This is a repost of one of my favorite entries.
My dad flew the Bearcat briefly during his youth. It was, by any measure, a pilot’s airplane. Shortly before he died, I took him to a local airshow. He was moved to tears just seeing a beautiful Bearcat on display. And when the Bearcat flew its demonstration, I’m pretty sure his misty eyes kept him from seeing much. But I know the sound of that great radial engine resonated in his heart.
A little history. As the War in the Pacific was getting ever closer to the Japanese home islands, two things were happening. First, the Japanese began to use Kamikaze suicide attacks against the US fleet with devastating results. Secondly, the carrier composition of the fleet was evolving. There were the large, fast fleet carriers, and then there were a large number of smaller, slower escort carriers. The large fleet carriers carried Hellcats and Corsairs as their fighters, along with Helldivers and Avengers as their strike aircraft. The escort carriers used the smaller, slower F4F or FM-2 Wildcat as their fighter, and carried Avengers as their strike aircraft. The fleet carriers were focused on offensive strikes against Japanese airfields, installations, and shipping. The escort carriers generally provided Combat Air Patrols over the fleet, and close air support to troops making amphibious assaults. The problem was, the Wildcat was getting pretty long in the tooth. It was too slow and not maneuverable enough to face swarms of Japanese Kamikazes. The Navy tasked Grumman to come up with a fighter that could take on high performance Japanese aircraft, and still be small enough to safely operate from the small escort carriers. Grumman took the excellent Pratt&Whitney R-2800 engine (2800 cubic inch displacement, roughly 2000hp) and built the smallest possible airframe around it.
The Bearcat’s light weight gave it excellent speed and a phenomenal rate of climb. Just the thing for intercepting Kamikazes. Unfortunately, it went into production just as the war ended, and never saw combat. And while it was the pinnacle of piston engine fighter design, it was soon overtaken by jet fighters. They were faster and higher flying. And it was too small to really be an effective ground attack airplane, a role the Corsair would continue to fill throughout the Korean War. Only a handful of squadrons were equipped with the Bearcat, and soon it was shuffled off to the Reserves. By 1949, it was effectively obsolete in a military sense, but in post war years, it found new life as a racing plane, and its excellent speed, power, climb and maneuverability make it a favorite on the Warbird airshow circuit.