The old sweats of VF-42 weren’t exactly overjoyed with the armament changes.
Compared to their previous F4F Dash-3’s, the new Grumman F4F-4 Wildcat fighters had a number of drawbacks. Besides the fact that the pilots had been reluctantly assigned to VF‑3, which was being reformed after the Coral Sea battle, Lt Cdr Fenton’s recent subordinates were skeptical about increasing the number of fighter pilots now embarked on board the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown.
The new fighter was to blame for the situation. The F4F-4’s folding wings allowed the mother ship to carry 27 machines instead of the previous 18 non-folding winged F4F-3’s. Smaller ammunition magazines represented another significant disadvantage. The F4F-4’s armament of six machine guns could fire a 22-second salvo, which was a major decrease in performance compared to the 42-second salvo of its predecessor. As if that wasn’t enough, the six half-inch Brownings were synchronized in quite an unusual fashion. Their salvos converged in pairs at distances of 800, 1000 and 1200 feet. This type of scattered fire covered a wide area but at the same time made it impossible to focus on a chosen target. “Felix the Cat’s” pilots had other reservations about Grumman’s product as well. One of the pilots casting a critical eye over the latest Wildcat was Lt(jg) Elbert McCuskey. An aviation enthusiast since childhood, he had quickly found his way from his hometown of Stuttgart (Arkansas) to naval flying school, where he was in his element. Time passed very quickly until the beginning of the war. He and his Wildcat, numbered black “F-2”, were in action from the very first days. By May 1942 McCuskey had tallied a Japanese H6K flying boat and an A6M fighter. Now battle with the shipborne forces of Nagumo’s Midway invasion fleet was imminent.
The carriers USS Yorktown, Enterprise and Hornet lay in wait for the enemy flattops in the heavy swell of the mid-Pacific north-east of Midway. On 4 June news of the opening skirmishes did not suggest that McCuskey’s flight would encounter the enemy soon. At least, not during the initial operations over the Japanese fleet. After waiting for many hours the pilots were chosen for a cover patrol over their own ships. Bored VF-3 pilots clambered up into their Wildcats’ cockpits. It was almost noon. Suddenly the fighter controller’s voice resonated in the earphones: “Radar reports many bandits. They’re coming straight at us. Distance: 35 miles”.
The twelve F4Fs scrambled aloft in record time and powered up into the sky. Clawing up to the attackers’ altitude in accordance with the controller’s instructions, they struggled to take up position between the approaching enemy and Yorktown’s port side. There was no time to circle and throttles were against the stops. The Wildcats’ loose formation was led by Lts Barnes and Woollen. McCuskey and his wingman Gibbs, both trailing a little way back, were climbing even faster. The other machines lagged behind. There was still quite a distance separating them from their planned altitude. Meanwhile enemy planes were emerging out of the mists in front of them. Eighteen D3A dive bombers flying in threes at much higher altitude. The leading couple of Wildcats desperately pulled up their noses in an attempt to cut across the path of the incoming Japanese.
Salvos from twelve machine guns fired by Woollen and Barnes sprayed the air around the Vals. Unscathed, the bombers pressed on. They were only eight miles from the aircraft carrier. McCuskey and his wingman now closed on an interception heading. Disregarding the enemy gunners’ fire, McCuskey bore in on his first victim, opening fire on the run, closing rapidly, until he was literally meters away from the bullet-shredded enemy machine. It tipped over into a terminal dive, plummeting into the waves. The F4F reduced its speed and began to fish-tail, snapping off more salvos that ripped into the formation of tightly packed dive bombers. Three planes in the middle soon began to show signs of damage from this attack. McCuskey kept up his fire, hammering out short bursts, more precise, from close range. Years later, when recalling this action, the pilot stated that he wasn’t even using his gun sight. The distance was too short. His bursts of fire accounted for several machines and more importantly perhaps broke the Japanese fighting elan. They realized that if they failed to react quickly, they were likely to be wiped out. Their formation broke up, the bombers scattering across the sky. VF-3’s fighters hurtled after them, squeezing out constant salvoes of hot lead. The F4F-4s’ magazines were soon emptied. Even though they received radar warnings about a second wave of the Japanese raid, the vulnerable Wildcats (although they had only been in the air for 15 minutes) had to land to replenish their munitions. Lt(jg) McCuskey brought home a triple victory to Yorktown, achieving Wildcat ace status in the process. He would carry out subsequent missions accompanied by colleagues from VF-6, based on USS Enterprise. Still flying the same F4F-4 BuNo5153, McCuskey would claim two more Zeros before dusk.
