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The Grumman F6F-3 Hellcat

The F6F was created as a direct response to the Japanese Zero in an amazingly short period of time; designed in the spring of 1942, it was tested later that year and by years end was being mass produced. Despite the short design cycle the plane was an astounding success in almost all respects, and it was the performance of this stubby looking plane, coupled with it's overwhelming production numbers (11,000 were delivered in a two year time span) that spelled doom for the Japanese hope of air superiority in the Pacific.

Although the Hellcat might have had a different history in the mixed bag of designs used in Europe, in the Pacific it excelled at everything required for victory. It was faster than the Zero, out climbed it, could climb higher, was heavily armored, carried a huge ammo supply, worked well off carriers, and turned well. In this light it's not surprising that this fighter, flown in ever increasing numbers against a steadily drained Japanese navy and army, produced the highest kill ratio of the war.

The Hellcat is an oddity in that it has no clear strengths over other planes in the Pacific, and yet has the right combination of abilities to fight any opponent well. It can use turns, climbs and speed alternatively against various planes to give it a clear advantage. Only when it faces combinations of opponents that invalidate one or more of its advantages does the F6F suffer badly.

Like it's real world counterpart the F6F is a smooth handling plane and responds well, making it a good ride to learn in. If handled lightly it can stay in controlled flight at very low speeds (70IAS) and thus doesn't spin very much, but when it spit it doesn't recover particularly well and the engine must be shut down almost instantly to avoid oil starvation.

Flaps are an all or nothing proposition and shouldn't be used save for tops of loops and the like; hitting flaps in turns definitely hurts in almost all circumstances, as the plane slows down drastically when they are deployed and compresses at very low speeds if they are left on.

One unique advantage of the F6F is it's heavy air brake capability (air brakes are deployed with the space bar or middle button on a TM stick). You'd think from the way it slows down there was a deployable parachute that drops out every time you slam the brakes, and the combination of laying on the brakes and chopping throttle allows the Hellcat to blow speed faster than any plane in the game. This is particularly useful during initial engagements where you can use it to "dump and deliver" - come in fast at a very off-angle approach, and when you get close drop throttle to zero, slam the brakes and pull hard around. Opponents will have a difficult time visualizing the very small turn radius the F6F can produce in this circumstance and will instead react to what they think is a fast plane (=large turn radius).

Since the Hellcat has such a wide range of rolls it can be used in it's important to remember which of it's strengths you want to use against particular types of planes. Against P47, P51s use climb to get above them and of course vastly superior turn ability to out turn them. F4Us can't be out climbed but can be out turned; careful for the experienced F4 pilots who will use multi-position flaps against you by going nose down on their brakes with two clicks of flaps - in these types of turns you need to ride your air brakes and possibly chop throttle a bit to match radius. Ki's are difficult in flat turn matches so the emphasis should be placed on plenty of vertical turns to maximize use of the Hellcats climb ability. P38s can be both out turned and out climbed, but watch similar situations to the aforementioned F4 with flaps and be careful to keep loops as small as possible in verticals as the 38 can pull some tricks there. Zekes should simply out climbed and hit from above with speed - don't even bother turning as this plane has a ridiculously overmodeled turn capability.

The Hellcat isn't a stellar boom and zoom fighter because of it's speed and compression issues; on the way in you compress and on the way out you don't have enough speed to zoom properly. However it does very well at energy fighting tactics like the rope-a-dope because of it's high climb and low speed turning.

After early US Navy experience in the Pacific in the early months of WWII, and after consultation with Allied air forces in the European theater, Grumman began to develop a successor to their Wildcat fighter, to be called the Hellcat. Major design changes from the Wildcat included a low-mounted wing, wider landing gear which retracted into the wings, more powerful engine, improved cockpit armor plating, and increased ammunition capacity.

The Navy ordered four prototypes of the new airplane, each with a different engine for test and evaluation purposes. Less than a year later, on 26 June 1942, the first prototype (the XF6F-1, with a Wright R-2600 Cyclone engine) flew for the first time. Before much meaningful evaluation of the various engines could be made, however, the Navy decided to press the Hellcat into production by fitting the XF6F-1 prototype with the most powerful engine available, the Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp. (This turned it into an XF6F-3. The XF6F-2 and XF6F-4 were never evaluated.)

