Microstructure and extended defects in α-GaN films grown by organometallic vapor phase epitaxy on sapphire substrates using low temperature AIN (or GaN) buffer layers have been studied using transmission electron microscopy. The types and distribution of extended defects were correlated with the film growth mode and the layer nucleation mechanism which was characterized by scanning force microscopy. The nature of the extended defects was directly related to the initial three-dimensional growth. It was found that inhomogeneous nucleation leads to a grain-like structure in the buffer; the GaN films then have a columnar structure with a high density of straight edge dislocations at grain boundaries which are less likely to be suppressed by common annihilation mechanisms. Layer-by-layer growth proceeds in many individual islands which is evidenced by the observation of hexagonal growth hillocks. Each growth hillock has an open-core screw dislocation at its center which emits monolayer-height spiral steps.