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Grumman's Ferocious Feline - The Aptly-Named Wildcat

Some Variations on Tamiya's Theme

By Tom Cleaver

 

History

Although by 1936 all U.S. Navy aircraft coming into service featured retractable landing gear and enclosed cockpits, in real performance terms they offered little over the preceding aircraft they replaced. Service planners showed a marked reluctance to initiate the development of truly innovative ideas. Nowhere was this more true than in the development of the fleet's fighter aircraft.

On March 1, 1936, the Navy contracted with Grumman to produce the XF4F-1, a biplane fighter that looked very similar to the preceding F3F-1 and the soon-to-be-produced F3F-2, and which had a performance so little advanced that Grumman finally told the Navy they could better what was being asked for by putting a slightly more powerful R-985 in the current F3F-2. The Navy did so, ordering its last biplane fighter in the event, the F3F-3. At the same time, the Navy had awarded a development contract to Brewster for the XF2A-1, which would become the service's first modern monoplane fighter.

Grumman had in the meantime done some designing on its own of the G-18, which it was convinced would better fulfill the design specification written around the XF2A-1, and approval to start work on a monoplane fighter, the XF4F-2, was granted in July 1936. Despite their late start, Grumman flew the XF4F-2 ahead of the XF2A-1, with first flight happening on September 2, 1939 with Robert Hall in the cockpit.

While the XF4F-2 proved the fastest of the three competitors (the Seversky P-35, called by the Navy the XFN-1, being the third), Grumman narrowly lost out to the Brewster XF2A-1. How the Navy could award a contract of such importance to a company primarily known for making horse-drawn buggies, when the performance of the XF2A-1 was not superior to its Grumman competitor, is something lost to history in the bowels of bureaucracy, though it was claimed at the time that the Grumman choice of the Pratt & Whitney R-1830 Twin Wasp over the Wright R-1820 Cyclone had something to do with it.

Fortunately, Grumman had friends on the fighter desk at the Bureau of Aeronautics, and was given permission to continue development of the prototype, now powered by an R-1830 with a two-speed, two-stage supercharger, which increased available horsepower from 1,050 to 1,200 for take-off, and from 900 at 10,000 feet to 1,050 in low blower at the same altitude, and 1,100 in high blower at 19,000 feet. The revised prototype was now known as the XF4F-3. Considerably heavier than the XF4F-2 because of the supercharger, the XF4F-3 had a larger wing, which necessitated a larger rudder and more powerful elevators. It first flew on February 12, 1939, and initial Navy testing was completed in April 1940.

In August 1939, 54 F4F-3s were ordered, giving the airplane equal backing to the 54 F2A-1s. Fortunately for the Navy, while the Brewster fighter proved incapable of further development to take advantage of improved powerplants, the Grumman was easily adaptable. 28 months later, this would be of crucial importance not only to the U.S. Navy.

While the F4F-3 began production in late 1939 with fixed wings and an armament of 4 .50 cal. machineguns in the wings, both France and Great Britain placed orders for the airplane in early 1940. The French machine would have an armament of 6 7.62mm machine guns, while the British fighter, to be called the Martlet, would have armament increased to 6 .50 caliber weapons with the same ammunition load, and - of far more importance - a Grumman designed folding wing that ingeniously pivoted the outer wing to fold backward, thus allowing the airplane to be stowed below in the limited hangar deck of the British carriers with their armored flight decks.

The 54th F4F-3 of the initial production batch was set aside to be developed into the F4F-4, which would use the wing of the British Martlet II. In the meantime, 134 more F4F-3s were ordered as a result of the tenfold expansion of naval aircraft strength authorized in May 1940. At first operated by VF-4 aboard USS Ranger, with VF-41 staying aboard when the squadron was split in two to send VF-42 to the USS Yorktown, while the USS Wasp fighter squadron, VF-7, was split into VF-71 and 72. Going aboard their respective carriers in late 1940, these were the last Navy airplanes ordered in the prewar "golden wings" scheme, which was discarded in favor of a more warlike overall grey in March 1941.

