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Hellcat: Development of a Legend

Grumman's F6F Hellcat fighter was one of the best

by Bill Coombes

Copyright 1998 by the Confederate Air Force and Bill Coombes. All rights reserved.

Originally published in The Dispatch magazine, Volume 23, Number 3, Fall, 1998 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.

On 30 June 1941 a contract was signed by the US Navy for a new fighter from Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation. On 26 June 1942, four days short of a year from acceptance of the design, the first XF6F-1 Hellcat sat poised for its first test flight. In March 1943 VF-9, the first Navy squadron to be equipped with the new Grumman fighter, was declared ready for combat. In a bit less than 20 months the Navy got the airplane that was destined to secure air superiority in the Pacific and write a record that is unsurpassed in the annals of World War II aviation. Quite simply, it is the airplane that won the naval air war in the Pacific.

The F6F Hellcat was an evolutionary design, with a definite family resemblance to the F4F Wildcat. One Grumman engineer, upon noting this, said "Hellcat? Copycat you mean!" This similarity would lead to one of the first myths that would surround the Hellcat: that it was designed after the war began to specifically defeat the A6M Zero. Grumman’s chief engineer, William T. Schwendler, unknowingly helped create that story when he wrote in a Grumman factory newspaper that "the Hellcat’s specifications were roughly drafted in those distant parts of the Pacific by such men as Thach, Flatley, O’Hare…" In fact, the specifications for the Hellcat were established in February of 1941 by Grumman engineers who knew that the next Grumman fighter had to have more speed, more fire power, and a better climb rate than the Wildcat. It also had to be rugged, easy to produce, easy to maintain, and easy for 200 hour ensigns to fly on and off straight deck aircraft carriers. Grumman produced 12,272 Hellcats that accounted for approximately 5,155 Japanese aircraft shot down, while only 270 Hellcats were lost in combat. This kill ratio of 19 to one is proof that Grumman and the Navy pilots who flew the Hellcat succeeded.

The first Hellcat was fitted with a Wright R2600-16 engine, and the first test flight proved that the new fighter, although blessed with fine flight characteristics, needed a more powerful engine. A month after the first test flight of the XF6F-1, the same airplane was fitted with the more powerful Pratt and Whitney R2800-10, becoming the XF6F-3. The engine change would be the biggest difference from prototype to production model, the Hellcat being one of the least modified airplanes produced during the war. There were only two production models of the F6F, the –3 and the –5, with five different subtypes (F6F-3/5N, -3/5E, -3/5P, -5K) and only five experimental types. The XF6F-1 airframe became the XF6F-3 and later the XF6F-4, fitted with a P&W 2800-27 with a single stage, two-speed supercharger and four 20 mm cannons.

The –4 was not placed in production and the X-model was reconfigured as a standard –3 and delivered to the Navy. The XF6F-2 was fitted with a special turbo-supercharger that promised sea-level engine performance at 40,000 feet. However, the Birmann turbo-charger proved unreliable and the test program was halted. In mid 1944 two F6F-5 airframes were modified to become XF6F-6’s, the most obvious difference being a four-bladed propeller that was fitted to a P&W 2800-18W engine with water injection capability. This was the fastest Hellcat, achieving a top speed of 417 miles per hour, but when it flew in July of 1944 the Navy was already looking past the Hellcat and production of the –6 was never begun.

The Hellcat was a big airplane, slightly larger than the F4U, with the largest wing area of any single engined fighter of the war. Wing span was 42 feet, 10 inches, length was 33 feet, 6 inches, and empty weight was 9,078 lbs. Gross weight depended on the configuration for the mission to be flown, yet could go up to as much as 12,482 lbs. Height to the cockpit, which was roomy and well-laid out, was over 11 feet, 3 inches, assuring that only the young, lithe ensigns and "jaygees" of the time could enter gracefully. The P&W R2800 developed 2000 horsepower at 2700 RPM and 54 inches of manifold pressure, although this could increase to 2250 hp with the addition of water injection. All of this power was absorbed by a Hamilton Standard prop of 13 feet, 1 inch diameter. For aviators coming from the North American SNJ the Hellcat seemed rather imposing.

