Grumman F6F-3 Hellcat

Perhaps the aircraft most associated with the changing tide of the Pacific War, The F6F Hellcat was the key Naval fighter of the last part of the War.

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Let’s take a look at a complete game changer.

Grumman had started work on a successor to the Wildcat almost before that type entered service.  Contrary to the myth that the Hellcat was designed specifically to counter the Zero, the first contract for the type with the Navy was signed in June of 1941.  However, in April of 1942 Grumman did launch a study of combat reports to see if changes needed to be made before the design was locked.  The study included a personal interview with Edward O’Hare.  A few tweaks were made, the cockpit position was raised and the cowling sloped downwards to improve forward visibility.  The XF6F-1 flew in June of that year with the R-2600 engine and an XF6F-2 which was similar except for better turbocharging flew shortly after.  But back in April the biggest change decided on was a switch to Pratt & Whitney’s more capable R-2800 engine.  This first appeared in the XF6F-3 that flew in July of 1942.  Notice this is all a very fast timeline, urgency was high and things were getting done quickly.
The production F6F-3 had only minor changes from the prototype.  It first flew in October of ’42 and deployed with Air Group 9 to the Essex in February of 1943.

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These colors and markings are fascinating to me. This is obviously a very early Hellcat with the aerodynamic fairings on the wing mounted machine guns and forward racked antenna mast.  Such early Hellcats were delivered in Blue-Grey over Grey camouflage.  When the Navy switched to the tri-color scheme in spring of ’43 they allowed the old blue-grey to remain instead of the newer Intermediate Blue.  The bottom was just painted white and the uppers got Sea Blue.  But the photo below shows something, maybe brushed on, around the rear insignia.  My GUESS is that when the Insignia was changed in July and August of the year the painters did some touch up with the newer Intermediate Blue color.  Purely a guess, but that’s my interpretation here.

Now’s the time switch the narrative over to James Flatley.  At the start of the Pacific War the US Navy was blessed with two particularly notable tacticians; John Thach and James Flatley.  Thach and Flatley were friends and worked together on tactical challenges.  They began work on what Thach called the “Beam Defense Maneuver” before the War, based on rumors from China (via Claire Chennault) that the Japanese had a type that was both faster and more maneuverable than any Allied type.  They practiced with one group of planes restricted to 2/3s throttle to see what could be made of it, until Thach came up with the maneuver involving four aircraft protecting each other.
At the Battle of the Coral Sea Flatley was deputy commander of Fighting 5 on the Yorktown and flew in three separate engagements while claiming three kills.  After this he returned stateside to take command of Fighting 10 flying Wildcats.  The squadron was known as the Grim Reapers, making Flatley “Reaper Leader”.  In this role, flying from the Enterprise, he fought at the Battle of Santa Cruz and had the opportunity to personally test the “Beam Defense Maneuver”.  Afterwards, he insisted it be called “The Thach Weave” and that’s how been known ever since.  He was also credited as an Ace with six kills from this point.
One area of disagreement between Thach and Flatley was their assessment of the Wildcat.  Flatley was a big supporter of the type, especially versus the Zero.  As he put it, the Wildcat shoots down Zeros and brings its pilots home.
After Santa Cruz, Flatley was promoted to command Air Group 5 which had been assigned to the new Yorktown (CV-10).  As such he made the first ever deck landing on that ship (which is now a museum at Patriot’s Point, South Carolina).  Later, on August 31 1943, he commanded an airstrike on Marcus Island that was the combat debut of the F6F Hellcat.  I believe he was flying this same aircraft, his personal Hellcat, during that entire period.  That was the end of his combat flying career, he later held staff and command positions rising to Vice Admiral before his retirement post-War.

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Commander James Flatley as CAG-5. (photo from Wikipedia)

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I love this photo.  This may be the dirtiest CAG aircraft I’ve ever seen!  On the bottom of the wing, just behind the landing gear, you can see the extra tank rack I didn’t notice until too late.  This picture is the motivation for this build. (photo from Carrier at War by Robert Lawson and Barett Tillman)

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Traditionally, Air Group Commanders carried number “99” as their side number.  The origin of “00” is obscure.  But odd considering “Double Naught” (or “Double Nuts”) was radio slang for an Admiral.  To avoid irritating higher ups, Flatley used the call sign “99 Sniper”.  Today, 00 is the standard marking for an Air Group/Wing Commander.

