Grumman entered into a 1935 US Navy competition against Brewster to sell the United States Navy its next carrier-born fighter. While Brewster showcased its impressive F2A Buffalo - a speedy, no-frills, single-engine, single-seat monoplane fighter - Grumman set about to impress with its G-16 by-gone biplane design entered into the competition as the XF4F-1. The Brewster F2A Buffalo shined while the USN was less impressed with the Grumman design, eventually earning the Brewster firm the US Navy contract. Some 509 Brewster F2A fighters would be produced.
Despite the US Navy's decision, the G-16 was revised by Grumman into the G-18 design proposal, an aircraft featuring a more conventional monoplane wing arrangement. The US Navy likened the new design - designated as the XF4F-2 - enough to order a flyable prototype. The aircraft achieved first flight in September 1937 and was powered by a Pratt & Whitney R-1830-66 Twin Wasp radial piston engine of 1,050 horsepower. Despite the redesign and more powerful engine, the aircraft still did not match the Brewster Buffalo across the many desired fronts the US Navy was looking for.
Grumman made yet another attempt while still keeping US Navy interest, producing the G-36 model design and fitting it with a larger wing with squared-off ends, a redesigned empennage and the Pratt & Whitney XR-1830-76 series engine with two-stage supercharger. The G-36 was completed in February of 1939 and received the XF4F-3 prototype designation while first flight was achieved the following month. This time, the Grumman team got things right in terms of performance and reliability and the US Navy ordered the type into production as the F4F-3. The F4F-3 earned the right to become the Wildcats series first production model. A few further design changes emanated from the XF4F-3 but these were negligible.
Design of the F4F showcased the stout fuselage of its biplane fighter origins. The Pratt & Whitney powerplant was encased in the cylindrical forward portion of the fuselage and featured an exposed air-cooled radial opening. The engine sported a three-blade propeller system with a simple spinner. The canopy was of a two-piece arrangement with the forward windscreen fixed in place and the second aft piece built on two rear-sliding rails. Both sections featured heavy "greenhouse" style framing. The cockpit integrated directly into a "razorback" style upper rear fuselage, no doubt restricting pilot views to his "six". Wings were slightly forward and mid-mounted to each side of the cockpit. The wings contained armament of 2 x 12.7mm machine guns (two guns to a wing) along with 450 round of ammunition to a gun. The undercarriage was conventional for the time, with the aircraft being of a "tail dragger" design, featuring two main landing gears forward and a tail wheel at rear. The forward landing gears were borrowed from previous Grumman interwar aircraft designs and had to be hand-cranked by the pilot within the cockpit when lowering or raising the gears. The undercarriage design was licensed by Grumman from a Grover Loening design with whom Leroy Grumman worked for prior to starting his aviation company. When completely retracted, the exposed wheel sides conformed to the fuselage sides and were distinct identifiers of the F4F Wildcat series. The empennage was of a traditional sort, featuring a single vertical tail fin and horizontal planes. All wing edges were "squared off", owing to the utilitarian look of the aircraft.
Despite the pilot sitting directly behind the engine mount, he was afforded a decent forward view and relatively good views to the sides. Former pilots - particularly FAA pilots - recounted at how "good" the cockpit generally felt, at least to them. As with most American cockpits, it proved spacious for the average man and featured a relatively clean - almost sparse - instrument panel containing basic dials and gauges and adorned with the gunsight at top. A center console region protruded towards the pilot, between his legs, and contained the ADF Automatic Direction Finder. A simple control stick was positioned between the pilots legs. Rudders were controlled via two floor-mounted rudder pedals and the hand-crank for the undercarriage was positioned at the lower right. All controls were within quick reach or vision of the pilot, making it a relatively easy aircraft to keep tabs on. If the Wildcat pilot failed its pilots at all, these failures were rectified in the improved F6F Hellcat still some years away.
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