Various detail changes were also made during the Hellcat’s production run, most noticeable being a vertical radio mast, rather than the forward leaning one on the –3, a tighter fitting cowling without the exhaust fairing as found on the -3, a modified windscreen with fewer braces to obscure forward visibility, and spring tabs on the ailerons, this being an effort to improve aileron forces and rolling ability. Hardpoints for bombs and/or drop tanks were fitted to –5s along with racks for five-inch rockets, thus making the Hellcat into a successful fighter-bomber. However, it requires a very knowledgeable eye to recognize the difference between a –3 and a –5 Hellcat, and both models were in service through VJ Day.

All Hellcats were manufactured by Grumman at the Bethpage, Long Island plant. Grumman, already building F4F Wildcats, TBF Avengers, and J2F Ducks, was forced to expand their facilities and their workforce to meet the needs of the Navy for its newest fighter. Another Hellcat myth was connected to the plant expansion made by Grumman in the winter of 1941-42. Plant Three, where the majority of Hellcat production occurred, was built using materials form the old New York City Second Avenue Elevated Railway. A corrupted version of this fact made its way out to the fleet, where the arrival of a Hellcat was sometimes greeted with the cry, "Here comes another piece of the Second Avenue El!" Though incredibly sturdy, and deserving of its place as a part of the so-called Grumman "Ironworks," the airplane itself was not constructed of bits from an elevated rail line.

By the end of 1942 Grumman had produced ten complete F6Fs: in the next twelve months the Navy accepted 2,547 Hellcats. At its peak, Grumman was producing more than 600 Hellcats a month. Unit cost for the F6F, less government supplied equipment (primarily engine, prop, armament, radio) was initially $50,000, dropping to $35,000 by the end of the production run. This was 2/3rds.the cost of the F4U Corsair. Not only was the Hellcat a fine airplane, it was a bargain for the taxpayers as well.

Flying Characteristics

"An old man’s fighter" is how one Naval aviator described the Hellcat. From the onset, the F6F flew beautifully. Corwin H. "Corky" Meyer, who was one of Grumman’s primary test pilots, reported that "it flew itself on and off the runway. The cockpit was well-organized, and you could see – see really well - out of the canopy and windshield…It was stable laterally, the stall was great, it had a reserve of power…the only complaint we had concerned the heavy ailerons." To correct this problem, Grumman even went so far as to "borrow" one of arch rival Chance-Vought’s Corsairs, to try to uncover the secret of the F4U’s pleasant ailerons. The spring tab system installed on the –5 was the closest "fix" to the problem, but the F6F had too much lateral damping inherent in its design to ever roll as effectively and with the same smooth control forces as the Corsair.

In direct comparison with the ten other mass-produced American fighter planes of WW II, the Hellcat more than justifies its place in the top rank. A careful study of available flight test documents shows what the Hellcat could do. It was superior to the Wildcat in every area, equal to the F4U in all flight regimes except speed, where the Hellcat was five to fifteen knots slower at all altitudes. Most pilots viewed it as a more stable gun platform than the Corsair, and it was far more forgiving when coming aboard ship.

Additionally, Hellcats could turn inside all Army Air Corps fighters, and its range with internal fuel was better than the vaunted P-51. At the Joint Fighter Conference held at Patuxent NAS in October 1944, a large group of test and service pilots flew and evaluated America’s fighter planes, and in eight of the twenty two categories, the Hellcat was rated the best. At the same location in late 1944, a captured Zeke 52 (A6M5) was flown in competitive trials against the Hellcat. The F6F possessed advantages in all flight regimes except in turns below 200 knots and initial rate of climb to 9,000 feet. New Hellcat pilots going to the fleet were admonished not to dogfight with a Zeke at low altitude and airspeed, but rather to force the Japanese to fight at higher airspeeds and altitudes. Of the Navy’s 380 aces, 320 gained all or almost all their victories flying Hellcats, proving that these Naval aviators learned these lessons well.

The Hellcat Summed Up

The Navy’s leading ace, with 34 kills including nine in one day, Medal of Honor recipient Captain David McCampbell, said that the Hellcat "was the greatest plane of the war. I owe my life, my career, and such honors as I have received to this plane and the great crew at Grumman." Another pilot remarked "You couldn’t sit in the Hellcat without smiling," while a third was heard to say "I love this plane so much that, if it could cook, I’d marry it!" Gene Valencia, who would end the war as the Navy’s third ranking ace, could be excused for this bit of hyperbole, yet the truth of the matter is simple: the F6F Hellcat was the outstanding fighter of the war in the Pacific. When the country called, the Hellcat, and thousands of naval aviators, delivered.

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