The F8F Bearcat: Too Late to Be Great
The F8F Bearcat is not normally on lists of the greatest airplanes. The Bearcat had good performance figures and unlike many other aircraft its actual performance often exceeded its brochure statistics. The first squadron of F8Fs, VF-19, became operational on May 21, 1945. No Bearcat unit was deemed combat ready until after World War II ended.[i] Despite its impressive statistics how it would have fared against, and with, World War II era aircraft that make these greatest lists is a matter of speculation.
[i] ThoughtCo, https://www.thoughtco.com/grumman-f8f-bearcat-2360493, last accessed 6/22/2019.
Grumman’s F6F Hellcat was an excellent U.S. Navy fighter with a remarkable kill to loss ratio in air-air combat. The F6F, as did many U.S. built fighters, had excellent high-altitude performance. Grumman, wanted to build a fighter with better performance at low and medium altitude. Chief Engineer William Schwendler led a team of engineers that developed the F8F Bearcat. The Bearcat was 5 feet (1.5 meters) shorter and 2,000 pounds (900 kilograms) lighter than the Hellcat. Since the F8F had the same engine as the F6F, the Pratt & Whitney R-2800, and had flush riveting and other design improvements it had a rate of climb 30% higher and a top speed 50 miles per hour (90 Km/h) faster than the Hellcat. The Bearcat’s armament was four .50 caliber machine guns. This was less than the Hellcat’s six machine guns. The U.S. considered this adequate since it was anticipated it would fight mainly against Japanese aircraft which often lacked self-sealing fuel tanks and armor protection.[i]
The first two prototypes, the XF8F-1, flew on August 21, 1944. Grumman developed the F8F-1 and F8F-1B which had an armament of 4 20mm cannons. Grumman built night-fighter and photo-reconnaissance versions. Grumman produced 1,266 Bearcats before production ended. Some were used as target drones.[ii]
[i] Aviation-History, http://www.aviation-history.com/grumman/f8f.html, last accessed 6/22/2019.
[ii] Military Factory, https://www.militaryfactory.com/aircraft/detail.asp?aircraft_id=90, last accessed 6/23/2019.
In 1951 the French Air Force ordered 200 F-8F Bearcats for service in Indochina. The reason for the purchase was the U.S. was selling these aircraft, which were being phased out of the U.S. Navy inventory, at a very low price.
While not designed for ground attack being a carrier-based aircraft it could take off from short runways. The short, grass airstrips the French used posed problems for the Bearcats. The Bearcat tires were designed for carrier decks and tended to blow out on rough airstrips. The engines weren’t designed to ingest dirt and grass.
The French used air to ground rockets, bombs, and the guns against Viet Minh targets. The bombs used included napalm bombs. The F8Fs never saw air-air combat. The French lost 50 Bearcats during the conflict. At least 10 of these losses were to accidents. Bearcats participated in the Dien Bien Phu where the Viet Mihn defeated the French forces. This decisive battle resulted in North Vietnam becoming a Communist state.
The French transferred 70 surviving F8Fs to the South Vietnamese Air Force in 1954. Only 28 planes were made operational. Combat damage prevented more from being flyable. South Vietnam began phasing out the Bearcats in 1960 and retired them from service in 1964.[i]
Thailand also purchased 204 Bearcats. The Royal Thai Air Force (RTAF) designated the F8Fs the Type 15 Fighter. The first of the RTAF Bearcats became operational in 1951. They were used in the air defense and ground attack role. They didn’t see combat and were officially retired in 1962. There are reports of some still flying with the RTAF after 1962.[ii]
[i] After World War II, https://wwiiafterwwii.wordpress.com/2015/07/22/f8f-bearcat-post-wwii-service/, last accessed 6/23/2019.
[ii] After World War II, https://wwiiafterwwii.wordpress.com/2015/07/22/f8f-bearcat-post-wwii-service/, last accessed 6/23/2019.
The U.S. Navy flight demonstration team “The Blue Angels”, began using F8F-1 Bearcats in 1946. It first used a Bearcat to simulate a Japanese Mitsubishi A6M Zero. The team transitioned to Bearcats on August 25, 1946. On September 29, during a performance at NAS Jacksonville, Lieutenant Junior Grade Ross “Robby” Robinson was killed when he failed to recover from a dive. The Blue Angels flew F8F-1 bearcats until the team transitioned to the Grumman F9F-2 Panther, a jet fighter, in 1949.[i]
Test pilot Darryl G. Greenamyer and some other Lockheed Skunk Works employees modified a Bearcat for air racing. The Bearcat has a shorter wingspan than the standard F8F-2 and a special racing canopy. It has a Douglas A-1 Skyraider propeller and a spinner from a North American P-51H Mustang. It used a special high-octane gasoline with some fuel additives. His team also putty-sealed gaps to reduce drag. This plane, registration number N1111L, won the Unlimited Championship from 1965-1969 and won again in 1971.
On August 16, 1969 Greenamyer in his Bearcat, named Conquest I broke the speed record for piston-engine aircraft. Conquest I reached 483 miles (777 kilometers) per hour. This broke a speed record that held for almost 30 years.[ii] Greenamyer’s record held until 1979 when Steve Hinton, Sr. in a P-51, named Red Baron, flew 499 miles (798 kilometers) per hour. An F8F-2 Bearcat, named Rare Bear, and flown by Lyle Shelton, recaptured the record on August 21, 1989. Rare Bear reached the speed of 528 miles (845 kilometers) per hour. The World Air Sports Federation (FIA) has since retired Lyle Shelton’s record.[iii]
[i] The Official Blue Angels web site, https://www.blueangels.navy.mil/history/, last accessed 6/23/2019.
[ii] The Smithsonian Air & Space Museum, Grumman F8F-2, Bearcat, “Conquest I”, https://airandspace.si.edu/collection-objects/grumman-f8f-2-bearcat-conquest-i, last accessed 6/23/2019.
[iii] The Vintage Aviation Echo, Steve Hinton, Jr breaks Absolute Propeller-Driven Piston Powered 3-Kn speed record, by Harry Measures, September 3, 2017.
F8F and F-51H Comparison
4x0.50 caliber guns
6x0.50 calibur guns
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2019 Robert Sacchi