Aviation History: Grumman F4F Wildcat

Grumman fighter development started with the two seat Grumman FF biplane now using retractable landing gear (manually) into the fuselage. Two single seat biplane fighters followed up, the F2F and F3F. The general fuselage design would become the F4F Wildcat.

Grumman started work on it’s next biplane, the G-16, while still testing the F3F seen above.

The Navy favored a monoplane design which was the Brewster F2A-1 Buffalo but also placed an order for the G-16 as a backup. However, Grumman recognized the now designated XF4F-1 was inferior to the Brewster monoplane and designed a new monoplane the XF4F-2. Still the XF4F-2 was inferior to the Brewster as it was only marginally faster but less maneuverable. Brewster was judged superior by the Navy and so the Brewster was chosen for production. Grumman, after losing out to Brewster, moved onto the XF4F-3 with new wings, tail and a supercharged version of the Pratt & Whitney R-1830 Twin Wasp. Testing led to a production order for the F4F-3 model which was completed February 1940.

I’ll throw this to show what was going on on the other side of the world. In Japan, Mitsubishi started design work on the A6M Zero in late 1937 which is a few years before Grumman’s biplane fighter. The new design made improvements over the A5M based on real world experience in China. The Wildcat had no such experience to draw on.

The Navy adopted the F4F on October 1, 1940. By the end of 1940 the Navy was becoming disenchanted with the Brewster. Additional armor and machine guns were weighing down the plane while the factory was plagued with delays. So now the F4F is the go to fighter for the Navy armed with four 0.50 in. Browning machine guns. The A6M was armed with two 20mm cannons and two 7.7mm machine guns. So better weapons, speed, and maneuverability for the A6M but there were weak points as in all planes. The Wildcat had weak points but also had strong points and a comparison can be seen here.

In early war service the F4F was outperformed by the Zero but could hold it’s own with heavy armor and self-sealing fuel tanks. The air frame would survive considerable damage versus the Zero’s frame. One famous Japanese ace, Saburo Sakai, commented on shooting his entire load of rounds at a Wildcat with no result. Upon flying alongside the plane he saw the rudder and tail were torn to shreds but still flying.

Wildcats played major roles in the defense of Wake Island, Guadalcanal, and as the fleet’s primary air defense at the Battles of Coral Sea and Midway. It was at the Battle of Midway where the Thach Weave was first tested out in combat. Lt. Commander John Thach had heard reports concerning the A6M Zero in Spring 1941 and he began to devise tactics to give the Wildcats a chance. He called it the “Bean Defense Position” but it became know as the “Thach Weave”.

He had tested it out in San Diego using speed restricted Wildcats against non-speed restricted Wildcats. His newly selected wingman, Ens. Edward “Butch” O’Hare, was to lead the aggressor squadron. O’Hare was unable to complete an attack without having another Wildcat point right at him. . The two employed the maneuver flying off the USS Yorktown during the Battle of Midway. Thach led a six plane sortie escorting twelve TBD Devastators of VT-3 towards the Japanese carriers. They were jumped by 15-20 Japanese planes where he used the weave. Thach shot down three planes and his wingman one. After Midway all pilots were taught the Thach Weave. Sadly, later in the war while testing out experimental night fighter interceptions in a Hellcat, Butch O’Hare ,lost his life and is honored by by Chicago’s O’Hare International.

During the long battle for Guadalcanal the Japanese ace Lt. Commander Tadashi Nakajima encountered the maneuver. When he got back to Rabaul it was reported that he was in a rage about being forced to dive and run for safety. It was at Guadalcanal where the Wildcat, in very tough conditions, made it’s name for itself.

By 1943 Grumman now had enough real experience to employ when designing the F6F Hellcat. Grumman was tasked with building as many Hellcats as possible. In order to do so Grumman turned over the production of both the F4F-4 Wildcat (now FM-2 Wildcat) and the TBF Avenger (now the TBM Avenger) to Eastern Aircraft. After 1943 Wildcats were used aboard CVE carriers employed in the Atlantic as anti-submarine hunter killer groups. In the Pacific they operated off a CVE more as ground support however they were heroic flying off the CVEs of Taffy 1, 2, and 3 in defense of Taffy 3 at the Battle of Samar.

As an aside, two years ago, I had the distinct pleasure of meeting an 92 year old fellow in a nursing home on one of my regular exam visits. He wore a cap that read DE-339 John C Butler. I said you were at the Battle of Samar and he asked how I knew. Told him I know your all the ships involved. I could see a tear come to his eyes and with that the two started to talk about it. Rather than make everyone else wait I finished up with him. At the end of the day I located him in his room and we spent more time talking.

Now back on track the FM-2 as built now had a more powerful engine, a taller tail for the extra torque and back to four machine guns which some pilots seemed to prefer given the fixed amount of ammunition carried.

This brings us to the FM-2 Wildcat aboard the USS Hornet. That is the plane the week it arrived years ago. The plane is on loan from the Pensacola Naval Air Museum and was pulled out of Lake Michigan were many a Wildcat and Avenger ended up during training accidents. For those who don’t know the Navy stationed their two training carriers, converted Great Lakes excursion ships, called the Sable and Wolverine at Chicago’s Navy Pier.

According to the Navy 140 planes were lost due to these accidents some of which were immediately recovered and others not. The loan agreement states that the museum will undertake the effort to restore the plane and the plane remains Navy property. The USS Hornet Air Group spent several years on this restoration which is beyond belief. I don’t say that lightly as it takes much to impress me having dealt with a TBM Avenger myself. Given the detail of their work this story will be continued tomorrow in order to give the plane justice.