Staff Writer (Updated: 7/26/2016):
Grumman had a fighter aircraft history spanning back to the early 1930's. Grumman found success early in the war with its over-achieving F4F Wildcat fighter - the fighter that withstood the brunt of Japanese aggression surprisingly well until the formidable and classic Grumman F6F Hellcat was made ready in quantity. With this type of pedigree, Grumman's attempt to improve on their "cat" series was an inevitability and the F8F Bearcat would not disappoint except that when it was made ready, there was no more war to fight.
The Bearcat was born out of a specification requiring an interceptor aircraft designed around the powerful Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp series radial piston engine (incidentally the same engine series powering the F6F Hellcat and the twin-engine F7F Tigercat). The aircraft would have to fit this engine into the smallest possible frame with every attention paid to the aircraft's overall weight. The resulting design succeeded in all fronts, culminating in an end-product proportionately better than the previous Grumman offerings.
The initial Grumman Company designation for the aircraft was G-58 (originating from Design 58, a report compiled by Grumman test pilot Bob Hall to Grumman President Leroy Grumman after his experiences in a captured German Focke-Wulf Fw 190) and was designed to succeed the F6F Hellcat series. Early forms of the Bearcat existed in this form and became two G-58A civilian-targeted systems, one for Major Alford Williams and owned by the Gulf Oil Company and the second owned by Grumman for demonstration purposes. The initial prototype became the XF8F-1, of which two were produced, and flew on August 21, 1944. Total design time for the Bearcat, from vision to air-worthy product, spanned just nine months.
When compared to the Hellcat, the Bearcat proved a much smaller design with better storage and use on the US Navy's aircraft and escort carriers. The Bearcat also exhibited better deck handling and performance far better than the Hellcat. The new design proved 20 percent lighter, about 50 miles per hour faster and had a 30% better rate-of-climb than its Hellcat brethren. Maneuverability and low-altitude performance were noted strong points of the aircrafts design.
Design-wise, the Bearcat appeared quite the conventional piston-engine aircraft. Wings were low-wing monoplanes like the F6F before it. Unlike her predecessors, however, the F8F did away with the "razorback" raised rear fuselage styling and featured bubble canopy, affording the pilot unparalleled views in all directions - a vital part of the dogfighting success formula. The cockpit was situated well in the middle of the design and was armored as was the radial piston engine was encased in a sleek forward section, contoured into a slim fuselage shape. The empennage was conventional with a single vertical tail fin and horizontal planes. The undercarriage was fully retractable (including the tail wheel) with the main landing gears retracting towards the fuselage centerline in the wings. The main landing gears were of a purposeful length as the oversized propeller component necessitated this design element. Machine gun (and later) cannon armament and external stores were all located on the wings. One distinct design characteristic of the Bearcat series was in the selection of the Aero Products four-blade propeller of considerable size (over 12 feet!), adding to the menacing look that the aircraft exuded when at rest. Construction featured spot welding and flushed rivets.