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Bearcat: The Last and the Best of Grumman’s Propeller Driven Cats

Developed to Be an Improved Wildcat, the F8F Just Missed the Action in World War II

F8F-2P warbird. By Alan Wilson from Stilton, Peterborough, Cambs, UK (Grumman F8F-2P Bearcat ‘121714 / B-201’ (G-RUMM)) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

On 23 June 1943 a meeting took place at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. This particular meeting was between veteran Navy and Marine Corps Grumman F4F Wildcat pilots and Grumman Vice President Jake Swirbul. The legendary John S. “Jimmy” Thach opined that the most important characteristic in a fighter aircraft was rate of climb. With production of the company’s F6F Hellcat well underway and the type soon to see combat for the first time, Grumman would need to design a completely new aircraft in order to create a fighter that could operate from the small flight decks of escort carriers. The F6F was too large and heavy, and the F4F needed to be replaced. The design that Grumman came up with to fit the need was designated G-58. You know it as the F8F Bearcat.

F8F-1. Image via US Navy

Grumman’s design team under Bill Schwendler wanted to use the proven and powerful Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp radial engine to power the G58. They basically designed the smallest fighter around the engine they could. In comparison with the F6F, the G58 was five feet shorter with seven feet narrower wingspan and was more than 1,500 pounds lighter. The G58 did not have the “razorback” structure behind the cockpit that both the F4F and F6F did; the G58 was a bubble canopy design. The G58 utilized heavier gauge aluminum for its outer skins and was flush riveted and spot welded together. Longer landing gear legs were required to provide clearance for the large four bladed Aeroproducts propeller, providing the trademark stance of the Bearcat.

XF8F-1 Bearcat. Image via NACA/NASA

Some of the weight savings in the G58 came at the cost of fuel capacity and firepower. The G58 was equipped with a total of four Browning .50 caliber machine guns when many US fighter aircraft had six. These compromises in turn meant that the Bearcat would have to perform primarily as an interceptor rather than as a long-range escort. But when the performance numbers were tallied, the G58 was 20% lighter, had a 30% better rate of climb, and was 50 miles per hour faster than the F6F. Detachable wingtips, designed to reduce outer wing panel weight and intended to snap off under high G loading, proved to a problematic solution to weight savings. It was thought that a G58 without its outer wing panels could continue flying, but several aircraft were lost thanks to one or the other of those outer panels not detaching properly and causing asymmetric lift. The wing panels were eventually stressed to the same standards as the rest of the wings and bolted on permanently.

F8F-2s. Image via US Navy

Just nine months after starting the design of the G58, Grumman test flew a prototype, now  designated  XF8F-1 on 21 August 1944. Climb rate was excellent but stability problems overshadowed the Bearcat’s performance. The addition of a fillet in front of the vertical stabilizer, and later a taller and larger vertical stabilizer, solved the stability issues. Other issues with the cockpit being too tight, the trim system, the pitot system, and a low maximum speed for landing gear extension were also reported. Pilots also wanted six .50s, but the aircraft was too closely balanced to add two more machine guns. Despite the issues, the Navy ordered 2,023 Grumman F8F-1s on 6 October 1944 and another 1,876 F3M-1 Bearcats to be built by Eastern (General Motors) on 5 February 1945. The F3M-1s would have had a slightly increased fuel capacity and more powerful R-2800-34W engine. Would have had…Canadian Car and Foundry would have built the F4W-1 version. Would have built…

F8F-1s from NAS Glenview. Image via US Navy

The first operational squadron to receive the F8F-1 Bearcat was Fighter Squadron Nineteen (VF-19) Satan’s Kittens. A few more squadrons received Bearcats before World War II came to a close but none went to war. Grumman’s Bearcat order was reduced to 770 F8F-1s. The F3M-1s and F4W-1s were all canceled. 126 F8F-1Bs with 20 millimeter cannon in place of the .50 caliber machine guns were built. Fifteen of those were fitted with the APS-19 radar mounted under the starboard wing, making them into F8F-1N night fighters. Beginning in 1948, Grumman began building the F8F-2. These Bearcats featured a taller vertical stabilizer, a more powerful R-2800-34W engine, and a modified cowling design. 293 F8F-2s were built, with the derivatives being the F8F-2N night fighter and the F8F-2P photographic reconnaissance version.

F8F-1. Image via US Navy

Eventually 24 Navy and a few Marine Corps squadrons would fly Bearcats. But production of the F8F-2 at Grumman ended in 1949 when the last of 1,265 Bearcats rolled out the door. The jet age was here, or there, to stay. Navy fighter squadrons started converting to jets. The last operational F8F-1, F8F-1N, F8F-2, F8F-2N, and F8F-2P Bearcats were retired by the end of 1952, many of them by Naval Reserve units. The Bearcat, too late to see action in World War II and replaced by jets by the Korean War, was one of the sweetest flying aircraft developed during the war. In 1946 a standard production Grumman F8F-1 Bearcat took just 94 seconds to climb to 10,000 feet after a takeoff run of only 115 feet- an absolutely unheard of event in the days of propeller driven aircraft. Even the Blue Angels, who started flying the Bearcat in 1946, transitioned to jets and left the last propeller driven Grumman Cat for the new jet-powered Cats after going off fight in Korea in 1950.

Bearcat at NNAM. Image via author.

Bearcats did see combat with the French during the French Indochina War and were also operated by Thailand and South Vietnam. Quite a few Bearcats were purchased as surplus from the Navy during the late 1950s. The record-setting highly modified Bearcats of air racing opponents Lyle Shelton (in Rare Bear) and Daryl Greenamyer (in Conquest I) entertained air racing crowds for decades. Before that, Myra Slovak’s stock Bearcat won the first Reno Air Race in 1964. Today there are about 14 airworthy Bearcats with a few more under restoration. The sight and sound of a Bearcat in flight is an experience not to be missed.

F8F-1. Image via US Navy

Enjoy this short look and listen to a warbird F8F Bearcat uploaded to YouTube by Magcheck.

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Bill Walton

Written by Bill Walton

Bill Walton is a life-long aviation enthusiast and expert in aircraft recognition. As a teenager Bill helped his engineer father build an award-winning T-18 homebuilt airplane in their Wisconsin basement. Bill is a freelance writer, an avid sailor, engineer, announcer, husband, father, uncle, mentor, coach, and Navy veteran. Bill lives north of Houston TX with his wife and son under the approach path to KDWH runway 17R, which means they get to look up at a lot of airplanes. A very good thing.

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