Operations – 1943
Fighting Squadron Nine (VF-9) took delivery of the first Hellcats in January, 1943. As they were flying from the Long Island factory to their Norfolk base, one crashed near Cape May, New Jersey. VF-6, commanded by Butch O’Hare, also received early deliveries of the F6F.
The Hellcat’s first combat mission occurred on August 31, 1943, in a strike against Marcus Island, including Cdr. Charles Crommelin’s VF-5, Lt. Cdr. Phil Torrey’s VF-9, and a detachment of O’Hare’s VF-6. The early-morning raiders destroyed eight twin-engine bombers on the ground; while losing two Hellcats to anti-aircraft fire and one to engine trouble. The next day, over Howland and Bakers Islands, Lt.(jg) Dick Loesch and Ens. A.W. Nyquist scored the Hellcat’s first aerial victory when they teamed up to shoot down a Kawanishi H8K “Emily” flying boat.
Large-scale carrier operations began in October, with a attack on Wake. When four carriers struck Wake Island on October 5-6, the Hellcats saw their first significant aerial combat. Half an hour before dawn on the 5th, each of the four carriers launched three fighter divisions, 47 Hellcats in all. When they were still 50 miles out from Wake, the Japanese radar detected them, and 27 Zeros intercepted. In the ensuing dogfight, Fighting Nine’s skipper, Phil Torrey, shot down one Zero, then evaded two more by dodging in and out of clouds. Lt. Hadden, while watching a shared kill fall into the ocean, was jumped by two Zeros, and was lucky enough to make it back to Essex with most of his engine oil emptied out through several 20mm holes. Lt. (jg) Hamilton McWhorter dove into a gaggle of Zeros, when one serendipitously appeared in his gunsight. He fired a short burst and exploded the Zero – his first aerial victory.
The raid showed that the new Hellcats could more than hold its own against the Zeros. They destroyed 22 of 34 aircraft at Wake, and 12 American planes were lost – 6 to the Zeros and 6 to AA gunfire.
In early November, the U.S. forces attacked the large Japanese base at Rabaul, and again the Hellcats overmatched the Zeros.
The Navy saw the need for night fighters and started the Project Affirm program in early 1942, originally with Corsairs equipped with primitive AI (Air Interception) radar sets built by MIT engineers. In 1943, the Hellcat emerged as the preferred night fighter because of its easier landing characteristics and greater stability as a gun platform. The F6F-3E, converted in the field at MCAS Quonset Point, was the first Hellcat night fighter, using the AI radar, red cockpit lighting (to preserve the pilot’s night vision), and without an easily scratched Plexiglass windscreen fairing. Eighteen F6F-3E’s were built. (On November 26, 1943, Butch O’Hare, flying an unmodified F6F-3 on a night mission with a TBF Avenger, disappeared over the Gilberts.
Next came the F6F-3N, 205 of these built by the Grumman factory. The F6F-3N employed an improved radar, the APS-6. Installed in a bulbous pod on the starboard wing, the APS-6 was simple to operate (only six knobs), had a range of five miles, and weighed 250 pounds. It featured a double-dot system that displayed a shadow blip to the right of the true blip; this secondary blip showed the target’s altitude relative to the F6F. The -3E’s and -3N’s deployed to the carriers in the Pacific in early 1944, but were difficult to integrate into carrier operations, as they essentially would have required round-the-clock duty by launch and recovery crews. Nonetheless, three Hellcat-equipped night squadrons (VF(N)-76, VF(N)-77, and VF(N)-78) served in the Pacific in 1944.
The F6F-5N was the definitive night-fighting version of the Hellcat, over 1500 of these built by Grumman.
Post War Service
Hellcats flew with the French Aeronavale in the Indochina war of the early 1950’s.
First prototype, powered by a two-stage 1,600 hp (1,193 kW) Wright R-2600-10 Cyclone 14 radial piston engine.
The first XF6F-1 prototype revised and fitted with a turbocharged Wright R-2600-16 Cyclone radial piston engine. R-2600 replaced by turbocharged R-2800-21.
XF6F-2 showing the later R-2800-21 installation with Birman turbocharger.
Second prototype fitted with a two-stage supercharged 2,000 hp (1,491 kW) Pratt & Whitney R-2800-10 Double Wasp radial piston engine.
One F6F-3 fitted with a two-speed turbocharged 2,100 hp (1,566 kW) Pratt & Whitney R-2800-27 Double Wasp radial piston engine.
Two F6F-5s that were fitted with the 2,100 hp (1,566 kW) Pratt & Whitney R-2800-18W radial piston engine, and four-bladed propellers.
