Over at my site, some number of years back I began a series of weekly (sort of) posts that focused on the unheralded, the obscure and sometimes, just the downright ‘what the heck were they thinking of’ aircraft that have found their way into naval aviation. Over time that morphed into a wider look at all aspects of naval aviation and including some of the joint attributes and contributions thereof. I’m bringing that over to the Naval History blog as a semi-regular end of the week series, but beginning with a familiar subject — at least I hope the F6F Hellcat is a familiar subject. If not — then hopefully after today’s article your familiarity will be improved and for those already familiar, it will be enhanced. Next week, we’ll look at one of the more head-scratching offerings from a mainline manufacturer… – SJS
5,156 victories (4797 by carrier-based F6F’s) vs 270 lost in air-to-air combat (19.1:1 kill ratio)
55 per cent of all aircraft destroyed by Navy/Marine aviators for all of WW2
When WW2 began, the US fighter force (land- and sea-based) was woefully inadequate. Slow in speed and maneuvering, out powered in the climb, often times out-gunned and certainly outnumbered, the fighters that oversaw the US entry into the war were relics of an earlier age, even though most were relatively new production. P-40, F2A, F4F – even the vaunted P-38 all suffered various degrees of inadequacy. In the European Theater of Operations (ETO), the P-47 and ultimately the P-51 would rise to the top of the pile, asserting an ironclad air supremacy that knocked the Luftwaffe from its home skies. In the Pacific Theater – it was the Grumman F6F and specifically the F6F-3 and -5 models that gave the fast carrier task force its lethal offensive counter-air punch.
Begun in February 1938 as an improved derivative of the XF4F- 2 in which the Wright R-2600 replaced the R-1830, the F6F saw a fitful development period, not altogether surprising in light of the pre-war economic austerity that typified American planning prior to WW2. Development work ceased in late 1938 as emphasis had to be given over to the F4F while the design of its follow on proved especially problematic (in particular, the mating of the R-2600 to the relatively simple F4F airframe.
By 1940, the feedback coming from the war in Europe made it clear to Grumman that the current performance of the F4F would have to be dramatically improved to meet the threat. Work began anew on the dormant Design 33/33A. But Grumman wasn’t alone in this endeavor – over at Vought, the XF4U-1 was taking form and Curtiss was busy with the XF14C. Of the three, the Navy favored the XF4U which seemed to be further along than the others. As such, Grumman had pretty much of a free hand in working on the XF6F. Ditching the last vestiges of the F4F design, the Grumman team moved on to a larger, heavier aircraft that that bore faint resemblance to the F4F. In turn, the new design emphasized ease of production and maintenance, better forward visibility, a wider track landing gear, increased range (by over 300 nm), airspeed and armor. Liking what it saw, the Navy ordered two prototypes on 30 Jun 1941, coincident with the F4U being ordered into production. While the first prototype was fitted with the R-2600, all subsequent models were fitted with the more capable Pratt & Whitney R-2800. Immediately after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Navy placed an order for 1080 F6F’s to be powered by the R-2600 and delivered Sept 42. Subsequent orders brought the total to over 12,000 F6F’s built and delivered – all at the Bethpage plant. (ed. during one of the delivery missions to pick up a new Hawkeye form the plant at Bethpage, YHS had the opportunity to take a plant tour and saw the presses that were used for the production of the F6F – which was then being used for new production aircraft including the E-2. – SJS)
The XF6F-2 prototype first flew on 26 Jun 42 – only a couple of weeks after the defeat administered to the IJN at Midway. Trials continued until August when it was modified to XF6F-3 configuration with the conversion to the more powerful R-2800. Flight trials with the first and second prototypes continued apace and were relatively trouble–free save the teething problems with the new R-2800 (mostly overheating that was resolved by removing the spinner) and a tail flutter condition during high-speed dives which was solved by strengthening the rear fuselage. The first production model flew that October and by January 1943, were entering operational status beginning with VF-9, based at NAS Oceana, VA and assigned to the lead ship of the next class of carrier, the Essex (CV 9). The first air-to-air victory came in the very first combat employment on 31 Aug 43 by LT Richard Loesch during an attack on Marcus Island. The rest – as they say, was history.