The F-8 Crusader: Last of the Gunfighters

F-8 Crusader
Photo: Louis S. Gundlach

Whispers of a New Horizon 

At the twilight of the 1950s, an era earmarked by technological advancements and armament competition, an aviation marvel was born. The Vought F-8 Crusader, famously known as the “Last of the Gunfighters,” materialized from Chance Vought’s blueprints, boasting innovation and power.

The Crusader’s development history is a testament to American aeronautical prowess. As the Navy sought a supersonic, carrier-based air superiority fighter, Chance Vought took up the challenge. Their vision took flight in 1955, soaring above expectations and shattering records with its unmatched speed, topping Mach 1.86.

Vought RF-8G Crusader
Two U.S. Naval Reserve Vought RF-8G Crusader aircraft from Photographic Reconnaissance Squadron 206 (VFP-206)

The Last Gunfighter? 

The F-8 Crusader set itself apart with its distinctive variable-incidence wing, designed to improve pilot visibility and carrier landing performance. This robust machine housed four 20 mm Colt Mk 12 cannons, earning it the nickname “Last of the Gunfighters”. The Crusader’s radar and fire control system also offered an edge in night and all-weather combat.

Further testament to its strengths, the F-8 claimed the highest air-to-air kill ratio amongst American aircraft during the Vietnam War. It was a lethal foe, carving its name into aviation history with speed and power.

Although nicknamed the “Last of the Gunfighters”, its most successful combat engagements actually involved air-to-air missiles. The Sidewinder missiles, added in its later variants, proved to be particularly lethal. These missiles enabled the Crusader to claim the highest air-to-air kill ratio among American aircraft in the Vietnam War.

The Struggles in the Sky 

Despite its strengths, the Crusader wasn’t without flaws. The aircraft suffered from hydraulic failures and a high accident rate due to its demanding flight characteristics. Furthermore, while the 20 mm cannons were impressive, the Crusader was initially lacking in missile weaponry, rendering it less effective against well-armored adversaries.

Vought F-8J Crusader
U.S. Navy Vought F-8J Crusader (BuNo 150918) of Fighter Squadron 24 (VF-24) “Red Checkertails” landing aboard the aircraft carrier USS Hancock (CVA-19) in the early 1970s

Combat Use of the F-8 Crusader

Deployed in both the Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam War, the F-8 Crusader saw extensive combat use. Its prowess was undeniable, having shot down 19 enemy aircraft in Vietnam, more than any other American aircraft. The Crusader’s reliability and power allowed it to serve a variety of roles, from air superiority to photo-reconnaissance, playing a pivotal role in Cold War conflicts.

Vought RF-8G Crusader
Vought RF-8G Crusader

Retirement of the F-8 Crusader

After nearly three decades of service, the F-8 Crusader bowed out of the American Navy and Marine Corps in the mid-1980s. However, it continued to serve with the French Navy until 2000, with the Philippine Air Force retiring their last F-8s in 1991.

Despite being replaced by more modern fighters, the F-8 Crusader has left an indelible mark on military aviation. It was a testament to design ingenuity and adaptability, weathering the storm of technological evolution, and serving with honor in various combat scenarios.

In retrospect, the F-8 Crusader was an avian phoenix, rising above its faults, and symbolizing a pivotal era of aviation history. It remains a legendary figure, reminding us of the daring spirit that spurred humanity to conquer the sky.