On March 8th 1957, United States Navy Attack Squadron ONE FIVE SIX (VA-156) Iron Tigers accepted the first Grumman F-11F Tiger aircraft to enter service. The Tiger came along at a time when supersonic speeds were suddenly a requirement and Grumman did indeed deliver its first carrier-based supersonic fighter. With advanced features like full-span leading edge slats, roll-control spoilers instead of ailerons, all-moving horizontal stabilizers, and area-ruled fuselage design, the Tiger was, at the time of its introduction, in many ways ahead of its time.
At first envisioned as an improved F9F-6/7 Cougar, the resulting design and the refinements made during the development process yielded a completely different aircraft. Ironically, the Tiger’s service life was much shorter than the Cougar’s.
Even though on July 30th 1954 the prototype Tiger first flew without the afterburning engine for which it was designed, it nearly reached supersonic speeds on its maiden flight. When the second prototype flew with the afterburning engine, the Navy had its second supersonic aircraft (the Douglas F-4D Skyray was the first). The Tiger received the new designation F-11F-1 in April of 1955.
Carrier suitability trials began on April 4th 1956. The carrier Forrestal (CV-59) hosted the Tiger for trial arrested landings and catapult launches. After successfully completing trials, the Tiger went on to equip several Navy squadrons. The Navy operators of the F-11F-1 Tiger were VF-21 Freelancers and VF-33 Astronauts in the Atlantic Fleet and VA-156 Sundowners (VF-111 from January 1959), VF-24 Renegades (VF-211 from March 1959), VF-51 Screaming Eagles, VF-121 Pacemakers, and VF-191 Satan’s Kittens in the Pacific Fleet.
Tigers operated from the Essex-class carriers Intrepid (CV-11), Hancock (CV-19), Bon Homme Richard (CV-31), Shangri-La (CV-38), and the Forrestal-class carriers Forrestal (CV-59), Saratoga (CV-60), and Ranger (CV-61).
The last Tiger was delivered to the Navy on January 23rd 1959. The Tiger only lasted four years in front-line service. Unfortunately its performance was vastly inferior to both the Vought F-8 Crusader and the F-4 Phantom II, both of which were being delivered to the Navy in roughly the same timeframe. The Tiger’s J65 engine also proved unreliable. Coupled with limited range and insufficient endurance, the Tiger was craned off all carrier decks by the end of 1961. The Navy cancelled all orders for the F-11F-1 and a proposed reconnaissance version (the F-11F-1P) on the books. Only 199 Tigers were built.
Tigers did continue to serve with the Naval Air Training Command. Two South Texas-based Advanced Training Units (ATU-203 [later VT-23] and ATU-233 [later VT-26]) used F-11Fs to give students a taste of supersonic flight during their advanced jet training syllabus up until 1967. Having flown the TF-9J Cougar during their penultimate training flights, each student flew the Tiger a few times before advancing to their replacement air groups (RAGs) to fly their fleet aircraft.
The F-11F enjoyed its longest tenure with none other than the United States Navy Flight Demonstration Team, AKA the Blue Angels. The Blues flew their shows in the Tiger from the 1957 show season through the 1968 show season. For the 1969 show season the Blues switched to the F-4 Phantom II.
So You Say a Tiger Shot Itself Down?
One dubious distinction the F-11F could not live down is that it was the first jet aircraft known to have shot itself down. After test-firing its 20 millimeter guns in a shallow dive, a hapless Tiger pilot steepened his dive but flew the same heading. When the pilot pulled up out of his dive the rounds he fired, their trajectory having decayed in the interim, intersected with his aircraft. The pilot survived; the Tiger did not.
The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) evaluated the Tiger as a potential replacement for their F-86 Sabres during the late 1950s. The F-11F-1 was compared to the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter by highly experienced RCAF pilots at Edwards Air Force Base in California. The Canadians picked the F-104.
Grumman did propose a more advanced version of the Tiger known (inevitably) as the F11F-1F Super Tiger. Essentially a stock Tiger with a General Electric J79 engine stuffed inside, the Navy authorized two F-11-1F Super Tigers for testing and evaluation. Taking to the air for the first time on May 25th 1956, the first Super Tiger attained a speed of Mach 1.44. The Super Tiger was the first naval aircraft on the planet to reach Mach 2.04- even before the Crusader or the Phantom II.
Although the service ceiling of the aircraft was nominally 59,000 feet, a Super Tiger test flight on April 18th 1958 at Edwards AFB set a then world altitude record of 76,938 feet. But even though the Super Tiger surprised everyone (including Grumman) with its impressive performance, the issues with endurance and range persisted. The Navy did not order the Super Tiger into production. Grumman tried to market the Super Tiger to foreign customers. In the end, the improved performance of the Super Tiger never overcame the design limitations.