World War II was known for a number of successful twin-engine fighter aircraft, such as the Lockheed P-38 Lightning, Meschermitt ME-110 and the DeHaviland Mosquito. Just before these planes entered service, the U.S. Navy was considering a twin-engine fighter of their own. Their criteria for such an aircraft was the ability to operate from aircraft carriers, as well as a land based mode, with more range, speed and firepower than existing fighters. During this blog, we'll follow the development of the aircraft which met these requirements, the Grumman F7F Tigercat.
In 1940 the Navy began to evaluate two prototypes for the twin-engine fighter design. Both entries were from Grumman, the F5F Skyrocket and the F7F Tigercat. The F5F first flew in April 1940 with the single-seat, radial engine aircraft having a twin-tail configuration and the undercarriage fully retracted into the large engine nacelles that protruded past its rounded nose. The plane was equipped with a tailhook, but did not fly with carriers. The F5F had a reasonably good top speed of 359 mph. and was armed with four .50 caliber machine guns. Though the F5F had good test flight reports, it did not enter production due to supply chain problems with an inventory of both left handed and right handed propellers necessary to be placed on the aircraft carriers, due to the counter-rotating propeller system on the Skyrocket. The contract for production of the XF7F was awarded to Grumman by the Navy in June 1941, with Grumman's objective to produce an aircraft which outperformed and outgunned all existing fighter aircraft, as well as serve in a ground attack role. Envisioned for the proposed Midway Class aircraft carriers, the performance of the prototype XF7F exceeded initial expectations with a top speed of 435 mph. The Tigercat was even 70 mph. faster than the F6F Hellcat at sea level. The F7F was well armed with four .50 caliber machine guns in the nose and two 20mm cannon in each wing, in addition to under-wing and under-fuselage hardpoints for bombs or torpedoes. However, this was bought at the cost of relatively heavy weight and high landing speed when compared with other fighters of the day.
The F7F made its first flight on November 2, 1943, which was highly successful, with deliveries commencing in late April 1944. When production began in December 1943, the initial order specified 500 aircraft to be delivered to the Marine Corps for ground support operations in the Pacific. However, changes in operation requirements led to production delays with only 34 single-seat examples delivered. Tigercats were produced in two variants, a single -seat dayfighter and a two-seat night fighter. The single-seater was armed with four 20 mm cannon in the wings and four .50 caliber machine guns in the nose. The night-fighter carried radar in the nose, instead of the .50 caliber machine guns. For all of its capability, the Tigercat never saw action in World War II, with a Marine squadron arriving on Okinawa on the last day of the war. Though missing out on World War II service, the Tigercat performed well in Korea, where the F7Fs served in both the ground attack and night fighter roles. Though the Tigercat was an impressive aircraft when it entered service, several factors limited its effectiveness. The first of these was changing service requirements, with the need for carrier based fighters decreasing with the introduction of jet powered aircraft. Secondly, the Tigercat's large size and twin-engine configuration resulted in higher maintenance costs and fuel consumption. Third, a surplus of military aircraft after World War II made it difficult to find buyers after the war. Fourth, the Tigercat had a relatively high accident rate, which affected its reputation and success. Finally, and perhaps the most important factor, was timing. The Tigercat entered service at the end of World War II, limiting its combat role. Its service paralled that of the introduction of more capable jet aircraft, rendering it obsolete by the early 1950's. After its military retirement in 1954, a number of Tigercats were used as firebombers, with some aircraft modified to carry 800 gallon tanks of flame retardant. For whatever faults it had, the Tigercat had two distinctions; it was the first twin-engine Navy fighter to operate from an aircraft carrier, as well as the first to fly off a carrier with tricycle landing gear.