Combat Service

The combat record of the Wildcat is well known and certainly available in greater detail elsewhere than is necessary here. Suffice it to say that the Wildcat in its Martlet manifestation was important in sweeping the German "Condors" from the Atlantic shipping lanes, and defending British fleet formations in the Mediterranean, while the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps would have found themselves in far worse position than they did in the first year of the war, had it not been for the Wildcat.

Though the Wildcat was outperformed by its principal adversary, the Zero, it was able to prevail where P-40s, P-39s, Buffaloes and Hurricanes and even Spitfires did not, primarily due to its incredibly robust construction (Saburo Sakai, among other Japanese pilots, was amazed at the punishment the Wildcat could take and keep flying) and the superior training and tactics of its pilots.

Unlike the USAAF, where some fighter pilots entered combat having never fired guns from an airplane in any circumstances, and the RAF which also did not emphasize gunnery training, the USN and USMC had considered gunnery training the most important element of a fighter pilot's education, and had followed up with annual fleet-wide gunnery competitions, the results of which could make or break a squadron commander's professional career. Unlike the pilots of any other air force, Navy and Marine pilots entered combat highly adept at the overhead pass, a maneuver requiring skill in deflection shooting. Very few pilots in other air forces ever demonstrated anything close to the gunnery skill of the Wildcat pilots and their successors; the only Luftwaffe pilots to ever use the tactic were self-taught, with the only officially approved firing position being dead astern the target.

Fortunately for the Navy, their observers in the European conflict recommended early on the abandonment of the prewar parade ground formation of the three-plane "vic." By the time of Pearl Harbor, Navy fighter squadrons were organized in four flights of four aircraft. Navy fighter personnel also took to heart the advice of Claire Chennault and the AVG (most of whom were USN/USMC pilots) to make a single gunnery pass on the more agile Japanese opponent and not attempt to dogfight. Additionally, VF-3 CO John Thach came up with the "Thach weave" in early 1942, a maneuver which allowed a section of four fighters to fly in elements of two and protect each others' tails while engaging in offensive maneuvering; this tactic more than proved itself at Midway and was adopted by all the fighter squadrons shortly thereafter.

When all this was brought together as a Wildcat pilot pushed over from 25,000 feet above Iron Bottom Sound off Guadalcanal to dive on a formation of Zeros below, there was a much greater likelihood fewer Zeros would return home than had departed, than if a P-40 pilot was attempting the same thing over Milne Bay, New Guinea, or an RAAF pilot over Darwin. The 7-1 kill ratio established by the Wildcat speaks for itself.

The Models

Have I mentioned lately that I believe Tamiya's F4F-4 Wildcat is one of the finest examples of the kit maker's art to ever grace the shelves of a hobby shop? It's true! When this little gem first came out five years ago, it set a standard for detail that other companies have yet to obtain. First and foremost is the accuracy of the combination of flush and raised rivet detail on the wings, with the "lapping" of the rear fuselage panels, and the incredible simplicity of a very complex landing gear. The model is so well engineered that, when I was teaching a modeling class at the local shop, this was the kit I chose for a group of guys who had never attempted an "advanced" kit to sit down and build. Right out of the box, merely exhibiting good hand-eye coordination in the assembly and painting, two of those models went on to win awards at local shows. The quality of the kit had more than a bit to do with that.

Out of the box, the kit turns into a beautiful model of the F4F-4, the most well known version of the Wildcat. My only recommendation is to use the Squadron vacuformed canopy, so it can be opened to show the really nice out-of-the-box cockpit detail. If you're opening the canopy, you can even use the one designed for the Monogram kit, which actually a bit short in length for the Tamiya kit; open, the fault disappears.

The only "failure" in the kit (if you want to call it that) is that it provides the floor for the FM-2, the final version, which is incorrect for all the versions before that - they had no floor, so that the pilot could look down to either side of the gas tank and look out the small underwing windows. The fault is simple to solve: merely cut off the outer sections of the cockpit floor beyond the foot rests, and use them to make the sides of the gas tank the pilot sat atop, and install as per instructions.

