The first widely-deployed mono-wing American carrier fighter, the Wildcat was the US Navy’s frontline fighter during the first years of the Pacific War.
In 1935, the US Navy adopted the F2F as its carrier-based fighter. A stubby-nosed biplane, the aircraft proved to have issues with directional stability, and Grumman fixed these problems with the F3F, another biplane. By this time, the Army Air Corps had been flying mono-wing fighters like the P-26 for years, but the Navy was reluctant to use mono-wings because of their high landing speeds and their wider wingspans, which caused difficulties in landing on carriers and storing them below the flight deck.
But by the late 1930s it was apparent that the biplanes had reached the edge of their performance, and that the drag induced by biplane wings and their supporting struts was now a severe limiting factor. So, in 1936, the Navy began seeking a new mono-wing carrier fighter. It settled on the Brewster F2A Buffalo, but that plane suffered from production problems and also proved to be inadequate for carrier landings. The Navy sought an alternative.
Grumman responded by taking the fuselage of the F3F, modifying it a bit, and fitting a mono-wing to it. This did not prove to be much of an advantage over the biplane, so the design was reworked further. In 1939, a workable prototype was produced. It was dubbed the F4F Wildcat, and began production in August.
Superficially, the Wildcat still looked a lot like a monoplane version of the F3F. It had the same stubby nose and rotund fuselage, and the retractable landing gear that folded up into the side of the nose. But it featured a moveable wing that folded back along the sides to reduce the airplane’s footprint, allowing more of them to be stowed on the flight deck and in the carrier’s hangar. Unlike most of the newer fighters, which used inline engines for reduced drag and higher speed, Grumman decided to stay with a radial engine for the Wildcat, since it required less maintenance and was more rugged in combat. The 1,050hp Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp pushed the Wildcat to 330mph. The fighter was armed with six .50-caliber machine guns, and could also be fitted with two small bombs.
The Wildcat was also adopted by the British Royal Navy and the French, though the French versions were not delivered before the Nazis invaded and took France out of the war. The Royal Navy began flying F4Fs, designating them as the “Martlet”. The initial shipments of Martlets lacked folding wings and were assigned to ground duty. Later versions with folding wings were assigned to British escort carriers for antisubmarine duty.
By 1940, the Wildcat had replaced the F2A Brewster Buffalo and the F3F as the frontline fighter for both the US Navy and the US Marines. It was already obsolete. Although the Wildcat was rugged and could take a lot of punishment, and could also readily outdive a Zero, the Japanese fighter was faster, more maneuverable and flown by superbly-trained pilots who viewed the F4F as an easy target. During combat in the Pacific, the Americans quickly learned that getting into a turning dogfight with a Zero was suicidal. The tactic of choice became the “Thach Weave”, in which two Wildcats would fly a criss-cross pattern to cover each other’s tails. Although the Wildcat was constantly updated and improved, with some using the Wright Cyclone engine, it was never able to outclass the Zero. However, as the war went on, the lightly armored Zeros suffered heavy pilot losses, and by 1944 the Japanese were sending poorly-trained pilots into combat where they were shot down by the now-more-experienced Americans. In total, the Wildcat ended up with a 7 to 1 kill ratio against Japanese fighters.
By the middle of 1942, the Navy was concentrating on the new F6F Hellcat fighter and the larger Essex-class aircraft carriers. But the Wildcat still retained a useful role: a whole fleet of American escort carriers, also known as “jeep carriers”, was being built to protect convoys from submarines, and their decks were too short for Hellcats. So production of Wildcats was maintained by transferring them to the General Motors company, which produced them under license until the end of the war. Since these were intended mostly for antisubmarine duty rather than air superiority, two of the wing machine guns were removed to reduce the weight. Some models were fitted with unguided rockets under the wings for attacking ground targets or submarines.
In total, around 8,000 Wildcats were made during the war, with 6,000 of these being the General Motors version, known as the FM. Today, about 45 remain, with around 15 of these being in flyable condition.
The Wildcat on display at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum is an FM-2 model produced by General Motors in 1943. It was assigned to a Navy base in Oklahoma, was deactivated and placed in storage and was finally transferred to the Smithsonian in 1960. The Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola has both an F4F-3 model and an FM-2 model on exhibit.