The 27-year old pilot would be decorated with the Navy Cross for his valor in defending (though in vain) his mother ship. Lt Cdr Elbert McCuskey ended the war as a recipient of 15 decorations. A winner of 14 aerial combats, he retired from the US Navy in 1965.
Origins, Design and Development
The mid-thirties was the zenith of the biplane era and it was a biplane type that the Grumman Aircraft Corporation entered into the competition for a naval fighter announced in August 1935 by the Bureau of Aeronautics. The corporation had much experience as it had previously delivered several types of fighters to the US Navy.
G-16’s design was approved by the Bureau of Aeronautics and on 2 March 1936 Grumman signed a contract for the construction of a prototype designated XF4F-1. The biplane’s imminent obsolescence was confirmed by the winning design preferred by the US Navy, a Brewster monoplane (B-39). Company owner, Leroy R. Grumman, ordered the design to be re-worked into a mid-wing monoplane configuration as soon as he heard the news. The Bureau of Aeronautics agreed to annul the contract for the XF4F-1 and on 28 July signed contract no. 46973 for monoplane XF4F-2, which received a serial number BuNo0383. In the production plant it was designated G-18.
William T. Schwendler’s construction team decided to use a 14-cylinder Pratt & Whitney R‑1830-66 Twin Wasp radial engine developing 1050 hp take-off power, with a single-stage, single-speed supercharger. In order to speed up the work on the prototype construction, as many details as possible were taken from XF4F-1’s design; from the similar thick belly fuselage outline to the retractable undercarriage patented by Grumman, retracting into the lower forward fuselage. The barrel-shaped fighter was of similar dimensions to the Brewster design and featured a mid-wing. The cockpit was relocated forwards and two small windows were inserted on each side of the lower part of the fuselage to improve visibility. Armament included two or four half-inch caliber Colt-Browning machine guns. Two of them could be mounted over the engine and two in the wings.
The prototype was test-flown by Robert L. Hall from an airfield adjacent to the production plant in Bethpage on 2 September 1937. In the event the plane was somewhat lacking in agility, had an inefficient engine and unsatisfactory longitudinal stability. Nevertheless the construction was considered a success and despite engine problems the XF4F-2 was delivered on 23 December to NAS Anacostia where it underwent fly-off trials against the Brewster XF2A-1 and Seversky XNF-1. Even though Grumman’s fighter proved to be the fastest of the three, its power-plant was the undoing of the prototype. On 11 April 1938 during tests in NAF Philadelphia the engine suddenly seized and the resulting forced landing saw the machine cartwheel onto its back. The pilot, Lt Gurney from the US Navy, was not badly hurt. The incident set the members of the qualifying committee against the XF4F-2 prototype and the US Navy signed up with the Brewster.
However Roy Grumman had no intention of letting the matter rest there. After frequent visits to the Bureau of Aeronautics he was given a “last chance” list of necessary improvements. This meant a thorough re-design of the prototype. The Bureau officials liked the new design and in October Grumman signed a production contract for the modified prototype, designated XF4F-3.
