The first flight of the FF-1 occurred on December 21, 1931.
It was just two months after the stock market crash of October 1929 that six men led by Leroy Randle Grumman, a former naval aviator, formed the Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation, its first work for the Navy being the construction of pontoon floats for seaplanes. The floats, which featured retractable landing gear, attracted the interest of the sea service for the potential application of that technology to fighter aircraft to improve performance. Grumman submitted a design proposal and on April 2, 1931, the Navy awarded the company a contract to build what would become the FF-1. This first fighter built by Grumman laid the foundation for a long line of successful fighters that included the famous F6F Hellcat and F-14 Tomcat.
The FF-1 proved revolutionary not only in its retractable landing gear, but also with its all metal, stressed skin fuselage and enclosed cockpit, all giant steps forward in aircraft design. Though its forward fuselage was bulbous in order to house the landing gear, the FF-1’s top speed of 207 M.P.H. belied its less than streamlined appearance. This became readily apparent to a U.S. Army squadron commander, who upon seeing one flying during an exercise over Hawaii, decided to jump the strange bird with no wheels. “Great was his amazement,” reported the Bureau of Aeronautics Newsletter on March 1, 1933, “when his dive upon the innocent looking target failed to close the range.” In fact, the only significant drawback to the aircraft was its poor climb capability, taking over six minutes to reach an altitude of 10,000 ft.
Called the “Fifi” by pilots, a nickname derived from the aircraft’s FF-1 designation, the new fighter entered fleet service in May 1933. Grumman also manufactured a scouting version designated the SF-1, which served as command aircraft in fighter squadrons. All told, 64 aircraft (both fighter and scout versions) rolled off the Grumman assembly line. In addition, in 1936 Canadian Car & Foundry acquired the rights to construct a version of the aircraft designated the G-23, examples of which were operated by Canada, Japan, Mexico, Spain and Nicaragua.
The Museum’s Aircraft:
In 1961, J.R. Sirmons, an Oklahoma fertilizer and spray plane pilot hired to work in Nicaragua, discovered the sole export G-23 operated by that nation’s air force. Noting its similarity to an early-Grumman biplane fighter, he paid $150 for the machine and set about putting it into flyable condition.
In 1966, Sirmons flew the airplane to the United States and eventually made his way to Grumman, which acquired the G-23 from Sirmons and began to complete the restoration of the aircraft in the FF-1 configuration. The intent was to display it around the country for a year before donating it to the Naval Aviation Museum. Painted in the markings of the VF-5B Red Rippers, the aircraft flew the air show circuit until June 1967. That month, Captain Bill Scarborough, USN (Ret.), departed the Grumman factory at Bethpage bound for Pensacola. Following stops along the eastern seaboard, the aircraft arrived at NAS Pensacola on June 9th. After making low passes over the training carrier Lexington (CVT 16), Scarborough made a landing at Forrest Sherman Field. There Navy and museum officials accepted it into the collection. It is one of only a few aircraft to have been displayed in the original and current locations of the museum.