F6F-3 (British designation Gannet F. Mk. I, and then later, renamed Hellcat F. Mk. I, January 1944)
Single-seat fighter, fighter-bomber aircraft, powered by a 2,000 hp (1,491 kW) Pratt & Whitney R-2800-10 Double Wasp radial piston engine.
Night fighter version, equipped with an AN/APS-4 radar in a fairing on the starboard outer wing.
Another night fighter version, equipped with a newer AN/APS-6 radar in a fairing on the starboard outer wing.
F6F-5 Hellcat (British Hellcat F. Mk. II)
Improved version, with a redesigned engine cowling, a new windscreen structure with an integral bulletproof windscreen, new ailerons and strengthened tail surfaces; powered by a 2,200 hp (1,641 kW) Pratt & Whitney R-2800-10W (-W denotes Water Injection) radial piston engine.
A number of F6F-5s and F6F-5Ns were converted into radio-controlled target drones.
F6F-5N night fighter with AN/APS-6 radar and 2 20mm M2 cannon.
F6F-5N Hellcat (British Hellcat N.F. Mk II)
Night fighter version, fitted with an AN/APS-6 radar. Some were armed with two 20 mm (0.79 in) AN/M2 cannon in the inner wing bays and four 0.50 in (12.7 mm) M2 Browning machine guns in the outer.
Small numbers of F6F-5s were converted into photo-reconnaissance aircraft, with the camera equipment being fitted in the rear fuselage.
Hellcat FR. Mk. II
This designation was given to British Hellcats fitted with camera equipment.
Proposed designation for Hellcats to be built by Canadian Vickers; cancelled before any built.
Last of the line of piston engined carrier based fighters which Grumman initiated with the FF of 1931, the Grumman F8F Bearcat was designed to be capable of operation from aircraft carriers of all sizes and to serve primarily as an interceptor fighter, a role which demanded excellent maneuverability, good low-level performance and a high rate of climb. To achieve these capabilities for the two XF8F-1 prototypes ordered on 27 November 1943, Grumman adopted the big R-2800 Double Wasp that had been used to power the F6F and F7F, but ensured that the smallest and lightest possible airframe was designed to accommodate the specified armament, armour and fuel.
First flown on 21 August 1944, the XF8F-1 was not only smaller than the US Navy’s superb Hellcat, but was also some 20 per cent lighter, resulting in a rate of climb about 30 per cent greater than that of its predecessor. Grumman had more than achieved the specification requirements, but also crowned this by starting delivery of production aircraft in February 1945, only six months after the first flight of the prototype.
A cantilever low-wing monoplane of all-metal construction, the initial F8F-1 had wings which folded at about two thirds span for carrier stowage, retractable tailwheel landing gear, armour, self-sealing fuel tanks and by comparison with prototypes, a very small dorsal fin had been added. Powerplant of these production aircraft was the Pratt & Whitney R-2800-34W and armament comprised four 12.7 mm (0.50 in) machine guns.
Shortly after initiation of the prototype’s test programme in 1944, the US Navy placed a contract for 2,023 production F8F-1s, and the first of these began to equip US Navy Squadron VF-19 on 21 May 1945. This squadron, and other early recipients of Bearcats, were still in the process of familiarisation with their new fighters when VJ-Day put an end to World War II. it also cut 1,258 aircraft from Grumman’s contract and brought complete cancellation of an additional 1,876 F8M-1 Bearcat fighters contracted from General Motors.
When production ended in May 1949, Grumman had built 1,266 Bearcats: 765 of the F8F-1; 100 of the F8F-1B, which differed by having the four standard machine guns replaced by 20 mm cannon; 36 of the F8F-1N variant equipped as night-fighters; 293 of the FBF-2 with redesigned engine cowling, taller fin and rudder, plus some changes in detail design, and adoption of the 20 mm cannon as standard armament; 12 of the night-fighter F8F-2N; and 60 photo-reconnaissance F8F-2P aircraft, this last version carrying only two 20 mm cannon. In late post-war service, some aircraft were modified to serve in a drone control capacity under the designations F8F-1D or F8F-2D.
By the time production ended, Bearcats were serving with some 24 US Navy squadrons, but all had been withdrawn by late 1952. Some of these, with a modified fuel system, were supplied to the French Armee de l’Air for service in Indo-China under the designation FSF-ID. One-hundred similar F8F-IDs and 29 F8F-1Bs were also supplied to the Thai air force.
A total of 1,265 Bearcats were delivered, including two civilian G.58’s. Although too late for wartime service, F8F’s served the USN until 1956. The Blue Angels operated Bearcats between 1946 and 1949. France, Thailand and South Vietnam operated surplus USN F8F’s.
