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Aviation History And Aircraft Photography

Cat Flight

Airplane Photo

  • Type:   Grumman F4F Wildcat, F7F Tigercat, F8F Bearcat, F9F Panther, F-14 Tomcat
  • Venue:   Kalamazoo Battle Creek International Airport
  • Location:   Kalamazoo, Michigan
  • Date:  
  • Camera:   Minolta 7000i w/150-300mm Zoom
  • Film:   Fuji ASA 100 Color Print Film
  • Full Size Scan (~250kb)

For almost as long as there have been aircraft carriers, Grumman aircraft were the front line fighter planes for the US Navy. So tough were these Grumman airplanes that the crews said they were made of iron, and they called the Grumman factory the “Ironworks”.

The photo above shows the WWII era F4F Wildcat (left), F7F Tigercat, (center) and F8F Bearcat (right) from the Kalamazoo Air Zoo at the annual “High On Kalamazoo Airshow”. The fleet of WWII era Grumman cats are joined by an early jet age F9F Panther (right of center) and a modern F-14 Tomcat (left of center). The Cat flight has to be carefully orchestrated since the top speed of the Wildcat is just about the same as the stall speed of the F-14 Tomcat. As they flew over, the Wildcat was running flat out, while the Tomcat was feathering its engine up and down trying not to leap out in front. The Air Zoo also has an F6F Hellcat, but she was down with engine problems during the air show.

The F3F was a transitional aircraft, the last of the navy biplanes, but with modern features such as all-metal construction and retractable landing gear. The only remaining F3F is at the National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola, FL.

The F4F was developed and built in the late 1930’s. Named the ‘Wildcat’, it was a stubby little fighter that was basically a metal barrel with a round engine on the front, and wings attached at the midpoint. The Wildcat was the backbone naval fighter well into 1942. While it could not out-perform the Japanese Zero, it could take the punishment to stay alive and in the fight long enough to keep the Japanese from accomplishing their plans.

The next cat off of the line was the F6F ‘Hellcat’. The Hellcat was a new design based on everything that was learned from the Wildcat. It had more power, and could stay with a Zero in a dog fight. The Hellcat, and its pilots and crews, were responsible for wearing down and eventually eliminating the Japanese navy as an aerial threat.

The F7F was a mid-war design for a very fast carrier-based fighter. It would be needed to face off against any new Japanese aircraft that might be fielded during the war. The Japanese were never able to develop and build a follow-on to the Zero (at least not in quantity), so the F7F was not a high priority. It arrived just at the tail end of WWII, but did serve in Korea. The design was for a sleek plane that had two engines from the Hellcat. The resulting plane was given the name ‘Tigercat’. When the long feared advanced fighter did show up, it was a German jet-powered fighter that out-classed the Tigercat before it was off of the drawing board. That, however, does not prevent the Tigercat from being the best looking and best sounding WWII warbird.

At the same time, a new improved version of the Hellcat was on the drawing board. It was to be the smallest plane that could carry an up-rated version of the Hellcat’s round engine, plus fuel, a pilot, and guns. This plane was the F8F ‘Bearcat’. It again reached the fleet just at the tail end of WWII, but did serve in Korea. Today, Bearcats are highly sought after as air racers due to their sleek design, and ability to handle larger engines. Lyle Shelton’s ‘Rare Bear’ dominated air racing in the late 1980’s and much of the 1990’s.

The first Grumman ‘Cat’ to enter the jet age was the F9F. The first version was a straight wing airplane called the ‘Panther’. As the jet engine was rapidly evolving in the late 40’s and early 50’s, the Panther went though many versions. Captured German data as well as new wind tunnel tests suggested that swept wings would perform better. The F9F was modified, and the new aircraft was called the ‘Cougar’. There really was very little in common between the Panther and Cougar, other than looks. The F9F designation stayed with the Cougar largely for political reasons.

The F10F ‘Jaguar’ was the next Grumman cat. It explored the idea that straight wings were better at low speed, while swept wings were better at high speed. You get the best of both worlds by making the wings movable. While the F10F did not go into production, it would not be the last time we saw that idea.

Next off the line was the F11F ‘Tiger’. Aircraft technology was rapidly evolving in the mid-1950’s, so only 196 Tigers were built. The were rapidly out-classed as a front-line fighter, but they were picked by the Blue Angels demonstration team and flown in front of millions of people in the signature blue and gold paint scheme. The F12F was an attempt to keep the Tiger alive with a new more powerful engine, but the Navy did not buy into it.

After the F9F and F11F, it would be many years before a Grumman cat was responsible for protecting the fleet. During this time, the Kennedy era military whiz-kids had the idea that all branches of the military should fly the same airplane. That was to be the F-111. In the development process, the F-111 grew too large to operate from a carrier. The failed Naval version was recast as a smaller plane that could still carry the AIM-54 Phoenix missile. The Phoenix had a range of 100 miles and was our best bet at stopping Soviet bombers. Out of this study came the last of the Grumman cats.

The final cat is the F-14, the airplane featured in the movie ‘Top Gun’. It featured the twin jet engine design of the F-111, the variable geometry moving swept wings from the F10F and F-111, and it carried every missile in the Navy inventory. Still being a large airplane, it was able to hit Mach 2.2. The main advocate for the F-14 was Admiral Tom Conolly. Both Navy and Grumman staff referred to the F-14 as ‘Tom’s cat’, and it was only a matter of time before the airplane was internally nicknamed ‘TomCat’. The name stuck. The Tomcat was a true air superiority fighter. In trained hands, nothing in the world could touch it, other than the F-15 Eagle. The Tomcat entered fleet service in 1972, and is still in service some 30 years later.

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Authored by John A. Weeks III, Copyright © 1996—2016, all rights reserved.
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