Sunday, November 19, 2006

Tarmac Saturday, Valour-IT edition

As you may recall, SJS and myself made a wager with regard to the Valour-IT Project. The deal of course being that if my Zoomies won, he would defile the pages of his blog with a fragile, no-tailhookin' Air Farce aircraft, while if, through some miracle, his Squids pulled off a victory, I'd besmirch the honor of this blog with an ugly no-class Navy shadow of an airplane.

Somehow, and I have no idea how, the Navy pulled it off, and crossed the finish line before the Air Force...and we're still trucking towards that finish line. But Valour-IT *did* reach it's overall goal of $180,000, and in fact surpassed it by a considerable sum. And after all, the real winners are the troops at Walter Reed, Bethesda, Balboa, etc. who are going to be able to communicate with their families and friends through the efforts of Valour-IT. So, in light of that fact, and in the spirit of jointness, SJS and myself have agreed to each host a reciprocal Flightdeck Friday/Tarmac Saturday. His is up on the BUFF, and I must say it is damn good. Really quite impressive, and you should head on over there to take a look. SJS's choice of aircraft for me was the Grumman F4F Wildcat, a fine choice if I do say so myself. A tough little bird that, while outclassed by its adversaries such as the A6M "Zero," still managed to hold the line in the Pacific and contributed to our first victories at Midway and Guadalcanal that started the turning of the tide. The F4F continued to serve on escort carriers for the remainder of the war where it performed yeoman service as a CAS aircraft flying off those carriers in support of countless amphibious assaults and helped hunt down U-boats in the Atlantic. Without further ado, the Wildcat...

The story begins in 1936 when Grumman was designing their next fleet defense fighter. The design was the XF4F-1, which, like its predessors, was a biplane design. This design was inferior to the Brewster F2A Buffalo and as such, was forced to be redesigned into a monoplane configuration. The new monoplane was designated the XF4F-2, but was still inferior to the Buffalo, largely due to powerplant issues. Grumman returned to the drawing board and launched into an extensive redesign, installing a more powerful P&W Twin Wasp supercharged engine. The increased weight from the new engine and its associated supercharger, intercooler, and ductwork led to increases in wing span and area and a redesign of the tail surfaces. This new design was given the designation of XF4F-3, and in August 1939 the Navy awarded an intial contract for 54 F4F-3 airframes. The first production fighter flew in Febuary of 1940.

In addition to this initial Navy order, the French and British militaries both expressed interest, and orders were placed by both countries. Unfortunately, there were only 7 aircraft from the French order on the production line when France capitulated. There aircraft were folded into the RN's order of 100 Martlets, as they called the F4F. In October of 1940, due to a shortage of two-stage superchargers, Grumman came out with the F4F-3A which was a variant that featured a modified engine that was equipped with a more primitive single-stage two speed supercharger. The USN ordered 65, with an additional 30 going to Greece. As was common with war material deliveries early in the war, the aircraft didn't arrive before the fall of Greece, so, as often was the case in these kind of events, the aircraft were delivered into British service.

The F4F-3 was a well designed and balanced fighter, with only one major flaw: the gun ammo feed was poorly designed, which resulted in frequent jams, a common occurance among early U.S. built fighters. Also, the -3A was universally disliked due to its slightly inferior performance because of the single-stage supercharger. However, since it was overall a well designed and balanced fighter, they just had to go and screw things up, which leads us to the F4F-4. The F4F-4 was a variant that had two major differences with the -3: folding wings, and an additional 2 .50 machine guns. The increase in guns was dictated by the British, who needed the extra firepower against sturdy German and Italian fighters. However, the ammunition load did not increase; this meant that instead of the F4F-3's 450 rounds per gun and approximately 34 seconds of firing time, pilots would now only have 240 rounds per gun, with less than 20 seconds of firing time. As Jimmy Thatch, one of the most famous Wildcat pilots (more on that later) said, "A pilot who cannot hit with four guns will miss with eight". The folding wings and extra guns increased weight, which led to degraded performance. In line with the American view of war, the extra firepower and increase of number of F4Fs per carrier offered by the folding wings outweighed performance considerations and the F4F-4 became the definitive (Grumman-built) version.
The picture to the left may look rather ordinary, but in fact the pilots are probably the two most famous men to ever fly the Wildcat: Adm. (then LCdr.) John Thach and LCdr. (then Lt.) Edward "Butch" O'Hare. And this provides a convenient stepping off point into the Wildcat's extensive combat career. However, we'll have to go back in time a bit from those two gentlemen's exploits.

The first kill of the Wildcat was by a FAA Martlet which downed a German Ju-88 over Scapa Flow, Christmas Day 1940. In mid-1941 six Martlets went to sea aboard the escort carrier HMS Audacity. While conducting extremely successful convoy escort operations supporting Gibraltar convoys they managed to shoot down several Luftwaffe Fw-200 "Condor" long range recon/strike aircraft.