The F4F-3

KMC made a resin conversion set for the F4F-3; though now out of production, you can still find the set in many hobby shops, both real and virtual, and it is good value for the money. The set provides the non-folding wings, and the various cowling bits to make the three production runs of the F4F-3, all of which had different powerplants. The instruction sheet is very clear about which parts go for what version.

I decided to do one of the first 54, the last Navy fighters equipped with the old telescopic sight instead of the new reflector sight. I had the decals for the VF-41 second section leader's airplane on the old "U.S. Navy Neutrality Patrol" sheet from Aeromaster. VF-41 (as VF-4) was the first squadron to equip with the Wildcat, and (as VF-41) the first to take it anywhere close to "harm's way," when the "Ranger" and her air group were part of the North Atlantic "neutrality patrol" in late 1940 and early 1941. In January 1942 the "Red Rippers" were the first Wildcat squadron to equip with the F4F-4, and the first to enter actual combat in the Atlantic Theater of Operations, when they provided high cover for the first strikes against French Morocco during "Operation Torch" in November 1942.

Construction

The only "hard" part of the conversion is cutting the lower wing panels away from the fuselage center section. Once the modeler has constructed the fuselage aft of the firewall in accordance with the kit instructions, and attached the lower center section, it is only necessary to be sure there is a uniform flat surface in the wing root joint. Past that, one only needs to be sure they are swapping the correct resin parts for the cowling, per the KMC instructions.

When I put in seat belts, I left off the shoulder harnesses; at this period, American military aircraft only had the wide lap belt, without the shoulder restraints. These did not become common on USN/USMC aircraft until Midway, and many were still without shoulder harnesses at Guadalcanal.

Painting

As one of the last pre-war airplanes to be taken into Navy service in the bright "Golden Wings" markings, the F4F-3 had a cockpit painted in aluminum lacquer, as well as the fuselage and lower wings. Naturally, I painted the cockpit interior before assembly. Throughout, I used Gunze's "Mr. Metal" Aluminum. This is a fast-drying paint - not so fast as Model Master metalllizer paints - which dries with a nice semi-gloss sheen, and doesn't require any sealer. The airbrush can be cleaned out with Metallizer thinner, though I usually finish that process with a good soak in a container filled with Easy Lift Off (one of the many good uses for a cleaned-up catfood can).

Before painting the aluminum exterior, I painted the nose area and the rear fuselage with gloss white, which I masked off to be the stripes of the third section leader; I also painted the upper surfaces of the wings with Gunze-Sanyo H-24 "Orange-Yellow," which is a good match for Navy "chrome yellow" of the period. With this masked off (with drafting tape) after it was dry, I shot the rest of the model with the Mr. Metal Aluminum.

The Ranger's carrier tail color was "Willow Green," a nice, bright green, which I had not at the time been able to exactly match with anyone's paint other than the old Testors Gloss Green oil-base enamel in the small bottles. I did, however, have a sheet of "Willow Green" decal from SuperScale. With the horizontal stabilizer and the rudder still separated from the model, I used this decal to do the tail. Once dry, the parts slid into position and locked in place just the way Mr. Tamiya's designers planned they would.

Markings

I used some narrow black stripe decals to edge the white nose and fuselage stripes, then used some white decal stripe to do the wing chevrons (top and bottom, not normally the case with prewar markings, but photos show this), and also edged them with the same black decal stripes. I applied the Aeromaster decals for the rest and set everything aside to dry. Once everything was set up, and I had washed the decal solvent off the surfaces, I shot a coat of Future to seal everything.

Final Assembly

Final assembly consisted of putting the landing gear into position, following the Tamiya instructions, attaching the prop, and attaching the vacuformed canopy in the open position.

