Vietnam War: F-8 Crusader

F-8 Crusader
US Navy

The F-8 Crusader was the last fighter designed for the US Navy that utilized guns as its primary weapon. Entering service in 1957, it saw combat during the Vietnam War both as a fighter and ground-attack aircraft. Variants of the F-8 remained in use with the world's air forces and navies into the 1990s.


In 1952, the US Navy issued a call for a new fighter to replace its existing aircraft such as the Grumman F-9 Cougar. Requiring a top speed of Mach 1.2 and landing speed of 100 mph or lower, the new fighter was to utilize 20 mm cannons in lieu of the traditional .50 cal. machine guns. This change was made as studies during the Korean War found that .50 cal. machine guns caused insufficient damage. Among the companies to take up the US Navy's challenge was Vought.

Design & Development

Led by John Russell Clark, the Vought team created a new design which was designated the V-383. The aircraft incorporated a variable-incidence wing which rotated 7 degrees during take-off and landing. This allowed the aircraft to achieve a higher angle of attack without affecting the pilot's visibility. For this innovation, the design team won the 1956 Collier Trophy for achievement in aeronautics. Clark's variable-incidence wing was mounted high on the aircraft which required the use of light, short landing gear that was housed in the V-383's fuselage. 

The V-383 was powered by a single Pratt & Whitney J57 afterburning turbojet capable of 18,000 lbs. of thrust at full power. This gave the aircraft a top speed in excess of 1,000 mph and the type would become the first American fighter to achieve such speeds. Unlike future fighters, the V-383's afterburner lacked zones and could only be employed at full power.

Responding to the Navy's armament requirements, Clark armed the new fighter with four 20 mm cannons. To supplement the guns, he added cheek pylons for two AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles and a retractable tray for 32 Mighty Mouse FFARs (unguided folding fin aerial rockets). This initial emphasis on guns made the F-8 the last American fighter to have guns as its principal weapons system.


Entering the Navy's competition, Vought faced challenges from the Grumman F-11 Tiger, the McDonnell F3H Demon (a precursor of the F-4 Phantom II), and the North American Super Fury (a carrier version of the F-100 Super Sabre). Through the spring of 1953, the Vought design proved its superiority and the V-383 was named the winner in May. The F-11 Tiger also moved ahead to production, though its career proved short due to issues with its J56 engines and the Vought aircraft's superior performance.

The following month, the Navy placed a contract for three prototypes under the designation XF8U-1 Crusader. First taking to the skies on March 25, 1955, with John Konrad at the controls, the XF8U-1, the new type performed flawlessly and development progressed rapidly. As a result, the second prototype and the first production model had their inaugural flights on the same day in September 1955. Continuing the accelerated development process, the XF8U-1 began carrier testing on April 4, 1956. Later that year, the aircraft underwent weapons testing and became the first American fighter to break 1,000 mph. This was the first of several speed records set by the aircraft during its final evaluations.

F-8 Crusader - Specifications (F-8E)


  • Length: 54 ft. 3 in.
  • Wingspan: 35 ft. 8 in.
  • Height: 15 ft. 9 in.
  • Wing Area: 375 sq. ft.
  • Empty Weight: 17,541 lbs.
  • Loaded Weight: 29,000 lbs.
  • Crew: 1


  • Power Plant: 1 × Pratt & Whitney J57-P-20A afterburning turbojet
  • Combat Radius: 450 miles
  • Max Speed: Mach 1.86 (1,225 mph)
  • Ceiling: 58,000 ft.


  • Guns: 4 × 20 mm (0.787 in) Colt Mk 12 cannons
  • Rockets: 8 × Zuni rockets in four twin pods
  • Missiles: 4 × AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, 2 x AGM-12 Bullpup air-to-ground guided missiles
  • Bombs: 12 × 250 lb bombs or 4 × 1,000 lb (450 kg) bombs or 2× 2,000 lb bombs

Operational History

In 1957, the F8U entered fleet service with VF-32 at NAS Cecil Field (Florida) and served with the squadron when it deployed to the Mediterranean aboard USS Saratoga later that year. Quickly becoming the US Navy's top daytime fighter, the F8U proved a difficult aircraft for pilots to master as it suffered from some instability and was unforgiving during landing. Regardless, in a time of rapidly advancing technology, the F8U enjoyed a long career by fighter standards. In September 1962, following the adoption of a unified designation system, the Crusader was re-designated the F-8.

The next month, photo-reconnaissance variants of the Crusader (RF-8s) flew several dangerous missions during the Cuban Missile Crisis. These began on October 23, 1962, and saw RF-8s fly from Key West to Cuba and then back to Jacksonville. The intelligence collected during these flights confirmed the presence of Soviet missiles on the island. Flights continued for six weeks and recorded over 160,000 photographs. On September 3, 1964, the final F-8 fighter was delivered to VF-124 and the Crusader's production run ended. All told, 1,219 F-8s of all variants were built.

Vietnam War

With the US entry into the Vietnam War, the F-8 became the first US Navy aircraft to routinely battle North Vietnamese MiGs. Entering combat in April 1965, the F-8s from USS Hancock (CV-19) quickly established the aircraft as an agile dogfighter, though despite its "last gunfighter" moniker, most of its kills came through the use of air-to-air missiles. This was partly due to the high jam rate of the F-8's Colt Mark 12 cannons. During the conflict, the F-8 achieved a kill ratio of 19:3, as the type downed 16 MiG-17s and 3 MiG-21s. Flying from smaller Essex-class carriers, the F-8 was used in fewer numbers than the larger F-4 Phantom II. The US Marine Corps also operated the Crusader, flying from airfields in South Vietnam. Though primarily a fighter, F-8s also saw duty in ground attack roles during the conflict.

Later Service

With the end of the US involvement in Southeast Asia, the F-8 was retained in frontline use by the Navy. In 1976, the last active duty F-8s fighters were retired from VF-191 and VF-194 after nearly two decades of service. The RF-8 photo-reconnaissance variant remained in use until 1982 and flew with the Naval Reserve until 1987. In addition to the United States, the F-8 was operated by the French Navy which flew the type from 1964 to 2000 and by the Philippine Air Force from 1977 until 1991.



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Hickman, Kennedy. "Vietnam War: F-8 Crusader." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, August 26). Vietnam War: F-8 Crusader. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "Vietnam War: F-8 Crusader." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).