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Flying the Wildcat

What it's like to fly a Grumman (General Motors) FM-2 Wildcat today

by Randy Wilson

Copyright 1992 by the Confederate Air Force and Randy Wilson. All rights reserved.

Originally published in The Dispatch magazine, Volume 17, Number 1, Spring, 1992 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.

The founders of the Confederate Air Force had a concept of a flying museum of World War II aircraft, and today this concept is a reality, with a fleet of over 140 aircraft. The Wildcat flies in air shows and other events today to remind both young and old of the sacrifices made to preserve our liberties in the period 1939 to 1945.

It is a rare privilege to fly a World War II fighter, 50 years after the start of the War. CAF pilots must demonstrate not only their ability to safely fly our aircraft, but also their commitment to maintaining and preserving them in the best possible condition.

The Wildcat owes its simplicity in design to the era in which it was created — the mid-1930s. The only hydraulic system on the aircraft is the brakes, which are very similar to those found on cars and trucks of the 1930s. The landing gear is the same design used on previous Grumman aircraft since 1930, and is manually cranked up and down by the pilot, using a large hand crank in the cockpit and a series of chains and gears. The cowl flaps, used to adjust the airflow and cool the engine are also operated manually, with a small crank on the instrument panel.

Vacuum-operated wing flaps have only two positions — up and down. The vacuum is obtained from the carburetor intake manifold and lowers the flaps against the springs that normally hold them up. The following note in the Wildcat pilot's manual warns against waiting too long to lower flaps: "When lowering the landing flaps on this airplane, the engine may 'cough' and lose as much as 200 rpm during the operation. This drop is normal and only temporary."

The Wildcat's configuration, with a high-mounted mid-wing and narrow, low-pivoted landing gear, cause the airplane to be somewhat unstable and difficult to handle during ground operations, including taxiing, takeoff and landing.

On board the carrier, this did not pose much problem. Taxi distance with the ship headed into the wind for all launches and recoveries, was only a few hundred feet at most. On land, however, the Wildcat earned a reputation as a handful. It could suddenly move into a "ground loop" on takeoff or landing when in the hands of less-experienced pilots or facing strong crosswinds.

The unexpected ground loop is still one of the Wildcat's weak points.

The combination of the narrow gear, marginal brakes, and high wing can be seen on many takeoff and landing roll outs — one wing or the other comes up or goes down due to engine torque and/or crosswinds.

Once the taxiing to the runway is successfully completed, the takeoff procedure is fairly simple. With all controls checked and set, the tailwheel is locked to help keep the plane straight, and power is applied smoothly up to the maximum on this engine of 44 inches of manifold pressure.

At about 60-65 knots, the Wildcat is ready to fly and can quickly accelerate to more than 100 knots if lifted off normally. However, to be able to crank the landing gear up, the pilot must keep the airspeed in the climb well below 100 knots, or the air load on the gear can make it too hard to retract.

With all 1,200 horsepower at work, this technique requires a very steep climbout for the 15-20 seconds that it takes to crank the gear handle through 29 turns. It also requires the pilot to switch his hands from the throttle on the left and control stick in his right, to the stick in his left and the crank in his right.

Often one can see the cranking motion of the right hand transmitted to the left hand, resulting in an oscillating climbout until the gear is up. If he forgets to tighten the throttle friction, the pilot will be greeted by near silence about the time the gear is up, as the engine has vibrated the throttle closed.

Once in the air, the Wildcat is a pleasure to fly, with a powerful rudder and elevator and somewhat heavy ailerons. Long flights can be tiring, due to a combination of the vibration of the big nine cylinder Wright engine and the plane's natural instability about its pitch (nose up and down) axis.

Cruise power of 1,850 rpm and 26 inches gives an indicated airspeed of 165 knots, which at altitude is usually about 180 knots true airspeed, burning 38-40 gallons of fuel and one gallon of engine oil per flight hour.

Normal aerobatic maneuvers such as loops, rolls of all types, cuban-eights, and others can be done with entry speeds in the 160 to 200 knot range. The Wildcat can exceed 300 mph or 255 knots at full power, but at these speeds is consuming almost two and one-half gallons of fuel per minute.

The Wildcat and the P-40 Warhawk are often the "good guys" in the CAF's Tora! Tora! Tora! recreation of the attack on Pearl Harbor, scrambling into the air right under the attacking Zeros, Vals and Kates. While the mock battle may look anything but coordinated to those watching in the crowd, the entire performance is highly orchestrated, planned and briefed among the pilots, to ensure an exciting and safe show.

Launching in the Wildcat with all the Tora planes overhead requires a little different takeoff procedure, with a substantial reduction of power right after lift off to keep the airspeed low enough to crank the gear up, without climbing steeply up through the crowd of planes. Once the gear is up, climb power is reapplied and up we go to find our designated target Zero, to shoot down, over and over, until the attack dies off.

In addition to the Tora and aerobatic acts, the Wildcat often joins with other U.S. Navy aircraft such as the TBM Avenger, PBJ (Navy version of the B-25 bomber), SBD Dauntless and SB2C Helldiver, to recreate various Pacific actions of the war. The F4U Corsair is often teamed with the Wildcat for these acts. Finally the fighters are often asked to close the CAF segment of an air show by flying the Missing Man formation. Four of the aircraft form up into a standard "finger-four" formation and fly past as Taps is played to honor those who gave their lives to protect our country and our freedom. As the last notes sound, the number three aircraft pulls up out of the formation and turns to the west, flying off into the setting sun. The rest of the formation continues on, leaving a space for the "missing man" who never returned.

Landings are usually performed from an overhead approach, with a short break directly over the field to help slow the aircraft to a safe gear down speed. Once on downwind, the gear can be cranked down and canopy opened, with the airspeed stabilizing at 110-120 knots. Flaps are lowered on the turn onto final, and 80-85 knots is held until over the end of the runway. A full-stall, three-point landing is normal, with the aircraft touching down at 60 knots or less. All one has to do then to is keep it straight and get it stopped, not always the easiest part of the flight in a Wildcat.

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