Folding the F4F-4

The Grumman wing-fold, while very useful in the restricted area of an aircraft carrier, is one that gives modelers fits, since there is no single attachment point that allows the wing to be set in with any strength. Here's how you can do it for the F4F-4, using the Aires conversion set:

Since I had done an early VF-41 airplane, I decided to do one of the Wildcats the Red Rippers took into combat in the North African invasion. Given the very uniform camouflage of Navy aircraft, the yellow surround of the fuselage insignia is about the only bit of color you can add to the airplane to set it off from others in the collection.

The Aires Conversion

I would refer you here to my earlier article on folding the wings of the Accurate Miniatures Avenger, using the KMC set; believe me, if you can do that, the Wildcat is a breeze. The Aires set is much simpler, being only the internal structure of the wings, which are cut apart on the panel lines. I then sanded the plastic parts to a "scale" thickness, and kept test-fitting the resin parts until they slipped into position without difficulty.

Both the Wildcat and the Avenger use a frame of piano wire to hang the wing on, which is hidden in plain sight. In the case of the Wildcat, the actual airplane used attachment bars from the leading edge of the horizontal stabilizer to the folded-back wingtip to steady things. For this, I used wire that started in the wing root, ran through a "tunnel" made in the upper wing half with sheet plastic, and came out the end to become the attachment bar, hidden inside a 1/16 plastic tube, attached finally to a hole drilled in the leading edge of the horizontal stabilizer.

Once in position the wing is then set at the proper angle and this is solidified with super glue along the hinge line. A drop of super glue at the wingtip exit of the wire insures everything stays where it should be. I used slow-drying CA inside the wing "tunnel," which allowed for things to be set up. Once everything is dry, you can freak out your friends by picking the completed model up at either wing tip and holding it out to them to examine. Nothing they can see is structural, and everything is Grumman-solid where it needs to be.

The Aires Cockpit

While I consider the Tamiya cockpit out of the box to be more than acceptable, we had been provided with the Aires resin cockpit. This is really nice. As with any well-done resin cockpit, everything is much crisper, and the level of detail brings up smaller bits clearly. The set consists of two side panels, the gas tank/floor, rear bulkhead, instrument panel, and seat with molded-in seatbelt detail.

The first thing to do is sand off all the molded-in detail in the fuselage halves of the Tamiya kit. I sanded it considerably thinner to insure everything would fit and found when I installed the cockpit that my instincts had been right.

According to Larry Webster, Grumman-built F4F-4s were painted Dull Dark Green in the cockpit. I used Gunze Sanyo H-302 Green for this. I then hand-painted all the "black boxes" with Tamiya semi-gloss black, and painted the seat belts an off-white, using Tamiya flat white with a small brush full of black mixed in. Once it was all dry, I then highlighted things by dry-brushing with Model Master non-buffing aluminum, weathering off the seat and the floor a bit more. I then painted the various levers and cranks per the color photos of Wildcat in Detail & Scale. A light coat of Testors Dullcote protected everything.

Assembly of the cockpit is straightforward, and the instructions provided by Aires are more than sufficient. I attached everything with CA glue, having first put in the wheel well bulkhead and the entire wheel well parts while waiting for the cockpit to be ready for installation.

Once everything was inside, I glued the fuselage together. I could then install the lower fuselage section with the already-built wing stubs. I painted the engine and installed it and the cowling. I was ready for...

Painting

I used Aeromaster Warbird acrylics, thinned with rubbing alcohol, for the Non-specular light gray and non-specular blue-gray. I did not sun-fade the upper surfaces, since this Wildcat had been operating in the Atlantic, where the sun does not have the effect it does in the Pacific. One that was dry, I hand-painted the wing interiors with green zinc chromate, and then highlighted the detail there with a dry-brushing of Model Master Aluminum, also "dinging" the edges of the wings along the fold line.

Decals

For decals, I used the Tamiya kit decals for the VF-41 airplane, minus the red-dot centers. These are thick decals, but they go down nicely with a little help from Super Sol. Before I applied the fuselage insignia, I made a circle from a sheet of yellow decal stock, put that in position, and then put the insignia over it - it was good the Tamiya decal was thick, since there was no way the yellow beneath would show through the white of the star.

