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Grumman’s Fabulous FelinesText by Divan MullerThe Wildcat and Hellcat personified Grumman’s unofficial motto, “Make it strong, make it work, make it simple.” These elementary ingredients formed the recipe for Grumman’s rugged and dependable naval fighters.F4F Wildcat
Unlike most of history’s great aircraft, the Grumman Wildcat did not have a particularly inspiring beginning. In 1935, the U.S. Navy announced its requirement for a carrier based fighter. Grumman’s biplane design looked obsolete even before its maiden flight, when compared with competing monoplane designs. Grumman engineers redesigned their aircraft to incorporate a more modern monoplane configuration. Even so, in 1938, the U.S. Navy awarded the contract to Brewster, for what would later become known as the ‘Buffalo.’ Fortunately, that was not the end of the road for Grumman’s design. The U.S. Navy had doubts regarding the Buffalo’s potential and ordered Grumman to continue development of its prototype. Finally, in 1939, the navy awarded a production contract to Grumman for its F4F, which would ultimately be known as the Wildcat.
Interestingly, the Wildcat saw combat before the United States entered World War II. The Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm (FAA) received Wildcats that were originally destined for France and redesignated the aircraft as Martlets. In December 1940, an FAA fighter claimed the first Wildcat / Martlet aerial victory when it shot down a German Junkers Ju-88 bomber. During the following year, the FAA used Martlets extensively on aircraft carriers in a number of significant operations, such as Operation Torch in North Africa and Ironclad in Madagascar.
The F4F was soon respected as a combat proven aircraft. Pilots appreciated its rugged, tough design and manoeuvrability, but were less impressed by its tricky ground handling characteristics and manual landing gear, which was lowered or raised by the pilot turning a hand crank 29 times. Once the U.S. had been bombed into World War II, Wildcats saw extensive service with the U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Navy. In fact, Wildcats were the U.S. Navy’s only carrier born fighters until 1943 and were instrumental in many of the major battles in the Pacific Theatre. Wildcats helped numerous pilots become aces and Medal of Honour recipients. ‘Butch’ O’Hare for example, who has been featured in a past ‘Best of the Best’ article, became the first Wildcat ace when he shot down five Japanese bombers during a single sortie. Another ace, Joe Foss, shot down 26 Japanese aircraft with his Wildcat. In 1945, Martlets shot down four Messerschmitt Me-109s over Scandinavia, claiming the last FAA aerial victories of World War II. F6F Hellcat
The Wildcat was a remarkable aircraft, but the U.S. Navy realised that the rugged fighter’s success was largely due to superior tactics, when confronted by more agile and capable Japanese Zeros. There was a definite requirement for a fighter which maintained all the good characteristics of the Wildcat, whilst eliminating its shortcomings. Enter the F6F Hellcat. Grumman designers relied on lessons learned from developing the Wildcat, as well as input from U.S. Navy and FAA pilots. Although the Hellcat could be described as a redesigned and improved Wildcat, it was a completely new aircraft type and had very little parts commonality with its predecessor. Development commenced at an incredible pace, with the Hellcat’s maiden flight taking place in June 1942 and the first examples entering service on 16 January 1943. Wildcat production continued at General Motors’ manufacturing plants, whilst Grumman focussed on mass-producing its new flagship fighter. During the next two years, more than 11 000 Hellcats were built. The new aircraft had low wings, hydraulically actuated landing gear, increased firepower, speed, range and armour.
Hellcats had a tremendous impact on aerial warfare in the Pacific region. During the first major air battle which involved Hellcats, 28 Japanese Zeros were destroyed, whilst only two Hellcats were lost. Ultimately, Hellcats shot down more than 5 100 enemy aircraft. An impressive number when one considers that only 270 Hellcats were lost in combat. More than 300 Hellcat pilots became aces. Little wonder the aircraft was referred to as an ‘ace maker.’ Even night fighter variants of the Hellcat produced five aces in the U.S. Navy. Although Hellcats seemed synonymous with U.S. Navy operations in the Pacific, almost 1 200 saw service with the FAA. Hellcats were also used in a variety of missions off the Norwegian coast and in the Mediterranean.
After World War II, Hellcats saw service with Argentina, France, Paraguay and Uruguay. The type continued to see combat into the 1950s, with the last examples retired from service in the early 1960s.
The Hellcat was far from being the fastest, most manoeuvrable or heavily armed aircraft of the Second World War, so what made it such a great fighter? Hellcat ace Alex Vruciu had a simple answer, “Tough, hard-hitting, dependable. One hell of an airplane.”
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