By Patrick Masell

Grumman F4F Wildcat
F4F Wildcatcat photo courtesy of NASA

Grumman's short and stubby-winged F4F Wildcat is one of its best-known and successful fighters. Although it was seemingly inferior to its Japanese counterparts, it carved a reputation as a dangerous opponent.

From 1931 to 1936 Grumman was the U.S. Navy's main supplier of biplane fighters, developing a famous series of carrier fighters. In 1935 the Navy requested a new fighter, and promised a contract to the company who designed the best airplane. Grumman started work on the F4F-1 but soon realized the earlier F3F could match its performance if given a more powerful engine. Designers were forced to start over with the F4F-2. Subsequently they discovered that the F4F-2 was inferior to the new F2A Brewster Buffalo (with became the Navy's first monoplane fighter). Grumman had to start over yet again, this time incorporating a Twin Wasp radial engine and two-stage supercharger. After several modifications the F4F-3 Wildcat surpassed the Buffalo in performance, and Grumman was awarded a contract to replace the Brewster fighter. The F4F-3 was rushed into production in August 1939, and deliveries to the U.S.N. began in February 1940. The Navy received 600 Wildcats by the end of 1940. The Wildcat became America's front line Navy and Marine fighter just in time for World War II.

The F4F-3 Wildcat had a rather short, rounded fuselage with mid-wings of rectangular shape. The wings did not fold for carrier storage. All the main parts of the airplane were located in the front part of the tubby fuselage, the fuel tank and retractable landing gear were right under the pilot. This concentration of weight made for a quick handling, maneuverable fighter. Its Pratt & Whitney 1200hp, 14-cylinder, air-cooled, twin row radial engine (R-1830-76 or 86) gave it a top speed of 330 mph. The F4F-3 had a range of 845 miles. The standard armament was four .50 caliber wing mounted machine guns. Service ceiling was 37,500 ft. The F4F-3 offered good durability, pilot armor, and a high dive speed. It also had good maneuverability, although it was soon discovered that it could not compete with the Japanese Zero in this area. A common complaint from pilots was the manual hand-cranked retracting landing gear, which required 30 cranks. One slip could result in a serious wrist injury.

Grumman offered the F4F-3 for export as the G-36A. The first five export Wildcats went to Canada, while the next 81 were originally built for French use. Germany conquered France before the order could be shipped and, like other French orders, these planes were taken over by Britain. England also took over Greece's order for 30 G-36As after Greece capitulated. The British nicknamed the pudgy fighter "Martlet" and assigned them convoy protection duties with the Fleet Air Arm. The first kill by a Martlet was a twin-engined Ju-88 over Scapa Flow.

The next model was the F4F-4, deliveries of which began in November 1941. Key improvements (some suggested as a result of combat experience with the Fleet Air Arm) were the addition of manually folding wings for improved storage on board aircraft carriers, an armament increase to six .50 caliber wing mounted machine guns, and the addition of self-sealing fuel tanks. A 1,200 hp Pratt & Whitney R-1830-36 Twin Wasp radial with two-stage supercharging powered the F4F-4. Specifications of the F4F-4 Wildcat were as follows (from The Complete Encyclopedia of World Aircraft, general editor David Donald).

Powerplant: Pratt & Whitney 1,200 hp R-1830-36 14-cylinder radial engine.
Maximum Speed: 318 mph at 19,400 feet.
Initial climb: 1,950 ft/min.
Service ceiling: 39,400 ft.
Range: 770 miles.
Weight empty: 5,758 lbs.
Maximum take-off weight: 7,952 lbs.
Span: 38 ft.
Length: 28 ft. 9 in.
Height: 9 ft. 2.5 in.
Wing area: 260 sq. ft.
Armament: six .5 inch Browning machine guns; two 100 lb. bombs.

By mid 1942 Grumman was concentrating on mass producing their new fighter, the superior F6F Hellcat. General Motors was licensed to build Wildcats. These were dubbed the FM-1 by the U.S.N., and 1,150 were produced by GM. Hundreds were given to the Fleet Air Arm, which called them Martlet MK. Vs. GM also built an improved version, the FM-2, for which the British adopted the Americanized nickname Wildcat MK. VI. A 1,350hp Wright R-1820 engine powered it. 4,700 were ultimately built before production ceased.