Final Finish

I futured the model after the decals were dry, then used Testors Dullcote, thinned 20 percent with Model Master Metallizer thinner, with several coats to bring it down to a very flat finish, which is what an airplane gets in a saltwater environment. I then applied some exhaust and gunfire smudging.

Final Assembly

I assembled the landing gear, the prop, and canopy, and then proceeded with the attachment of the outer wings, as explained above.

The Martlet IV

This is an easy conversion, with all the work involved in the engine and cowling. The Martlet IV was powered by the Wright R-1820, which has a different-dimensioned cowling, and a different prop than the Pratt & Whitney-powered version.

Once I had assembled the model per instructions for everything but the engine and cowling, a cut the cowling vertically right at the leading edge of the cowl gills. I then attached this to the fuselage and puttied the join. This was sanded smooth once the putty was dry.

I replaced the kit engine with an R-1820 from an old Monogram or Revell B-17 from out of the spares dungeon. I scored the different cowling flaps, and sanded off the intake on the top of the cowling. I then attached the engine and cowling. For the prop, I used an old Monogram SBD prop from the spares dungeon.

Painting

The Martlet IV was camouflaged in the standard FAA temperate scheme of Dark Sea Grey/Dark Slate Grey upper surfaces, and Sky unders. I use Tamiya Dark Sea Grey, and their Field Grey for the Slate Grey, and I use Gunze-Sanyo Sky, which I think is more accurate than the Tamiya equivalent.

Decals

Because I wanted something unusual, I decided to do a Martlet IV of 882 Squadron, which participated in the North African Invasion in November 1942. The Martlets carried U.S. markings during Operation Torch because of the bad blood that existed between the Royal Navy and the Vichy French after the Royal Navy's attack on the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir in 1940. During the invasion, Lt. B.H.C. Nation of 882 landed his Martlet IV at Blida Airfield to take the surrender of the Vichy French defenders, leaving only upon the arrival of the American Rangers who were assigned to capture the field.

For this, I used "Operation Torch" decals from an old MicroScale sheet taken from the decal dungeon. The Squadron ID letters were made from a SuperScale RAF letting sheet.

Final Assembly

I used the old Squadron canopy for the Monogram Wildcat, cut open. The airplane was finished a good flat, with a bit of weathering, exhaust staining and gunfire staining.

Overall Comments

None of these conversions are all that difficult, with the Martlet conversion the easiest of the three. Alternatively, a Modeler could create a Martlet II simply by sanding off the upper nose intake on the cowling of the finished F4F-4 kit.

The Wildcat is an important airplane, not only in the history of the Second World War, but in the developmental history of naval fighters. It was the first shipboard fighter actually designed for shipboard use that the Fleet Air Arm had which could offer a performance at all close to its land-based opponents. It was certainly the savior of Guadalcanal, and throughout the Pacific in the first year of the war, when the really important carrier battles were fought, it served valiantly before being replaced by its lineal descendant, the F6F Hellcat, which became as successful as it did because its designers profited from the lessons learned in creating and operating the Wildcat. The war in the Pacific might have had a very different outcome had this airplane not existed.

Thanks to Squadron Mail Order for providing the Tamiya kit and the Aires wing-fold and cockpit detail sets. Order yours from http://www.squadron.com.

You can likely find the KMC F4F-3 conversion at:

Hannant's
Greatmodels
Squadron Mail Order

References

"F4F Wildcat In Action" - Squadron/Signal Publications

"Wildcat: The F4F In WW II", by Barrett Tillman; Naval Institute Press, Second Edition, 1990.

"The First Team: Pacific Naval Air Combat From Pearl Harbor to Midway," John Lundstrom, Naval Institute Press, 1992.

"The First Team And The Guadalcanal Campaign: Naval Fighter Combat from August to November 1942," John Lundstrom, Naval Institute Press, 1995.




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