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|The Numbers Donít
A climb rate of 5,340 feet per minute. A 2,250 hp R-2800-30 radial engine swinging a 12 ft. 7 in. Aeroproducts propeller on a 9,000 lb airframe. A top speed of 423 mph and a service ceiling above 40,000 ft. To these numbers, add effortless and well balanced controls and relatively docile flight characteristics. Top it off with unrestricted visibility from the bubble canopy. Everything in the snug cockpit falls easily to hand without twisting or stretching. If you are flying this aircraft, youíre in the Grumman F8F Bearcat.
Now that the numbers are out of the way, one can consider what the Bearcat really is; one of the best piston engine fighters ever produced. It flies better than the P-51 Mustang, climbs faster than the Mitsubishi Zero, and out-turns a Mk. IX Spitfire. Its design lineage mixes equal parts Gee Bee racer, Focke Wulf Fw-190 and F6F Hellcat. The result was a compact airframe sized for performance while operating off of a Navy aircraft carrier. Other than the Mustang and Hawkerís massive Sea Fury, no other piston fighters are in the same league as the Bearcat.
The Bear is Born
Grummanís Bob Hall is the Bearcatís father; he was Chief Engineer at Grumman during the Ď40's and had an opportunity to examine and fly a captured German Fw-190 in early 1943. Leroy Grumman and V.P. of Flight Operations Bud Gilles also were on hand for the evaluation. The men were impressed with the German fighter - so much that they returned to design a new fighter without a request from the Navy. Grummanís model G-58 would become the Bearcat.
The two prototype XF8F-1's and production F8F-1 Bearcats featured a rather short vertical tail and four .50 caliber machine guns. The self sealing fuel tank carried only 185 gallons of fuel, and was situated under the pilot seat. Articulating landing gear legs provided clearance for the huge propeller; they have elbows near the outer hinge so that the gear folds neatly into the wing.
Early Bearcats had a 2,100 hp Pratt and Whitney R-2800-34W. In 1947, the 2,250 hp -30W engine became available and was used for the subsequent F8F-2s. The increase in power made it necessary to increase the area of the vertical tail; a modification NACA already had advised. Their test results suggested Grumman add an additional 16 inches to the vertical tail. The loads imposed by this additional area would require a redesign of the vertical tail structure. Grummanís answer resulted in a 12 inch increase in the fin without altering the tail structure.
The -2s also featured an Automatic Engine Control (AEC) that "mixed" the throttle and supercharger controls into one operation. Dash two's also had four 20mm cannons instead of the machine guns, and redesigned landing gear absorption ratios to improve carrier landing characteristics. Overall, 1,263 Bearcats were produced, along with two put together from parts for use by Grumman. Even though WWII had ended, the Navy kept the Bearcat in production until April of 1949. The type equipped 24 squadrons in all.
If the Bearcat failed to shine in combat under the US flag, it was only due to timing. The first US Navy squadron was enroute to the Pacific as hostilities ended. Interestingly, during the Korean War, the US Navy had determined the Bearcat was not suitable as an attack aircraft. The French had no such worries; they were supplied a number of F8F-1s in 1951 under the Mutual Defense Assistance Program. These served as attack aircraft until 1954. Twenty five of these aircraft were transferred back to US control, and were given right over to the newly formed South Vietnamese Air Force. The Royal Thai Air Force was also supplied with 129 F8F-1s under the US assistance program. They flew combat operations until 1960 when the tired and dilapidated airframes were withdrawn.
Unproven in Combat, But an Air Racing Success
By far, most Bearcats ended up at locations such as Goodyear, Arizona to await scrapping. Some were sold to civilian owners, but very few people were interested in an ex-fighter aircraft - even if they cost $850 each! Today, the 10 or so flying examples were saved by individuals interested in their own Bearcat, or that had en eye towards the sport of air racing. If the Bearcat did not prove itself in combat, it sure made up for it around the race pylons. Darryl Greenamyerís modified Conquest One has won a remarkable seven championships at Reno, and occupies a place in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. The racer relied on power settings just above the listed maximum, a massive weight reduction program and a detailed airframe cleanup to attain its highest winning speed of 414 mph.
Lyle Shelton also has campaigned a Bearcat around the racing pylons. His Rare Bear is only the shell of a Bearcat really; it is equipped with a Wright R-3350, Super Constellation reduction gears in the engine nose case, and a massive three-bladed propeller culled from a Lockheed Orion turboprop. The airframe also features clipped wings, a cut down racing canopy and a DC-7 cowling. A large custom spinner directs airflow through an impossibly small slit for engine cylinder cooling. The aircraft still holds the piston engine speed record on the 3Km course at just over 528 mph, and also holds the 3,000 m. time to climb record for its weight class.
A handful of other Bearcats have turned pylons during races, but they are stock aircraft flown for the shear joy of operating such a powerful aircraft low and fast. The aircraft offers a remarkable mixture of power, speed, agility and handling that no other piston fighter possesses.
