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The Grumman F8F Bearcat

It was the speediest prop-driven fighter that Grumman ever produced, but it arrived too late to see combat in World War Two. Designed as a follow-on to the successful F6F Hellcat, the F8F Bearcat was 20 percent lighter and almost 50 MPH faster (421 vs. 376).

The Bearcat was intended as an interceptor fighter, operating from carriers. In modern vernacular, it might have been called the "Hellcat Lite," designed for the smallest and lightest airframe that could support the Pratt & Whitney R-2800-34 radial engine, its fuel, weapons, and armor. The US Navy order two prototypes, XF8F-1, in November, 1943. First flown nine months later, the Bearcat prototype outperformed its heavier predecessor, notably with a thirty percent better climb rate. Grumman then delivered the first production model in February, 1945, only six months after first flight!

The F8F featured all-metal construction, a cantilever low-wing monoplane design, folding wings for carrier operations, self-sealing fuel tanks, four .50 caliber machine guns, pilot armor, a retractable tailwheel, and the 18-cylinder P&W powerplant.

With no early end to WWII in sight, the Navy was preparing for the long haul, and ordered four thousand Bearcats in 1944 (roughly 2,000 each from Grumman and General Motors). VF-19 actually took delivery of its Bearcats in May, 1945 and was still familiarizing with the airplane when the war ended in August. The Navy cancelled the entire GM order and cut 1258 from the Grumman order.

But the program continued for another four years, with Grumman building a total of 1,266 Bearcats of all types.

As many as 24 US Navy squadrons were equipped with Bearcats in the late 1940's. Pilots loved the plane for its speed and maneuverablity. One pilot compared the Bearcat to a Harley-Davidson. but they were soon made obsolescent by the F9F Panther jet.

Bearcats flew with the French and Thai air forces in the early 1950's. The F8F-1 illustrated at the top of the page carries the insignia of the French Armee de l'Air Groupe de Chassse 9, which flew out of Tan Son Nhut air base, outside of Saigon. The French units GC 1/8, GM 2/8, GC 2/9 'Auvergne,' GM 2/9, and GC 1/21 'Saintagne' used the Bearcat in a fighter-bomber role against the Viet Minh. Some were dispatched to Dienbienphu, where they were destroyed.

As of July, 2002, eleven airworthy Bearcats, eight display aircraft, and twelve restorations/wrecks remain. The famous Warbird group, the Confederate Air Force, has an airworthy example. The Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola has an excellent F8F on display.

At Grumman's Long Island plant, snce 1995, a team of retirees has been restoring an F8F-1 used by the Royal Thai Air Force. Ironically, the worst damage to the plane occurred when it was disassembled in Thailand for shipment back to the U.S. With some replacements and some repairs, engineers determined that the aircraft could be made flyable. The P&W R-2800 radial engine was largely intact and was sent to Minneapolis for overhaul. The Aeroproducts propeller was also in good shape. But the landing gear, the canopy glass, and the fuel system all need extensive work or replacement.

The airframe, exposed to the weather for years and damaged in disassembly, can be restored, but not to original condition and strength. The restored aircraft's flying performance will be limited to speeds and maneuvers that will only impose eighty percent of the stress originally designed.

By the last half of the Second World War, most new US fighter designs were much heavier and more complex than earlier fighters. When planning a replacement for their successful F6F Hellcat carrier fighter, however, Grumman chose to built as lightweight a design as possible around the most reliable large radial engine. The result was the F8F Bearcat, which was often called a "hot rod" by its pilots for its fantastic acceleration and climbing ability.

Using the well-proven Pratt & Whitney R-2800 engine, the first Bearcat prototype flew on August 21, 1944. After minor modifications, including the addition of a dorsal fin, early production F8F-1s began armament tests and carrier qualification trials in early 1945. By May of 1945, the Bearcat was cleared for operations, with very few restrictions on its flight operations over its wide speed range. A total of 654 F8F-1s were delivered, all fitted with the 2,100 hp R-2800-34W engine.

The Bearcat was the first US Navy fighter to feature a full "bubble" canopy, giving excellent all around vision. It was also fitted with so called "Safety Wing Tips", the outer 40 inches of which were designed to break off cleanly in case of the wing being overstressed in a dive or other maneuver. After several incidents where one or both wing tips tore off, this feature was eliminated from later production Bearcats.

Two squadrons, VF-18 and VF-19 were equipped with F8F-1s, and training was expedited in order to get the new fighter into service against Japanese suicide attack planes in the Pacific. VF-19 was onboard the carrier USS Langley, enroute across the Pacific, when the war ended on August 16, 1945.

The final production Bearcat was the F8F-2, with a more powerful R-2800-30W engine of 2,250 hp and an automatic variable speed supercharger. The extra power required an extra foot be added to the vertical fin, and F8F-2s carried a heavier armament of four 20mm cannons. The F8F-2P was a photo-reconnaissance version, fitted with up to three cameras in the fuselage. By 1956, the last Bearcats were taken out of service and stored or scrapped, having been replaced by the new age of jets.

The Bearcat was the last of Grumman's piston-engined carrier-based fighters. Two XF8F-1 prototypes were ordered in November 1943, and the first of these was flown on 21 August 1944. Grumman decided once again to utilize the most powerful engine available at the time, the Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp -- the same engine that had powered both their Hellcat and Tigercat designs. This time, the engine was fitted to the smallest, lightest airframe that could be built. This resulted in a highly maneuverable, fast airplane with a rate of climb 30% greater than the Hellcat.

Production of the F8F-1 began just six months after the first flight of the prototype, and the first airplane was delivered to the US Navy's VF-19 squadron on 21 May 1945. The Navy's order totaled 2,033 airplanes, and Grumman contracted with General Motors to build the Bearcat under license, with the designation F8FM-1. Only a few Bearcats had been delivered to the Navy when the end of the war halted production. Grumman cancelled 1,258 of its Bearcats, and General Motors cancelled its entire order of 1,876. Production resumed after the war, and several variants were produced, including the F8F-1B, with four 20mm cannon in place of the previously-fitted 12.7mm (0.5 inch) machine guns; several night fighter variants (F8F-1N and F8F-2N); and a photo-reconnaissance version (F8F-2P). Production continued until May 1949.

At least 24 US Navy squadrons flew the Bearcat, some until as late as 1952, after which some were sold to the French Armee de l'Air for combat operations in Indo-China. Another 129 Bearcats were sold to the Thai Air Force.

Parker Information Resources
Houston, Texas
E-mail: bparker@parkerinfo.com

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