World War II: Grumman F6F Hellcat

The WWII-era aircraft was the most successful naval fighter of all time

Hellcart On Deck
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Having begun production of their successful F4F Wildcat fighter, Grumman began work on a successor aircraft in the months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. In creating the new fighter, Leroy Grumman and his chief engineers, Leon Swirbul and Bill Schwendler, sought to improve upon their previous creation by designing an aircraft which was more powerful with better performance. The result was a preliminary design for an entirely new aircraft rather than an enlarged F4F. Interested in a follow-on aircraft to the F4F, the US Navy signed a contract for a prototype on June 30, 1941.

With the US entry into World War II in December 1941, Grumman began utilizing data from the F4F's early combats against the Japanese. By assessing the Wildcat's performance against the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, Grumman was able to design its new aircraft to better counter the nimble enemy fighter. To aid in this process, the company also consulted noted combat veterans such as Lieutenant Commander Butch O'Hare who provided insight based on his firsthand experiences in the Pacific. The initial prototype, designated XF6F-1, was intended to be powered by the Wright R-2600 Cyclone (1,700 hp), however, information from testing and the Pacific led it to be given the more powerful 2,000 hp Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp turning a three-bladed Hamilton Standard propeller.

A Cyclone-powered F6F first flew on June 26, 1942, while the first Double Wasp-equipped aircraft (XF6F-3) followed on July 30. In early trials, the latter showed a 25% improvement in performance. Though somewhat similar in appearance to the F4F, the new F6F Hellcat was much larger with a low-mounted wing and higher cockpit to improve visibility. Armed with six .50 cal. M2 Browning machine guns, the aircraft was intended to be highly durable and possessed a wealth of armor to protect the pilot and vital parts of the engine as well as self-sealing fuel tanks. Other changes from the F4F included powered, retractable landing gear which had a wide stance to improve the aircraft's landing characteristics.

Production and Variants

Moving into production with the F6F-3 in late 1942, Grumman quickly showed that the new fighter was easy to build. Employing around 20,000 workers, Grumman's plants began to produce Hellcats at a rapid rate. When Hellcat production ended in November 1945, a total of 12,275 F6Fs had been built. During the course of production, a new variant, the F6F-5, was developed with production commencing in April 1944. This possessed a more powerful R-2800-10W engine, a more streamlined cowling, and numerous other upgrades including a flat armored-glass front panel, spring-loaded control tabs, and a reinforced tail section.

The aircraft was also modified for use as the F6F-3/5N night fighter. This variant carried the AN/APS-4 radar in a fairing built into the starboard wing. Pioneering naval night fighting, F6F-3Ns claimed their first victories in November 1943. With the arrival of the F6F-5 in 1944, a night fighter variant was developed from the type. Employing the same AN/APS-4 radar system as the F6F-3N, the F6F-5N also saw some changes to the aircraft's armament with some replacing the inboard .50 cal machine guns with a pair of 20 mm cannon. In addition to the night fighter variants, some F6F-5s were fitted with camera equipment to serve as reconnaissance aircraft (F6F-5P).​

Handling Versus the Zero

Largely intended for defeating the A6M Zero, the F6F Hellcat proved faster at all altitudes with a slightly better climb rate over 14,000 ft, as well as was a superior diver. Though the American aircraft could roll faster at high speeds, the Zero could out-turn the Hellcat at lower speeds as well as could climb faster at lower altitudes. In combating the Zero, American pilots were advised to avoid dogfights and to utilize their superior power and high-speed performance. As with the earlier F4F, the Hellcat proved capable of sustaining a great deal more damage than its Japanese counterpart.

Operational History

Reaching operational readiness in February 1943, the first F6F-3s were assigned to VF-9 aboard USS Essex (CV-9). The F6F first saw combat on August 31, 1943, during an attack on Marcus Island. It scored its first kill the next day when Lieutenant (jg) Dick Loesch and Ensign A.W. Nyquist from USS Independence (CVL-22) downed a Kawanishi H8K "Emily" flying boat. On October 5-6, the F6F saw its first major combat during a raid on Wake Island. In the engagement, the Hellcat quickly proved superior to the Zero. Similar results were produced in November during attacks against Rabaul and in support of the invasion of Tarawa. In the latter fight, the type claimed 30 Zeros downed for the loss of one Hellcat. From late 1943 forward, the F6F saw action during every major campaign of the Pacific war.

Quickly becoming the backbone of the US Navy's fighter force, the F6F achieved one of its best days during the Battle of the Philippine Sea on June 19, 1944. Dubbed the "Great Marianas Turkey Shoot," the battle saw US Navy fighters down massive numbers of Japanese aircraft while sustaining minimal losses. In the final months of the war, the Kawanishi N1K "George" proved a more formidable opponent for the F6F but it was not produced in significant enough numbers to mount a meaningful challenge to the Hellcat's dominance. During the course of World War II, 305 Hellcat pilots became aces, including US Navy top scorer Captain David McCampbell (34 kills). Downing seven enemy aircraft on June 19, he added nine more on October 24. For these feats, he was awarded the Medal of Honor.

During its service in World War II, the F6F Hellcat became the most successful naval fighter of all time with a total of 5,271 kills. Of these, 5,163 were scored by US Navy and US Marine Corps pilots against a loss of 270 Hellcats. This resulted in a remarkable kill ratio of 19:1. Designed as a "Zero Killer," the F6F maintained a kill ratio of 13:1 against the Japanese fighter. Assisted during the war by the distinctive Chance Vought F4U Corsair, the two formed a lethal duo. With the end of the war, the Hellcat was phased out of service as the new F8F Bearcat began to arrive.

Other Operators

During the war, the Royal Navy received a number of Hellcats through Lend-Lease. Initially known as the Gannet Mark I, the type saw action with Fleet Air Arm squadrons in Norway, the Mediterranean, and the Pacific. During the conflict, British Hellcats downed 52 enemy aircraft. In combat over Europe, it was found to be on par with the German Messerschmitt Bf 109 and Focke-Wulf Fw 190. In the postwar years, the F6F remained in a number of second-line duties with the US Navy and was also flown by the French and Uruguayan navies. The latter used the aircraft up until the early 1960s.

F6F-5 Hellcat Specifications


Length: 33 ft. 7 in.

  • Wingspan: 42 ft. 10 in.
  • Height: 13 ft. 1 in.
  • Wing Area: 334 sq. ft.
  • Empty Weight: 9,238 lbs.
  • Loaded Weight: 12,598 lbs.
  • Maximum Takeoff Weight: 15,514 lbs.
  • Crew: 1


  • Maximum Speed: 380 mph
  • Combat Radius: 945 miles
  • Rate of Climb: 3,500 ft./min.
  • Service Ceiling: 37,300 ft.
  • Power Plant: 1× Pratt & Whitney R-2800-10W "Double Wasp" engine with a two-speed two-stage supercharger, 2,000 hp


  • 6× 0.50 cal. M2 Browning machine guns
  • 6 × 5 in (127 mm) HVARs or 2 × 11¾ in Tiny Tim unguided rockets
  • up to 2,000 lbs. of bombs



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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Grumman F6F Hellcat." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, August 27). World War II: Grumman F6F Hellcat. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Grumman F6F Hellcat." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 2, 2023).