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Grumman's Ascendency

Chapter Three:

Shortly after the first F2F-1 was delivered, the next Grumman fighter made its first flight. Designated as the XF3F-1, it had been ordered the previous October. Essentially, the F3F was a redesign of its earlier F2F sibling, incorporating a slightly more powerful version of the Pratt & Whitney R-1535 than that fitted to the F2F. This new design produced less aerodynamic drag, and even though it was nearly 600 lbs heavier, it was more than 20 mph faster, although this extra weight resulted in a reduced rate of climb. Perhaps of greater importance to those who tested and flew the fighters, was the significant increase in overall maneuverability that accompanied the redesign.

After the loss of the first two XF3F-1 prototypes, the third finally made into acceptance trials. This photo was taken on January 10, 1936, just 20 days before the first production F3F-1 was delivered to the Navy.

The development program would suffer from the loss of two prototypes. One of which was caused by structural failure. In August of 1935, the Navy issued a contract for 54 F3F-1 fighters, the first of which was delivered on January 29, 1936. Despite the two crashes, the Navy was still very impressed with the new Grumman and their faith was fully justified once testing had begun on the third prototype.

His canopy pushed full open, this VF-4 pilot enjoys the view over California. His F3F-1 carries a unit designator that indicates that this pilot is the leader of the VF-4s second section.

With the F3F-1 now in service, and being well liked by its pilots, Grumman proposed that the last aircraft of the order be delivered with a more powerful Wright R-1820-22 Cyclone producing 850 hp. Approval was granted by the end of July, and thus was born the XF3F-2. Fitted with the nine cylinder Wright radial with its much greater diameter, the XF2F-2 appeared even more portly than its predecessors. Nonetheless, looks have always been deceiving when it came to Grumman aircraft, and this one was no different.

XF3F-2 flipped over
Landing on rough ground always presented the risk of digging in a wheel or catching a prop tip. Exactly how the XF3F-2 prototype came to find itself in this position can't be determined by this photo. It did, however, bend only the top propeller blade, which leads me to believe that the engine was not running when the fighter nosed over.

Flight testing revealed that overall performance had improved, despite the significant increase in diameter of the engine and its inherent drag. Helping to convert the increased horsepower into thrust was a new three-blade, adjustable propeller. The Navy promptly placed an order for 81 of Wright powered fighters. And why not? Grumman's little F3F had evolved into one of the world's best biplane fighter aircraft.

Not all F3F fighters went to the Navy. The Marine Corps fielded VMF-1 and VMF-2, both equipped with the F3F-2. Marine fighter pilots found the tubby F3F much to their liking.

On December 1, 1937, the Navy accepted the first F3F-2, with the last being delivered on 11 May 1938. It was determined that another squadron of F3Fs were needed and the Navy placed an order for 27 improved F3F-2 fighters, plus one prototype which was given the designation of XF3F-3.

A Navy test pilot, with controls crossed, presents a planform view of the XF3F-3 undergoing testing at Anacostia Naval Air Station.

These aircraft incorporated subtle improvements to the aerodynamics (largely to to engine cowling, which was a major source of drag) and equipment. These ‘cleaned up’ aircraft managed to attain a maximum speed of 264 mph, or 33 mph faster than the F2F-1 of two years earlier.

VF-5 F3F-3
Deployed aboard the USS Yorktown, VF-5 was equipped with the latest F3F-3 fighter. This aircraft is that of the Squadron Commander, as indicated by the number in the 5-F-1 identifying code.

Ultimately, the F3F would remain in service aboard U.S. Navy fleet carriers until the spring of 1941. Being retired from front-line service did not consign the F3Fs to the scrap heap. They would go on to serve in the Naval Reserve and were extensively used as advanced trainers during the first year of America’s involvement in the Second World War.

F3F-3 of VF-5
Color profile of the previous VF-5 aircraft.

With the day of the carrier borne biplane clearly at an end, the Navy issued a requirement for a monoplane fighter and announced a competitive fly-off. Grumman was requested to submit a biplane design, as the Navy wanted to hedge its bets against the possibility that the monoplanes would not prove to be acceptable. Grumman proposed a yet another improvement on the F3F.

Three F3F-3 fighters
Flying over the coast of southern California, a trio of USS Yorktown F3F-3 fighters form up in the standard Vee formation employed at the time. Leading the formation is the same 5-F-1 Grumman from VF-5.

It would be longer, and have a greater wing span, with the upper and lower wings being of the same span for the first time. Designated as the XF4F-1, Grumman realized that the fighter would be at a distinct performance disadvantage to the competition, which included the Brewster XF2A-1 and the Seversky XFN1-1. Therefore, Grumman presented a strong argument that they be permitted to submit a monoplane design as well. The Navy agreed and thus was born the XF4F-2.

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