The US Navy pushed through a last generation of “modern” biplane fighters when most other air arms were switching to monoplanes.
Let’s take a look at the ultimate expression of a passing era.
It might be fair to say the US Navy honors tradition. And sometimes its a fine line between sticking with what works and moving ahead. But in the mid-1930s there still seemed to be very rational reasons for sticking with a biplane. The most obvious being a very slow touch-down speed, that was highly desirable on an aircraft carrier. Add to that, the F3F was always seen as an interim type. Although arguably, that can be said about any combat aircraft (every one of the pre-War Grumman types I will mention in this article had a total production of around 100 aircraft; some closer to 50).
Grumman’s first fighter for the Navy (actually their first aircraft of any type), the FF, was inspired when the Navy asked if Grumman could use their patented retractable landing gear to update the fleet’s Boeing F4B fighters. Grumman submitted a two-seat fighter and closely related scouting aircraft (Grumman SF) that both entered service in 1934. Two-seat naval fighters were not uncommon at this time due to the complexities of navigating over large bodies of water. The aircraft was considered fast with a top speed over 200 mph.
By the end of that year a new lightweight fighter, the F2F was also entering service. The F2F was small, fast and maneuverable. But it was perhaps too small in some dimensions and demonstrated instability. Before the F2F production run was complete in 1935 an improved version was sought. This featured a lengthened fuselage and smaller landing gear (for weight and aerodynamic reasons). The new design, the F3F of course, proved to be highly successful. Between an enclosed canopy, retractable landing gear, metal fuselage and rugged construction it seemed quite modern in 1936.
As proof of the type’s interim status, the Navy had ordered development of Brewster’s F2A Buffalo in 1935. Grumman also started work on the F4F that year, although initially this to be an improved F3F, a biplane. The Wildcat didn’t become a monoplane project until 1937.
But in the meantime something more immediate came to Grumman’s attention. A new version of the Wright R-1820 Cyclone engine with a mechanical super-charger. On their own initiative this new engine was fixed to a F3F airframe. With a top speed of 255 mph they succeeded in getting the Navy’s attention and 81 were ordered as F3F-2 (compared to 56 of the F3F-1).
As Buffalo and Wildcat development lagged a further refinement, mostly aerodynamic, resulted in 27 F3F-3. Final deliveries were in 1938.
The Buffalo and Wildcat finally entered service in 1940, and within a year all F3Fs had been retired from fleet service.
At the time of the Pearl Harbor attack 117 F3Fs were in training squadrons. This mostly meant NAS Miami and NAS Corpus Christi. As a fairly recent fighter type the F3F could offer a transition for new pilots, a first chance to handle 1000 hp. It was armed, or easily could be, for weapons training. And it was carrier capable for getting those all important carrier qualifications.
It remained as a fighter trainer until December 1943, and was finally retired not for inadequacy but because it was no longer supported by the manufacturer (and US industry was supplying plenty of more current combat types for the purpose).
This build represents one of those training aircraft. Its colors and markings narrow it down to November or December of 1941, but it has no unit identification.
This is the Accurate Miniatures kit. Its not a difficult build, but it was kind of slow because of the need to frequently stop and let things dry.
The very close call for the type entering combat makes me wonder how it would have faired against more modern Japanese types. As a biplane its obviously draggy, and therefore slower in level flight or a dive. Even slower than many Japanese bomber types. But it was spectacularly maneuverable with very light wing loading. And with lots of power on a light airframe it could climb like crazy! And given that those are the very aspects the Japanese often used to their advantage I can imagine some Zero pilot getting an ugly surprise as his quarry turns inside of him or pulls a tight loop to shred the Zero’s tail. And given that US Navy pilots were a highly trained elite they undoubtedly would have known how to take advantage of those strengths.
Although… Japanese pilots were also highly experienced and many had learned their trade against Polikarpov I-153s in China, so likely had a good idea how to deal with a biplane…