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Widowmaker: Living and Dying with the Corsair

Widowmaker: Living and Dying with the Corsair by Tim Hillier-Graves. Casemate, 2020, 202 pp.

History, engineering feats, intimate accounts of combat action, and losing squadron mates in the American-made Corsair are vividly described in Widowmaker: Living and Dying with the Corsair. The subtitle is a little unfortunate—my mind flashed to recent comments by national leaders that used similar language to describe the current COVID-19 state of affairs, but it was just a fleeting thought and more reflective of the unusual year than indicative of the book’s contents. This book eloquently captures the emotion surrounding the Corsair’s checkered history. As in many things, it is the people that really make the story, and this is where the author does a fabulous job; he interviewed more than 100 individuals that provides a truly personal perspective from development to combat in this one-of-a-kind airplane, the Corsair.

The author observes that the British Royal Navy needed a sea-borne fighter for their aircraft carriers during World War II, but indigenous options, like the Spitfire, were not adequate for ship-based operations. The British aero industry was focused on the bombing campaign over Germany. So, in 1942, the Royal Navy turned to the Americans for options. The Americans had already banned the Corsair from their aircraft carriers due to its challenging landing characteristics—it was hard to see over the long nose and difficult to judge the ship-based landing. Out of necessity, the British purchased the Corsair for their aircraft fleet anyway. After many trials and tribulations, successes and failures, the British gave the US Navy confidence to start using the Corsair on Navy ships, but it came at a steep price, primarily in lives lost. Mike Tritton, a well-respected Corsair pilot, somewhat coarsely notes, “When I dream at night, I can still see their young faces, hear their voices, and relive each detail of life on a carrier flying those wonderful aircraft that Rex Beisel and Vought designed and built. Bent winged bastards they may have been, but we wouldn’t have changed them for anything, and I thank my lucky stars that I flew them.” Similar first-hand recounts are woven throughout the book, providing raw reflection on what it was like flying the Widowmaker.

A significant portion of the book is allocated to the primary aircraft engineer, Rex Beisel. Focusing on people, especially those with strong character and purpose, is the primary theme throughout the book. In this case, the engineer is a critical element of the Corsair journey. Beisel’s story is impressive—he begins life in poverty, focuses on education, receives an opportunity, and seizes the opportunity based on his intense passion. He was fascinated with the fledgling aerospace industry during the Roaring Twenties, an unprecedented growth period following World War I. In short, the author describes the political winds, technology improvements, and Beisel’s own ambition that eventually leads to the Corsair development and production.

The pictures in the book are outstanding, probably the best part of this comprehensive work on a single airplane, but again, it’s not about the plane as much as the people. The pictures depict everything from aircraft prototypes, the book’s characters, multiple unfortunate Corsair crashes, to one happy Corsair pilot after ditching his aircraft when hit by enemy fire.

The author also highlights the importance of combat leadership, and how tenacity and vision can have positive effects on the men and women they lead. One of those leaders was Lt Cdr Richard Cork, the 15th Wing’s new wing Leader. Unfortunately, Lieutenant Commander Cork crashed his Corsair on top of another Corsair attempting to take off due to a series of miscommunications. However, his efforts up to this point were highly appreciated. Again, Mike Tritton reflects on Cork, “He led by example and took a lot of often frightened young men and turned them into fighter pilots. Basically, he took the demons out of flying Corsairs and showed them what they could do in capable hands.”

The British purchased their first Corsair for sea duty more than 75 years ago, and they continue to place trust in the American aerospace industry today. The Royal Air Force and Navy will eventually purchase 138 F-35B short takeoff/vertical landing aircraft. One hopes that the young men and women who fly these aircraft will not have nearly as many deadly challenges as the Corsair pilots did, especially the British pilots that paved the way for the United States Navy to eventually have the confidence to use Corsairs on their own carriers. This book should resonate with aviation, World War II, and history buffs in general. In closing, I look forward to reading the F-35 Lightning II book in about 50 years and hearing about the personal stories that made this fifth-generation fighter what it was. I bet many narratives will sound familiar to the brave men that developed, maintained, and flew the Widowmaker.

Lt Col Christopher Mulder, USAF

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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