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The Last of a Breed

Grumman's F8F Bearcat

by Randy Wilson

Copyright 1995 by the Confederate Air Force and Randy Wilson. All rights reserved.

Originally published in The Dispatch magazine, Volume 20, Number 1, Spring, 1995 edition. If you are interested in subscribing to The Dispatch please write to The Commemorative Air Force, ATTN: Dispatch Editor, PO Box 62000, Midland, TX 79711-2000 or call (432) 563-1000. Reproduced with permission.

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 WuIf 190 — a captured example having been 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-ls 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-ls were delivered, all fitted with the 2,100 hp 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, enroute 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 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 20mm 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."

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