Ron Buccareli and Lyle Shelton are two Bearcat pilots, but the F8Fís they fly could not be more different. Buccarelliís stock Bearcat has been restored to museum quality and represents the type as one of the finest restorations around. Shelton, on the other hand, still campaigns his Rare Bear with John Penney as the pilot. This aircraft represents just how far a piston engine aircraft can be groomed for speed. Major compromises have been made to wring every mile per hour out of the engine and airframe. The differences between the stocker and the racer are surprising.
Super Versus Stock
Lyle Shelton - The noise; you can hardly hear the radio the engine noise is so loud. Youíre lucky if you can transmit. A lot of times you miss transmissions cause itís kind of garbled and thereís so damn much noise. I find that when Iím really working, like in 1991 gold race, I was gasping for oxygen. I couldnít get enough oxygen for my body... I had it flowing past 100%. It was pressure oxygen. Just absolutely gasping for breath it was such a physical exertion.
Ron Buccarelli - The cockpit is very roomy for me - Iím only 5í8" and 180 lbs. Itís comfortable and you are sitting up high, so the visibly is really great for a tailwheel fighter. I always wear a helmet so itís pretty quiet. However, an unusual hollow, resonating noise comes from the solid rubber tail wheel as you taxi. There are some compartments in the side consoles where I carry charts, a Leatherman tool, a flashlight and drinking water. If I go on an overnight trip there is plenty of room for a duffle bag in the hell hole.
Lyle Shelton - At the top end, it gets to be a two-handed affair. If you use one hand, the controls get pretty stiff. At Reno, there are some times and places Iím using two hands on the stick. If youíre running a 450 mph race at Reno, one hand is ok. But you get up around 480, now youíre talking two hands on the stick to control the airplane. Then the throttle is always wanting to vibrate back, so youíve got these various little elementary things going wrong. A lot of times at Reno, Iíve had the guys working on the throttle quadrant friction so that the damn throttle will stay where I put it, which is, in the final Gold race, all the way forward. You get to 480, 490, yeah, both hands - two hands. It'd be a pretty good aerobatic airplane. Iíve done aerobatics in it years ago. I did about three airshows in it; I had an aerobatic waiver. It basically is not a stable airplane: it's kind of like it looks - it's short and fast and wobbly and not very stable. But it handles okay.
Ron Buccarelli - The aircraft is very easy to fly. Itís nimble and quick, and the visibility is excellent. When you check your flight controls, the ailerons behave like they are attached on bungee cords. This is normal for the Bearcat, but it feels unusual. I always take off with full fuel in the single, pressurized 185 US gallon self-sealing cell located beneath the cockpit. If I were planning a long flight, I could also fill up the two auxiliary tanks which were built into this Bearcat where the 20mm cannons used to be. With full fuel the aircraft handles superbly in all aspects of flight.
Lyle Shelton - On a normal landing, my final approach speed is around 120 - 125 kts. Iíd touch down at 105 kts. You are really blind due to the cut down canopy and the fact I have to land in a three point attitude all the time. The prop is just that big, and weíve taken the flaps out and sealed them up. The old Bearcat brakes are, in my opinion, not very good. They were for a little lighter airplane that had flaps on it and touched down at 70 or 80 knots. Hell, we're touching down at 105 - 110 knots three point with those short wings.
Ron Buccarelli - I was surprised at how easy it was. It will track the extended centerline perfectly. I slow to 140 KIAS indicated and drop the gear, select full flaps, and slow to 90 knots. You have to make sure the tail wheel is locked, the mixture is rich, and the auxiliary fuel pump is on. I land in a three-point attitude and use just a little brakes. As with takeoff, your landings must be three pointers. If not, you just bought a set of very expensive hollow steel blades.
Lyle Shelton - I got a pretty good bang out of the engine on the west side of the course during a race once. Whatever it was - the fourth or fifth lap, maybe. I kind of knew it was all over, so I started throttling back and was hoping I could save the engine and finish the race. The engine, likely, would not last till the end of the race. Coming up the north side of the course, it started popping and banging real good.
At that point I knew it was all over. I declared a mayday and pulled up and got the prop back to get the blades into the wind. Back to idle with the throttle. I started looking around at where I was going to put it down. Iíve been there before; this certainly wasnít the first time Iíd gotten into a deal... I was coming off where I could either come back in on 14 or the closed runway, 18. I turned back down to the south and kind of lined up on 14, but then the engine was shaking so badly - I was letting it idle. You always let it idle, so if you need a little nudge of power there to help you over the fence, itís there. The damn thing was shaking so badly, I jerked the mag switches off and shut it down. So then my sink rate picked up a bit, I sensed I wasnít sure I would make 14, so I turned into 18 - wrong way with the world there... I kept about 160 knots and made the runway alright. I was a little hot coming over the end of the runway, I touched down a little bit hot, not a whole lot. I was about where I wanted to be. I eyeballed it about right.
