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The Grumman F6F Hellcat fighter was flown for the first time. 1942

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The Goldilocks Fighter: The F6F Hellcat

Rarely has there been a com- bat aircraft so perfect for its time and place as the Hellcat. “No more outstanding example of skill and luck joining forces to produce just the right aeroplane is to be found than that provided by the Grumman Hellcat,” wrote legendary British test pilot Eric “Winkle” Brown in his book Wings of the Navy. This bluff, sensible, utterly workmanlike shipboard fighter arrived in the Pacific theater in August 1943 and went to work straight out of the box. The Hellcat immediately challenged what had been the most powerful naval air arm on the planet and beat it like a bongo, racking up by far the highest kill-versus-loss ratio of any airplane in American service during World War II (19-to-1, based on claimed shootdowns). It resoundingly won the most one-sided, humiliating air battle of any war— the Marianas Turkey Shoot. Unlike other fighters that went through lengthy series of engine, airframe and armament changes, the F6F was hardly modified or updated thereafter, and there were only two basic versions of the airplane during its entire lifetime: the F6F-3 and -5.

The Hellcat’s initial development proceeded virtually without incident. The fighter proved to be as tough, reliable and durable as a Peterbilt. It was viceless and turned out to be the ideal airplane for young, inexperienced ensigns to operate from aircraft carriers. Grumman claimed it had been “designed to be flown by 200- hour farmboys.” In combat for just under two years, the Hellcat was as unbeatable on the day it stood down as it had been when it arrived for its very first mission.

Yet despite—or perhaps because of— such a straightforward, matter-of-fact career, the F6F got far less respect and fandom than did its more stylish rival, the Vought F4U Corsair. The Corsair was an arrogant, long-nosed Shelby Cobra; the Hellcat was a looming Ford F350 dualie pickup. The Hellcat flew in combat for 24 months and then essentially disappeared, never to fight again (other than an odd Korean War experiment and a few minor missions for the French over Indochina). The name of the top Hellcat ace, David McCampbell, is far less familiar than those of Dick Bong, Gabby Gabreski, Pappy Boyington and other pilots of more glamorous fighter types. No Hellcat ever Reno-raced or starred in a TV series. No Hellcat ever had the panache of a Sea Fury, a Hose-Nose, a Tigercat or Bearcat. Three Hellcats (with a fourth as spare) lasted just two months as the first Blue Angels team aircraft before being tossed aside in favor of Bearcats. Oh, the ignominy…





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