The F8F Bearcat was the last of a WWII family tree of Grumman carrier-based fighters which started with the Wildcat and led to the Hellcat. It was the fastest carrier-based plane of WWII, the fastest naval piston-powered fighter of the war, and one of the fastest propeller-driven planes of any type of all time.
The Bearcat barely entered service during WWII. Only one US Navy squadron, VF-19 aboard USS Langley (CVL-27), was fully operational with the type, beginning in July 1945, and it encountered no combat before Japan surrendered. The F8F was already on it’s way out of American service by the time the Korean War started and saw no combat there either. However the Bearcat did have a very long and successful career with other countries after WWII.
F8F Bearcat characteristics
The F8F Bearcat started off as a side project of Grumman engineer Bill Schwendler. In May 1943, he envisioned what a “super” version of the F6F Hellcat would look like, if all cost concerns were cast aside to make the absolutely fastest, most maneuverable fighter imaginable. Mr. Schwendler had a reputation as a man who delivered on his promises, and the US Navy immediately ordered the plane (then still designated Project G-58) sight-unseen that year. The prototype first flew in August 1944.
(Grumman’s two “too-late ‘Cats”: the F8F Bearcat, which barely entered service in WWII but saw no combat, and the F7F Tigercat which barely missed WWII but was used during the Korean War. Both of these planes were excellent fighters which arrived just a bit too late.)
The F8F Bearcat was powered by a mighty Pratt & Whitney R-2800-34W Double Wasp engine, and had a top speed of 370kts at sea level and 405kts clean at high altitude, with a clean (no drop tanks) range of 960 NM. It had a wingspan of 35’6″ and weighed 7,320 lbs empty. Ceiling was 38,700′.
Initially four machine guns were fitted; some (see below) later used 20mm guns. The centreline pylon could accept a 150-gallon fuel drop tank, and two 100-gallon drop tanks could be carried on the wing pylons. The two wing pylons could instead carry M64 (500lb) or M65 (1,000lb) bombs, and finally there were four mounts for HVAR Holy Moses unguided rockets.
A curious feature was the wingtips. The high horsepower of the Double Wasp, combined with the airframe’s extreme maneuverability, could result in stresses of up to +9 G which would destroy the wing’s internal spars. The Grumman team designed the Bearcat so that extreme G forces would be “shipped’ to the tips of the wings, which had a shear joint and would snap off, enabling the plane to continue flying. If only one snapped off, it would throw the plane out of control so little pyrotechnic charges were installed for the pilot to manually blow off the other. The snap-off wingtips were a hassle to maintain and little-used in actual operations, and were not repeated on later US Navy fighters.
A total of 1,134 of the basic version with four M2 Browning .50cal machine guns were built. After the kamikaze attacks picked up in 1945, the US Navy was concerned that the stopping power would not be enough so another 226 were built (F8F-1B) with four M2 20mm guns instead of the Brownings.
A small (27) number of F8F-1N and -2N night fighters were made; these had a AN/APS-19 radar in an underwing pod but were otherwise identical to the regular versions. The night fighters were restricted to American use and not exported.
A total of 60 reconnaissance F8F-2P Bearcats were made; these had two of the four 20mm guns replaced by camera racks but were otherwise identical. In the interim between WWII and the Korean War, the fast reconnaissance Bearcats were very popular with the US Navy as it began to keep tabs on the Soviet Union. The last F8F-2P was withdrawn in 1952.
Post-WWII American service
The end of WWII resulted in orders for the Bearcat being drastically reduced. None the less, it was the US Navy’s premiere carrier-based fighter in the 1945-1950 interlude before the start of the Korean War. The last rolled off Grumman’s assembly line in May 1949. A total of 24 US Navy and US Marine Corps units flew the Bearcat at one point or another after WWII.
Because of the plane’s speed and maneuverability, the US Navy hoped it might remain competitive in the postwar world. However in 1946, a mock battle between US Navy F8F Bearcats and US Army P-80 Shooting Stars showed that propeller-driven naval fighters, already weighed down by things like arrestor hooks and wing hinges, simply were not going to be superior to land-based jets.
When the Korean War started in 1950, it was decided not to use the Bearcat there. Before MiG-15 jets entered combat there, the air opposition was minimal and compared to the F4U Corsair, the F8F Bearcat was judged an inferior ground attack plane.
