by Budd Davisson
Okay, so we’ll admit it: just about every successful fighter of WWII was sleeker and sexier than a Hellcat. However, when it comes to fighters, “beauty is in the doing” and the Hellcat could do it. In spades! In terms of what it contributed to victory, it was the uncontested King of the Pacific.
The Hellcat was unique among almost all WWII fighters because it was designed from the beginning to be flown and maintained by teenagers barely out of high school. It was Grumman’s goal that all of their airplanes were to give outstanding performance while allowing a huge margin for error in the hands of 200 hour pilots and recently trained mechanics. This meant that simplicity in both its aerodynamics and mechanical design had to be foremost in the designers’ minds right from the git-go.
Producibility was another goal. It had to go together easily and quickly, which was why the Hellcat looked as if it was assembled by a locomotive manufacturer, with rivet heads sticking out everywhere. But there was an elegance in the way LeRoy Grumman directed his engineers: you apply sophistication only where itís needed. For instance, only the leading edges of the wings were flush riveted, where it had the most effect.
Ineffectual complexity can be seen in comparing the fuselage of the Mustang or Corsair with that of the Hellcat. The Hellcat’s curves are accomplished with a multitude of narrow, flat sheets, much like an armadillo, which can be produced in minutes rather than using stretch-formed compound-curved sheets that take hours of tooling and production time. With its 2,000 horsepower R-2800 Pratt and Whitney engine and huge wing area, the Hellcat was one of the fastest climbing (3,500 feet per minute) airplanes of the war and the wings which helped it climb, also helped it turn. It could fight the Zero on its own terms. More important, it could absorb enormous punishment and still bring its young, probably scared, pilot home.
Incidentally, let’s dispel an aviation legend right here: the F6F Hellcat was NOT designed after a Zero was captured intact during attacks on Aleutian islands early in the war. By that time the prototype was already flying and the primary value of the captured Zero was that it told the Navy and Grumman Aircraft that their basic design assumptions had been dead on the money.
With a down-sloping cowling and high pilot position, the visibility over the nose was superb both in the air and on approach to the carrier. This combined with its excellent slow speed handling and docile stall characteristics to make it one of the easiest airplanes ever designed to land on a carrier. Many airplanes and pilots lived to fight another day because LeRoy Grumman had a firm rule that the airplane should have no vices whatsoever in the carrier environment and should be able to be flown, and fixed, by any one.
When the numbers were tallied up, an incredible 12,000 plus Hellcats were built and they downed more Japanese aircraft than any US fighter in the war with a 19:1 kill ratio. There wasn’t even a close second. Equally as important, it carried huge bomb, rocket and napalm loads down to the deck and proved itself to be the very embodiment of the term “fighter-bomber.” It did it all. It did it well. And it did it while providing as much safety as a combat fighter pilot could reasonably expect from his mount.
King of the Pacific – yeah, that’s the Hellcat.