner similar to that of the “legacy” Crusader, which morphed into a photo recce platform by the end of the 1950s and a strike aircraft over Vietnam. Crusaders managed to gain an export contract with the French Aeronavale, and just as its production line ceased, Vought was able to introduce a shortened attack version of the aircraft into inventory as the A-7 Corsair.
Had the F8U-3 Super Crusader made it into US Navy service, it is highly likely a substantial number of variants could have been developed. A reconnaissance version would have given the Navy a much better photo platform than the A3J Vigilante. In addition, for the price of a single Sparrow, the Navy could have equipped the XF8U-3 with a 20 mm Vulcan pod, something of similar weight and volume to a Sparrow which the USAF was able to shoehorn into its similarly J75 Powered F-106s with Project Six Shooter. Thus equipped, the highly maneuverable Super Crusader could have been the top Air Superiority platform of the Vietnam War.
As things stood historically, the legacy F-8 Crusader had the highest Victory to Loss Ratio of any US Fighter Aircraft over Vietnam with an overall 6/1 ratio. As the final F-8 Crusaders retired from USN service in the 1980s, the Corsair remained in service with the Navy into Desert Storm, with the last two A-7 squadrons seeing combat service over Iraq from the USS Kennedy operating in the Red Sea. The Philippines retired their last Crusaders in the wake of the Mount Pinatubo eruption.
France maintained their Crusaders in service until 1999, despite an effort to lease F/A-18s as temporary replacements. This effort saw several Aeronavale Aviators trained to operate Hornets, but was thwarted by the desire to ensure the purchase of the Rafale M, and keeping American hardware off the table until Rafale was mature enough to fly off France’s Carriers.
Thus, the F-8E became the F-8P for Prolongue, equipped with GPS in a limited upgrade sustained by spares from the Boneyard at Davis Monthan AFB. Inevitable delays with Rafale Development ensured the “Crouze” would continue flying in Aeronavale Colors until the end of the 1990s.
A decade before at the end of the 1980s the Crusader to Corsair saga saw a final interesting chapter as the USAF developed the YA-7F, a Pratt & Whitney F100 afterburner equipped version of the Corsair that some commentators believe would have been superior to the F-16 as a strike platform during the Long War against Terror fought by the US in the early 2000s.
Still, that fascinating story is another tale.
The Super Crusader in Flight, and an overview of its performance.
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Photo credit: U.S. Navy