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Published on Mar 22, 2009
The Crusader became the ultimate "day fighter" operating off the aircraft carriers. At the time, U.S. Navy carrier air wings had gone through a series of day and night fighter aircraft due to rapid advances in engine and avionics. Some squadrons operated aircraft for very short periods before being equipped with a newer higher performance aircraft. The Crusader was the first post-Korean War aircraft to have a relatively long tenure with the fleet and like the USAF F-105, a contemporary design, might have stayed in service longer if not for the Vietnam war and resulting attrition from combat and operational losses.
The unarmed photo Crusader was operated aboard carriers as a detachment (Det) from either VFP-62 or VFP-63 to provide photo reconnaissance capability. During the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, RF-8s flew extremely hazardous low-level photo reconnaissance missions over Cuba.
The Crusader was not an easy aircraft to fly, and often unforgiving in carrier landings where it suffered from yaw instability and the castoring nose wheel. Not surprisingly, the mishap rate was relatively high compared to its contemporaries, the A-4 Skyhawk and the F-4 Phantom II. However, the aircraft did possess some amazing capabilities, as proven when several hapless Crusader pilots took off from Da Nang with the wings folded. The Crusader was capable of flying in this state, though the pilot would be required to lose weight by ejecting stores and fuel, and then return to the carrier.
When conflict erupted in the skies over North Vietnam, it was U.S. Navy Crusaders that first tangled with VPAF MiGs in April 1965. Although the MiGs claimed the downing of a Crusader, all aircraft returned safely. At the time, the Crusader was the best dogfighter the United States had against the nimble North Vietnamese MiGs. The Navy had evolved its "night fighter" role in the air wing to an all-weather interceptor, the F-4 Phantom II, equipped to engage incoming bombers at long range with missiles such as Sparrow as their sole air-to-air weapons, and maneuverability was not emphasized in their design. Some experts believed that the era of the dogfight was over as air-to-air missiles would knock down adversaries well before they could get close enough to engage in dogfighting. As aerial combat ensued over North Vietnam from 1965 to 1968, it became apparent that the dogfight was not over and the F-8 Crusader and a community trained to prevail in air-to-air combat was a key ingredient to success.
Despite the "last gunfighter" moniker, the F-8s achieved only four victories with their cannon — the remainder were accomplished with AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles, partly due to the propensity of the Colt Mark 12 cannons' feeding mechanism to jam under G-loading during high-speed dogfighting maneuvers. Nonetheless, the Crusader would be credited with the best kill ratio of any American type in the Vietnam War, 19:3. Of the 19 aircraft shot down, 16 were MiG-17s and three were MiG-21s.