World War II: Grumman F8F Bearcat

F8F Bearcat prototype
XF8F-1 Prototype, 1945. Photograph Source: Public Domain

Grumman F8F-1 Bearcat - Specifications:

General

  • Length: 28 ft., 3 in.
  • Wingspan: 35 ft., 10 in.
  • Height: 13 ft., 9 in.
  • Wing Area: 244 sq. ft.
  • Empty Weight: 7,070 lbs.
  • Max Takeoff Weight: 12,947 lbs.
  • Crew: 1

Performance

  • Maximum Speed: 421 mph
  • Range: 1,105 miles
  • Service Ceiling: 38,700 ft.
  • Power Plant:  1 × Pratt & Whitney R-2800-34W Double Wasp, 2,300 hp

Armament

  • Guns: 4 × 0.50 in. machine guns 
  • Rockets: 4 × 5 in. unguided rockets
  • Bombs: 1,000 lbs. bombs

Grumman F8F Bearcat - Development:

With the attack on Pearl Harbor and American entry into World War II, the US Navy's frontline fighters included the Grumman F4F Wildcat and Brewster F2A Buffalo.  Already aware of each type's weakness relative to the Japanese Mitsubishi A6M Zero and other Axis fighters, the US Navy contracted with Grumman in the summer of 1941 to develop a successor to the Wildcat.  Utilizing data from early combat operations, this design ultimately became the Grumman F6F Hellcat.  Entering service in mid-1943, the Hellcat formed the backbone of the US Navy's fighter force for the remainder of the war.     

Shortly after the Battle of Midway in June 1942, a Grumman vice president, Jake Swirbul, flew to Pearl Harbor to meet with fighter pilots who had taken part in the engagement.  Gathering on June 23, three days before the first flight of the F6F prototype, Swirbul worked with the flyers to develop a list of ideal characteristics for a new fighter.

  Central among these were climb rate, speed, and maneuverability.  Taking the next several months to conduct an in-depth analysis of aerial combat in the Pacific, Grumman commenced design work on what would become the F8F Bearcat in 1943.

Grumman F8F Bearcat - Design:

Given the internal designation G-58, the new aircraft consisted of a cantilever, low-wing monoplane of all-metal construction.

  Employing the same National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics 230 series wing as the Hellcat, the XF8F design was smaller and lighter than its predecessor.  This allowed it to achieve higher levels of performance than the F6F while using the same Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp series engine.  Additional power and speed were gained through the mounting of a large 12 ft. 4 in. Aeroproducts propeller.  This required the aircraft to have longer landing gear which gave it a "nose up" appearance similar to the Chance Vought F4U Corsair.  

Intended primarily as an interceptor capable of flying from both large and small carriers, the Bearcat did away with the ridgeback profile of F4F and F6F in favor of a bubble canopy which greatly improved the pilot's vision.  The type also included armor for the pilot, oil cooler, and engine as well as self-sealing fuel tanks.  In an effort to save weight, the new aircraft was only armed with four .50 cal. machine guns in the wings.  This was two less than its predecessor, but was judged sufficient due to the lack of armor and other protection used on Japanese aircraft.  These could be supplemented by four 5" rockets or up to 1,000 lbs. of bombs.  In an additional attempt to reduce the aircraft's weight, experiments were conducted with wingtips that would break away at higher g-forces.

  This system was plagued by issues and ultimately abandoned.

Grumman F8F Bearcat - Moving Forward:

Quickly moving through the design process, the US Navy ordered two prototypes of the XF8F on November 27, 1943.  Completed in the summer of 1944, the first aircraft flew on August 21, 1944.  Achieving its performance goals, the XF8F proved faster with great rate of climb than its predecessor.  Early reports from test pilots included various trim issues, complaints about the small cockpit, needed improvements to the landing gear, and a request for six guns.  While the flight-related problems were corrected, those pertaining to the armament were dropped due to weight restrictions.  Finalizing the design, the US Navy ordered 2,023 F8F-1 Bearcats from Grumman on October 6, 1944.  On February 5, 1945, this number was increased with General Motors instructed to build an additional 1,876 aircraft under contract.

Grumman F8F Bearcat - Operational History:

The first F8F Bearcat rolled off the assembly line in February 1945.  On May 21, the first Bearcat-equipped squadron, VF-19, became operational.  Despite VF-19's activation, no F8F units were ready for combat before the end of the war in August.  With the end of hostilities, the US Navy cancelled the General Motors order and the Grumman contract was reduced to 770 aircraft.  Over the next two years, the F8F steadily replaced the F6F in carrier squadrons.  During this time, the US Navy ordered 126 F8F-1Bs which saw the .50 cal. machine guns replaced with four 20 mm cannons.  Also, fifteen aircraft were adapted, through the mounting of a radar pod, to serve as night fighters under the designation F8F-1N.       

In 1948, Grumman introduced the F8F-2 Bearcat which included an all-cannon armament, enlarged tail and rudder, as well as a revised cowling.  This variant was also adapted for night fighter and reconnaissance roles.  Production continued until 1949 when the F8F was withdrawn from frontline service due to the arrival of jet-powered aircraft such as the Grumman F9F Panther and McDonnell F2H Banshee.  Though the Bearcat never saw combat in American service, it was flown by the Blue Angels flight demonstration squadron from 1946 to 1949.

Grumman F8F Bearcat - Foreign & Civilian Service:

In 1951, around 200 F8F Bearcats were provided to the French for use during the First Indochina War.  Following the French withdrawal three years later, the surviving aircraft were passed to the South Vietnamese Air Force.  The SVAF employed the Bearcat until 1959 when it retired them in favor of more advanced aircraft.  Additional F8Fs were sold to Thailand which used the type until 1960.  Since 1960s, demilitarized Bearcats have proven highly popular for air races.  Initially flown in stock configuration, many have been highly modified and have set numerous records for piston-engine aircraft.

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