The Wildcat achieved fame in the hands of U.S. Navy and Marine pilots, fighting in such famous battles as the defense of Wake Island, where Capt. Elrod sank the Japanese destroyer Kisargi on Dec. 11, 1941. During the Battle of the Coral Sea, the first carrier versus carrier naval battle, Wildcats from the U.S. carriers Lexington and Yorktown inflicted severe losses on Japanese air groups from the carriers Shokaku, Zuikaku, and Shoho. The latter was sunk during that battle, and the other two lost so many planes that their air groups were not available for the pivotal Battle of Midway. At Midway, American Wildcat pilots fought furious air battles against the best I.J.N. pilots, and the Japanese lost four fleet carriers against the loss of U.S.S. Yorktown. At Guadalcanal, Wildcats from Henderson field took a heavy toll of Japanese aircraft attacking from the big Japanese base at Rabaul. Midway and Guadalcanal were fought with the improved F4F-4. Wildcats also served in North Africa with the U.S.N. in late 1942.

It has always been common belief that the Japanese Navy's frontline fighter, the legendary A6M Zero, was superior to the Wildcat. And in many ways it was. The A6M3 Zero's top speed was 336 mph (later models reached 354), better then the F4F-4's 318 mph. Although the Wildcat could turn well, it couldn't turn with the extremely agile Zero. The A6M3, with its best climb of 4,500 ft/min., could easily out climb the Wildcat. It also out ranged it, with a range of 1,480 miles to the Wildcat's 770. It's armament was debatably better, two 7.7mm machine guns and two Type 99 20mm cannons (although the latter fired slowly and were only effective at close range).

On the other hand, the F4F-4 had some advantages. It could power dive faster than the Zero; Wildcats could sustain a dive that would shear the wings off a Zero. The Wildcat also had a superior roll rate. Its airframe was sturdier than the Zero's, and it could survive considerably more battle damage. The F4F-4 had self-sealing fuel tanks, which the Zero lacked. American pilots found the lightly built, unprotected Zero would flame easily, and often disintegrate under the fire from their six .50 machine guns. Also, the F4F-4 had a service ceiling of 39,400 feet, the A6M3 topped out at 36,250 feet. And, of course, the F4F had armor to protect its pilot, while the Zero didn't.

American Wildcat pilots developed effective tactics against the Zero. Using their superior service ceiling, they would enter the combat zone above their enemy, then dive down upon them, scattering the Japanese formations. They could then either zoom climb to regain altitude and make another pass, or dive away to escape pursuit, as conditions dictated. Also, the Zero was most maneuverable at relatively low speeds; therefore, Allied pilots learned to keep their speed up in combat with the Japanese fighter.

One thing the Wildcat lacked was the ability to keep pace with wartime aircraft development; the airframe could not accommodate a larger engine without a complete redesign. Newer and more powerful fighters like its cousin the Grumman F6F Hellcat, and the Chance-Vought F4U Corsair came into service, supplanting the older Wildcat on the fast carriers. This was by no means the end of the F4F's service, however. Its compact size and lower landing speed, plus its ability to carry two 58-gallon drop tanks, made it perfect for escort carrier duty. Wildcat production continued until the autumn of 1945. Altogether 7,885 Wildcats of all variants were built, of which 19 are airworthy today.

Although later Allied fighters had superior kill-to-loss ratios, people seem to forget that the F4F Wildcat, along with its Army counterpart the P-40 Warhawk, were fighting in the days when the Japanese had superior numbers and the best trained pilots in the world. It was the Wildcats and Warhawks that bore the brunt of Japanese air power in the early days of the Pacific War. And it was these same planes that defeated the Japanese in the crucial battles of Midway and Guadalcanal that became the turning points of the war in the Pacific. Their pilots fought against the odds to win some incredible victories.

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Copyright 2001, 2016 by Patrick Masell and Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.