The modifications were major. The wingspan was increased from 10,36 to 11,58 m and the wingtips, previously rounded, were given a rectangular outline. A Curtiss Electric adjustable-pitch airscrew was used in place of a two-pitch Hamilton Standard, while the engine was a prototype Pratt & Whitney XR-1830-76 Twin Wasp capable of 1200 hp and equipped with a double-speed, double-stage supercharger. The engine cowl had to be lengthened. The armament was also modified with provision for the mounting of two 0.5in caliber guns over the engine and in the wings.
The XF4F-3 prototype was test-flown by Robert L. Hall on February 12th, 1939. A series of test flights showed that the prototype engine had a tendency to overheat. Nonetheless on 7 March the plane was flown to NAS Anacostia for trials.
Two months of testing revealed problems with directional stability and maneuverability. The XF4F-3 was returned to the manufacturer for the necessary modifications. These included raising the location point of the tail plane where it was mounted to the lower part of the fin and increasing its surface. The wings’ dihedral was slightly raised and the ailerons’ surface was decreased. Moving the antenna mast to the top of the fuselage was a less significant change.
At the end of May the modified XF4F-3 (G‑36) was flown at NAF Philadelphia, were it achieved speeds of 537 kph at an altitude of 6250 m. Its steering properties had greatly improved. Although the engine still had a tendency to overheat and the problems with directional stability were mostly unsolved, another three planes (now designated F4F-3) were ordered in August. After testing the XF4F-3 in NACA’s wind tunnel at Langley Field (Virginia) a dorsal fin extension was added in front of the tail fin and the tail plane’s span was increased. At the same time attempts were made to solve engine problems by increasing the airflow. In the end an intercooler and a pressurized fuel system were introduced which put an end to the malfunctions.
Series and Variants
The changes were made very quickly and mass production launched even before a contract had been signed with Bureau of Aeronautics, which proved to be an overly hasty move. When on 8 August 1939 the contract was finally signed for 54 Grumman F4F-3’s2 the Navy requested the removal of the 7,62 mm machine guns from the fuselage and wanted not one but two 0.50in caliber Colt-Browning M2 guns in each wing. The undercarriage was also to be reinforced and armor plating installed in the cockpit. The two lower windows were to be replaced with one. The changes in armament required reconstruction of the wings and moving the inflatable floats outwards. The construction of the first two planes was already too advanced to make these changes possible. They were both finished according to the original design giving the US Navy two fighters it had not ordered.
G-36A. Meanwhile a buyer was found for the still unfinished F4Fs in the form of a French purchasing committee, authorized to buy everything they could lay their hands on in the US. Unsurprisingly they were interested in a fighter plane with lots of development potential. All told, 81 planes were ordered, designated G-36A for the French.
The visitors from Paris didn’t want to take any risks with the engines, which still required some fine-tuning and requested Wright GR-1820-G205A Cyclones. This was a 9-cylinder radial engine with a single-stage, double-speed supercharger,
rated at 1200 hp. The propeller was a triple-blade Hamilton Standard. The armament would consist of six French 7,5 mm Darne machine guns, two over the engine and four in the wings; installed in France. The planes would also have French Radio-Industrie 537 radio stations and OPL 38 telescopic gun sights. The first G-36A flew on 11 May 1940 – the day after the German invasion of France. Only seven planes were built before France’s defeat. The French order was then taken over by the British, who needed planes to defend the Isles.
Representatives of the British Navy also noticed Grumman’s fighter very early in 1940 and ordered 100 machines, powered by Pratt&Whitney S3C4-G engines (1200 hp) and Hamilton Standard propellers, now designated G-36B. Planes intended for the FAA – including the ex-French machines – were only supposed to have four half-inch guns mounted into the wings. The direction of throttle operation also had to be reversed from the French standard – to increase engine power the throttle was moved forward, while in French planes it was pulled back.
