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Unsung Hero – Grumman F6F Hellcat

October 1944 – Leyte Gulf

Thousands of feet over the Philippines’ east-central coast, two Grumman F6F Hellcats scream toward more than four dozen Japanese aircraft on the horizon. 

Below the ships of two great sea powers slug it out in one of the Pacific Theater’s most epic naval engagements.  

Behind the sticks are US Navy pilots Captain David McCampbel and Ensign Roy Rushing.

Outnumbered nearly 20 to 1, McCampbell and Rushing shove their throttles forward and attack the lumbering bombers and their nimble Mitsubishi A6M Zero escorts with wreckless abandon. 

Diving from above and blasting away with their .50-caliber machine guns, the duo makes multiple passes through the air armada, and by the time the smoke clears 15 Japanese planes have been downed. 

Neither McCampbell nor Rushing experienced so much as a scratch, marking the dogfight as one of the war’s most one-sided aerial victories.

For their efforts each pilot earned the title “ace in a day,” and more importantly, the chaos they created led the Japanese to abort the mission altogether. 

If they’d been flying different aircraft the outcome might not have been so rosy, but in addition to their skills as airmen, McCampbell and Rushing were blessed with a lethally efficient aircraft. 

Dubbed “Zero Killers,” Hellcats collectively racked up one of the war’s most impressive kill ratios, and they’re not nearly as well-known as some other iconic fighters of the era. 

Grumman F6F Hellcats were credited with destroying more than 5,000 enemy aircraft while in US Navy and Marine Corps service, far more than any other carrier-based Allied aircraft.


Though vaunted airplanes like Me-109s, Focke Wulf Fw-190s, Supermarine Spitfires and P-51 Mustangs dominated the skies over Europe, most played limited or no role in the Pacific. 

Instead, aircraft like A6M Zeros and Vought F4U Corsairs battled fiercely for air superiority, but in many respects Hellcats were superior to both. 

That said, they weren’t the world’s most aesthetically pleasing aircraft. 

In the unlikely event that a Hellcat was parked on the tarmac next to a Mustang or Spitfire, the former would more resemble a bathtub with a propeller than a tried-and-true dogfighter. 

Thanks to their hefty radial engines and high-set cockpits, Hellcats were what might politely be referred to as “portly. 

On the other hand, they had gobs of horsepower, packed a mean punch, and compared to the Corsairs they fought alongside, they offered pilots greater visibility and were much easier to land on windswept carrier decks.   

Since the late ‘30s Grumman designers had been working on a successor to the F4F Wildcat, and the company was awarded a contract to build the new machine – the XF6F-1 – in late June of 1941. 

The next generation aircraft featured a number of improvements, one of the most notable of which was a wide-set hydraulically powered landing gear. 

Though it’s hard to fathom now, F4F pilots had to manually crank their bird’s landing gears up after taking off.  

It was a particularly strenuous and tedious exercise under optimal conditions, let alone when enemy aircraft were nearby. 

F6Fs were originally slated for 1,700-horsepower, 14-cylinder Wright radial engines, and thanks to the company’s patented “Stow-wings” that could be folded manually or hydraulically, they occupied less precious space both above and below the carrier’s cramped decks.   

But though the contract for production had already been issued, Grumman designers continued working with veteran pilots and representatives from the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics making additional changes that would propel the Hellcat to the status of the Pacific’s most dominant and well-rounded fighter. 

Even as late as mid-1942, careful analysis revealed that Hellcats were mismatched against Zeroes in a number of key areas. 

Hence, Navy brass requested that their cockpits be mounted even higher in the fuselages and that engine cowlings get more of a downward slope, both of which gave F6Fs unmatched visibility.  

In addition, with their slow stall speeds – the speed at which lift isn’t sufficient to keep the plane in the air – of just 84 miles per hour (135 km/h), Hellcats were relatively easy to land on carrier decks compared to Corsairs, which had to make their approaches at much higher speeds.

It was also determined just before production ramped up that the original engine didn’t provide enough power to counteract the plane’s considerable heft.

To remedy this power-to-weight problem, more powerful Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp 18-cylinder radial engines producing more than 2,000 horsepower were added – the same power plants found in Corsairs and Republic P-47 Thunderbolts.

