In 1952 the Pentagon issued specifications for a new generation of high speed interceptors and fighter jets that would far exceed Mach 1. Amongst that distinguished new generation of military aircraft sprang the Vought F-8 Crusader, carrier launched Mach 2 capable US Navy and US Air Force accepted aerial platform. Within 2 years it was apparent that this jet fighter would meet or exceed all expectations without incident and make a smooth transition into active service. In an age of slide rules and wind tunnels using rudimentary computers, America would witness a memorable addition to its flying arsenal.
New sheriff in town
By 1956 the F-8 Crusader with its streamlined fuselage and swept adjustable incidence wings would out fly it’s competition, set speed records, and prove to be reliable once in service. This fighter jet would prove to be the last gun fighter having been fitted with air to air cannon for dog fighting in close quarters in an age where designers anticipated only missiles would be used in standoff aerial combat. However, the troubled skies over Vietnam would prove the tacticians wrong once the F-4 Phantom F-105 Thunderchief, and the aging F-100 Super Sabre were pressed into service against Mig-17’s and Mig-21’s at times piloted unofficially by Russian advisors who were eager to test their skills against the American pilot and his hardware.
Over North Vietnam as aerial campaigns such as “Rolling Thunder” and “Linebacker” were deployed against some of the most sophisticated anti-aircraft defenses since World War II. The Vought F-8 Crusader flew escort missions for the F-4 Phantoms and F-105 Thunderchiefs as they carried their bomb loads in deep penetration raids against Haiphong Harbor, the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and industrial centers in an attempt to quell Vietcong Guerilla insurgency and break the will of the Communists to fight. Waiting for them every night and every day were China and Soviet supplied surface to air missiles, and radar guided Triple A installations. The small North Vietnamese Air Force only rose up against the US air power as the American aviators withdrew from their mission and were on their way back home.
Death in the skies
Most often when US pilots were shot down was when they were so distracted by missile alert signals or air to ground alarms, a term known as “Saturation” when they were shot down by the defense or successfully engaged by Mig-17’s or the Mig-21. While the F-4 Phantom crews suffered loss ratios as bad as 2 to 1 or 1 to 1 with their Mig fighter counterparts, the F-8 Crusader pilots established a better than 14- to 1 kill ratio! The Vought built aircraft was known as the “Mig Master” and with it air to air gun capability North Vietnamese pilots soon found that they were up against a virtually invincible opponent. Whereas Miramar “Top Gun” school in California had to be established to assist F-4 Phantom crews into honing their air to air combat skills and dependency on air to air missiles that proved useless in close proximity to a twisting and turning enemy.
In 1959 a new variant of the legendary F-8 Crusader was rolled out of the Vought aircraft facility to enter competition with the McDonald Douglas F-4 Phantom as a joint US forces tactical fighter bomber candidate. Dubbed as the Super Crusader the XF8U-3 was a larger more powerful fighter with enhanced capability and speeds that would compete with the SR-71 or F-15 Strike Eagle of the future! In competitive tests against the F-4 Phantom the Super Crusader was practically unbeatable! Faster and more maneuverable than the F-4 a multi-role fighter bomber, there was no comparison. Even though the F-4 was rated at a Mach 2.5 maximum speed the Vought fighter could fly at Mach 2.6 and faster at an estimated Mach 3.1 the speed of the SR-71 Black Bird when it was near the edge of outer space in high altitude surveillance mode!
Politics over lives
Only a windscreen made of an inferior plastic cockpit material kept the XF8U-3 from exceeding Mach 3. The Vought fighter would simply have needed a refitting for a new cockpit polymer and the plane would have flown even faster! The point here is that had the Super Crusader been on station over North Vietnam the Mig-21’s and Mig-17’s wouldn’t have stood a chance at all while the lives of US pilots would have been saved along with the loss of aircraft and more demonstration of air superiority to the enemy that might have brought them to the negotiating table sooner and perhaps ended the war earlier! Yet, politics and government contract deals favored McDonald Douglas who manufactured a slower, heavier fighter bomber, more complex, and less reliable under multiple threats! It’s only saving grace was having twin engines for survivability should one be knocked out in aerial combat or under anti-aircraft fire.
Once again a superior aircraft, the XF8U-3 “Super Crusader” years ahead of its time was bypassed by military purchasing in favor of a double engine tactical fighter bomber, the F-4, that would soon feel the brunt of heavily defended North Vietnam territory and the resulting casualties that would be inflicted in a controversial overseas war that created social unrest and political liabilities. Even by today’s standards the XFU8-3 would be a formidable contender against the F-15 Strike Eagle or the F-22 Raptor with updated avionics and radar absorbing skin. The unfortunate legacy of futuristic weapons and aircraft seem assured.