It might seem strange that the Americans were so keen to give away their latest fighter types to other countries. The reason for this was very simple. Representatives of the Bureau of Aeronautics counted on all the faults of the new design being eliminated at Grumman’s expense and thought that this attitude would force the constructor to make all the necessary improvements as soon as possible. Aircraft taken over from the French contract were named Grumman Martlet Mk.I and had serial numbers between AX824-829, AL236-262, BJ507-527 and BJ554-570. The first seven “French” machines were given numbers: AX 753, 754 and AL231-235. Nobody worried about such insignificant details as the American neutrality pact. The planes flew to Canada, where they were disassembled and shipped to Scottish Aviation workshops in Prestwick and Blackburn Aircraft Ltd workshops in Brough. They were then re-assembled, equipped with British radio sets, oxygen systems, telescopes, and batteries, and after test flights were delivered to combat units. The British received a total of 70 Martlet Mk.Is. Ten other planes (BT447-456) went to the bottom of the Atlantic along with the freighter SS “Ruperra”, sunk by U-46 on October 10th 1940, 500 miles to the north-west of Ireland.
F4F-3. Meanwhile the first mass produced F4F-3 (BuNo 1844) was test-flown in February 1940 with a Pratt & Whitney R-1830-76 engine (1200 hp). The first production examples were thoroughly flight tested at NAS Anacostia as well as at the Pratt & Whitney plant. Two planes built according to the requests of the Bureau of Aeronautics also participated. The fifth and sixth machines already had a reinforced undercarriage and an armored cockpit. The trials continued despite a tragic incident – on 17 December the XF4F-3 prototype crashed and its pilot, Lt(jg) W. C. Johnson was killed in the accident. He had accidentally cut off the fuel instead of lowering the flaps because the switches were adjacent to one another. After the accident they were moved further apart. At first the standard version had neither self-sealing fuel tanks nor cockpit armor.
The tests ended in January 1941. The plane, armed with four half-inch guns, was considered fit to serve on aircraft carriers but still needed modifications. The problems that needed attention included a slight longitudinal instability, along with vibrations in the canopy. In addition there were concerns over the cartridge feeders’ faulty power supply during gravity overload, bad cockpit ventilation that let in too many exhaust fumes; inadequate rear fuselage ventilation which didn’t eliminate the liquefaction of fuel along with a weak tail wheel.
The maximum speed of 533 kph was a little disappointing, as it was 30 kph less than expected. However the service ceiling of 11 300 meters and the take-off run of only 60 meters, particularly useful for a shipborne type, both made quite an impression.
On 5 December 1940 the first F4F-3 joined carrier squadron VF-4 on the USS Ranger. Soon afterwards F4F-3’s were also in service with VF-7 on the USS Wasp. Deliveries were so sluggish that by mid-January 1941 the US Navy had only received 22 planes.
Like any new design, Grumman’s fighter had its share of teething problems. The first flights of the F4F-3 revealed new headaches. Besides the double-stage supercharger, the most dangerous complications were two cases of wing floats inflating of their own accord. Ens. Harry Howell died in one of these accidents. Lt. Seymour Johnson was killed when his oxygen system malfunctioned. Another unexpected problem arose when a cockpit canopy glazing pane shattered during a dive. The pilot of the F4F-3, Ens. Wally Malden was wounded in the face. All of the side glazing was instantly replaced and by 28 May 1941 the inflatable floats were removed. Two months earlier a directive was issued that all F4F-3’s be equipped with gun cameras.
F4F-3s were produced until 1943. Beginning with the 101st plane, they were given an improved Pratt & Whitney R-1830-86 engines (1200 hp) with a double-stage, double-speed supercharger.
Martlet Mk.II. Meanwhile, another serious problem came up. The British had ordered 100 G-36B planes but during the completion of the contract they changed their order requesting folding wings and two additional 12.7 mm machine guns. Due to the fact that the hangars on British aircraft carriers had lower ceilings, it was decided that a manual mechanism would be used for folding the wings backwards while simultaneously turning the wings’ leading edge downwards. The pitot tube was moved from the right wing leading edge under the wing.