However, it was with the U.S. that the Wildcat would have its greatest achievements. First among them was the heroic defense of Wake Island by VMF-211, where Marine aviator Major (then Capt.) Henry T. Elrod would become the first aviator to be awarded the CMH for his efforts in the defense of the island, which included breaking up a flight of 22 Japanese bombers and downing 2, several low-altitude strafing and bombing runs, single-handedly sinking the Japanese destroyer Kisaragi with small caliber bombs during one of these runs, becoming the first man to do so, and leading the remnants of the squadron in intense ground combat until he was mortally wounded on 23 Dec. 1941 while providing cover for his men.

The F4F next saw service in several carrier nuisance raids. It was during one of these raids in the Rabaul area where LCdr. O'Hare would become the Navy's first ace and flying winner of the CMH. On 20 Feb. 1942, the USS Lexington was cruising in waters near New Ireland when it began to be attacked by Japanese long range bombers out of Rabaul. The Lex's CAP was busy engaging enemy bombers at a stand-off distance when suddenly the carrier's radar picked up 8 contacts only 12 miles away and closing fast. The only fighters within range to intercept were Butch's and his wingman. Unfortunately, as I mentioned above, the earlier Wildcat variants' guns had a tendency to jam. This was the case here, as Butch's wingman's guns jammed, meaning that Butch was literally the only line of defense for the Lex. Using deflection shooting, Butch was able to down 5 of the Japanese bombers and damage a sixth, breaking up the attack. Quite an impressive feat of shooting considering that this meant that he used only 60 rounds per kill.

That impressive gunnery leads to the third famous pilot of the Wildcat that I'm going to talk about: Adm. John Thach. Then-LCdr. Thach served with Butch O'Hare in VF-3 as CO, making Butch his wingman and instructing Butch in his vast knowledge of fighter tactics and marksmanship. Adm. Thach is best known for his maneuver known as the "Thach Weave," which enabled the Wildcats to more than hold their own against the nimble Zero and is in fact still a valid WVR combat maneuver today. This maneuver contributed to the large kill ratio the Wildcat was able to rack up at Midway and in service with the outnumbered Cactus Air Force at Guadalcanal.

After the victory at Guadalcanal, the next generation of naval fighters started coming online: the F6F Hellcat and F4U Corsair. This meant that prior to this Grumman ended production of the Wildcat in order to concentrate on the Hellcat. However, the Wildcat's career was by no means over. GM's Eastern Aircraft Division picked up production with the FM-1 in the summer of 1942. The FM-1 was largely a F4F-4 modified with four .50's instead of six, and an increased ammunition capacity. In 1943 production passed over to the FM-2 variant, which featured an engine with increased horsepower and a redesigned, taller vertical tail surface to deal with the increased torque from the engine. The FM-1 and -2 saw service for the remainder of the war on the USN and RN's smaller escort carriers, where its small size and slower landing speed made a good fit compared to the larger Hellcat and tempermental Corsair. On the escort carriers the Wildcat saw yeoman service as I mentioned above, escorting countless convoys and helping support numerous amphibious landings. However, it was at the Battle of the Leyte Gulf and the stand of Taffy 3 where the Wildcats took part in the most famous escort carrier action of the war, when Adm. Clifton Sprague's force of 6 CVEs, 3 DDs and 4 DEs fought off the IJN center force off Samar, saving the Leyte beachhead and sealing the fate of the IJN. Wildcats from the composite squadrons, along with Avenger torpedo-bombers, made numerous bombing and strafing runs on the Japanese ships, hoping to cause whatever damage they could and distract from the relatively defenseless CVEs. The aircraft continued to make runs even after their ammunition was expended, hoping to keep up the pressure on the Japanese force.

Overall, the Wildcat was a workman fighter. It wasn't as nimble as its major adversary, the Zero, nor was it as powerful or popular as its replacements, the Hellcat and Corsair. However, the Wildcat held the line in the Pacific in those first dark days of the war, and eventually helped the U.S. turn the tide. In addition, it saw service worldwide, escorting convoys and hunting U-Boats in every corner of the Atlantic theater. In the hands of a competent tactician such as John Thach, the Wildcat could more than hold its own against the Zero. In addition, the Wildcat packed a much heavier punch with its .50 cal. machine guns, and, in typical American fashion, provided much better protection in the form of self-sealing gas tanks and armor for the pilot. Also, the F4F featured a homing beacon that was the saving grace of many Navy pilots caught in poor weather conditions and running low on fuel. The Wildcat did have its shortcomings: the previous mentioned jamming issues, the controversy over number of guns and ammunition capacity, and its narrow-track hand-cranked landing gear, which led to landing accidents being a fairly common occurance.

Overall though, the Wildcat was a tough naval fighter that really started the Grumman tradition of fleet defense fighters. SJS wrote in an email to me that the Wildcat was the "prototypical naval fighter." And I think that's pretty accurate. Tough, heavily armed, and more than able to hold its own, it started a fine tradition of Grumman aircraft being the protectors of the fleet.

As a postscript and a personal note, SJS also mentioned in that much of the manufacturing equipment at Grumman's Bethpage, NY manufacturing plant later was used much later on the production line for the E-2 Hawkeye, which as you know was his steed while in the service.