The robust Hellcat was the primary U.S. carrier fighter of the last two years of the Second World War. Unlike many other famous combat aircraft, it was a simple airplane, simply developed, and was put into production after detailed comparison with what the U.S. Navy accurately perceived as its primary foe: the Mitsubishi A6M Type 00, the famous Zero. The capture of one of the nimble Japanese fighters intact in the Aleutians proved most fortuitous, and led to cancellation of early Hellcat prototypes powered with the Wright R-2600 engine. For the Hellcat existed for one reason and one reason only: to kill Zeroes. And it did so not by copying the agile dogfighter, but by using its potent engine and armament and sturdy airframe to outlast, outrun, outdive, and outslug its Japanese opponent.
Had the more sophisticated Vought Corsair not experienced serious teething problems in U.S. Navy trials, the Hellcat might have been just another forgotten airplane. The Hellcat was not a subtle design, and its sturdy, straightforward airframe was as no-nonsense as its mission. Originally intended as not much more than a modernized Wildcat (F4F) employing a Wright R-2600 powerplant, examination of the captured Japanese aircraft convinced Grumman and the Navy to use to more potent R-2800, same engine employed in Vought’s Corsair fighter. Rather than wipe the slate clean and design a machine which could dogfight with the nimble Ki.43 and A6M, Grumman decided to do that which American fighters did best: hunker down and scrap. The machinery had to be tough to stand up to the 13.2mm and 20mm cannon carried in the wings of the Japanese Navy’s Zero and the Army’s Nakajima Hayabusa (code name: “Oscar”), well armed enough to turn the tables once superior engine power had been employed. The tactics were brutally simple, and almost foolproof: dive in, shoot, if necessary dive out of a fight–never get into a turning contest and never enter a fighter-to-fighter hassle in anything like a climb. It all worked to the extent that the Hellcat established an astounding nineteen-to-one kill vs. loss ratio in the Pacific, even better than the Corsair.
Here’s a great video showing the Grumman F6F Hellcat in action:
The Hellcat enjoyed a speed advantage of 40-60 m.p.h. over most versions of the A6M at 10,000 feet, increasing to 70-80 m.p.h. at 25,000 ft. Climb rate was inferior to most Japanese fighters up to 14,000 feet. In slow speed maneuvers, the Hellcat was at a serious disadvantage and tactics were specially devised to allow the huge Navy machine to either leave a Japanese fighter with an empty gunsight or, on his tail, to follow him through 90 degrees or less of a turn, deliver a burst, and if necessary, power away to reinitiate attack or leave the scene.
Unlike many of its contemporaries such as the P-51, the Messerschmitt 109, and even its stablemate, the Wildcat, the Hellcat changed very little from first to last production specimen. In fact, for historians, it’s very difficult to judge in photos which version is which. There were radome-equipped F6F-3N and F6F-5N night fighters, but except for the deletion of the small window just aft of the canopy after the first few hundred F6F-5’s, the later service versions are almost impossible to tell from F6F-3’s. However, even the less prominent physical and mechanical changes were quite important. Later variants standardized small modifications made in the field, and many later aircraft had the rear-view window reinstalled with parts scavenged from discarded aircraft. The -5’s cowling was reconfigured, the windshield improved, tail surfaces strengthened, additional armor installed, and the uprated -10W series engines installed from late F6F-3’s onward. Many -5’s, especially F6F-5N night fighters, used a pair of inboard 20mm Hispano cannon, retaining the four outboard .50 caliber guns with a reduced ammo supply. Over 12,000 Hellcats were produced, but unlike the Corsair, the Hellcat saw very little Marine Corps use. But the Hellcat did see considerable lend-lease service with the Royal Navy. Hellcat production lines were finally shut down in November of 1945.
Though unquestionably more modern than the Wildcat, the Hellcat disappeared from active and reserve service at more or less the same time. Its load capability was less than the Corsair’s, and its very narrow production mandate meant that it was obsolescent as soon as its adversaries were in the boneyards.
Perhaps because it was not recorded on film, the Hellcat’s superb qualities as a night fighter, a role pioneered aboard Essex and Enterprise, is often forgotten. As a night fighter, the Grumman fighter dealt primarily with far less agile opponents attempting to infiltrate ship formations heavily laden with bombs. The effect of the Hellcat’s dedication to this role was such that the Japanese frequently abandoned night operations once the Hellcat’s night operations were confirmed.
However, aircraft identification and spotting were not what they should have been, evinced by the fact that almost every radial-engined aircraft seen quickly was identified as a “zero” by Americans even in areas where the Japanese Navy was not operating. Even American aircraft were shot down by accident…often even in daytime. Navy Ace Ed “Butch” O’Hare was misidentified and killed flying a Hellcat on such an early night mission. These routinely involved using pairs of aircraft usually comprising a Hellcat and a radar-bearing Avenger. It is likely he succumbed to his own “companion” upon rejoining from a chase, mistaken for a “Zero”.
Another little-known chapter in Hellcat history is the Fleet Air Arm’s Pacific and Atlantic operations, and especially, the little-known North Sea/Norwegian Sea patrols, which resulted in the sinking of many small Nazi freighters and patrol boats. No. 800 Squadron provided Hellcat air cover for attacks on the battleship Tirpitz, moored at Kaafjord in April of 1944.
Of course, the Hellcat is best known for slaughtering Japanese aircraft in the Philippine Sea / Marianas actions of 1944, but the aircraft also performed much irreplaceable duty on combat air patrols and even attacked the Japanese mainland.