Now with even more umph, the first prototype flew in October of 1942, and less than a year later the first production planes attained operational readiness.  

Design & Specifications

Unlike Zeros that were light and nimble at the cost of armor and self-sealing fuel tanks, F6Fs were built to absorb heavy damage and get pilots back to their carriers safely. 

Grumman F6F Hellcat by Kaboldy is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Each featured a windscreen resistant to small arms fire and more than 200 pounds (90 kg) of armor surrounding the cockpit and vital engine components. 

Hellcats were 33 ½ feet (10.2 m) long, about 42 feet (13 m) from wingtip to wingtip and had maximum takeoff weights approaching 15,500 pounds (7,000 kg), making them about two times heavier than Zeros. 

Yet despite their weight and decidedly un-aerodynamic shapes, Hellcat’s combination of supercharged Double Wasp radial engines and massive 3-bladed propellers measuring just over 13 feet (4 m) in diameter, were together capable of propelling the aircraft past 390 miles per hour (629 km/h) in level flight. 

With an internal fuel capacity of 250 US gallons (208 Imperial gallons) and capable of carrying three additional drop tanks under the wings and fuselage, F6Fs had respectable ranges of approximately 1,000 miles (1,609 km) when fully loaded for combat. 

Though their external drop tanks were of the standard variety, Hellcat’s were equipped with self-sealing internal fuel tanks, which meant that unless they took a direct hit from a 20 or 30 mm cannon at relatively close range, the planes could generally go on flying without experiencing fires, explosions or catastrophic fuel loss. 

Self-sealing fuel tanks were heavy and had limited capacity compared to traditional tanks, but both limitations were a small price to pay for increased survivability.

Armament varied slightly from variant to variant, but most F6Fs had six .50 caliber (12.7 mm) Browning machine guns with 400 rounds each, and on the hardpoints under their wings and fuselages, Hellcats could carry nearly 4,000 pounds (1,814 kg) of ordnance including bombs, torpedos and high-velocity rockets for attacking ground and naval targets. 

Featuring bulbous radar pods mounted in fairings on the outer portion of their starboard wings and radar screens in the center of their main instrument panels to guide pilots to their targets, more than 200 dedicated night fighter variants were built as well. 

Also equipped with two 20 mm cannons, they claimed a number of resounding victories over large bomber formations in late 1943. 

A few stripped down F6Fs were also fitted with camera equipment for reconnaissance missions.

Operational History

Some pilots who’d flown both planes preferred the Vought F4U Corsair over the Hellcat, largely because Vought’s unique gull-wing aircraft was significantly faster.  

Officially the Navy preferred F6Fs because of their superior visibility, safety and predictable handling qualities, as well as their ease of maintenance and stout undercarriages that held up well under the rigors of carrier operations. 

Not surprisingly, Hellcats became the primary carrier-based fighters in the Pacific. 

To unload its Corsairs, the Navy resorted to an old tactic to get rid of the equipment it didn’t want – they unloaded it on the Marine Corp.

In this instance however, it was perfectly OK with Marine aviators who generally favored Corsairs because they rarely if ever had to land on carrier decks, which meant that limited visibility and high stall speed weren’t the issues they were for their Navy counterparts. 

Hellcats first saw action against the Japanese the first day of September in 1943, when fighters from USS Independence shot down a Kawanishi H8K “Emily” flying boat.

It goes without saying that flying boats named Emily aren’t particularly difficult targets even for run-of-the-mill fighters, but the following month heavily outnumbered Navy Hellcats engaged nearly 50 Zeroes over Tawara, of which 30 were downed with the loss of just one F6F.  

Then the following month near Rabaul, New Britain, mixed Corsair and Hellcat flights engaged in multi-day dogfights with Zeros, and again they outclassed their adversaries by a margin of 10 or 12 to 1. 

Later, when mock combat exercises were flown against a captured A6M5 Zero, it was discovered that in addition to being faster at all altitudes, F6Fs had better climb rates above 14,000 ft (4,300 m) where their two-stage superchargers forced more oxygen into the engines. 

On the downside, Zeroes could easily outmaneuver the larger American planes at low speeds, and as a result pilots were instructed to engage selectively, only when the conditions favored the advantages of their aircraft. 

