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Grumman Biplanes, the Predecessors of the American Navy's Flying Cats
The Grumman F-14 Tomcat is history's most iconic naval jet fighter. There, we said it. But there would be no Tomcat, and no Top Gun, if not for an airplane type that staked Grumman's claim as the U.S. Navy top choice: bi-plane fighters.

Grumman Biplanes, the Predecessors of the American Navy's Flying Cats

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As most of us know by heart, Grumman's claim to fame in the aerospace field is their iconic Big Cat line of Navy fighters, dating back to the F4F Wildcat back in the late 1930s. Be it that Wildcat, or its descendants like the F6F Hellcat, F7F Tigergat, F8F Bearcat, F9 Cougar/Panther, or the iconic F-14 Tomcat, they all owe their existence to a single common ancestor, known lovingly as the Fifi.

The Grumman FF was the brainchild of the company's eponymous founder Leroy Grumman. The Huntington, New York native, made his big break in the aerospace industry with his Model A retractable landing gear system. The first of its kind designed for aircraft carrier-based Navy fighters.

Developed with help from his long-time partner Grover Loeining, Grumman's invention made contemporary fighters that still used fixed landing gears look ancient. It was a profound leap in aerospace technology on part with supersonic flight and the advent of the jet engine. No really, it was.

The technology was so good that Leroy Grumman received an offer from the U.S. Navy for a lucrative deal to supply his new invention to other aerospace manufacturers. Chief among these companies was Boeing and their F4B-1 biplane.

But "Roy" Grumman had ambitions beyond being a glorified Mopar parts division for the aerospace industry. He knew he was capable of making something more, and submitted a counteroffer for an entire bespoke airframe the Navy promptly approved.

This was the genesis of the Grumman FF. The company's very first carrier-based fighter, the genesis of the Big Cat lineage. The FF, or "Fifi," as it was lovingly christened by those who flew and worked on them, may very well have looked like any other biplane of its era when it was parked on the ground. But believe it or not, this blob-like, snub-nosed little piston fighter would form the basis for an evolution similar in some ways to a game of Pokémon.

The break-neck pace of aeronautical development in the decade of the 1930s sadly meant the FF and its measly little Wright R-1820-78 Cyclone engine were rendered obsolete within only a couple of years after introduction to Navy service in 1933. Even so, there are records of Fifis being purchased by Spanish Republican forces for use in the Spanish Civil War. According to legend, one even managed to shoot down a Heinkel He 59 biplane, marking the only time it would ever do so.

Lessons learned from the FF Fifi gave way to an entirely new design, the F2F. It's with this second generation of the Grumman biplane fighter that we start to see design cues that would one day lead to the Wildcat of World War II fame. It appears as if one could remove the top-most wing and struts, and suddenly the familiar shape of the F4F Wildcat monoplane begins to take shape. Although admittedly, this wouldn't happen for at least a little bit longer.

In the meantime, the F2F sported a Pratt & Whitney R-1535-72 Twin Wasp Junior radial engine as its powerplant, overall a far more refined unit than the Wright Cyclone it replaced from the Fifi. All alongside a weapons loadout of twin .30 caliber M1919 machine guns. With a top speed of 231 mph (372 kph), you'll be surprised to know that most pilots prefer to fly with the canopy in the open position.

This was done for a number of reasons, but one of the most common was because radial engines had a tendency to leak oil all over the glass canopy, which was impossible to wipe off while in flight. This was a trend that followed through to the final iteration of Grumman's Navy biplane fighters. By the time the F3F entered service in 1936, it was clear the next evolution would ditch its second wing altogether. The larger engine cowling was especially reminiscent of the Wildcat's front façade.

Though its monoplane successor largely overshadows it, the F3F was a watershed moment for Grumman in its own right. Its second iteration, the F3F-2, dabbled in some of the very earliest aeronautical forced induction boosted engines.

This was a single supercharged 950 hp (710 kW) Wright R-1820-22 Cyclone radial engine alongside a weapon loadout of one M1919, one 50. caliber M2 Browing machine gun and room for two 100 lb (52 kg) bombs. Good for a top speed of 264 mph (425 km/h, 229 kn). Even so, the F3F was one of the very last American fighter planes pilots often chose to fly with the proverbial top dropped.

Check back soon for more from Open Top Month here on autoevolution.

 
 
 
 
 

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