By the last half of the Second World War, most new US fighter designs were much heavier and more complex than earlier fighters. When planning a replacement for their successful F6F Hellcat carrier fighter, however, Grumman chose to built as lightweight a design as possible around the most reliable large radial engine. The result was the F8F Bearcat, which was often called a "hot rod" by its pilots for its fantastic acceleration and climbing ability. It had limited armament and short range, though it was small enough to be put on board escort carriers.
The Bearcat was designed as an interceptor fighter, with emphasis placed on excellent maneuverability, good low-level performance, and a high rate of climb. It used the same engine as its predecessor the Hellcat, but being smaller and 20% lighter, had a 30% better climb rate than the Hellcat. Extremely powerful and incredibly agile - because of its very short dimensions and outstanding power to weight ratio, it was capable of outperforming most of the early jet fighters.
Using the well-proven Pratt & Whitney R-2800 engine, the first prototypes were built in November 1943 and the first Bearcat prototype flew on August 21, 1944. Seven weeks later US Navy ordered 2023 aircraft. After minor modifications, including the addition of a dorsal fin, early production F8F-1s began armament tests and carrier qualification trials in early 1945. By May of 1945, the Bearcat was cleared for operations. This meant that it was a little bit too late for Bearcat to take part in the real air combat since USAAF and US Navy planes ruled in the air over the Pacific and the war in Europe was over.
Two squadrons, VF-18 and VF-19 were equipped with F8F-1s, and training was expedited in order to get the new fighter into service against Japanese suicide attack planes in the Pacific. VF-19 was onboard the carrier USS Langley, enroute across the Pacific, when the war ended on August 16, 1945.
The Bearcat had very few restrictions on its flight operations over its wide speed range. The Bearcat was the first US Navy fighter to feature a full "bubble" canopy, giving excellent all around vision. It was also fitted with so called "Safety Wing Tips", the outer 40 inches of which were designed to break off cleanly in case of the wing being overstressed in a dive or other maneuver. After several incidents where one or both wing tips tore off, this feature was eliminated from later production Bearcats.
Some 2,023 F8F-1s were ordered by the Navy plus some 1,876 F3M-1s (General Motors designation for the F8F-1), but the contract was cut back to 770 Grumman F8F-1s and the General Motors production was cancelled. Additionally 126 F8F-1Bs were produced with new 20-mm guns in place of the wing-guns. Among those were also 15 F8F-1N night fighters with a radar pod under one wing. In 1948 the Bearcat was improved and 293 F8F-2s with 20-mm cannons, taller fin and rudder and other modifications were built. Furthermore, 12 F8F-2Ns (night fighters) and 60 F8F-2Ps (camera equipped) were produced.
Although the Bearcat was devised and developed too late for operational service in WWII, it was used to great effect in combat in French Indo-China by the French Air Force. In 1951 Bearcats took part in the French intervention in Vietnam, where 5 French fighter groups used F8F-1s and F8F-1Bs. The type was also used by Great Britain, Finland and Thailand.
The final production Bearcat was the F8F-2, with a more powerful R-2800-30W engine of 2,250 hp and an automatic variable speed supercharger. The extra power required an extra foot be added to the vertical fin, and F8F-2s carried a heavier armament of four 20mm cannons. The F8F-2P was a photo-reconnaissance version, fitted with up to three cameras in the fuselage. By 1956, the last Bearcats were taken out of service and stored or scrapped, having been replaced by the new age of jets.
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