Ron Buccarelli - Letís hope I donít have one! If I did, my procedures would depend on what type of terrain was below me. Over the Florida Everglades or water, it would be gear up, of course. If over a suitable hard surface, it would probably be with gear down. On land, the book calls for a glide speed of 110 KIAS flaps down, or 120 KIAS flaps up, jettison external load items, shoulder harness -TIGHT, release cockpit canopy by pulling the emergency release handle. When you do this, you have to lower your head to prevent injury in case it does not clear properly when leaving the airplane. As you get closer to touchdown, you already have some flaps down, saving the full down position when you are certain that the selected field can be reached. If time permits, turn off the mags and battery switch, bring the mixture to idle/cut off, and turn off the fuel selector.
On water, the emergency procedure for a landing is essentially the same as that for on land except that the landing gear must be up, and you should land into the wind if the water is smooth. If the water is rough, land along the troughs with full flaps and just above the stall.
Now with all of that said; If you are on fire or a structural failure occurs in the air... Bail out.
Lyle Shelton - Weíre putting out as much power out of the engine that I feel is safe. We can put out more than is safe. I've seen the manifold pressure up around the low to mid 70's. Not much compared to the P-51's. I think those guys can run 135-140 inches & 3500 RPM. We're not running near that RPM. We're running well over redline, and I - it may not be much of a secret, but I don't want to give you our redline racing RPM. Several other guys running 3350's - we'll let them figure it out for themselves.
Ron Buccarelli - For a normal takeoff, you open the throttle smoothly to 60 inches and 2800 rpm. Do not use less than 40 inches. Once airborne, raise the landing gear immediately after liftoff. The rudder is extremely effective during the takeoff roll, so you have to make sure you donít over control. Torque tendencies are not excessive. For the climb, you reduce manifold pressure to approximately 46 inches and the rpm to 2600 as soon as practicable. Check your oil and cylinder head temperatures and adjust the cowl flaps and oil cooler shutters as necessary. The maximum permissible cylinder head temperature is 260į C., and the max oil temperature 100į C.
Lyle Shelton - Because this airplane is a racer, so many things are different. It fights us all the way. The crew is always saying, "Itís a Bearcat kind of a deal..." It wasnít built with easy maintenance in mind; it was built at the end of the war. They were making standard, throw-away, Grumman airplanes. It's a hard airplane. There was no built-in design for easy maintenance in those days.
Ron Buccarelli - The most important part of maintaining a Bearcat, or any other World War II fighter plane, is an experienced maintenance crew. Itís not difficult to work on but you must be careful. Thankfully, I have access to many N.O.S. (New Old Stock) spare Bearcat parts. During the recent annual inspection, I had the tail wheel strut rebuilt and a new polyurethane solid tail wheel tire installed. I find that if the aircraft is in good shape its easy to keep it there. Hull insurance is expensive; any where from $25,000 to $65,000 per year. Liability insurance is less than $2,000 per year.
Bad Bear or (Pussy)Cat?
The contrast of Sheltonís Rare Bear and Buccarelliís stock Bearcat experiences represent two entirely different worlds. The restored stocker has been portrayed as an easy aircraft to fly and maintain. Praise has been heaped on its performance and control harmony. For pilots with high-performance tailwheel experience, itís not hard to realize the aircraft is manageable. After gaining some initial experience, most pilots will find that the Bearcat can be flown precisely while extracting maximum performance.
On the other hand, the Rare Bear represents how flying qualities and engine/system reliability becomes compromised for top speed. Though the stock aircraft is a splendid mix of power and performance, the racer has been pushed so far beyond the airframe limits. It has turned into a moody and tumultuous aircraft with an ever-changing personality.
Only a handful of Bearcats are flying today, and several more are nearing completion of their restorations. Because of their rarity, they are highly prized additions to any warbird collection. The F8F is one of the ultimate propeller driven fighters that employs everything a combat aircraft needs: speed, horsepower, firepower, agility and the ability to take battle damage and remain in the fight. If there is a drawback to the F8F, it would center on its rather short range. But the aircraft was not designed for escort duty as was the P-51 and P-47. They were different aircraft for different times and places.
In our time and place, the Bearcat is rather mysterious. We see them at airshows and look up at them; theyíre big and tall. Theyíre fast and theyíre rare; all angles and curves. Not many people today get to fly them, so itís appreciated that people like Ron Buccarelli and Lyle Shelton can share their experiences with us. It isnít as sleek as the P-51, but it is as fast or faster. It doesnít have the grace of the Sea Fury or Spitfire. It never had the combat record of its sister, the Hellcat. Instead, the aircraft proved itself as an unlimited air racer with over 14 championship victories. If it is running well, itís hard to beat. The Bearcat combines its own bulldog charm and functionality; itís easy to fly in stock form and a real handful as a record holding racer.
Story and Photos Copyright 1998 - 2003 Scott Germain - WarbirdAeroPress.com. All Rights Reserved.