Grumman F8F Bearcat
1266 planes produced, entered service August, 1945.
F8F-1 specs: top speed 421 MPH, four .50 caliber machine guns
By Stephen Sherman, May, 2004. Updated January 23, 2012.It was the speediest prop-driven fighter that Grumman ever produced, but it arrived too late to see combat in World War Two. Designed as a follow-on to the successful F6F Hellcat, the F8F Bearcat was 20 percent lighter and almost 50 MPH faster (421 vs. 376).
The Bearcat was intended as an interceptor fighter, operating from carriers.
In modern vernacular, it might have been called the "Hellcat Lite," designed for the smallest and lightest airframe that could support the Pratt & Whitney R-2800-34 radial engine, its fuel, weapons, and armor. The US Navy order two prototypes, XF8F-1, in November, 1943. First flown nine months later, the Bearcat prototype outperformed its heavier predecessor, notably with a thirty percent better climb rate. Grumman then delivered the first production model in February, 1945, only six months after first flight!
The F8F featured all-metal construction, a cantilever low-wing monoplane design, folding wings for carrier operations, self-sealing fuel tanks, four .50 caliber machine guns, pilot armor, a retractable tailwheel, and the 18-cylinder P&W powerplant.
With no early end to WWII in sight, the Navy was preparing for the long haul, and ordered four thousand Bearcats in 1944 (roughly 2,000 each from Grumman and General Motors). VF-19 actually took delivery of its Bearcats in May, 1945 and was still familiarizing with the airplane when the war ended in August. The Navy cancelled the entire GM order and cut 1258 from the Grumman order.
But the program continued for another four years, with Grumman building:
- 765 F8F-1's
- 100 F8F-1B's, armed with 20mm cannon instead of the four machine guns
- 36 F8F-1N's, a night fighting variant
- 293 F8F-2's, outfitted with 20mm cannon as a standard
- 12 F8F-2N night fighters
- 60 F8F-2P photo-recon planes
A total of 1,266 Bearcats of all types.
Post War Service
As many as 24 US Navy squadrons were equipped with Bearcats in the late 1940's. Pilots loved the plane for its speed and maneuverablity. One pilot compared the Bearcat to a Harley-Davidson. but they were soon made obsolescent by the F9F Panther jet.
Bearcats flew with the French and Thai air forces in the early 1950's. The F8F-1 illustrated at the top of the page carries the insignia of the French Armee de l'Air Groupe de Chassse 9, which flew out of Tan Son Nhut air base, outside of Saigon. The French units GC 1/8, GM 2/8, GC 2/9 'Auvergne,' GM 2/9, and GC 1/21 'Saintagne' used the Bearcat in a fighter-bomber role against the Viet Minh. Some were dispatched to Dienbienphu, where they were destroyed.
Surviving BearcatsAs of July, 2002, eleven airworthy Bearcats, eight display aircraft, and twelve restorations/wrecks remain. The famous Warbird group, the Confederate Air Force, has an airworthy example. The Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola has an excellent F8F on display.
Grumman Restoration of Thai Bearcat
At Grumman's Long Island plant, snce 1995, a team of retirees has been restoring an F8F-1 used by the Royal Thai Air Force. Ironically, the worst damage to the plane occurred when it was disassembled in Thailand for shipment back to the U.S. With some replacements and some repairs, engineers determined that the aircraft could be made flyable. The P&W R-2800 radial engine was largely intact and was sent to Minneapolis for overhaul. The Aeroproducts propeller was also in good shape. But the landing gear, the canopy glass, and the fuel system all need extensive work or replacement.
The airframe, exposed to the weather for years and damaged in disassembly, can be restored, but not to original condition and strength. The restored aircraft's flying performance will be limited to speeds and maneuvers that will only impose eighty percent of the stress originally designed.
Under the direction of Augie Ripp, the restoration team (shown in photo) includes: Bruno Apollono, Joe Bosch, Roy Brem, Rudy Brochhausen, Sal Buonincontro, Ernie Finamore, Bill Fox, John Franciscovich, Richard Griffin, Tony Giordano, Grant Hedrick, Richie Kalen, Bernard Kurz, Dan Katzenstein, Charlie Lee, Joe Mele, Joe Michitsch, John Pereira, John Prete, Dave Russell, Tor Rydberg, George Skurla, Walter Sohnurman, and Ray Sonntag.