The highly successful
follow-on to the Wildcat. Built specifically to counter the Japanese
Zero, the Hellcat filled the bill, and earned the nickname "ace maker."
Its docile handling characteristics, especially important for a
carrier-based plane to be used by a large number of reasonably
well-trained pilots, made it the Navy's first choice fighter to deploy
with the Essex-class carriers. In the critical years 1943 and 1944, the
Hellcat ruled the skies of the Western Pacific.
Eugene Valencia, one of
the Navy's top aces, quipped. "I love this airplane so much, that if it
could cook, I'd marry it."
Although the F6F had
been on the drawing boards at Grumman, even before Pearl Harbour, the
advent of the war gave great impetus to the development of the
replacement for the Wildcat. From the start it was a much bigger
airplane. Leroy Grumman, and his two top engineers, Leon Swirbul and
Bill Schwendler, laid out a plane with higher performance, more fuel &
ammunition, and huge wings. The wings extended over 334 square feet;
the average was less than 250 sq. ft.. The wings folded back and
pivoted ingeniously, so that they folded up next to and alongside the
The first prototype,
the XF6F-1, was under development when the war started. Based on
combat experience against the Zero and the intact A6M captured in the
Aleutians, it was clear that speed and better climb would be needed
from the Hellcat. Test pilot Robert L. Hall first flew the XF6F-1
in late June, 1942. Powered by a Wright Cyclone R-2600-16 engine (1,600
horsepower), the aircraft didn't have the needed performance. Grumman
proposed the Pratt & Whitney 2800 Double Wasp (2,000 horspower).
Equipped with the P&W 2800, the original prototype airframe became the
XF6F-3. A month later, Bob Hall flew the new configuration.
Despite a crash of the XF6F-3 in August, the Navy placed an
Grumman had to build a
new facility, Plant Number 3, to produce the Hellcat. Obtaining the
structural steel for the buildings was a challenge, met in part by the
purchase of scrap from the Second Avenue El. Even before Plant Number 3
was finished, Hellcats began rolling off the production lines. Another
Grumman test pilot, Selden "Connie" Converse took up a production
F6F-3 for the first time on October 3, 1942. Grumman's Hellcat
output picked up quickly: 12 planes in the last quarter of 1942, 128 in
the first quarter of 1943, and then 130 in the month of April, 1943.
Eventually they would be churning out 500 per month. The company built
over 12,000 in three years.
During "The War,"
Grumman was an outstanding example of American productivity, employing
20,000 workers, few of whom had ever worked in the aircraft industry
before; many of them were women. Bethpage was a happy place; there were
no strikes, work stoppages, nor unions. Grumman took care of its
employees with day-care centres for working mothers, social events for
all, Christmas turkeys, and the famous "Green Car Service" to help
employees with dead batteries and other minor problems.
Especially with the
delays in the F4U program, the US Navy needed a superior carrier-based
fighter in 1942-43. The Hellcat filled the bill. On average, it flew 55
MPH faster than the Zero; at about 20,000 feet it was 70 MPH faster. At
altitudes in excess of 10,000 feet, it had a comparable rate of climb.
At all altitudes, due to its heavier weight and greater power, it could
out-dive the A6M. (This was generally true of American fighters; in a
tough spot, the pilots could nose over, firewall the throttle, and zoom
The 'dash Five' closely
resembled the 'dash Three.' It had some extra armour, stronger main
gear legs, spring tabs on the ailerons (for better manoeuvrability),
and most of them had water-injection engines (the R-2800-10W). Both
versions had 250 gallons capacity in internal tanks and a 150 gallon
Its armament, power,
and range gave the Hellcat great versatility. The basic weaponry
consisted of six wing-mounted .50 calibre machine guns, each with 400
rounds of ammunition. Many, including all F6F-5N and F6F-5P
variants substituted a 20mm cannon with 200 rounds for the innermost
machine gun in each wing. The Hellcat could carry a up two 1,000 pound
bombs. Its most destructive weapons were six 5-inch HVAR's (High
Velocity Aircraft Rockets), which the author Barrett Tillman described
as "equal to a destroyer's broadside."
