The Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation had a reputation for building incredibly sturdy naval aircraft, so much so that their Bethpage, Long Island factory was known as ‘the Ironworks’. The company had designed a portly monoplane fighter for the US Navy, called the F4F Wildcat. It could not match the chief Japanese fighter, the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, in terms of firepower, top speed or manoeuverability, but because it could absorb an immense amount of battle damage and still keep flying and fighting, it gave as good as it got in combat with the Zero. By 1943, it was obvious that a new fighter aircraft would be needed for the US advance back across the Pacific.
The Grumman offering for the US Navy’s next fleet fighter was the F6F Hellcat. Originally designed to be powered by a 1,700 hp Wright R-2600, it wasn’t until the F6F-3 was fitted with the superb Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp radial of 2,000 hp, that it came into its own. It was faster than, and could out dive, the late-war models of the Zero such as the A6M5 and could use its speed to dictate the fight. This was reflected in the incredible fact that USN/Marines Hellcats destroyed 5,163 enemy aircraft for a loss of only 270 Hellcats – a kill to loss ratio of 19:1. As well, the Hellcat was used by the French Navy (L’Aéronavale), the Royal Navy (Fleet Air Arm) and post-war by the Uruguayan Navy (Armada Nacional del Uruguay). Hellcats of the Fleet Air Arm were active as part of ‘Operation Tungsten’, in April 1944, when carrier aircraft attacked the German Kriegsmarine battleship ‘Tirpitz’ at anchor in Altenfjord in Norway, as well as making numerous attacks in the South Pacific and Indian Ocean areas.
The aircraft shown above (an F6F-5K) is on display at the New England Air Museum, Windsor Locks, Connecticut, and was manufactured in 1945. The F6F-5K was a specialized radio-controlled drone version, which could be controlled by radio signals from a ground station or from an accompanying chase aircraft. During the Korean War, F6F-5K aircraft of Guided Missile Unit 90, flying from the USS Boxer (CV-21), attacked the Hungham rail bridge in North Korea. The Hellcat (which was carrying 1,000 lb bombs) was controlled from one Douglas AD-4D Skyraider of VC-35, sitting on the deck of the carrier, which handed off control to a sister aircraft, in the air nearby, after the Hellcat had been successfully launched.
The F6F-5K also participated – as targets – in the test firings of early missiles. On 16 May, 1952, two F6F-5Ks were successfully destroyed by Convair RIM-2 Terrier surface-to-air missiles, the US Navy’s first medium range SAM. When F6F-5K aircraft were flown as target drones, they were usually painted bright orange, or red with yellow markings to increase visibility. Tails and fins on individual aircraft were painted in contrasting, bright, colours to indicate which radio frequency they were operating on! Early Sidewinder missiles (AIM-9B) were used to make air-to-air kills on F6F-5K aircraft, this included a kill over Naval Ordnance Test Station China Lake, California by a Grumman F9F-8 Cougar in August 1957.
The NEAM aircraft is painted as an F6F-5 and carries a load of 6 x 5″ High Velocity Aircraft Rockets (excellent for attacking ground targets), 2 x 500 lb General Purpose (AN-M64) bombs, and 6 x .5″ Browning machine guns. The overall finish is of Glossy Sea Blue (ANA623), which was carried by Hellcats in late WW2 and the Korean War. It has been beautifully restored, and many access panels have been opened, and one wing folded to allow interior details to be seen.
It is safe to say that there were WW2 aircraft that were more manouverable, faster and carried heavier loads, but you could argue that the Hellcat made the final victory over Japan certain!