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The case for the Grumman F6F Hellcat being the greatest fighter of the Second World War

The best fighter of the Second World War started life as an insurance policy. In late 1940 Grumman was asked to develop an upgrade of the F4-F Wildcat with a 1600hp Twin Cyclone engine as an interim measure due to ‘issues’ with Vought’s XF4U-1 that would require considerable work to resolve. Instead, Bob Hall proposed a new design using knowledge gained from talking to pilots who had fought in the Battle of Britain. This would become the F6F Hellcat, or Gannet if you’re in the niche of Fleet Air Arm pilots to fly it before the beginning of 1944 when sanity prevailed. The USN gave approval for work to start on 30 June 1941, the first prototype flew just under a year later with a 1600hp Wright Cyclone, the first aircraft equipped with a 2000hp Pratt & Whitney Double Wasp flew a month later and demonstrated a 30mph speed advantage over a recently captured Mitsubishi Zero. The first production F6F-3 flew in October of 1942 with deliveries commencing shortly afterwards. In the next two years, 11,000 of a final total of 12,275 Hellcats were built by Grumman’s Bethpage factory. [1] As an indication of quite how right the Hellcat’s design was there were only two production versions, the -3 and the -5 which featured another 200hp, a flat windscreen integrating the armoured glass, and a few other minor modifications. In fact, only two airframes seem to have not been built as -3 or -5s. Which makes Supermarine look like they didn’t know what they were doing with their twenty-odd attempts at getting the Spitfire ‘right’.

As a fighter the Hellcat’s main opponent was the aforementioned Zero, against which it was faster, better armed, and better armoured. The majority of Hellcats had six 0.50 calibre machine guns with 400 rounds per gun providing a balance of bullet mass with rate of fire. A more elegant solution than the mix of small calibre guns and large calibre cannon used by many European fighters it also had the advantage of simplifying the logistics tail. This is an important consideration for any aircraft, but especially one that’s going to be operating half a world away while being supplied by a chain of ships. The six guns allowed the Hellcat to achieve a borderline terrifying kill rate against aircraft of the Japanese Navy and Army with claims as high as 13:1 against the Mitsubishi Zero. Nor did it fair badly in the European theatre shooting down two Me-109s, two He-115, and an FW-190 for one loss with the FAA while the USN’s Hellcats also managed to shoot down three He-111s, three Ju-52, a Ju-88, and a Do-217 during the invasion of Southern France. In the latter case while operating off tiny Escort Carriers and calling fall of shot for naval gunfire. [2] A further 5215 aircraft fell to the Hellcat in the Indian and Pacific theatres.

In addition to operating as a fighter the -5 Hellcats could carry six 5” rockets or up to 4000lb of bombs enabling it to carry out attack operations, with an equivalent payload to the Curtiss Helldiver making the latter somewhat redundant. Which was probably a relief to the Helldiver crews. Both Marks of Hellcat also saw service as Night Fighters fitted with the AN/APS-4 or -6 radar in a pod on the starboard outer wing. A reconnaissance version of the F6F-5 was produced by the simple expedient of placing windows on the port and starboard sides of the fuselage just aft of the wing root. If that’s not multi-role enough for you the East Indies Fleet also used Hellcats in a mine-hunting role off Penang. Aircraft being directed by their carrier’s fighter controllers to conduct visual sweeps of set areas. [3] Try doing that in a Bf 109 or, well pretty much anything with an inline engine if you want to actually see the mines.

Grumman’s factory gained a reputation as the ‘Ironworks’ due to the strength of its aircraft. In an attempt to demonstrate why this moniker was deserved an F6F-5P of VF-8 flying from the Bunker Hill carrier was tasked to obtain photos of a headquarters and training base in the Marianas Islands. After being hit by radar laid anti-aircraft fire at 4000’ the Hellcat was missing rudder trim and the port stabiliser and elevator. Ignoring these minor flesh wounds, the pilot, Lt Edward ‘Whitey’ Feightner, flew down the bases’ runway at low-level to get photos of the guns that had just hit him. Taking umbrage, they managed to hit his aircraft in the port wing as he was making his egress. After the smoke, flames, and a small explosion cleared our intrepid aviator discovered his port wing was missing from the wing fold outwards aft of the main spar. The Hellcat was still controllable though if the speed was kept between 90 and 105kts. With the Bunker Hill visible about 40 miles ahead and with nothing better to do he headed towards it. Although the port main gear was, understandably, absent the rest of the undercarriage was available and after being given the option to land on ‘Whitey’ took it, mindful of the hard-earned photo-intelligence he’d acquired. Not only was no further damage incurred during the landing but the aircraft itself was repaired and within 10 days was back on the flight schedule. [4] Try doing that in a P-51.

Importantly for a naval fighter the Hellcat was relatively easy to land on a carrier. This was due to the large wing, which allowed it to outturn a Bf-109, and the well-placed cockpit raised up above the fuselage fuel tank. Which explains its much better landing accident record than say the Corsair or Seafire which helpfully had the pilot so far back he was unable to see the ship on finals. As an illustration during Operation ICEBERG II off the island of Sakishima Gun to the carriers of the British Pacific Fleet lost 7% of their original allocation of Hellcats to landing accidents, versus 21% of the Corsairs, and a trifling 70% of the Seafires. [5] It probably helped that Grumman designed the big cat to be literally dropped onto the deck from 20’. General competence at landing may not be the kind of thing that gets the pulse racing, but to be a great fighter it’s useful if you can make more than a handful of sorties before being written off. It’s also worth pointing out that although the similarly engined Corsair is frequently cited as being faster than the Hellcat by around 20 knots when Grumman were loaned one of Vought’s aircraft to study this turned-out not to be the case. Test pilot Corky Meyer flew multiple runs in formation with the Corsair, both aircraft using the same engine settings. Above 5000’ they were broadly stabilised against each other and maintained formation. The Corsair however indicated it was going 20 knots faster. After a bit of work on the pitot static system so did the Hellcat. [6]

When it comes to the point of a fighter, shooting down enemy aircraft, the Hellcat was clearly superior to the Corsair with 5223 kills to 2140. Some may claim the Spitfire as the highest-scoring Allied fighter of WW2, but then they built 20000 odd of them in a desperate attempt to stay relevant. In fact, the Hellcat scored 0.42 kills per airframe built while the Spitfire only managed 0.31 less than the oft-forgot Hurricane.

Aircraft Built-Kills Ratio

Hellcats then were more likely to have shot something down, better at surviving damage, better at landing, and more versatile than any other fighter of WW2. At the same time this was all achieved with only two basic Marks all of which were built in one factory. Like all great performers, Grumman also knew to leave them wanting more so as the war drew to a close so did Hellcat production

[1] Aeroplane Database – Grumman F6F Hellcat, Thomas Cleaver, Aeroplane Dec 2021
[2] “When Hellcats Took the Fight to the Luftwaffe.” Historynet – Accessed 2/28/2022. https://www.historynet.com/when-hellcats-took-the-fight-to-the-luftwaffe/
[3] WO 203/4782, Report of Proceedings – Operation Livery, The National Archives, 1945
[4] Wings of Gold, R Adm Feightner, Summer 2005
[5] The Forgotten Fleet, John Winton, 1969
[6] Hellcat vs Corsair, Corky Meyer, Flight Journal, Annual 2020

Bing Chandler is a former Lynx Observer and current Wildcat Air Safety Officer. He has a Red Bubble store riddled with aircraft. It will shortly include a Hellcat once the tricky colouring-in stage is finished.

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