Once upon a time, Grumman and the US Navy developed what could have been a world breaker fighter, a twin-engined and sometimes twin-headed machine, armed with a heavy and versatile armament of guns and capable of towing the heaviest ordnance , which are available to carrier aircraft. This machine was a development of an original twin-engine design for shared services that did not go into production due to development difficulties.
Of course, the plane we’re talking about wasn’t the F-14 Tomcat of the 1970s, but the Grumman F7F, a machine that was originally going to be called the Tomcat, appropriate to Grumman’s line of fighters, which were named after various cats. From the F4F onward, Grumman had developed the Wildcat and Hellcat, names far more evocative than his original FF-1 Carrier Biplane Fighter, known as the Fifi thanks to its designation. Their F2F and F3F were portly enough to be called the Flying Barrel, while the Wildcat got that name after the British Royal Navy originally named the type Martlet.
Although the type’s original night-time night fighter mission led to it being nicknamed the “Tomcat” by Grumman employees, the WWII-era Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics apparently refused to use the Tomcat name as one connoted with “feline promiscuity.” and accepting the phrase fooling around described behavior contrary to what was expected of officers and gentlemen. This is how the original Tomcat became the Tigercat, in keeping with Grumman’s Wartime Flying Fighter Cat Theme.
Grumman test pilot “Corky” Meyer was instrumental in the development of the type and served as Grumman’s project pilot during its development. His efforts were insidiously praised by Fred Trapnell, the Navy’s chief test pilot, as Meyer notes below.
“At the end of his evaluation, as we walked to his F7F-4N Tigercat for his return trip to the Naval Air Test Center, I proudly told him that I was the Tigercat project pilot from 1943-1946. He immediately burst into a diatribe about the Tigercats’ many shortcomings: the overcooling of the engines; a lack of longitudinal stability; excessive V-roll on rudder input; the high minimum individual control speed, etc. He ended his speech with: “If I had been head of the test center at the time, I could have fired you!” Every criticism of the Tigercat was absolutely correct. I was devastated and wished I hadn’t gotten out of bed that day.
“Just as we got to his Tigercat I blurted out, ‘If you don’t like the Tigercat so much, why do you always fly it?’ He explained, ‘The excess power from its two engines is wonderful for aerobatics; The cockpit layout and forward visibility on carrier approach are the best of any fighter ever built. tricycle landing gear allows for much quicker pilot controls; the roll with the power boost rudder is faster than the ailerons; and it has a longer range than any hunter in inventory.” Again, he was absolutely right. As he climbed into the cockpit, he turned, grinned, and said to me, “That’s the best damn fighter I’ve ever flown.” I realized he was throwing the entire test pilot textbook at me with his succinct tirade and that we probably had quite different opinions on the flight characteristics that make a really good fighter. That evening I went home happy. (Corky Meyer, Flight Journal, August 2002. End)’
Thus emerged 364 Tigercats, although the type’s carrier suitability problems were hampered by structural problems and the type’s tricycle undercarriages required a different barrier arrangement than the traditional steel-cable crash barrier intended to prevent aircraft from crashing into the deck park forward was at risk over sliding down the guy’s slick nose and beheading his pilot. Only the 13 specially reinforced F7F-4s were qualified for regular carrier operations. Thus the Navy again solved the problem of the type’s carrier suitability through its proven practice of issuing them to the Marines, who used them primarily as ground-based night fighters, although some Dash-3 Tigercats were converted to F7F-3N photo reconnaissance ships.
Marine Tigercats hardly missed action at the end of World War II, not arriving in Okinawa until August 1945. They saw actions in support of naval forces deployed to China and took part in various “battles” against communist Chinese forces during the Chinese Civil War. Later deployed to Korea in support of naval forces following the North Korean invasion of the South, Tigercats flew a variety of combat missions, acting as night surveillance platforms, close air support machines, photo reconnaissance missions and even interceptors. In this last role, Marine Tigercats were responsible for shooting down a pair of Night Heckling Po-2 biplanes for the type’s only combat victories.
After military service, the Tigercat continued to earn flight wages as a firefighter, flying this dangerous mission in civilian hands and dropping chemical fire retardants on wildfires. The type’s power and maneuverability made it invaluable as a type of precision fire bomber, being able to drop its fire retardant charge in areas inaccessible to larger types with the same role. This is how the last surviving Tigercats spent their days. Despite the highly corrosive nature of their fire retardant cargo, several Tigercats survive today on the Warbird Circuit, where they are more prized collectibles than hard-working firefighters.
Personally, if money were unlimited, the Tigercat would be the best warbird for modern pilots to fly, as its twin-engine tricycle landing gear configuration and a potential second seat would make the type an unbeatable cross-country machine. On Memorial Day 1996, the Tigercat flew its only airshow routine with its more modern descendant, the F-14 Tomcat, with Captain Dale “Snort” Snodgrass flying the Tomcat… Thus the saga of Grumman’s original Big Fighter came full circle.
Tigercat Tomcat Airshow:
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Photo Credit: US Navy and RuthAS Own work via Wikipedia