Japan may have been the only nation with a fully successful float-plane fighter, but others tried.
Let’s look at a US Navy attempt.
The F4F-3S program got started from seeing firsthand how successful a float-plane could be. The Japanese A6M2-N could provide fighter cover at any remote location, that meant they could chase off enemy scout planes and long range bombers. It was obvious to Navy planners that such an aircraft could fill a particular role. And through 1942 there was much uncertainty about how available aircraft carriers and airbases would be. A number of types were tested on floats, but as the Navy’s main fighter at the time it was obvious to try the Wildcat.
In October 1942 an F4F-3 Wildcat was sent to Edo Corporation to have floats fitted. The conversion was finished in February 1943. A twin float design was chosen, and extra rudders (linked to the main rudder) were added to the horizontal tail surfaces. These were to compensate for the extra surface area of the floats and provide yaw stability and control.
Flight testing in March showed that yaw stability was still inadequate so an extra fin was added on the lower tail surface. Testing also showed that the type was sturdy and capable of dealing with typical harbor conditions. Which led to an order to Edo for 100 more such conversions, which is what leads to this being a “prototype” even though its designation wasn’t tagged as one.
Of course this later order was never filled, there was only the one “Wildcatfish”. What happened? Let’s start with looking again at the date. March 1943. the F4F-3S had a top speed of 241 mph, in 1943. The Navy was sorting out operating details on how to use all the Hellcats and Corsairs coming off the assembly lines. You can guess how much enthusiasm there was for a Wildcat on floats that couldn’t even work up to 250 mph.
Plus dozens, ultimately over 100 escort carriers were nearing completion. And the SeaBees and other construction units were showing they could build an airfield at most localities in a matter of weeks.
The F4F-3S went from filling a need to being pointless in record time.
But the Wildcatfish does have a legacy that’s relevant to this day, something literally out of sequence and rarely noticed. In early 1941 the Navy had ordered Grumman to work on a long-range photo-recon variant of the Wildcat. Starting with the basic Wildcat airframe they designed a new wing. It was a longer, non-folding wing that carried 555 gallons of fuel internally. Added to the standard tankage this gave the F4F-7 a 3700 mile range. The Navy ordered over 100 of this sub-type. 21 were delivered and saw some service in the Solomons campaign. But with a solid wing it took too much space in a carrier hanger and operations showed it wasn’t really a pressing need. So the Navy canceled the program and directed the remaining 100 aircraft be completed as F4F-3 and be delivered to Edo to have floats attached.
Again the timing makes this interesting. This was late 1942 and Grumman was wrapping up F4F-4 construction and all future Wildcats would be built by General Motors. The earlier F4F-3 was mostly the same, except for a solid (non-folding) wing that was lighter and simpler to build. Basically this was the fastest way to let Grumman clear their shop space and dedicate themselves to F6F Hellcat construction.
Those 100 F4F-3s would be the last Wildcats built by Grumman, and they were sent straight to training units as fighter transition trainers. Today, there is a total of 7 F4F-3 Wildcats, 1 flyable, known to exist. Five of them, including the flyable example, are from that last batch of 100. Apart from being the last built, they were not deployed to the War zone. And several were lost in the Great Lakes, which are frigid cold and helped preserve the aircraft for decades until they were reclaimed.
Its worth mentioning too, that the flyable F4F-3 is the only Wildcat flying with an R-1830 engine (the others are all FM-2s with R-1820). So to really get the look and sound of Wake Island, Coral Sea, Midway, Guadalcanal; its the only thing flying. I’ve seen it at several airshows, to me its about the most moving sight in the sky.
This is the Hobbyboss kit. Perhaps another odd choice by that Chinese company, but I’m glad for it. Its nice to do something different with a particular favorite like the Wildcat. It is mostly a trouble free build, the float specific parts were maybe engineered to a lower standard than the base kit (fit is less precise) but not a huge difference.