Talks with the British lasted so long that when a consensus was reached the construction of the first ten Martlets Mk.II was too advanced to equip them with folding wings. Yet in March 1941 the FAA took delivery of these aircraft and allocated them serials AM954-963 and the unofficial name “non-standard Martlet Mk.II”. They were still armed with four half-inch guns, while the remaining 90 planes – with folding wings – were armed with six machine guns. All were powered by Pratt & Whitney S3C4-G engines fitted with a single-stage, double-speed supercharger and a Curtiss Electric propeller. The last machines were delivered in April 1942.
F4F-3A. Buyers from abroad were interested in a version with the GR-1820-G205A engine, which induced the US Navy to try it out at home. In April 1940 they were fitted in BuNo 1846 and 1847, designated XF4F-5. They only achieved 492 kph, which did not impress the commission. The planes were later tested with a Wright R-1820-54 engine with a turbo supercharger (BuNo 1846) and with a Wright XR-1820-48 engine with a double-stage supercharger (BuNo 1847).
Subsequent tests with various engines were carried out on a XF4F-6 (BuNo 7031), which was equipped with a Pratt & Whitney R-1830-90 Twin Wasp engine rated at 1200 hp with a double-speed single-stage supercharger. Tested in the fall of 1940, the prototype achieved a speed of 513 kph but proved more reliable than its predecessor. The US Navy signed a contract for 95 F4F-3A’s, deliveries commencing in March, 1941. By the end of the following year the contract size rose to an astonishing number of 578 F4F-3s and F4F-3As.
Meanwhile Greece, fighting the Italian army, sent a purchasing commision to the USA with the intention of obtaining fighter aircraft. They immediately bought 30 F4F-3As (BuNo 3875-3904) which were dispatched to Athens by sea in March 1941. Before the planes reached their destination Greece was attacked by the Germans, which made the delivery impossible. Ownerless, they were taken to Gibraltar by the British, who named them Martlet Mk.III and later gave them serial numbers, probably from the AX group.
The remaining F4F-3As were handed over to the US Navy, which quickly field-modified them. Starting in September 1941 the cockpits had built in armor, as in the F4F-3 version. Following the outbreak of war other modifications were incorporated. Self-sealing fuel tanks, additional cockpit armor, machine gun breech heating mechanism. The telescopic gun sights were replaced with N2A reflex sights. The last planes were built by Grumman in June, 1943.
G-53. In the spring of 1942 one F4F-3 (BuNo 5262) was equipped with duplex flaps along the span of the wing. The destruction of the prototype (designated G-53) in an accident put an end to the project.
F4F-3P. The war in the vast expanses of the western Pacific revealed a need for a fast reconnaissance plane. It was only natural in field conditions to adapt the Wildcat for this purpose – the new plane was designated F4F-3P. The only modification was a photo camera with a focal length of 30 inches (762 mm) mounted at the bottom of the fuselage on the right (behind the cockpit). The lens was covered with a metal flap opened by the pilot with a small lever. It is not known with certainty how many planes were modified in this way, but there were at least ten, numbered BuNo: 1849, 1852, 1856, 1865, 1867, 1870, 1871, 1875, 1880 and 1894.
F4F-3S. In mid-1942 the Americans received an unpleasant surprise during the fighting for Guadalcanal, the Japanese Imperial Navy having modified its impressive Mitsubishi “Zero” fighter into the A6M2-N “Rufe” seaplane. The Americans never openly admitted it, but perhaps envied the Japanese their idea, while fearing that fighter operations might be hampered while airfields were being constructed. They elected to try it on their standard naval fighter – the F4F‑3 Wildcat.
The Edo Aircraft Corporation, based on Long Island, was an ideal contractor for such modifications as it had extensive experience in float construction. In early October 1942 they received one F4F-3 (BuNo 4038). The new design was designated
F4F-3S and given the unofficial name Wildcatfish. Initial studies suggested that the Wildcat required two floats – not one, as was the case of the “Rufe”. The undercarriage was removed, the wells covered with metal sheets and small stabilizing fins were mounted near the tips of the tailplane. The plane was test-flown on February 28th, 1943 by Frank Kurt. A week later NAS Anacostia received the prototype. During tests the pilots complained about directional stability, so a stabilizing fin was added under the tail (similar to that fitted to the A6M2-N, although larger).