This variety of weapons
and equipment permitted the Hellcat to carry out a broad range of
missions: fighter versus fighter combat, strike plane escort, combat
air patrol, long range search, ground support over invasion beaches,
night fighting (see F6F-5N), and photo recon (see F6F-5P).
Operations - 1943
Fighting Squadron Nine
(VF-9) took delivery of the first Hellcats in January, 1943. As they
were flying from the Long Island factory to their Norfolk base, one
crashed near Cape May, New Jersey. VF-6, commanded by Butch O'Hare,
also received early deliveries of the F6F.
The Hellcat's first
combat mission occurred on August 31, 1943, in a strike against Marcus
Island, including Cdr. Charles Crommelin's VF-5, Lt. Cdr. Phil Torrey's
VF-9, and a detachment of O'Hare's VF-6. The early-morning raiders
destroyed eight twin-engine bombers on the ground; while losing two
Hellcats to anti-aircraft fire and one to engine trouble. The next day,
over Howland and Bakers Islands, Lt.(jg) Dick Loesch and Ens. A.W.
Nyquist scored the Hellcat's first aerial victory when they teamed up
to shoot down a Kawanishi H8K "Emily" flying boat.
operations began in October, with a attack on Wake. When four carriers
struck Wake Island on October 5-6, the Hellcats saw their first
significant aerial combat. Half an hour before dawn on the 5th, each of
the four carriers launched three fighter divisions, 47 Hellcats in all.
When they were still 50 miles out from Wake, the Japanese radar
detected them, and 27 Zeros intercepted. In the ensuing dogfight,
Fighting Nine's skipper, Phil Torrey, shot down one Zero, then evaded
two more by dodging in and out of clouds. Lt. Hadden, while watching a
shared kill fall into the ocean, was jumped by two Zeros, and was lucky
enough to make it back to Essex with most of his engine oil
emptied out through several 20mm holes. Lt. (jg) Hamilton McWhorter
dove into a gaggle of Zeros, when one serendipitously appeared in his
gunsight. He fired a short burst and exploded the Zero - his first
The raid showed that
the new Hellcats could more than hold its own against the Zeros. They
destroyed 22 of 34 aircraft at Wake, and 12 American planes were lost -
6 to the Zeros and 6 to AA gunfire.
In early November, the
U.S. forces attacked the large Japanese base at Rabaul, and again the
Hellcats overmatched the Zeros.
The Navy saw the need
for night fighters and started the Project Affirm program in early
1942, originally with Corsairs equipped with primitive AI (Air
Interception) radar sets built by MIT engineers. In 1943, the Hellcat
emerged as the preferred night fighter because of its easier landing
characteristics and greater stability as a gun platform. The F6F-3E,
converted in the field at MCAS Quonset Point, was the first Hellcat
night fighter, using the AI radar, red cockpit lighting (to preserve
the pilot's night vision), and without an easily scratched Plexiglass
windscreen fairing. Eighteen F6F-3E's were built. (On November
26, 1943, Butch O'Hare, flying an unmodified F6F-3 on a night mission
with a TBF Avenger, disappeared over the Gilberts.
Next came the F6F-3N,
205 of these built by the Grumman factory. The F6F-3N employed
an improved radar, the APS-6. Installed in a bulbous pod on the
starboard wing, the APS-6 was simple to operate (only six knobs), had a
range of five miles, and weighed 250 pounds. It featured a double-dot
system that displayed a shadow blip to the right of the true blip; this
secondary blip showed the target's altitude relative to the F6F. The
-3E's and -3N's deployed to the carriers in the Pacific in early 1944,
but were difficult to integrate into carrier operations, as they
essentially would have required round-the-clock duty by launch and
recovery crews. Nonetheless, three Hellcat-equipped night squadrons (VF(N)-76,
VF(N)-77, and VF(N)-78) served in the Pacific in 1944.
The F6F-5N was
the definitive night-fighting version of the Hellcat, over 1500 of
these built by Grumman.
Post War Service
Hellcats flew with the
French Aeronavale in the Indochina war of the early 1950's.