Hellcats also played a major role in the Battle of the Philippine Sea between the 19th and 20th of June in 1944, later dubbed the “Marianas Turkey Shoot.” 

In another of the Pacific’s most decisive battles, the Navy capitalized on its advanced radar to detect Japanese ships and aircraft far beyond visual range.

Then launching their planes with enough time for them to gain precious altitude, in the ensuing melee of darting aircraft, droning engines, and cracking machine guns, American pilots downed more than 300 Japanese aircraft with a loss of only 29 planes. 

By war’s end F6Fs had accounted for nearly three-quarters of all aerial victories in the Pacific.

Hellcat Stats

All told, US Navy and Marine pilots flew more than 65,000 sorties in the various F6F variants and claimed nearly 5,200 aerial kills – nearly 60% of all those made in the Pacific. 

On the flipside, less than 300 F6Fs were lost to enemy aircraft, 553 were downed by land and ship-based anti aircraft fire, and nearly 1,300 crashed during non-combat operations like ferrying and training. 

Though an overall kill ratio of nearly 20 to 1 was claimed, aerial victories were often exaggerated, and it’s more likely that the actual number was closer to 10 to 1. 

Whatever the case, more aces flew Hellcats in the Pacific than any other aircraft, but their successes weren’t solely attributable to superior aircraft. 

Even as early as mid-1942 American aviators faced increasingly young and inexperienced Japanese pilots, and they often enjoyed both numerical and technological superiority, the latter of which was greatly aided by long-range radar.  

Captain David McCampbell, the US Navy’s leading ace scored nearly three dozen aerial victories from the cockpit of his trusty Hellcat, which he described as a rugged, reliable and easy to fly airplane that was an exceptionally stable gun platform. 

Likewise, Navy pilot Hamilton McWhorter III officially shot down 12 Japanese aircraft, and was the first of more than 300 men who would gain “ace” status in a Grumman F6F Hellcat. 

Though they were dogfighters at heart, Hellcats also dropped more than 6,500 tons of ordnance on both land and naval targets, and more than 1,200 were acquired by the British Fleet Air Arm under the Lend-Lease Act.  

English Hellcats saw action in the North Atlantic, Mediterranean and the Far East, and many were dedicated reconnaissance variants. 

British pilots collectively racked up 52 kills with just 18 losses, of which the 1844th Naval Air Squadron flying from HMS Indomitable was the highest-scoring unit.

After the war Britain mothballed, destroyed or returned its remaining Hellcats depending on their condition, though the last few operational squadrons weren’t officially disbanded until 1946. 


Grumman and its contractors produced more than 12,000 Hellcats in just two years, the last of which rolled off the assembly line just a month after Japan’s unconditional surrender.

This incredibly high production rate partially resulted from America’s large and efficient manufacturing sector, but the plane benefited from a rock-solid original design which meant that relatively few modifications had to be made along the way.

The US Navy quickly began phasing its Hellcats out of front line service just after VJ day, but F6Fs had the distinction of being the first aircraft flown by the Blue Angels in 1946. 

Other surviving aircraft were relegated to less glamorous duties as trainers, target tugs and unmanned drones akin to guided missiles, while some night fighter variants remained in service until the early ‘50s. 

Though the jet age had dawned, most Hellcats were replaced with radial powered Grumman F8F Bearcats, which were very similar with the exception that they were smaller, lighter, more powerful and faster. 

Bearcats aren’t particularly well-known these days either, but many aviation buffs consider them the absolute pinnacle of American piston-engine fighter design.

A few Hellcats saw action in Korea in late 1952 as unmanned drones packed with 2,000 pounds (907 kg) of high-explosives that were flown into strategic bridges that American and Korean ground forces couldn’t secure. 

Flying from the Essex-class aircraft carrier USS Boxer, the drones were operated by an early guided missile unit and controlled remotely while in flight by airmen in Douglas Skyraiders nearby. 

The French Navy and Air Force also used Hellcats in multiple Indochina campaigns, where they spent most of their time pounding ground targets since France’s colonial adversaries had few competent fighters to speak of. 

France also later replaced its F6Fs with F8Fs, though the Uruguayan Navy used theirs for another decade before retiring them in the early ‘60s. 

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