In other areas of the world, the Bearcat remained in frontline use through 1951, when it was progressively retired or used in secondary roles. The naval reserve fighter squadron NARW-86 out of Norfolk, VA operated Bearcats until 1953. One of the last squadrons was the ordnance test unit VU-4 out of Naval Air Station Chincoteague, VA; which operated Bearcats as drone controllers. These planes, with bright yellow wings, radio-controlled surplus WWII aircraft (sometimes other Bearcats) as anti-aircraft targets. VU-4 flew the Bearcat in this role from 1951-1954.
The French air force (Armee de l’Air) ordered 200 Bearcats in 1951. There was no intention of using the Bearcat for defense of the French homeland, rather, these planes were to be strictly for use in French colonies, specifically Indochina which was in the middle of it’s war.
France intended for the Bearcat to be a land-based, low-altitude strike plane. This is not really the role it was designed for, and the French reasoning can be summed up in one word: cost. The French wanted to fight the Indochina War as cheaply as possible and the USA offered bargain-basement pricing on the Hellcats.
Although it was to be used out of it’s intended element, the Bearcat did have a few advantages. Because it was designed for carrier use, it did not need long runways and actually was often flown out of grass airstrips, some built by the Japanese during WWII. Another advantage was it’s speed, as it could respond to air support requests very fast.
(A pair of French Bearcats make a high-speed, low-altitude pass over Xieng Khouang, Indochina.)
Six French fighter squadrons (“Groupes de Chasse”) flew the Bearcat in Indochina. They were based all over the colony, notable installations were Tan Son Nhut near Saigon in the south, Cat Bi near Haiphong in the colony’s north, Hue in the central region, and Vientiane in what is today Laos.
The French encountered some problems with the Bearcat in Indochina. The US Navy-standard tires were only intended for carrier decks or paved runways and blew out on the rough airstrips. Likewise, it was never envisioned that the Bearcat would take off in muddy conditions and the Twin Wasp engine tended to ingest dirt and grass. When Grumman designed the plane, they planned for high-speed, high-altitude use over the ocean, and at low altitude in the tropical heat, the cockpits sometimes exceeded 115°F.
(Senegalese groundcrew assist in making ready Bearcats of the Artois squadron in Indochina during 1953. The Indochina War was one of the last examples of France’s unfortunate history of drafting soldiers from one colony to put down a rebellion in another. These Bearcats are armed with napalm bombs, and their apron is coated with steel matting which was preferable to bare dirt.)
Along with the planes, France purchased the Bearcat’s standard weapons: HVAR rockets and M65 1,000 lb bombs. These WWII-era weapons, especially the HVARs, were very effective, as was strafing runs with the 20mm guns.
The French also used napalm extensively with the Bearcat in Indochina, and by 1952 this was the standard weapon. The French napalm bombs had no fins, so that they would tumble around in the air and impact in a cartwheel, throwing ignited napalm in a wide area. The tumbling also slowed the falling weapon giving the Bearcat added time to escape the napalm.
Other weapons were adapted as well. Sometimes WWII-era American DGP-1 twin .50cal machine gun pods were carried on the bomb pylons; this made for quite a strafing run with eight guns of two different calibers all firing at once. A similar tactic was to carry four 5-bomb splitter racks for WWII-era M50A1 small anti-personnel bombs.
A less successful experiment was adapting the US Navy-standard pylons to drop French-made No.1 440lb bombs. These weapons had been manufactured during the 1930s and sat in storage during WWII. They were unsuitable for fast jets and by the 1950s, France was looking to get some use out of them. Some of the exploder rods had gone bad with time resulting in duds, and in one instance, the makeshift pylon adaptation slammed the bomb against the Bearcat in flight, destroying the plane.
Generally speaking, the Bearcat was an effective strike plane in Indochina. However (not surprisingly), it had a high loss rate. Fifty of the French F8Fs were lost. None were shot down in air-to-air combat, and at least a fifth of the losses were due to accidents or crashes. Many of the losses were write-offs of planes heavily damaged by ground fire which barely managed to return to base. Six Bearcats were destroyed on the ground by artillery during the 1954 defeat at Dien Bien Phu.
(Five F8F Bearcats over the besieged French Foreign Legion base at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Many of the French Bearcat pilots had previously flown dive bombers, and chose to retain the “rolling peel” attack formation as seen here.)
