Among naval aircraft, the WWII F6F Hellcat achieved a fighter record that remains unsurpassed: it was the fighter flown by Naval Aviators when credited with downing 5,155 enemy aircraft - by far the largest number credited to pilots flying any Navy fighter.
The F6F was a low-wing monoplane with wing-mounted, rearward-retracting landing gear. The cockpit was above the main fuel tank which placed the canopy high on the fuselage. Downthrust of three degrees for the engine and propeller improved the forward visibility. While many details changed as improvements were made, the configuration changed very little for all the production Hellcats overall.
The first flight of the F6F Hellcat, more specifically the XF6F-1 version, took place on June 26, 1942. Six weeks later, it was joined by the XF6F-3. The first production F6F-3 flew in September. With 10 delivered by the end of the year, production increased rapidly in 1943, as Navy fighter squadrons were introduced to the Navy's newest fighter, and development testing continued.
Changes dictated by tests and squadron experience were introduced into the production line as output climbed through 1943. In August of the same year, VF-5 and VF-9 pilots flew their Hellcats into combat for the first time and rapid transition of all Pacific CV fighter squadrons followed. Advances in radar led to two radar-equipped versions. Those with AIA/APS-6 airborne intercept radar in a nacelle, well outboard on the starboard wing, became F6F-3Ns, while others were -3Es with ASH/APS-4 search/attack radar in a "bomb unit" carried on a mid-span starboard wing rack. The British Royal Navy's Fleet Air Arm also received F6F-3s as Hellcat is for operations from their carriers.
Provisions for water injection to increase combat power were added in late 1943, as production -10W engines fitted for it became available. Wing stub racks were added for bombs, or for additional fuel tanks, to supplement the single centerline belly tank that had become a standard operational feature.
Along with the Hellcats' principal role as day fighters and their growing night fighter use, both -3s and -5s were converted for photographic missions to -3Ps and -5Ps. They retained their wing gun armament.
Following the August VJ day terminations, a small group of nearly completed Hellcats were finished up in October and November, 1945, to bring production to a close. With the two X prototypes, a total of 12,275 Hellcats were built. Unlike most WWII fighters, except for the two Xs and the first few production airplanes, all were rolled out of one plant - the largest number of a single model of fighter ever built in one factory.
Hellcats became mainstays of fighter squadrons in the postwar Naval Reserve. Already widely used for advanced training, they took over the tactical training role in the training command. The -5Ks expanded their target role and explored potential assault drone operations, used by research and development and fleet organizations, as the missile age dawned.
In may, 1961, the last flying Navy Hellcat made its final drone flight at Point Mugu, California.
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