World War II: Grumman F4F Wildcat

Grumman F4F Wildcat
F4F Wildcat. Photograph Courtesy of the US Naval History & Heritage Command

The Grumman F4F Wildcat was a fighter used by the US Navy during the early years of World War II. Entering service in 1940, the aircraft first saw combat with the Royal Navy which used the type under the name Martlet. With the American entry into the conflict in 1941, the F4F was the only fighter in use by the US Navy capable of effectively dealing with the famed Mitsubishi A6M Zero. Though the Wildcat lacked the Japanese aircraft's maneuverability, it possessed greater durability and through the employment of special tactics achieved a positive kill ratio.

As the war progressed, the Wildcat was supplanted by the newer, more powerful Grumman F6F Hellcat and Vought F4U Corsair. Despite this, upgraded versions of the F4F remained in use on escort carriers and in secondary roles. Though less celebrated than the Hellcat and Corsair, the Wildcat played a critical role during the early years of the conflict and participated in the pivotal victories at Midway and Guadalcanal.

Design & Development

In 1935, the US Navy issued a call for a new fighter to replace its fleet of Grumman F3F biplanes. Responding, Grumman initially developed another biplane, the XF4F-1 which was an enhancement of the F3F line. Comparing the XF4F-1 with the Brewster XF2A-1, the Navy elected to move forward with the latter, but asked Grumman to rework their design. Returning to the drawing board, Grumman's engineers completely redesigned the aircraft (XF4F-2), transforming it into a monoplane featuring large wings for greater lift and a higher speed than the Brewster.

Grumman XF4F-3 Wildcat flying left to right, silver aluminum finish, pilot looking out.
Grumman XF4F-3 Wildcat prototype during flight testing, circa April 1939.  US Naval History and Heritage Command

Despite these changes, the Navy decided to move forward with the Brewster after a fly-off at Anacostia in 1938. Working on their own, Grumman continued to modify the design. Adding the more powerful Pratt & Whitney R-1830-76 "Twin Wasp" engine, expanding the wing size, and modifying the tailplane, the new XF4F-3 proved capable of 335 mph. As the XF4F-3 greatly surpassed the Brewster in terms of performance, the Navy granted a contract to Grumman to move the new fighter into production with 78 aircraft ordered in August 1939.

F4F Wildcat - Specifications (F4F-4)

General

  • Length: 28 ft. 9 in.
  • Wingspan: 38 ft.
  • Height: 9 ft. 2.5 in.
  • Wing Area: 260 sq. ft.
  • Empty Weight: 5,760 lbs.
  • Loaded Weight: 7,950 lbs.
  • Crew: 1

Performance

  • Power Plant: 1 × Pratt & Whitney R-1830-86 double-row radial engine, 1,200 hp
  • Range: 770 miles
  • Max Speed: 320 mph
  • Ceiling: 39,500 ft.

Armament

  • Guns: 6 x 0.50 in. M2 Browning machine guns
  • Bombs: 2 × 100 lb bombs and/or 2 × 58 gallon drop tanks

Introduction

Entering service with VF-7 and VF-41 in December 1940, the F4F-3 was equipped with four .50 cal. machine guns mounted in its wings. While production continued for the US Navy, Grumman offered a Wright R-1820 "Cyclone 9"-powered variant of the fighter for export. Ordered by the French, these aircraft were not complete by the fall of France in mid-1940. As a result, the order was taken over by the British who used the aircraft in the Fleet Air Arm under the name "Martlet." Thus it was a Martlet that scored the type's first combat kill when one downed a German Junkers Ju 88 bomber over Scapa Flow on December 25, 1940.

Improvements

Learning from British experiences with the F4F-3, Grumman began introducing a series of changes to the aircraft including folding wings, six machine guns, improved armor, and self-sealing fuel tanks. While these improvements slightly hampered the new F4F-4's performance, they improved pilot survivability and increased the number that could be carried aboard American aircraft carriers. Deliveries of the "Dash Four" began in November 1941. A month earlier, the fighter officially received the name "Wildcat."

War in the Pacific

At the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the US Navy and Marine Corps possessed 131 Wildcats in eleven squadrons. The aircraft quickly came to prominence during the Battle of Wake Island (December 8-23, 1941), when four USMC Wildcats played a key role in the heroic defense of the island. During the next year, the fighter provided defensive cover for American planes and ships during the strategic victory at the Battle of the Coral Sea and the decisive triumph at the Battle of Midway. In addition to carrier use, the Wildcat was an important contributor to Allied success in the Guadalcanal Campaign.

Row of F4F Wildcats sitting along a runway in a tropical setting.
F4F-4 Wildcat fighters at Henderson Field, Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands on 14 April 1943. US Naval History and Heritage Command

Though not as nimble as its main Japanese opponent, the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, the Wildcat quickly earned a reputation for its ruggedness and ability to withstand shocking amounts of damage while still remaining airborne. Learning quickly, American pilots developed tactics to deal with the Zero which utilized the Wildcat's high service ceiling, greater ability to power dive, and heavy armament. Group tactics were also devised, such as the "Thach Weave" which allowed Wildcat formations to counter a diving attack by Japanese aircraft.

Phased Out

In mid-1942, Grumman ended Wildcat production in order to focus on its new fighter, the F6F Hellcat. As a result, manufacture of the Wildcat was passed to General Motors. GM built Wildcats received the designation FM-1 and FM-2. Though the fighter was supplanted by the F6F and F4U Corsair on most American fast carriers by mid-1943, its small size made it ideal for use aboard escort carriers. This allowed the fighter to remain in both American and British service through the end of the war. Production ended in fall 1945, with a total of 7,885 aircraft built.

Two FM-2 Wildcat fighters in flight over water.
FM-2 Wildcat fighters from the escort carrier USS White Plains (CVE-66) fly an escort mission, June 24, 1944. US Naval History and Heritage Command 

While the F4F Wildcat often receives less notoriety than its later cousins and possessed a less-favorable kill-ratio, it is important to note that the aircraft bore the brunt of the fighting during the critical early campaigns in the Pacific when Japanese air power was at its peak. Among the notable American pilots who flew the Wildcat were Jimmy Thach, Joseph Foss, E. Scott McCuskey, and Edward "Butch" O'Hare.