F6F-3 Hellcat - NNAM

First Flight:
The XF6F-3 Hellcat, the prototype of the  F6F-3 like that on display, made its maiden flight on July 30, 1942. This was just five weeks after the first prototype Hellcat, the XF6F-1, made its first flight.

The airplane destined to sweep Japanese air power from Pacific skies took shape on Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation drawing boards in 1941, months before the Pearl Harbor attack. When it joined the fleet, it enabled Naval Aviators to fight against the vaunted Japanese Zero from an advantage. With a top speed of  380 MPH (its F4F Wildcat predecessor’s was 318 MPH), the Hellcat was faster than its Japanese counterpart and also had a better rate of climb and superior high-altitude performance. However, even in the cockpit of an F6F, an aviator had to be wary of dogfighting a Zero because of the Japanese fighter’s turning radius, particularly at low air speeds. Basic armament for the F6F consisted of six .50-cal. machine guns, and later versions could be fitted with 20 mm cannon and carry rockets and various combinations of bombs, making it a capable air-to-ground platform.

The production of various versions of the Hellcat certainly reflected the labeling of the United States as the “Arsenal of Democracy.” Between 1942 and 1945, more than 12,200 F6Fs rolled off the Grumman assembly line. At peak production during one month in March 1945, workers completed an aircraft about once every hour around-the-clock.

The Hellcat entered combat on August 31, 1943, with an attack against Marcus Island and flew from carrier decks and shore bases throughout the Pacific War. It also operated in the Atlantic Theater, notably in support of Operation Dragoon, the invasion of Southern France. Its most famous engagement occurred at the Battle of the Philippine Sea on June 19, 1944, when F6Fs splashed nearly 300 enemy airplanes. One Hellcat pilot’s comparison of the action to a hunting trip back home gave this element of the battle its enduring nickname – the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot.

Airplane of Aces:
A total of 306 aviators became aces (shooting down five or more enemy aircraft in air-to-air combat) while flying the Hellcat, more than any other American fighter. Among them were members of night fighter squadrons, a radar-equipped version of the airplane employed in the latter part of the war. The Navy’s leading ace, Commander David McCampbell, scored 34 kills in an F6F and received the Medal of Honor.  

The Museum’s Aircraft:
The aircraft on display (F6F-3, Bureau Number 25910) is a veteran of combat in the Solomon Islands with Fighting Squadron (VF) 38, a land-based unit that scored 22 aerial victories against Japanese aircraft. While in the squadron, the museum aircraft’s missions included flying combat air patrol for the invasion of Vella Lavella, strikes against Ballale Airfield and flying escort for an aircraft carrying Vice Admiral William F. “Bull” Halsey. Following front-line service, it operated from NAS Glenview, IL, conducting carrier qualification on board USS Wolverine (IX 64) and USS Sable (IX 81) until it crashed into the lake in January 1945 during an errant carrier landing. It was recovered in 2009 and restored to display condition.

F6F-3 in Flight

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An F6F-3 Hellcat assigned to Fighting Squadron (VF) 3 pictured in flight near San Diego, CA, in 1943.