The F4F Wildcat was without a doubt one of the United States Navy’s premier fighters of World War II.
First flown in February 1939 and officially entered service in 1940, with a total of 7,885 produced, the Wildcat was the only effective fighter available to the United States Navy and Marine Corps in the Pacific Theater during the early part of the Second World War.
Designed as a follow-on to the F3F-2 biplane fighter, Grumman’s XF4F, a biplane, was turned down by the Navy in favor of Brewster’s F2A Buffalo, a monoplane. Grumman redesigned the Wildcat as a monoplane. The result was the popular F4F Wildcat, which proved far more successful than its Brewster counterpart.
The F4F was powered by a Pratt & Whitney engine which encased in the cylindrical forward portion of the fuselage and featured an exposed air-cooled radial opening. The wings contained armament of 2 x 12.7mm machine guns 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. Later, self-sealing fuel tanks and pilot armor, while adding weight, degraded performance only slightly.
The original model did not have folding wings. Roy Grumman then developed the Wildcat’s unique wing-folding mechanism for the F4F-4. Its introduction to the fleet virtually doubled the fighter capacity aboard ship and made the F4F-4 an ideal aircraft for escort and light carrier operations.
With a top speed of 318 mph, the Wildcat was outperformed by the faster, more maneuverable, and longer-ranged Mitsubishi A6M Zero. US Navy pilots, including John “Jimmy” Thach, a pioneer of fighter tactics to deal with the A6M Zero, were greatly dissatisfied with the Wildcat’s inferior performance against the Zero in the battles of the Coral Sea and Midway. The Wildcat has a claimed air combat kill-to-loss ratio of 5.9:1 in 1942 and 6.9:1 for the entire war.
Though the Wildcat didn’t claim air superiority over the nimble Japanese fighters, they performed well enough to allow American dive and torpedo bombers to sink five Japanese aircraft carriers in the Battles of the Coral Sea and Midway—finally turning the tide of the war in the Pacific.
The Zero’s lack of armor and a self-sealing fuel tank meant they were infamously prone to disintegrating or catching fire after sustaining light damage. Meanwhile, once a Zero pilot expended his limited supply of 20-millimeter shells, the remaining rifle-caliber machine guns struggled to down better-armored Wildcats. Navy and Marine Wildcat pilots learned to make slashing attacks from above leveraging their superior diving speed. But it simply wasn’t always possible to avoid getting into a turning dogfight with a Zero.
The Wildcat never exceeded the Zero in performance, but over time the non-existent armor protection and loss of entire carriers took a heavy toll on Japanese aviators, eroding their experience advantage. In 1943, new, much faster U.S. fighters such as the F6F Hellcat and F4U Corsair decisively won air superiority for the Allies. In the 1944 Great Marianas Turkey Shoot over the Philippine Sea, Allied fighters and flak gunners shot down over 500 Japanese warplanes for just 123 USN aircraft lost.
Both the Zero and Wildcat saw action through the remainder of World War II, many of the former ending their days as Kamikaze aircraft. The Wildcat carried on a little-known but surprisingly successful career with the U.S. and Royal Navies in the European theater, dueling French fighters over North Africa, flying from small escort carriers to hunt Nazi bombers and submarines, and even embarked on the last Allied air raid of the war, sinking a U-Boat in Norway on May 5, 1945.