As a pilot, retired aeronautical engineer and longstanding Bearcat admirer, I read with great interest Stephan Wilkinson’s article “Engine With a Saddle,” in the May issue.
On June 15, 1946, I witnessed the first public demonstration of the yet to be named naval flight demonstration team, led by Lt. Cmdr. Roy “Butch” Voris, flying three Grumman F6F-5 Hellcats, at Craig Field Municipal Airport, east of Jacksonville, Fla.
Two months later, the team headed to the Grumman factory at Bethpage on Long Island to trade in their Hellcats for F8F-1 Bearcats. For the flight back to Jacksonville, all the airframe armor and the four .50-caliber machine guns had been removed. The Bearcat was a very close-coupled airplane, and with that enormous R-2800 up front, its center of gravity was sensitive and critical—so the alterations led to a situation that required adding lead to the tail to regain the proper center of gravity. As Murphy would have it, that didn’t happen. The team left Bethpage with no lead in the tail, all very nose-heavy.
With sufficient airspeed, they all managed to trim out in a shallow climb and make haste for the Atlantic shoreline. Voris seriously contemplated abandoning the aircraft, but after frantic consultations between Grumman and the Navy, it was determined they could land at NAS Jacksonville if they could maintain adequate elevator pitch authority at touchdown. This meant they would have to make a mains-first landing (no three-pointers) at a considerably higher groundspeed. As it turned out they all got down safely. Not one prop was nicked.
For me, the saga of the F8F Bearcat began while I was a midshipman at the Naval Academy, when word got around that they were going to train flight students in the Bearcat. The joke went that they were going to do that to kill off all but the “natural-born aviators.” Naturally that’s what I wanted to fly.
When I went to advanced training in Kingsville, Texas, in the spring of 1953, I was fortunate to be assigned to the last flight of students to fly the F8F. I asked one of our predecessors what it was like to fly the Bearcat, and he (correctly) said, “It’s like being chained to a cannonball!” We stepped out of the SNJ, maximum speed about 160 knots, into the 420-knot F8F-2. No simulators, no dual instruction, one taxi hop for practice—and into the south Texas sky. Over 250 knots at the end of the 5,000-foot runway on takeoff. Thrilling, scary, exciting and exhilarating. We only logged about 45 hours, then were told to ferry the birds over to NAS Corpus Christi for transfer to the French in Indochina. We finished the rest of the syllabus in the Hellcat: nice, but not the Bearcat!
Years later, during a symposium, when a panel of Navy test pilots, including Maj. Gen. Marion Carl and Rear Adm. Edward “Whitey” Feightner, was asked to name their favorite aircraft of the more than 150 they had flown, all six aviators said without hesitation “the F8F Bearcat.” Me too.
Captain Frank A. Liberato
U.S. Navy Reserve (ret).
In the spring of 1946, when I was a college senior studying aeronautical engineering, the school arranged a field trip for the class to visit the Grumman factory at Bethpage. We had a wonderful tour led by Corky Meyer, Grumman’s chief test pilot, who was enthusiastic about the then-new F8F Bearcat. He boasted that it didn’t actually need a runway for takeoff and claimed that he could make a takeoff across the runway. He had us escorted onto the field near where a taxiway intersected a runway, then fired up an F8F and taxied it to the intersection.
There was only a slight wind blowing. Facing across the runway with the main wheels just at its edge, he held the brakes on and ran up the engine until the tail wheel was bouncing lightly off the ground. He simultaneously released the brakes and applied full power, got the tail up and bounded across the runway. As the main wheels got to the other side of the runway, he yanked the tail down hard. This lifted the main wheels off the ground a foot or two. He shoved the nose down to level flight, holding altitude until the speed rapidly increased to where he could ease the nose up and climb out. Thus he made a takeoff across the runway as promised. We were greatly impressed.
Martin A. Snyder
Jesse Brown, Bearcat Pilot
I enjoyed the “Aviators” article on Jesse L. Brown in the May issue. The only thing is, in the photograph on P. 18, Jesse is sitting in a Bearcat, not a Corsair as captioned.
Fort Valley, Ga.
Nice catch; you are correct. The photo was incorrectly labeled by the U.S. Naval Historical Center, but we should have known better, especially in an issue featuring the Bearcat. If you look closely at the uncropped version of that photo (above), you can make out the tail of another F8F in the background.
I was aboard USS Leyte when Jesse Brown went down. The information we heard—and which was reported in the Naval Aviation News, as I recall—was that the fuselage of Brown’s aircraft broke just behind the cockpit. Jesse’s back was broken, and his airplane was on fire.
Lieutenant j.g. Thomas Hudner, seeing that Jesse was moving in the cockpit, disobeyed orders and crash-landed his plane nearby. He then used the hand-held fire extinguishers in both planes, as well as snow, to put out the fire.
As you reported, Lieutenant Hudner was going to be court-martialed for disobeying orders, but after newspapers printed the story the Navy instead gave him the Medal of Honor—well deserved.
Frederic G. Herington
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