The first production model, the F6F-3, first flew in October 1942, and deliveries began four months later with squadron VF-9 on the USS Essex in the Pacific. Extremely robust, powerful and maneuverable, the Hellcat was a potent force against the Japanese, and was credited with over three-quarters of the US Navy's air-to-air kills in the war.

The UK's Fleet Air Arm received 252 F6F-3s (designated Gannet Mk I) beginning in 1943. Meanwhile, in the US, over 200 Hellcats were modified as radar-equipped night fighters. During the F6F-3 production run, which lasted until April 1944, Grumman had developed an improved Hellcat, the F6F-5, which utilized a redesigned engine cowl, new ailerons, a strengthened tail, and a water-injection system for the engine, which added 10% to the takeoff performance and increased its armament-carrying capabilities. The F6F-5 was first flown on 4 April 1944, and production continued through November 1945. Over 900 more "Dash-5" Hellcats were delivered to the UK under the Lend-Lease program under the designation Hellcat Mk II.

Many US Navy pilots had good cause to refer to the Hellcat as the "Aluminum Tank". With its six .50 caliber Browning M2 machine guns, it could spit out a veritable hail of destruction which no Japanese adversary could hope to survive. After the war, Japanese pilots related their fear and dread each time they were engaged by the Hellcat.

And, on the other side of the coin, the Hellcat could absorb unbelievable punishment and still bring the pilot back to his ship. Pilots tell of "mostly holes where the airplane used to be" and "more air was going through it than around it". One Hellcat had been burning for a hundred miles before landing on its carrier. Top Navy ace, David McCampbell told of watching the piston and connection rod "popping in and out" of the mangled Pratt-Whitney "Double Wasp" engine as he struggled to fly the pieces of his Hellcat back to the carrier. The Grumman Company itself was often referred to as the "Grumman Iron Works".

In the spring of 1941, the Navy was looking to replace its F4F "Wildcat" (also manufactured by Grumman) in light of new developments in the field of aeronautics, and the worsening military situation both in Asia and in Europe. On June 30, 1941 the Navy ordered the prototypes XF6F-1 and XF6F-2. They were to have the Wright R-2600-16 engine, producing 1,700 horsepower, on the -1 and a Wright 2800-16 fitted with a turbo-supercharger on the -2. Immediately after the first flight of the XF6F1 on June 26, 1942, the craft was mysteriously redesignated the "XF6F-3" and the engine was changed to the Pratt-Whitney 2800-10 producing 2,000 horsepower. The reason for the mystery became evident only after the war.

Up until the time of the first flights of the XF6F-1, very little reliable information was available on the Japanese "Zero" fighter (Mitsubishi A6M Zero-Sen) except that it was fast, agile and shot down an alarming number of Allied aircraft. As happened on many occasions during WWII, Lady Luck was about to change all that. At the very time of the first flight of the XF6F-1, a curious incident was occurring 2,500 miles (4,023 km) away on a small island known as "Akutan" in the Aleutian chain which would have a devastating effect on the supremacy of the Mitsubishi A6M Zero-Sen.

A Navy PBY, making a routine patrol, happened to pass over tiny Akutan Island and one of the observers aboard happened to notice a dark speck on the tundra below which appeared out of place. The pilot took the "Catalina" down to have a closer look. The speck turned out to be a Japanese aircraft, and even though it was upside down, it was almost immediately identified as a Zero. The radioman sent the coordinates and within hours a Navy recovery team was on the way to investigate. On arrival, the recovery team found the dead pilot, Flight Petty Officer Tadayoshi Koga still hanging in his seat harness. Koga had had engine problems and tried to land the plane on the flat tundra of the small island with the wheels down. The wheels dug in and flipped the Zero on its back, snapping F.P.O. Koga’s neck in the process. The Zero was almost undamaged, even the engine looked to be in good shape aside from a broken oil line.

