Grumman built several notable fighters but their F9F Panther was the first jet powered fighter. One of the workhorses of the Korean War and the very first jet aircraft flown by the Navy’s Blue Angels, the Panther was one of many designs conceived during World War II that were dependent on the slow pace of turbojet engine development to get off the ground. Ironically the genesis of the Panther actually traces back to the two-seat Grumman G-75 design that lost out to the Douglas XF3D-1 Skyknight in 1946.
A Different Breed of Grumman Cat
Even though the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics (BuAer) issues a contract to Douglas for the F3D-1, they also issued a contract to Grumman for two XF9F-1 (G-75) prototypes in 1946. It’s been said that BuAer doubled down when they issued contracts to both companies. In any case, BuAer agreed with Grumman’s revised plan to develop a different single-seat design (the G-79) under the contract issued for the G-75. That’s how the G-75 became the G-79 (F9F-2) and then became the straight-winged conventional tailplane-equipped F9F Panther.
Grumman test pilot “Corky Meyer” flew the prototype on November 21st 1947. But like all jet-powered fighters in development at the time, the Panther went through considerable engine churn for quite some time- even after production started. Initially powered by the Pratt & Whitney J42 turbojet engine- a contract-built version of the Rolls-Royce Nene, Panthers were fitted with permanent wing tip tanks to provide enough fuel for the inefficient (read thirsty) jet engines of the time. Irony strikes gain: The tip tanks actually improved the Panther’s roll rate.
After passing carrier qualification testing the F9F-2 Panther was cleared to operate from aircraft carriers. Equipped with four 20 millimeter cannons mounted under the nose of the aircraft and capable of carrying bombs on underwing hardpoints and rockets on underwing rails, Panthers were fighter-bombers from the start. Close air support (CAS) became a primary role for both Navy and Marine Corps Panthers. Early F9Fs experienced tailhook and aft fuselage problems that were so severe that entire aft fuselages were pulled from recovering jets. Grumman fixed these issues before the next major variant of the jet was introduced.
The F9F-4 was a development of the first jet cat with a longer fuselage to increase internal fuel capacity and larger vertical stabilizer for better lateral stability. Originally powered by Allison J33 engines, many F9F-4s later received the tried and true P&W J42 engines. One new aspect of the F9F-4 was pressurized bleed air used to simulate higher speed across the flaps. This modification, using engine compressor stage bleed air, yielded a nine knot slower stall speed and a 7 knot slower approach speed. F9F-5s received another thousand pounds of thrust when they were powered by the stronger P&W J48 engine. Anti-stall fences were mounted just outboard of the wing roots as well.
The F9F Goes to Korea
Panthers became operational with VF-51 Screaming Eagles during May of 1949 and VF-11 Red Rippers at Naval Air Station (NAS) San Diego a few months later. During August of 1949 VMF-115 Silver Eagles at Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Cherry Point received their first Panther jets. The first Navy Panther squadrons to see action in Korea were VF-51 and VF-52 Knightriders. The Marines of VMF-311 Tomcats arrived first in Korea during December of 1950 flying their F9F-2B Panthers.
Over 78,000 sorties the Navy and Marine Corps Panthers were indispensable in Korea. Navy and Marine Corps Reserve pilots, many of them just regular guys who fought in World War II and called back to active duty, flew many of those sorties. But some of them were a little more well-known. Marine Corps Reserve (USMCR) Captain Theodore S. “Ted” Williams of the Boston Red Sox flew CAS missions with VMF-311 Tomcats. Future Astronauts Neil Armstrong (Navy) and John Glenn (Marines) flew Panthers during the Korean War too- Ted Williams was his wingman at one point.
Navy Panthers shot down a pair of Yakolev Yak-9s on July 3rd 1950. At that point the majority of available Navy and Marine Corps jet fighter-bombers were Panthers. Air Force F-86 Sabre jets deservedly received much of the publicity for shooting down MiGs over Korea, but the Navy and Marine Corps Panther pilots were usually busy destroying high (and low) value targets or escorting the propeller-driven Douglas AD Skyraiders and Vought F4U Corsairs who were dropping things that went boom on the Koreans and Chinese. But Panther pilots managed to shoot down a total of seven MiG-15s during the Korean War. Irony yet again: Those MiG-15s were powered by an unlicensed reverse-engineered copy of the same Rolls-Royce Nene turbojet engine as the one powering the F9F-2, F9F-3, and F9F-4.
Williams Bags Four MiGs
During one very memorable engagement Naval Reserve Lieutenant Elmer Royce Williams of VF-781 Pacemakers flying an F9F-5 Panther shot down four MiG-15 fighters during a single dogfight over North Korea. Williams was a part of Carrier Air Group 102 (CVG-102) flying from the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Oriskany (CVA-34) at the time. The engagement took place over Hoeryong on the Tumen River not far from the Soviet naval base at Vladivostok. It was not acknowledged until 40 years later that the four MiG-15s Williams shot down were piloted by Soviet Naval Aviation pilots. Williams’ tally of four victories in a single jet engagement has never been equaled since.
Panthers Cycle Through Training Roles and the Reserves
After the conclusion of the Korean War the Navy continued to develop more advanced jet fighters. As a result many Panthers ended up flying with Naval Reserve units around the country. Others went to Advanced Training Units for jet transition training, often painted with garish red and white stripes over the new Navy/Marine Corps grey and white paint schemes that went into effect in 1957. Later still Panthers became both remotely-piloted drone aircraft to be expended as targets as well as drone controllers. Panthers equipped with cameras (F9F-2Ps and F9F-5Ps) took pre- and post-strike photographs of targets for analysis back aboard. But by 1962 Panthers were retired from active Navy and Marine Corps service.
The Navy’s Blue Angels flew Panthers when they weren’t flying combat sorties in Korea as the core of VF-191 Satan’s Kittens. The Blues went back to flying shows in their Panthers until 1955. They switched to the new swept-wing Grumman F9F-8 Cougar. But that, as they say, is another story. The only foreign operator of the Grumman F9F Panther was Argentina. The South American nation took on 28 former US Navy F9F-2Bs and flew them between 1958 and 1969. They saw land-based service only. Grumman built a total of 1,382 Panthers (all variants). Only a single flyable example of a Grumman Panther remains today. Panthers and the aircraft carriers USS Kearsarge (CVA-33) and USS Oriskany (CVA-34) also starred in the 1954 Paramount movie “The Bridges at Toko-Ri.”