The Grumman F8F Bearcat (affectionately called "Bear") was an American single-engine naval fighter aircraft of the 1940s. It went on to serve into the mid-20th century in the United States Navy, the United States Marine Corps, and the air forces of other nations. It would be Grumman Aircraft's final piston engined fighter aircraft. Modified versions have broken speed records for propeller-driven aircraft, and are popular among warbird owners.
The Bearcat concept began during a meeting between Battle of Midway veteran F4F Wildcat pilots and Grumman Vice President Jake Swirbul at Pearl Harbor on 23 June 1942. At which time Lieutenant Commander Jimmie Thach emphasized one of his most important factors in fighters to Mr. Swirbul, "climb rate", which connoted "power." After intensively analyzing carrier warfare in the Pacific Theater of Operations for a year and a half, Grumman commenced designing the F8F Bearcat, and the first prototype flew on 31 August 1944. Prior to the F8F Bearcat, F6F Hellcats had been tasked with the primary missions of outperforming the exceptionally long range and highly maneuverable late-model Japanese fighter aircraft such as the A6M5 Zero; a later role was defending the fleet against incoming airborne suicide (kamikaze) attacks.
Work on the Grumman G-58 Bearcat began in 1943 with the specifications calling for an aircraft able to operate from the smallest carrier, primarily in the interceptor role. The F6F's Pratt & Whitney R-2800 engine was retained but compared to the Hellcat, the Bearcat was 20% lighter, had a 30% better rate of climb and was 50 mph (80 km/h) faster. To achieve this, range was necessarily sacrificed.
In comparison with the Vought F4U Corsair, the initial F8F-1 Bearcat series was marginally slower but was more maneuverable and climbed more quickly. Its huge 12 ft 4 in Aero Products four-bladed propeller required a long landing gear, giving the Bearcat a "nose-up" profile. The hydraulically operated undercarriage used an articulated trunnion which extended the length of the oleo legs to lengthen when down; as the undercarriage retracted the legs were shortened, enabling them to fit into a wheel well which was entirely in the wing. An additional benefit of the inward retracting units was a wide track, which helped counter propeller torque on takeoff and gave the F8F good ground and carrier deck handling. For the first time in a production U.S. Navy fighter, a bubble canopy offered 360° visibility.
The target loaded weight of 8,750 lb/3,969 kg (derived from the land-based German aircraft) was essentially impossible to achieve as the structure of the new fighter had to be made strong enough for aircraft carrier landings. Structurally the fuselage used flush riveting as well as spot welding, with a heavy gauge 302W aluminum alloy skin. Armor protection was provided for the pilot, engine and oil cooler; weight saving measures include restricting the internal fuel capacity to 160 gal (606 l) (later 183) and limiting the fixed armament to four .50 cal Browning M2/AN machine guns, two in each wing.
As a weight-saving concept the designers came up with detachable wingtips; if the "g"-force exceeded 7.5 "g", then the tips would snap off, leaving a perfectly flyable aircraft still capable of carrier landing. While this worked very well under carefully controlled conditions in flight and on the ground, in the field, where aircraft were repetitively stressed by landing on carriers and since the wings were slightly less carefully made in the factories, there was a possibility that only one wingtip would break away with the possibility of the aircraft crashing. This was replaced with an explosives system to blow the wing tips off together, which also worked well, however this ended when a ground technician died due to accidental triggering. In the end the wings were reinforced and the aircraft limited to 7.5 "g".
An unmodified production F8F-1 set a 1946 time-to-climb record (after a run of 115 ft/35 m) of 10,000 ft (3,048 m) in 94 seconds (6,383 fpm). The Bearcat held this record for 10 years until it was broken by a modern jet fighter (which still could not match the Bearcat's short takeoff distance).
The F8F prototypes were ordered in November 1943 and first flew on 21 August 1944, a mere nine months later. The first production aircraft was delivered in February 1945 and the first squadron, Fighter Squadron 19 (VF-19), was operational by 21 May 1945, but World War II was over before the aircraft saw combat service.
Postwar, the F8F became a major U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps fighter, equipping 24 fighter squadrons in the Navy and a smaller number in the Marines. Often mentioned as one of the best-handling piston-engine fighters ever built, its performance was sufficient to outperform many early jets.Its capability for aerobatic performance is illustrated by its selection as the first demonstration aircraft for the navy's elite Blue Angels flight demonstration squadron in 1946, who flew it until the team was temporarily disbanded in 1950 during the Korean War and pressed into operational combat service. The F9F Panther and McDonnell F2H Banshee largely replaced the Bearcat as their performance and other advantages eclipsed piston-engine fighters.
The first combat for the F8F Bearcat was during the French Indochina War (aka First Indochina War 1946-1954) when nearly 200 Bearcats were delivered to the French forces in 1951. When the war ended in 1954, 28 surviving Bearcats were supplied to the new South Vietnamese Air Force and entered service in 1956 The SVAF retired their F8Fs in 1959 which were replaced by North American T-28 Trojans, then later Douglas A-1 Skyraiders as the Vietnam War (aka Second Indochina War 1957–1975) continued through the 1960s. F8Fs were also supplied to Thailand during the same time period.
Bearcats have long been popular in air racing. A stock Bearcat flown by Mira Slovak and sponsored by Bill Stead won the first Reno Air Race in 1964. Rare Bear, a highly-modified F8F owned by Lyle Shelton, went on to dominate the event for decades, often competing with Daryl Greenamyer, another famous racer with victories in his own Bearcat ("Conquest I", now at the Smithsonian's NASM) and holder of a propeller-driven aircraft world speed record in it. Rare Bear also set many performance records, including the 3 km World Speed Record for piston-driven aircraft (528.33 mph/850.26 km/h), set in 1989, and a new time-to-climb record (3,000 m in 91.9 seconds (6,425.9 fpm), set in 1972, breaking the 1946 record cited above)