The Zero was dismantled and shipped directly to the Grumman Aircraft factory in California where it was reassembled and flown. The information gleaned from this fortunate incident put the finishing touches on the Hellcat. It was found the XF6F-1 was marginally slower than the Zero, thus the change from the Wright R-2600 to the Pratt-Whitney Double Wasp R-2800 with an output of 2,000 hp (1,493 kW) for take-off and 1,975 hp (1,474 kW) at 17,000 ft (5,182 m). This engine boosted the Hellcats top speed to 375 mph (604 k/hr), 29 mph (47 k/hr) faster than the Zero. No other unfavorable differences between the two planes could be found and the Hellcat was deemed ready for production. The finalized version of the XF6F-3 was almost identical to the production F6F-3 and Grumman shifted the assembly line into high gear.

In terms of size, the Hellcat was the second largest single engine fighter of the war, being ever-so-slightly smaller than the Republic P-47 "Thunderbolt". At first glance, the F6F appeared too big to operate safely from a carrier. But The Grumman Iron Works had a great deal of expertise in building carrier aircraft. The US Navy wanted a much faster plane carrying heavier loads over far greater distances. The only way to achieve all three goals was the obvious way; design a larger aircraft. There was room for a more powerful engine, room for more armament and for extra fuel.

In order to keep the take-off and landing speeds at a reasonable level, Grumman made the wings proportionally larger than most aircraft (including the Thunderbolt) to reduce wing loading. In fact, the Hellcat had the largest wing area of any single engine fighter of WWII at 334 square feet (102 square meters) as opposed to 300 square feet (91 square meters) for the P-47.

Also produced were models with a suffix "N" after the dash number. These were night fighters with an APS-6 radar mounted on the starboard wing near the tip.

The first production batch of dash three’s were assigned to VF-9 aboard the carrier Essex. The first combat sorties were flown by VF9 and by VF-5 aboard the Yorktown on August 31, 1943 against Japanese targets on Marcus Island (Minami-tori Island) some 700 miles (1,127 km) southeast of Japan.

The first real test of the F6F-3 against the Zero came a few months later in December when a group of about a hundred Hellcats ripped into a like number of Japanese planes of which half were Zeros. In the ensuing battle, 28 of the Zeros were "splashed" (destroyed and crashed into the water) for a total loss to the Hellcats of 3 planes.

The engagement which put a final seal of approval on the Hellcat took place over the Philippine Sea on June 19/20, 1944. This incident was officially called the "Battle of the Philippine Sea". To the pilots who fought, it will always be known as "The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot". It began in the early morning of the nineteenth with a few skirmishes over the island of Guam while Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa, commanding the Japanese Mobile Fleet of nine fast carriers plus assorted battleships, cruisers and destroyers attempted to find the US Fast Carrier Task Force of the 5th Fleet, commanded by Vice Admiral Mark Mitscher. Ozawa had nine carriers and 450 planes to Mitschers 15 carriers and 900 aircraft. By 10:00 am on the 19th, the adversaries had located each other and the Turkey Shoot was about to reach its peak. Admiral Ozawa launched about 70 aircraft of various types including 28 Zeros plus a number of fighter-bombers and torpedo planes. When they were still 150 miles away they were picked up on radar. Admiral Mitscher turned his carriers into the wind for launch. These seventy Japanese aircraft were swarmed by hundreds of Hellcats from the Carrier Task Force. Only 24 of the Japanese craft survived. Of the 24, a single fighter-bomber managed to inflict casualties and slight damage to the battleship South Dakota. Ozawa sent a second wave of aircraft toward the 5th Fleet and another debacle ensued; ninety-eight of 128 aircraft were splashed before reaching the ships. He launched two more strikes with similar results. In all, Ozawa lost almost 350 aircraft the first day of the battle (virtually all were downed by Hellcats), while accomplishing almost nothing. The US carriers lost 30 planes.

In addition to the aircraft destroyed, Ozawa lost the carriers Taiho (the newest and largest of Japans carriers, thought to be unsinkable) and the veteran carrier Shokaku. During the early evening of the 19th, Ozawa began withdrawing from the battle but was pursued by Mitscher all that night and all the next day, further decimating Ozawas carrier aircraft. After the Turkey Shoot, the Japanese could no longer establish or maintain air superiority over their naval objectives due to their loss of carrier aircraft and experienced pilots. Their vaunted A6M "Zero" was no longer invincible. They had gained a great respect for "The Grumman Iron Works" and its F6F "Hellcat"!

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

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