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Grumman F4F Wildcat

The Grumman F4F Wildcat was a carrier-based fighter built for the U.S. Navy during World War II. The aircraft was the main rival of the Japanese Zero, and though not as fast, it was sturdier and had more powerful weapons. Able to take off from even small aircraft carriers, the Wildcat flew reconnaissance, attacked Japanese subs, and fought against Japanese Zeros in the Pacific as the primary Navy and Marine Corps fighter during the first 18 months of the war.

Grumman F4F-4 Wildcat fighter receiving maintenance at an air base in the U.S., circa 1942-43
Grumman F4F-4 Wildcat fighter receiving maintenance at an air base in the U.S., circa 1942-43.

Today in WW II: 20 Aug 1939 Battle of Khalkhin Gol: Soviet Gen. Zhukov decisively defeats Japanese Imperial Army forces in the Japanese-Soviet border war in Inner Mongolia [20-31 Aug].  More 
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Grumman F4F Wildcat in World War II

The F4F Wildcat served throughout the war, and was the only U.S. Navy or Marine fighter in the Pacific Theater from 1941 to 1942 besides the Brewster F2A Buffalo. The first production model was the F4F-3, completed in February 1940. The name "Wildcat" was officially adopted by the U.S. Navy on 1 October 1941.

As a small, rugged monoplane fighter, the Wildcat could operate from light aircraft carriers. Though slower and less maneuverable than the Japanese Zero, the Wildcat was heavily armored and had self-sealing fuel tanks. In dogfights, it could give as good as it got.

The U.S. Marines used the Wildcat effectively when defending Wake Island in December 1941. The VMF-211 detachment there lost seven Wildcats during Japanese attacks on 8 December, but the other five managed to sink the Japanese destroyer Kisaragi.

The Wildcats in VF-2 and VF-42 onboard the USS Yorktown (CV-10) and USS Lexington (CV-16) respectively led air defense during the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942. The Wildcat also played a key role in the Battle of Midway. Land-based Wildcats performed vital duties during the Guadalcanal Campaign in 1942-43 as well.

With the recovery and analysis of the Akutan Island Zero in the Aleutians in July 1942, American strategists led by U.S. Navy Commander "Jimmy" Thach developed defensive maneuvers for Wildcats working in formation to counter a diving attack by Zeros. Another advantage for the Wildcat was the ZB homing device, which let pilots find their carriers in low visibility, a technology that saved many aviators and aircraft.

The arrival of the faster and more maneuverable F6F Hellcat and F4U Corsair in 1943 in the Pacific Theater led to the Wildcat being reduced to the role of carrier escort and defense. Although Grumman ceased production of the Wildcat in early 1943, General Motors continued manufacturing them for both the U.S. Navy and American allies under the "FM" designation.

The British Royal Navy also adopted the Wildcat, under the designation Martlet. In the Fleet Air Arm of the British Royal Navy, the Wildcat earned its first kill, shooting down a Junkers Ju 88 on 25 December 1940. The British continued using the Wildcat as an escort fighter through the end of the war.

U.S. Navy and Marine Wildcats flew 15,553 combat sorties, of which 14,027 were from aircraft carriers. They destroyed 1,327 enemy aircraft, losing only 191 Wildcats.

Grumman F4F Wildcat Models and Production History

The Wildcat was developed from the Grumman FF biplane. The initial F4F design, designated the F4F-1, was a biplane, far outclassed by the Brewster F2A-1. In response, Grumman completely redesigned the aircraft as a monoplane designated the XF4F-2. But the military chose the Brewster for production, leading Grumman to refine the design into the XF4F-3, improving the wings, tail, and developing a supercharged version of the Pratt & Whitney R-1830 "Twin Wasp" radial engine.

Prototype testing led to Navy orders for a F4F-3 production model. The first was completed in February 1940. The Wildcat retained the landing gear design of the original FF biplane, with tires flush but exposed on the forward fuselage. The F4F-4 was heavier than its predecessor, but had foldable wings that allowed more to be packed into each aircraft carrier. By the Battle of Midway in June 1942, the F4F-4 was in use on all Pacific Fleet carriers.

A total of 7,860 Wildcats were manufactured. Major models are as follows.

Model F4F-3

The initial F4F-3 was a fixed-wing plane, but a version with folding wings flew in April 1941, and entered service in early 1942. The F4F-3 had four machine guns in the wings. A shortage of the two-stage superchargers resulted in the F4F-3A, in which a single-stage supercharger was used in the Pratt & Whitney R-1830-90 radial engine.

Model F4F-3S

Known as the "Wild Catfish," this model was a floatplane for deployment at forward island bases in the Pacific where airfields had yet to be built. The first F4F-3S flew on 28 February 1943, but it was even slower than the F4F-3, limiting its utility against the Japanese Zero. Only one was created, since airfields at forward bases were built remarkably quickly.

Model F4F-4

An improved version of the Wildcat, the F4F-4 had six machine guns and folding wings. The F4F-4 saw the most combat service, including at the Battle of Midway, replacing the F4F-3 in June 1942, at which time only the VMF-221 still used the older Wildcat. But the F4F-4 had reduced firing time per machine gun, making it less popular with pilots. The extra guns and folding-wing mechanisms also increased weight, which reduced performance.