By late 1943, the Grumman F6F Hellcat had entered service with the U.S. Navy in the Pacific and had proved itself more than a match for Japan’s Mitsubishi A6M Zero. The Navy realized, however, that an even higher performance design would eventually be needed to replace the Hellcat.
Curtiss and Boeing each submitted designs, designated the XF14C and XF7B respectively, both of which were much larger and heavier than the Hellcat. The Curtiss design was to be powered by a new Lycoming XH-2740-4 24-cylinder, liquid-cooled engine, initially rated at 2,200 hp, but the engine was not produced. A Wright R-3350-16 of 2,300 hp with turbo-supercharger was then fitted in the XF14C-2. Empty weight of the Curtiss was over 10,500 pounds. The Boeing XF8B-1 was powered by a Pratt & Whitney XR-4360-10 28-cylinder, four-row radial of 3,000 hp, then the world’s largest aircraft engine, and was even heavier, with an empty weight of over 14,000 lbs.
Grumman, however, favored a lighter and more maneuverable design more like the German Focke Wulf Fw 190, of which a captured example was flown by Grumman test pilot Bob Hall in England. The resulting Grumman design, the XF8F-1, weighed only 7,017 pounds empty and was sometimes described as the smallest airframe built around the most powerful, fully-developed engine, a real “hot rod.”
Powered by a Pratt & Whitney R-2800-22W engine, the first Bearcat prototype flew in late August 1944. Besides the P&W R-2800 engine, the design also retained the Hellcat’s successful NACA 230 airfoil for the wings. After minor modifications, including the addition of a dorsal fin, the first production F8F-1s began armament tests and carrier qualification trials in early 1945. By May of 1945, the Bearcat was cleared for operational service, with very few flight restrictions over its wide speed range. A total of 654 F8F-1s were delivered, all fitted with the 2,100 hp (1566 kw) R-2800-34W engine.
The Bearcat was the first U.S. Navy fighter to feature a full “bubble” canopy, giving excellent all around vision. It was also fitted with so called “safety wing tips,” the outer 40 inches of which were designed to break off cleanly if the wing was overstressed in a dive or other maneuver. After several non-combat incidents where one or both wing tips tore off and the aircraft landed safely, this feature was eliminated from later production Bearcats.
As soon as enough of the new fighters had been produced, two squadrons, VF-18 and VF-19, were equipped with F8F-ls. Their training was expedited in order to get the new fighter into service against Japanese ‘kamikaze’ suicide attacks in the Pacific. The Bearcat-equipped VF-19 was onboard the carrier USS Langley, en-route across the Pacific, when the war ended on Aug.16, 1945. There is little doubt that if the war had continued, the Bearcat’s fantastic climb and acceleration would have been invaluable in combating the kamikaze menace.
The final production Bearcat was the F8F-2, introduced in 1947 with a more powerful R-2800-30W engine of 2,250 hp (1678 kW) and an automatic variable speed supercharger. The greater power required an extra foot to be added to the vertical fin, and F8F-2s carried a heavier armament of four 20 mm cannons. The F8F-2P was a photo-reconnaissance version, fitted with up to three cameras in the fuselage. By 1956, the last Bearcats were taken out of service and stored or scrapped, having been replaced by jets, including Grumman’s own F9F Panthers and Cougars.
As a final demonstration of the Bearcat’s fantastic climbing ability, an F8F is reported to have set the record for a climb to 10,000 feet from a standing start in 91 seconds. It is said to have held this record for almost three decades, until finally beaten by an F-16 Fighting Falcon. The author witnessed a maximum performance takeoff by a civilian Bearcat in the late 1960s, and the airplane went straight up and out of sight.
The Bearcat was the last, and perhaps the best, piston-engine fighter produced for the U.S Navy, and was a fitting culmination to Grumman’s World War II line of splendid “Cats”. Even today the Grumman F8F Bearcat is a favourite amongst the Nevada Air Racers owing to its outstanding speed and performance.
XF8F-1: two prototypes ordered on 27 November 1943
F8F-1: production model with folding wings.
G.58: designation given to two aircraft built solely as civilian models.
F3M-1: were to be built by General Motors but the wars end saw their cancellation.
F8F-1B: armed with four 20 mm cannon instead of the four 12.7 mm (0.50 in) machine guns.
F8F-1N: 36 aircraft converted as night fighters.
F8F-2: airframe redesign and 20 mm cannon became standard.
F8F-2N: 12 aircraft converted as night fighters.
F8F-2P: 60 photo reconnaissance aircraft with only two 20 mm cannon.
F8F-1D/2D: were designated post war target drone control aircraft. F8F-1D was also the designation given to aircraft sold to the Armee de l’air.