F4U Corsair vs F6F Hellcat: Which was the better fighter?

Today, when people look back at the pacific theatre, there are two American fighter aircraft which are often remembered together . Those are; the Vought F4U Corsair, and the Grumman F6F Hellcat. Both have been the centre of much discussion surrounding usage, statistics, and overall effectiveness. But which of these two aircraft was superior?

COMBAT PERFORMANCE

The F4U holds one of the best combat records of any American fighter during the Second World War, with a kill ratio of 11 to 1. However, the Hellcat would one up this, with a claimed kill ratio of almost 20:1 by the end of the war. Although the kill figures during world war 2 were known to be exaggerated by American airmen at times, it can still be said that roughly 50% of all Navy aerial victories in the pacific were scored by the Hellcat. According to US Navy figures, the Hellcat outperformed the A6M Zero by 13:1, the Ki-84 Hayate by 9:1, and even managed to outscore the infamous J2M Raiden by 3:1. The Navy themselves noted that compared to the Corsair, the Hellcat had a similar kill rate, but a lower loss rate on a per-sortie basis.

The claimed kill count of the Corsair stands at 2140 victories, whilst the Hellcat has a claimed kill count of 5163. Again, this puts the Hellcat above any other US aircraft, including the P-51 Mustang with its claimed 4200 kills, and the P-47 Thunderbolt with roughly 2600. The Hellcats 19:1 kill ratio is also unchallenged by any other US aircraft produced during the war.

Yet, whilst the Corsair couldn’t compete in kill statistics alone, it could in terms of reputation. The Corsair was widely considered by Japanese pilots to be Americas best fighter aircraft. Its introduction in early 1943 likely saw it squaring off against more experienced Japanese pilots; many of whom were no longer flying by the end of the year when the Hellcat arrived. By the time the Hellcat saw widespread use, Japan was at two disadvantages; firstly, they had a shortage of experienced pilots which got worse over time, and secondly their aircraft were prone to underperformance and failure thanks to increasingly tight manufacturing and a lack of high octane fuel. While it is a stretch, it could be said that the Hellcat had an easier job than the Corsair by the time it saw widespread combat, since the latter issues only grew worse with time. The level to which this played into the aircrafts success is up for question.

Throughout the war, both these aircraft flew close to the same amount of sorties, with the Hellcat flying 66,000 sorties, whilst the Corsair flew 64,000. There are some important considerations here. Firstly, only 15% of the Corsairs sorties were flown from carriers, whilst the Hellcat was used far more frequently in carrier ops. This was the result of difficulties the Corsair experienced whilst landing, which will be discussed later. This led to the Navy preferring the Hellcat by the time of its arrival, whilst the Corsair was handed off to the Marines. This led to another trend; that being, that the Corsair became the primary ground attack aircraft in the pacific, responsible for delivering 70% of all bombs fighter aircraft were accounted for dropping. Again, this likely played into the total air victory counts for both aircraft.

OVER-ALL PERFORMANCE

An important consideration is that both aircraft were powered by the same radial engine; the Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp. This was unanimously considered a great engine, also seeing use in the P-47 Thunderbolt.

The peak performance variants of each aircraft produced during world war 2 resulted in similar engine output. The F6F-5 had a power output of 2200 horsepower with water injection (partially based on tech from captured Japanese Zeroes), whilst the F4U-4 produced 2100 horsepower with standard injection, and 2450 horsepower when using a water/alcohol mixture.

When climbing, the two aircraft again showed a major difference. Performance tests of the F6F showed a consistent climb rate of 2600 feet per minute, however it is claimed that later variants of the aircraft could increase this to 3400 feet per minute. In contrast, early versions of the Corsair were rated at 2900 feet per minute, whilst late war F4U-4’s could climb at 4400 feet per minute.

The service ceiling of both aircraft remained relatively similar, with the Corsair being rated at 41000 feet, and the Hellcat at 37500 feet.

When it came to other aspects of performance, the aircraft had similar authority to one another.

Both could achieve similar turn rates, achieving maximum performance at higher speeds, whilst suffering at lower speeds.

This was roughly the same case with roll rate. Both aircraft were similar in performance, and operated at their peak at higher speeds. This was a result of both aerodynamics, as well as weight thanks to such things as increased armour, which most Japanese aircraft lacked.

This was noted by the Navy, who trained pilots on both aircraft to gain both an altitude and speed advantage before engaging enemy aircraft. If this was achieved, standard Japanese figheters such as the Zero couldn’t compete. However, this advantage was lost below 200mph, with pilots being taught not to engage Zeros unless a speed or altitude advantage was achieved, since the Zero would outperform at low speed.

In terms of pure speed, the Corsair held a significant advantage over the Hellcat. The F4U-4 Corsair could reach 446mph, whilst the F6F-5N was recorded on a test run reaching 395mph. Of all performance statistics, this remains the most debated, with some believing that bias was shown towards the Corsair when measuring airspeed, or that differing methods resulted in the Hellcat showing an overall lack in speed. However, various tests conducted by varying entities over the war consistently noted that the Corsair had a speed advantage, even when tuned to the same horsepower.

Range is where the aircraft differed drastically. The F4U could travel up to 1600 kilometres. The F6F-5 Hellcat on the other hand could fly up to 2400 kilometres. Of course, this could be modified with fuel tanks and the like.

One of the major points of difference based off of pilot testimony was difference in ease of use. Many pilots reported that the F4U was a difficult aircraft to handle in flight due to instability, as well as being difficult to take off and land. This latter issue was largely a result of poor ground visibility, and a weaker gear system which was more prone to failure during carrier landings. In contrast, the Hellcat had better visibility, and was reported as being an all round pleasant aircraft to fly, with stable handling. This made the Hellcat a breeze for inexperienced pilots to learn, whilst the F4U was unforgiving. Despite this, when US Navy and Marine Corp pilots were questioned in a 1944 Fighter Conference survey on their preferred aircraft, they chose the Corsair.

However, it is likely that ground crews preferred the Hellcat, which required considerably less maintenance, and was reportedly also easier to work on when it did. Some information claims this to be another consideration which led to the Navy to prioritise the Hellcat over the Corsair.

Regardless of competition, it can safely be said that both aircraft were on a similar footing. But what about how these aircraft performed against everything else? According to what information exists, these aircraft were only at risk of facing two opponents in the Pacific; the short range J2M Raiden – a formidable lightweight interceptor which could reach upwards of 410mph above 16000 feet – and the land based N1K Shiden-Kai – a land based offshoot of a Navy fighter, which became known amongst American airmen as one of the best Japanese fighter. Other less-produced Japanese aircraft could likely put up a fight, but such aircraft never saw widespread combat use.

While the Hellcat would retire after the war, the Corsair would go on to serve in the Korean War in a ground-attack role operating at low altitudes. So while it may be said that the Hellcat outperformed the Corsair during world war 2, the Corsair would see combat once again, half a decade later. There is still debate over whether the Hellcat could have outperformed the Corsair if it had been upgraded and kept in service beyond the war. The Hellcat did achieve a massive portion of total US fighter kills in the Pacific. But was the Corsair denied the opportunities of the Hellcat for fighter missions, being relegated to more bombing sorties? Whatever the case, these two outstanding aircraft, with their own strengths and weaknesses, delivered the deadly force they were designed for. It could be said, that overall, the Corsair and Hellcat were equally matched.