The aircraft proved to be very slow (388 kph), but the Bureau of Aeronautics nevertheless planned to construct 100 F4F-3S’s from the cancelled F4F-7 series. In the end the program was abandoned as American construction battalions proved up to the task of building airfields on captured islands in double-quick time. The planes, which were already in various stages of construction, were converted back to F4F‑3 standard and sent to training units.
F4F-4. The policy of the Bureau of Aeronautics to ensure improvements to Grumman’s fighter were at the manufacturers cost, began to work with the Martlet Mk.II. In a document form March 1941 the US Navy also requested two additional machine guns and folding wings, with the wing fold operated by a hydraulic mechanism instead of manually.
The XF4F-4 prototype was the last plane of the F4F-3 series (BuNo 1897) with a Pratt & Whitney R-1830-86 engine, equipped with six machine guns in the wings and an Mk.8 telescopic gun sight. It was first test-flown on 15 March 1941. At the beginning of the following month it was sent to a few combat units for operational testing.
Strangely, the pilots were not happy with the increased firepower. The plane’s weight had increased, impacting on maneuverability and climbing speed. Ammunition was limited from 1800 (in the F4F-3) to 1440 rounds. All further deliberations were cut short by the outbreak of the Pacific War. It was decided that the plane would be ready for service after replacing the heavy hydraulic folding mechanism with a much lighter “British” one, i.e. a manual one. The engine casing was also slightly altered by re-positioning the carburetor air intake.
The US Navy’s acceptance of the F4F-4 version for mass production was greeted with great enthusiasm at the Grumman plant. Americans were determined to avenge Pearl Harbor with even the humble factory worker spurred to great efforts of production. Soon almost 200 aircraft/month were rolling off the lines. The first of 1168 of the new version were completed on 7 November 1941 but it wasn’t until late May the following year that F4F-4’s began to arrive at combat units in numbers.
The problem of unwanted additional armament was solved. Due to frequent reports from combat units the Bureau of Aeronautics ordered that the armament be reduced in the field to four half-inch machine guns with a supply of 450 rounds per barrel.
Another creative innovation was the brainchild of pilots of the Guadalcanal-based VF-6, who slung auxiliary 159-liter fuel tanks under their F4F-3s and F4F-4s. At a request from the Bureau of Aeronautics, Grumman designed a mechanism for two jettisonable fuel tanks (220 liters each), attached under the fixed part of the wings. They were used then in theFM-2s.
F4F-4A. A variant with a Pratt & Whitney R‑1830-90 engine and folding wings which was never proceeded with.
F4F-4B. The next order placed by the British was designated F4F-4B. It had a single row, nine-cylinder Wright R-1820-40B radial engine rated at 1200 hp; a double-speed, single-stage supercharger and an uncuffed Hamilton Standard propeller. It was easily distinguishable by its narrower dimensions, slightly bigger diameter, absence of a supercharger air intake, and a single, wider cooling flap on the engine cover. A total of 220 F4F-4B’s were constructed – in Britain they were known as the Grumman Martlet Mk.IV.
F4F-4P. A reconnaissance version similarly equipped to F4F-3P but with folding wings. Only a few were constructed.
XF4F-5. The third and fourth serially produced F4F-3’s (BuNo 1846 and 1847) were equipped with GR-1820-G205A (R-1820-40) engines and designated XF4F-5. Their maximum speed of 492 kph proved inadequate. Later the planes were tested with a Wright R-1820-54 engine with a turbo supercharger (BuNo 1846) and a Wright XR-1820-48 engine with a double-stage supercharger (BuNo 1847).
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