The May 1954 battle at Dien Bien Phu was the last notable engagement that French Bearcats participated in. The F8F was withdrawn from French use in 1955.
South Vietnamese service
In 1954, the French transferred about 70 surviving F8F Bearcats (in various damage conditions) to the then-new VNAF (South Vietnamese air force), From these, 28 operational planes were fielded as the VNAF’s 1st Fighter Squadron.
(A South Vietnamese Bearcat in the late 1950s / early 1960s, showing the four types of napalm bombs then in use along with the WWII-vintage HVAR Holy Moses rockets which were still very much in service.)
Despite the fighter designation, the squadron was almost completely dedicated to ground attack missions, just as the departed French had used the F8F. The unit was headquartered at Tan Sun Nhut but deployed Bearcats all over South Vietnam.
(A South Vietnamese Bearcat with a LAU-9 rocket pod carried on the bomb pylon. This launcher fired unguided air-to-surface rockets and was more commonly associated with later types such as the A-1 Skyraider and A-37 Dragonfly. The South Vietnamese roundel was nearly identical to the American “star-‘n-bar” but used red and yellow.)
By the end of the 1950s, the F8Fs were worn-out and their career in South Vietnam was not long. In 1960, South Vietnam began phasing out the Bearcat. The 1st Fighter Squadron re-equipped with A-1 Skyraiders in 1961, which would be a much more useful type against the Viet Cong.
(After the F8F Bearcat had been retired from South Vietnamese use, one was preserved as a monument on the lawn of the Huynh Bu Bac officer’s club at Tan Son Nhut AFB, where it remained during the rest of the Vietnam War. When North Vietnam conquered South Vietnam in 1975, the plane was crudely repainted in fake North Vietnamese markings and then allowed to deteriorate during the 1980s. When Vietnam and the USA re-established ties in the 1990s, the Vietnamese air force sold the plane to an American civilian who restored it.)
The last South Vietnamese Bearcat left service in 1964. The type was a good first fighter for the South Vietnamese but did not really play a big part in the war.
The RTAF (Royal Thai Air Force) purchased 129 F8F Bearcats in 1951. A second batch of 75 planes (including 38 bought third-hand from France) was purchased later, for a total of 204 Bearcats. Of interest the F8F’s namesake animal, the bearcat, is a native creature of Thailand. Thailand designated the plane “Type 15 Fighter”.
(A preserved Thai F8F Bearcat in markings of the 4th Wing, 43rd Tactical Fighter Squadron of the RTAF. This unit flew the Bearcat out of Takli air base. The dark navy blue scheme was used by the 43rd TFS during the mid-1950s. This particular plane had previously been US Navy Bureau #94956 during the 1940s.)
The first batch of 40 planes was delivered as deck cargo aboard the WWII-veteran carrier USS Cape Esperance (CVE-88) and became operational late in 1951. It was instantly popular with Thai pilots. The Bearcat was roled both as an air defense interceptor and as a ground attack plane. Thai units flying the Bearcat were initially assisted by a US Air Force Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG). Besides replacing Japanese-made WWII-era fighters, the Bearcat squadrons were realigned along USAF lines.
The RTAF used the standard WWII armament. The Holy Moses rockets were viewed as especially useful against targets in the jungle.
The Bearcat was “the” Thai fighter type of the early and mid-1950s, and was it’s final piston-powered fighter. Beginning in 1957, the F-84 Thunderjet began to replace the Bearcat in frontline fighter squadrons.
(A RTAF Bearcat during a 1955 exercise. By this time, some were being repainted in air superiority grey. Already a decade into the atomic age, the purpose of this exercise, termed “forcewide dispersion”, was to scatter the WWII-era Bearcats away from their bases to grass airstrips and highway sections in the event of tensions with a nuclear-armed enemy.)
Officially, the Bearcat was withdrawn from frontline Thai service between1960-1962. Some were still flying as squadron “hacks” as late as 1964. According to USAF personnel stationed in Thailand during the Vietnam War, there was still one Bearcat flying “off the books” as late as 1972, most likely in some sort of specops support role. Thailand has never confirmed this and it may be confusion with other propeller types the RTAF operated during that era.
The Bearcat never saw active combat in Thai service. Several are preserved today. During the summer of 2008, one was restored to flying status and is occasionally featured at air shows in Thailand.
Thailand was the final user of the Bearcat and with it’s retirement, the story of the “barely too late” WWII fighter came to an end.