Model FM-1/2

The FM-1/2 were manufactured by General Motors when Grumman shifted its efforts to building the F4U Corsair and F6F Hellcat in early 1943. The FM-1 was an F4F-4 but with only four machine guns and added racks for 250-lb. bombs or six rockets on the wings. The FM-2, introduced in the latter part of 1943, was based on Grumman's XF4F-8 prototype for a Wildcat optimized for operations on small carriers. It had a Wright R-1820-56 engine for greater power, and a taller tail to counter torque.

Model F4F-7

The F4F-7 was a variant of the F4F used for photo reconnaissance. It had its armor and weapons removed and non-folding wings that could hold an extra 555 gallons of fuel. This increased its range to 3,700 miles. A total of 21 were manufactured.

Grumman F4F Wildcat Characteristics

ArmamentFour .50 cal. Browning machine guns
Bomb loadTwo 100-lb. bombs
EngineOne 1,200hp Pratt & Whitney R-1830-86 double-row radial engine
Maximum speed320 mph
Cruising speed275 mph
Range845 mi.
Ceiling39,500 ft.
Span38 ft.
Length28 ft. 9 in.
Height11 ft. 10 in.
Weight5785 lbs.; 7975 lbs. loaded

Note: Characteristics vary slightly with the F4F Wildcat variant, manufacturing site, and date.

Grumman F4F-4 Wildcat fighter (nicknamed Rosenblatt's Reply), on board USS Suwanee (ACV-27), circa late 1942 or early 1943. The plane bears traces of the yellow Operation Torch marking around its national insignia
Grumman F4F-4 Wildcat fighter (nicknamed "Rosenblatt's Reply"), on board USS Suwanee (ACV-27), circa late 1942 or early 1943. The plane bears traces of the yellow Operation Torch marking around its national insignia.

Grumman F4F Wildcat fighter, at Naval Air Station, Anacostia, D.C., wearing flight test markings. Original photograph caption is suspect.  It is dated 21 April 1942, a date not supported by the post-May 1942 style national insignia on this and the other planes present. Caption also identifies the plane as an F4F-4B model. However, the engine cowling seen here is of the type used on the Pratt & Whitney R-1830 powered F4F-3 and F4F-4 models, not that of the Wright R-1820 powered F4F-4B
Grumman F4F Wildcat fighter, at Naval Air Station, Anacostia, D.C., wearing flight test markings. Original photograph caption is suspect. It is dated 21 April 1942, a date not supported by the post-May 1942 style national insignia on this and the other planes present. Caption also identifies the plane as an F4F-4B model. However, the engine cowling seen here is of the type used on the Pratt & Whitney R-1830 powered F4F-3 and F4F-4 models, not that of the Wright R-1820 powered F4F-4B.

Grumman F4F-3 Wildcat fighters, of Fighting Squadron Three (VF-3), in flight near Naval Air Station, Kaneohe, Oahu, Hawaii, 10 April 1942.  The planes are Bureau #3976 (marked F-1), flown by VF-3 Commanding Officer Lt. Commander John S. Thach, and Bureau #3986, flown by Lt. Edward H. 'Butch' O'Hare.  Both of these aircraft were lost while assigned to Fighting Squadron Two (VF-2) with USS Lexington (CV-2), during the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942.  Chicago's main airport is named for Lt. O'Hare.
Grumman F4F-3 Wildcat fighters, of Fighting Squadron Three (VF-3), in flight near Naval Air Station, Kaneohe, Oahu, Hawaii, 10 April 1942. The planes are Bureau # 3976 (marked F-1), flown by VF-3 Commanding Officer Lieutenant Commander John S. Thach, and Bureau # 3986, flown by Lieutenant Edward H. "Butch" O'Hare. Both of these aircraft were lost while assigned to Fighting Squadron Two (VF-2) with USS Lexington (CV-2), during the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942. Chicago's main airport is named for Lt. O'Hare.

Grumman F4F Wildcat fighter in flight, February 1942
Grumman F4F Wildcat fighter in flight, February 1942.

Grumman F4F Wildcat fighters flying in tactical formation of four-plane divisions, comprised of two-plane sections, circa mid-1943. The planes are wearing the red-outlined national insignia briefly employed at that time. The original caption states, in describing that insignia: 'Note the new U.S. insignia, marked by the addition of a white bar, bordered in red, on each side of the star-and-circle. Formerly, the U.S. insignia, the Jap rising sun and the German Cross all appeared as similar small dots to American pilots, when view(ed) at a distance.' The original print is from Rear Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison files
Grumman F4F Wildcat fighters flying in tactical formation of four-plane divisions, comprised of two-plane sections, circa mid-1943. The planes are wearing the red-outlined national insignia briefly employed at that time. The original caption states, in describing that insignia: "Note the new U.S. insignia, marked by the addition of a white bar, bordered in red, on each side of the star-and-circle. Formerly, the U.S. insignia, the Jap rising sun and the German Cross all appeared as similar small dots to American pilots, when view(ed) at a distance." The original print is from Rear Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison files.

Recommended Books about the Grumman F4F Wildcat

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