June 26th, 1942 marks the first flight of Grumman’s F6F Hellcat. Designed as the replacement for the F4F Wildcat, the Hellcat became the U.S. Navy’s premier carrier-based fighter aircraft.
Though Grumman was already working on the design to replace the Wildcat, the contract for the first prototypes wasn’t signed until June of 1941. Using the design of the F4F as their starting point, the entire aircraft was re-engineered with one thing in mind – defeating the Japanese Zero. Improve mechanical systems, a 25% more powerful engine, an armored cockpit with better visibility, more potent weaponry, and later even radar were added to this new Warbird. Night-fighting capability and even a 2000 pound bomb payload capacity would enhance later versions of the F6F.
The Hellcat’s first saw enemy action on September 1st, 1943 when a pair from the USS Independence downed a Japanese “flying boat”. Operational tempos increased rapidly for the Hellcats. Engagements at Tarawa, Rabaul, and the Battle of the Philippine Sea saw kill counts soar. With over 65,000 sorties flown by Hellcats during the war, F6Fs were responsible for over 5,000 downed enemy aircraft. With only 270 Hellcats lost, they were responsible for over 50% of all U.S. aerial victories – an almost 19:1 kill-to-loss ratio. Allied versions of the F6F build on this legacy. Overall, 29 Navy, 2 Marine Corps aces, and one Medal of Honor recipient flew the F6F Hellcat.
The John Wayne film Flying Leathernecks (1951) features quite a bit of combat footage of the Hellcat in action even though F4U Corsairs were supposed to be the stars. Spoilers like to point out that much of the footage is post-WWII and some even Korean War vintage. Korea war the last theater of war in which U.S. F6Fs would see combat.