The Grumman Cats

Just under nine lives that created a company legend.

GRUMMAN'S FIRST FIGHTERS FOR THE U.S. NAVY WERE BARREL-CHESTED BIPLANES, known only as the F2F and F3F; they had no nicknames, much less the feline names that became near-synonymous with Grumman’s Navy fighters. For the company’s fourth Navy fighter, sandwiched between the successful F4F Wildcat and F6F Hellcat, Grumman engineers came up with the twin-engine F5F, nicknamed “Skyrocket.” Although the F5F exhibited good flight characteristics, the Navy was concerned that the fighter was too heavy. Grumman didn’t get a production order, and one wonders if the F5F might have succeeded had it too sported a cat name. Still, the quality of the Long Island-produced airplanes was such that in 1942 Vice Admiral John S. McCain Sr. (grandfather of U.S. Senator John McCain) said, “The name ‘Grumman’ on a plane or part has the same meaning to the Navy that ‘sterling’ on silver has to you.” To many, sterling silver wasn’t a tough enough image, and over the years, the term “Grumman Iron Works” has been used to give the company’s long line of attack and fighter aircraft an image of robustness.


Grumman F4F Wildcat

The Wildcat first took to the air on September 2, 1937. Although records show it to be a successful fighter, during World War II it was outclassed in several areas (maneuverability, climb speed, and service ceiling) by its nemesis, the Mitsubishi A6M “Zero.” But American pilots overcame the Wildcat’s shortcomings with tactics, such as the Thatch Weave (developed by Lieutenant Commander Jimmy Thatch), a criss-cross pattern flown by a pair of F4Fs to cover each other against attackers. General Motors’ Eastern Aircraft Division also built Wildcats, under the FM-2 designation. In fact, more Wildcats were built by Eastern than by Grumman. A float-equipped version, known as the Wildcatfish, was tested, but the rapid expansion of land bases and of the escort carrier fleet ended the need for an amphibious airplane. (Britain’s Royal Navy also flew the fighter, dubbing it the Martlet.)

FM-2 Specs
Span:  38 ft. 0 in.
Length:  28 ft. 11 in.
Height:  9 ft. 11 in.
Empty Weight:  5,448 lbs.
Max Speed:  332 mph
Normal Range:  900 mi.
Ceiling:  34,700 ft.

Grumman F8F Bearcat

The F8F entered service just as the war ended, so no Bearcats saw combat against the Japanese. Although it was a superlative aircraft, the rise of jet fighters ended the Bearcat’s career as a U.S. fighter almost before it began, and most F8Fs were withdrawn from service before the Korean War. The French military and the Royal Thai Air Force flew Bearcats until 1963. The F8F also became an air racing legend.

F8F-1 Specs
Span:  35 ft. 6 in.
Length:  27 ft. 6 in.
Height:  13 ft. 8 in.
Empty Weight: 7,070 lbs.
Max Speed:  434 mph
Normal Range:  1,105 mi.
Ceiling:  38,900 ft.

Grumman F6F Hellcat

First flown on June 26, 1942, the F6F was powered by a Wright R-2600 engine. Early in production, however, Grumman switched to the Pratt & Whitney R-2800 to increase the Hellcat’s power. The F6F showed its prowess and superiority over the Japanese Zero early on, and Navy Hellcats turned the First Battle of the Philippine Sea into a famous naval victory for the United States. The Hellcat holds the distinction of being flown by more U.S. aces than any other aircraft. Hellcats shot down more than 5,100 airplanes, with F6F losses numbering 270. Hellcats also flew combat missions in the European theater of the war, when Britain’s Royal Navy started flying the fighter in 1943.

F6F-5 Specs
Span: 42 ft. 10 in.
Length:  33 ft. 7 in.
Height:  13 ft. 1 in.
Empty Weight:  9,238 lbs.
Max Speed:  380 mph
Normal Range:  945 mi.
Ceiling:  37,300 ft.

Grumman F7F Tigercat

Initially designed as a twin-engine carrier-based fighter, the Tigercat revealed a problem maintaining directional stability when it was first flown on November 3, 1943. After Grumman improved the design, the F7F became a favored radar-equipped night fighter and attack aircraft for the U.S. Marine Corps. The F7F also proved to be a decent platform for the launch and control of drones. After the war, civilian users added belly tanks to operate Tigercats as firebombers.

F7F-3 Specs
Span:  51 ft. 6 in.
Length:  45 ft. 4 in.
Height:  16 ft. 4 in.
Empty Weight:  16,270 lbs.
Max Speed:  450 mph
Normal Range:  1,200 mi.
Ceiling:  40,700 ft.

Grumman XF10F-1 Jaguar

The world’s first variable-sweep-wing fighter (although the Messerschmitt P1101 and Bell X-5 preceded it as variable-sweep research aircraft), the XF10F was first flown on May 19, 1952, in a short hop that revealed stability and control problems and an inadequate powerplant. The wing-sweep mechanism would be fine, however, and in later years the knowledge gained from the Jaguar was applied to the F-111 Aardvark and F-14 Tomcat. Only one XF10F was completed: It and the nearly complete second airframe ignominiously ended their days as arresting-barrier test airframes.

Span, extended:  50 ft. 7 in.
Span, swept:  36 ft. 8 in.
Length:  54 ft. 5 in.
Height:  16 ft. 3 in.
Empty Weight:  20,426 lbs.
Max Speed:  710 mph
Normal Range:  1,670 mi.
Ceiling:  45,800 ft.

Grumman F9F Panther/Cougar

On November 9, 1950, during the Korean War, the Pratt & Whitney-turbojet-powered F9F Panther became the first Navy jet to shoot down another jet (a MiG-15) in combat. Later in the war, Ensign Neil Armstrong of the Navy’s VF-51 squadron (yes, that Neil Armstrong) ran into a cable over North Korea, an encounter that sheared off six feet of his wing. Armstrong managed to fly to a base, so he could eject over friendly territory. In a departure from the military’s usual practice, the F9F designation was retained even after the aircraft was transformed into the Cougar: In 1951, the Panther’s straight wing was replaced with a wing swept back 35 degrees. The redesign improved the performance of the F9F and led to a long service life, with F9Fs flying into the 1970s.

F9F-6 cougar Specs
Span:  34 ft. 6 in.
Length:  40 ft. 10 in.
Height:  12 ft. 4 in.
Empty Weight:  11,255 lbs.
Max Speed:  654 mph
Normal Range:  932 mi.
Ceiling:  44,600 ft.

Grumman F11F Tiger

Although developed as a result of experience with the Panther and Cougar, the F11F was yet another fighter of the 1950s that suffered from the immaturity of early jet engine technology. Initially appearing with a short nose, the Tiger gained a sleeker look with a nose that was made more pointed in order to house radar. Ultimately, the Tiger ended up a radar-less day fighter, and it was quickly superseded by more capable jets. The F11F shone, however, with the Blue Angels demonstration team, which flew it from 1957 to 1969.

F11F-1 Specs
Span:  31 ft. 7 in.
Length:  46 ft. 11 in.
Height:  13 ft. 3 in.
Empty Weight:  14,330 lbs.
Max Speed:  753 mph
Normal Range:  1,275 mi.
Ceiling:  41,900 ft.