In the 1940s and 1950s, naval aviators pushed the limits in a powerful, lightweight, very nimble fighter that some called a “hot rod.” It was the fighter that was built to defeat Japan, but the war ended before Americans could fly it in combat. Many wish they’d had the chance. To them, the Grumman F8F Bearcat was a world-beater.
“It had so much ‘oomph’ and speed, you would ask yourself, ‘Can I control this airplane?’ Then with a little practice you could fling it all over the sky and you’d ask yourself, ‘How am I ever going to get this plane on the ground?’”
“The first time I flew one it dazzled me,” said retired Marine Corps Col. John J, Geuss of Palos Park, Ill., who piloted Bearcats with the Naval Air Reserve in the 1950s. “That thing went up like a skyrocket. You needed to pay attention or it could leap away from you, but if you stayed in charge, it handled well and performed beautifully.”
Bearcat pilots thought of themselves as top guns before the term existed. The F8F was the ultimate propeller-driven fighter, as they saw it. “I felt like a kid who’d been riding a speedy bike and was suddenly given a Harley Davidson,” said retired Cmdr. Robert S. “Beaver” Blake, of Bridgeton, Mo., who flew the Bearcat at Test Pilot School at Patuxent River, Md., near the end of its service career in 1956.
“It had so much ‘oomph’ and speed, you would ask yourself, ‘Can I control this airplane?’ Then with a little practice you could fling it all over the sky and you’d ask yourself, ‘How am I ever going to get this plane on the ground?'”
The F8F was designed to be the ultimate fighter in the final days of World War II against Japan. It was meant to operate from carriers of all sizes. The Navy wanted excellent maneuverability, good low-level performance, and a high rate of climb. Historians debate whether the threat from Japanese suicide aircraft, called kamikaze, influenced the design of the Bearcat.
When they retired the last Bearcat from service, “it was a sad day for all of us,” remembered Blake.
As a product of the Grumman Aircraft Engineering Company in Bethpage, Long Island, N.Y., the Bearcat was the logical successor to the F6F Hellcat, which had turned the tide against the vaunted Japanese Zero, the Mitsubishi A6M, in the Pacific war. But although the prototype XF8F-1 made its initial flight on Aug. 21, 1944 in the hands of engineer/test pilot Bob Hall, the Bearcat did not reach Fleet squadrons before the war ended.
The Bearcat was about 20 per cent lighter than the Hellcat and used a more powerful engine, the 2,100-horsepower Pratt & Whitney R-2800-34W Double Wasp 18-cylinder radial. It was officially credited with a maximum speed of 421 miles per hour, but Bearcats used in civilian air races in recent years have flown as much as a hundred miles per hour faster. At its lightest loaded weight the Bearcat was stressed to 7.5 positive g and 3.7 negative g.
The F8F Bearcat was armed with four .50-caliber machine guns.
While the war was going on, the Navy ordered 2,023 F8F-1 models, the first of which equipped squadron VF-19 beginning in May 1945. Plans for an F3M-1 version to be manufactured by General Motors never materialized, and the number of Bearcats actually built ended up being 1,266 – 765 F8F-1s, 100 F8F-1Bs with four 20mm cannon; 36 F8F-1N night fighters; and 293 F8F-2s with redesigned engine cowling and taller tail fin, 12 F8F-2N night fighters, and 60 F8F-2P reconnaissance aircraft with cameras and two 20 mm cannon.
After the war, the Bearcat seemed to be everywhere. A couple were flown by the Blue Angels flight demonstration team and some were used to maintain flight proficiency by students at Landing Signal Officer school at Pensacola, Fla.
Famed Royal Navy test pilot Eric “Winkle” Brown flew Bearcats during his time at the U.S. Naval Air Test Center at Patuxent River, Md., and remembered it fondly. “Certainly it was a joy to throw around in the air, as it had beautiful harmony of control aided by its spring tab ailerons,” he wrote. “It had another hallmark of a good day fighter in that it had poor stability rather in the manner of the Spitfire. This combination made for superb maneuverability which, coupled with the fact that the aircraft was overpowered, resulted in an outstanding aerobatic performer. I do not think I have blacked myself out so consistently in an aircraft and it was just as well for peace of mind that the Bearcat was so highly stressed.”
A handful of F8Fs remained in service until the late 1950s, and several are still flying today in private hands. A number of Bearcats served in Southeast Asia with the French and Thai air arms. When they retired the last Bearcat from service, “it was a sad day for all of us,” remembered Blake.