Okay, so we’ll admit it: just about every successful
fighter of WWII was sleeker and sexier than a Hellcat. However, when
it comes to fighters, “beauty is in the doing” and the Hellcat
could do it. In spades! In terms of what it contributed to victory,
it was the uncontested King of the Pacific.
The Hellcat was unique among almost all WWII fighters because it was
designed from the beginning to be flown and maintained by teenagers
barely out of high school. It was Grumman’s goal that all of their
airplanes were to give outstanding performance while allowing a huge
margin for error in the hands of 200 hour pilots and recently trained
mechanics. This meant that simplicity in both its aerodynamics and mechanical
design had to be foremost in the designers’ minds right from the
Producibility was another goal. It had to go together easily and quickly,
which was why the Hellcat looked as if it was assembled by a locomotive
manufacturer, with rivet heads sticking out everywhere. But there was
an elegance in the way LeRoy Grumman directed his engineers: you apply
sophistication only where it’s needed. For instance, only the
leading edges of the wings were flush riveted, where it had the most
Ineffectual complexity can be seen in comparing the fuselage of the
Mustang or Corsair with that of the Hellcat. The Hellcat’s curves
are accomplished with a multitude of narrow, flat sheets, much like
an armadillo, which can be produced in minutes rather than using stretch-formed
compound-curved sheets that take hours of tooling and production time.
With its 2,000 horsepower R-2800 Pratt and Whitney engine and huge wing
area, the Hellcat was one of the fastest climbing (3,500 feet per minute)
airplanes of the war and the wings which helped it climb, also helped
it turn. It could fight the Zero on its own terms. More important, it
could absorb enormous punishment and still bring its young, probably
scared, pilot home.
Incidentally, let’s dispel an aviation legend right here: the
F6F Hellcat was NOT designed after a Zero was captured intact during
attacks on Aleutian islands early in the war. By that time the prototype
was already flying and the primary value of the captured Zero was that
it told the Navy and Grumman Aircraft that their basic design assumptions
had been dead on the money.
With a down-sloping cowling and high pilot position, the visibility
over the nose was superb both in the air and on approach to the carrier.
This combined with its excellent slow speed handling and docile stall
characteristics to make it one of the easiest airplanes ever designed
to land on a carrier. Many airplanes and pilots lived to fight another
day because LeRoy Grumman had a firm rule that the airplane should have
no vices whatsoever in the carrier environment and should be able to
be flown, and fixed, by any one.
When the numbers were tallied up, an incredible 12,000 plus Hellcats
were built and they downed more Japanese aircraft than any US fighter
in the war with a 19:1 kill ratio. There wasn’t even a close second.
Equally as important, it carried huge bomb, rocket and napalm loads
down to the deck and proved itself to be the very embodiment of the
term “fighter-bomber.” It did it all. It did it well. And
it did it while providing as much safety as a combat fighter pilot could
reasonably expect from his mount.
King of the Pacific—yeah, that’s the Hellcat.