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 the meeting, Lieutenant Commander Jimmie Thach emphasized one of the most important requirements in a good fighter plane was "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 fighting 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 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 sacrificed.
Compared to 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 Aeroproducts 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 when lowered; 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 from the initial version of an all-new airframe design for a production U.S. Navy fighter, a bubble canopy offered 360° visibility.
The target loaded weight of 8,750 lb/3,969 kg 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 included restricting the internal fuel capacity to 160 gal (606 l) (later 183) and limiting the fixed armament to four .50 calBrowning 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, but 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).
On 25 August 1946, the Blue Angels transitioned to the Grumman F8F-1 Bearcat and introduced the famous "diamond" formation.
A fully restored Bearcat in Blue Angels colors; seen at EAA AirVenture 2011
The F8F prototypes were ordered in November 1943 and first flew on 21 August 1944, a mere nine months later.[Note 1] 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.[Note 2]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.
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).[Note 3]
Two civil aircraft. The first was owned by the Gulf Oil Company for the use of Major Alford Williams, the second one was used by Grumman as a demonstrator aircraft.
Prototype aircraft, two built.
Single-seat fighter aircraft, equipped with folding wings, a retractable tailwheel, self-sealing fuel tanks, a very small dorsal fin, powered by a 2,100 hp (1,566 kW) Pratt & Whitney R-2800-34W Double Wasp radial piston engine, armed with four 0.50 in (12.7 mm) machine guns, 658 built.
Single-seat fighter version, armed with four AN/M3 20 mm cannons, 100 built.
Originally designated F8F-1C, redesignated as F8F-1B, 126 built.
F8F-1s converted into drone control aircraft.
Unofficial designation for export version for France and Thailand.
^Grumman's project pilot for the Bearcat series was noted test pilot Corwin F. "Corky" Meyer.
^Neil Armstrong had flown the type in 1950 during his navy advanced training, field qualifying in it at age 19. After his retirement as test pilot and astronaut, an interviewer asked him what was his favorite aircraft to fly. His immediate and unequivocal answer was "The Bearcat".
^Note that Shelton's claim to be the "fastest propeller-driven aircraft in the world" does not acknowledge faster turboprop aircraft such as the Russian Tupolev Tu-95 "Bear" bomber. Other sources credit "Rare Bear" as the fastest "piston-driven" aircraft.