Muche's Warbirds
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The Grumman F3F:
The U.S. Navy's Last Biplane Fighter

By Jim Muche

Photos By Lani Muche

 

At the present time there are only four flying examples of the F3F in existence. One belongs to the Lone Star Museum and the other three are the property of a private collector. One of the latter three aircraft is usually on display at The Air Museum Planes of Fame at the Chino (CA) Airport.

The U.S. Navy's last biplane fighter, the F3F, was a direct outgrowth of the F2F whose performance was marred by poor directional stability and spinning characteristics which were caused by its extremely short fuselage. The Navy, however, felt that in other regards the F2F was an excellent design and, with refinement, would prove to be a first rate fighter. As a result, a contract was issued for the development of the XF3F-1. To correct the stability problems the fuselage was stretched 22 inches, from 21 ft 5 in to 23 ft 2 in, and the wing area was expanded from 230 to 260 sq ft. The prototype, Bureau # 9727, made its first flight on March 20, 1935 but was destroyed two days later when it broke up while testing terminal velocity dives.

One of the four remaining F3Fs during a flight out of The Air Museum Planes of Fame. Although it was already obsolete at the time it became operational, Navy pilots were very happy with the tough little Grumman fighter. (Photo by Lani Muche)

The second XF3F-1, which was issued the same bureau number, made its first flight on May 9 and was also destroyed two days later when it failed to recover from a spin. The pilot, who survived the crash, reported that high speeds induced directional instability which in turn caused the aircraft to enter into a flat spin from which he was unable to recover.

A third aircraft was ordered, again bearing Bureau # 9727, and first flew on June 20, 1935. Testing was completed and an order was placed for 54 F3F-1s on August 4. Production aircraft were powered by 650 hp Pratt & Whitney R-1535-84 engines which allowed the planes a speed of 231 mph at 7500 ft. A small fin-like projection was added to the empennage to increase area and reduce stability problems. The first squadron to receive the F3F was Fighter Squadron 5B (VF-5B) stationed aboard the USS Ranger (CV- 4).

Realizing that the days of the biplane fighter were essentially over, the Navy, hoping to buy time until the development of the F4F was completed, ordered the XF3F-2 from Grumman on July 25, 1936. Major changes included replacing the Pratt & Whitney engine with a 950 hp Wright R-1820-22 (the larger diameter of this engine necessitated a cowling revision which changed the appearance of the aircraft), replacing the original-two bladed propeller with a constant pitch Hamilton-Standard three-bladed assembly, and increasing the rudder area to counter the increased engine torque. These changes led to an increased speed of 264 mph from the original 231, boosted the climb rate from 2050 to 2750 ft/min and expanded the service ceiling to 33,200 ft from 27,100. Eighty-one F3F-2s were ordered by the Navy and were used to equip VF-6 aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise and Marine squadrons VMF-1 and VMF-2. The 65th aircraft was modified on the production line to the F3F-3 standard, and subsequent aircraft finished as that model.

The final version, the F3F-3, came about because of delays in the development of the F4F. It incorporated a smaller diameter propeller, a modified cowling and a cockpit canopy similar to that used on the F4F. Only 27 of this version were ordered with the first aircraft being assigned to the carrier USS Yorktown (CV- 5). The entire series carried the same armament of one .30 cal. and one .50 cal. Browning machine gun mounted in the cowl.

By the end of 1941 none of the aircraft were in operational service, but 117 of them were distributed to various bases around the country for training and transport duties. The last plane, an F3F-2, was retired from flying service in November 1943.
Developed from the F3F, the F4F Wildcat's heritage can be easily seen in this formation over Lake Mathews. (Photo by Lani Muche)

Grumman built three civil versions of the F3F. The first was the G-22 which was completed in 1932 for Gulf Oil. It was a hybrid aircraft which mated the F3F fuselage with a set of F2F wings. It also had an enlarged rudder. Named the Gulfhawk II (NR-1050) it was powered by a Wright R-1820-G engine and had a top speed of 290 mph and a climb rate of 3,000 ft per minute. The aircraft was lighter than the military version and was modified for aerobatics. A second scavenger pump and five drain lines enabled the plane to sustain inverted flight for up to 30 minutes. In 1938 Al Williams, Gulf's aviation manager, took the plane on a European tour and during the war it toured Army Air Force training bases at the order of General Hap Arnold, giving demonstrations of aerobatics and precision flying.

In 1938, the G-32 Gulfhawk III was built. The primary differences were the addition of a second cockpit, the use of the F3F wings with the addition of slit flaps on the trailing edge of the upper wing, and it was powered by a 950 hp Wright GR-1820-G5 Cyclone engine. In 1942, Gulf Oil gave the plane to the Army Air Force to be used as a ferry pilot trainer. It was operated by Pan Am, which trained the majority of ferry pilots during the war. After the war it was owned by several civilian pilots and eventually crashed in the Florida Everglades.

The G-32A, the final civilian Gulfhawk (NC-1326), was built in 1938 for use by Grumman. Painted in the company colors of red and black, it was known as the "Little Red Ship" and was similar to the G-32. The aircraft was used as the company runabout and VIP transport and was flown by Roy Grumman on several occasions. The plane was also used to train ferry pilots during the war and was later sold into private ownership. It flew for a number of years and was later extensively damaged in a crash at Oshkosh.

The four surviving aircraft, three -2 models and the G-32A, were restored by Herb Tischler's Texas Airplane Factory in Fort Worth. The work took four years and consisted of rebuilding the G-32A and utilizing the parts of three aircraft which had originally crashed in Hawaii, to complete the other examples.

The diferences between the G-32 and the Standard F3F-2 are apparent when the two aircraft are seen in formation. (photo by Lani Muche)

The Air Museum Planes of Fame president, Steve Hinton, one of the three pilots who did the original flight testing on the restored aircraft and who, along with the others, still flies the planes, described them as "... really good airplanes, well built." The three examples are basically stock. The instrumentation has been changed and modern brakes added, and while the manual gear retraction system is still in place, an electric system can also be used. According to Hinton, "... the thing accelerates real fast on take-off. When you push the throttle up you use 35 inches ... which is like 800 hp. The airplane rolls only a short distance before it breaks ground, so there's not a problem with directional control. The climb angle is real good. You don't have to run the engine very hard. It'll climb a couple of thousand foot a minute at 120 mph. Straight and level it does 175/180 mph just cruising. It's a pretty speedy little airplane." When asked how maneuverable they are, he replied "... they do good loops and things but the ailerons are not very effective like you think they would be. It's actually kind of sluggish with a low roll rate."


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