Back to the Hellcat, the type had a devastating impact on Japanese airpower.  It was flown by both Navy and Marine pilots and scored 56% of all Navy/Marine aerial victories in the Second World War. It’s overall kill/loss ratio was 19:1.  And unlike the Corsair, it was designed with durability and ease of maintenance in mind (the Grumman “Iron Works” had a reputation to uphold!) such that at any time 90-95% of deployed Hellcats were expected to be operational.  These are all unheard of numbers for a combat type.
Although the Navy always favored the Hellcat over the Corsair for its ease of maintenance and good deck manners it did come to share deck space with Corsairs towards the end of the War when higher speed and rate of climb became paramount for battling the Kamikaze.

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This is the Hasegawa kit with Superscale Decals.  A painless build in every way.  Late in the process (during final weathering!) I discovered this particular aircraft had extra fuel tank racks installed under each wing.  This was so the Air Group Commander would have extra loiter time for strike coordination.  But too late to show it here.  Oops.

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John Thach’s Wildcat and Jimmy Flatley’s Hellcat

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Hellcats shredded Zeros at every opportunity.

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Three American fighters powered by the R-2800 engine.  Hellcat flanked by P-47 Thunderbolt and F4U Corsair.

About atcDave

I'm 5o-something years old and live in Ypsilanti, Michigan. I'm happily married to Jodie. I was an air traffic controller for 33 years and recently retired; grew up in the Chicago area, and am still a fanatic for pizza and the Chicago Bears. My main interest is military history, and my related hobbies include scale model building and strategy games.
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12 Responses to Grumman F6F-3 Hellcat

  1. Pingback: Intermission – Plane Dave’s Grumman F6F-3 Hellcat – My Forgotten Hobby III

  2. Pierre Lagacé says:

    Great post as always Dave.

  3. jfwknifton says:

    Hear ! Hear ! A really interesting post. British test pilot Eric Brown, in his book, praises the Wildcat to the skies. He seems hugely impressed that it would float for a very long time so that pilots might be picked up.
    I’ve just finished reading “Darwin Spitfires” by Anthony Cooper, a very detailed account of the dogfights between Zeroes and the Spitfires sent to protect Darwin. The Japanese are far superior to the RAF, with practiced moves to bounce the over-confident British and Australians. It is a really good read if you ever see a copy.

    • I might have to check that book out. I knew that the Japanese were a nasty surprise for the RAF during the early stages of the war but I’ve not read that much about it.

    • atcDave says:

      I think I have read it. I’ve read a couple on the subject, most recently an Osprey book. Fascinating stuff. I know a major problem for the RAF against Japan was that the relative roles were exactly reversed compared to fighting Germans. That is, the Spitfire and Hurricane were both more maneuverable than the Bf 109 so the standard procedure was to turn against the opponent. Against the Japanese this was playing to their strength. The right move was to use power and speed.
      The real tragedy of it is that when the Spitfire pilots first arrived in Australia they were briefed by Marine pilots who’d been fighting the Japanese on Guadalcanal.
      But the British were too sure of themselves and too sure their Spitfires were better than Wildcats.

      And I do love Eric Brown’s writing! I believe all of his actual combat experience was in Wildcat’s. He got in some trouble once for buzzing an airliner (out of Lisbon maybe?) too close and upside down! The pilots and passengers were not amused!

  4. A very interesting post Dave and a fantastic looking model – nicely done. I did like your comparison shots. I knew the Hellcat was big but it’s a lot bigger than I realised when compared to the Zero – it’s almost on a par with the Jug!

    • atcDave says:

      Yeah it’s a big bird! The Thunderbolt is a little bigger with all that turbo-super charging in the rear fuselage, but its not a huge difference.

  5. A nice write up Dave. With those big engines I always imagine them to be ‘lumpy’ and less manoeuvrable than they actually were. They were however, a pretty formidable set of fighters and yours look the business!

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