The Grumman F7F Tigercat was a twin-engine fighter aircraft developed by the United States in the latter stages of the Second World War. It was designed to serve as a carrier based fighter as part of operations in the Pacific that could perform escort and dogfighting duties.
It was Grumman’s second attempt at a twin engine plane and special attention was given to increasing the plane’s speed, performance and armaments during the design stage. However, the Tigercat saw very limited service in that role due to the end of the war and other aircraft being preferred by US Navy pilots.
Although it was considered an impressive aircraft by those who flew it during its testing phases, the Tigercat’s suitability for carrier roles was somewhat hampered by its incredible speed and it was instead designated as a land based fighter for the United States Marine Corps.
Despite this, the Tigercat would go on to see action during the Korean War.
The origins of the Tigercat began following a specification call within the United States in 1941 for a new twin engine fighter that could yield a high level of firepower with a long shooting range, as well as possess the ability to climb quicker than any other fighter aircraft in production at the time.
The United States Navy were also looking for aircraft which could serve on board their Midway class aircraft carriers which would go on to see heavy action in the Pacific theatre.
The specification was accepted by the Grumman aerospace company of New York and the specification call was expanded to require a plane with both fighter and convoy escort abilities that could also perform ground attack duties if called to do so.
Grumman officially signed the development contract in July 1941 and began designing the new aircraft, heavily basing it on their previous Grumman XP-50 concept. The XP-50 concept had been cancelled before the production stage, but it still provided a useful template for the new design. Grumman also drew upon experience from their previous F6F Hellcat fighter.
The Hellcat had been a highly successful aircraft in service, but the United States Navy were looking for an even faster and more advanced aircraft to stay ahead of potential enemies.
The Grumman design team put particular focus on the new aircraft’s speed and armaments. It was decided the new plane would either carry four Hispano Suiza HS.404 cannons mounted in the wings or four Browning machine guns depending on the version or variant.
The concept partially followed American military wisdom of mounting multiple machine guns in the wings to ensure a high rate of fire. However, designers of German and Russian fighters had a preference for using multiple cannons, which offered a lower rate of fire but packed a bigger punch when it came to strafing enemy bomber formations or performing ground attacks.
The Tigercat’s designers sought to combine the fire power of both for the new plane. A bay was also fitted to allow for up to 1,000 pounds worth of ordinance or one torpedo to be carried. The wings were given mountings on some variants for unguided rockets.
Grumman fitted the design with a tricycle undercarriage, something considered innovative at the time, and intended for the fighter to have rugged capabilities despite its more complex design.
Grumman’s F6F Hellcat had been fitted with a Pratt & Whitney “Double Wasp” R-2800 radial piston engine which was known for its power, as well as credited with helping Allied fighter aircraft to gain speed superiority in the air. Grumman fit two 2,100 hp R-2800 units to their new aircraft.
Its projected range was around 1,200 miles. The maximum altitude ceiling was around 40,000 feet.
The aircraft’s design marked it as the first double engine concept to be accepted by the US Navy.
The first prototype Tigercat was known as the XF7F-1 and completed its maiden flight on the 2nd of November, 1943. Initial test results were very promising. Test pilots commended the aircraft as fast and maneuverable with excellent handling characteristics. Indeed, renowned American test pilot Captain Fred Trapnell described the Tigercat as “the best damn fighter I’ve ever flown” after taking it for a test run.
Grumman then pitched the new plane as a convoy fighter for the US Navy’s Midway class and larger-sized carriers operating in the Pacific and the US Navy agreed to order 500 units of the new fighter.
However, subsequent tests found that the heavy armaments and speed impacted on the performance and called its suitability into question. There were some concerns about the aircraft’s weight and the strain it put on the landing gear during carrier landings.
The Tigercat subsequently failed all aircraft carrier take-off and landing tests as they were too fast in landing and too heavily loaded with firepower for storing and operations, as well as too large for smaller to medium sized aircraft carriers.
The Tigercat would become unstable and have poor directional control when operating with just one engine and problems in the tailhook, designed to deaccelerate the plane by catching it on a wire on the aircraft carrier’s surface, were also uncovered during the carrier landing tests.
Despite concerns about the plane’s ability to land on carriers, mass production was given the green light but the first F7F units were given to the USMC (United States Marine Corps) instead for land operations. Initially the F7F was known as the Tomcat but the name was later changed to Tigercat due to perceived negative connotations.
The first production model was given the official title F7F-1N which was sold as a single seat fighter. The second version was known as the F7F-2N and a second seat was added in the cockpit for a radio operator.
Later versions were modified and adapted to make them suitable for carrier use, with Grumman correcting many of the issues with the F7F-3 variant in 1945 which featured an enlarged vertical stabilizer and rudder, although by this point the Corsair and the Hellcat had largely taken over carrier operations.
The final production version was known as the F7F-4N (designed N for night fighter) which was built with strength in mind and sought to address the stability issues that had plagued the earlier versions when they had tried flying with one engine running. Following the modifications, the F7F-4N was finally deemed suited for carrier use, but only twelve units were built in total and all variants of the plane remained as a land fighter.
As a fighter aircraft, the Tigercat continued to be preferred by the USMC over the Navy for its power and close quarter combat abilities.
However, the Tigercat’s production and release came too late for it to see any active combat during the Second World War. Two USMC squadrons were training with the Tigercat and being readied for deployment when Japan surrendered following the atomic bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
A separate contract produced more variants of the Tigercat, with 60 examples being produced. Production ended in late 1946. The night fighter variants were equipped with radar in an elongated nose and a larger fin.
In the aftermath of the war, the F7F-3 was sent for another trial on board the aircraft carrier USS Shangri-La. A wing failure during a heavy landing caused the failure of the second carrier test and essentially sealed the plane’s fate. As a result, the F7F-3 Tigercat was then only produced and operated as land based day fighter, night fighter and reconnaissance aircraft.
In 1945, Grumman proposed selling the Tigercat to the British Royal Navy. Two Tigercat units were tested but the Royal Navy opted to use the de Havilland Hornet instead.
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Some of the F7F-2 variants were modified as drone control planes for training new fighter pilots. These versions were retrofitted with a bubble canopy behind the cockpit for the drone controller to sit.
Although the future of the Tigercat was hanging in the balance, it was able to demonstrate some of its abilities in frontline combat with American forces during the Korean War. Tigercat marine squadrons had been stationed in Japan in the aftermath of the war and were one of the first American combat aircraft to arrive on the scene.
The Tigercat served as a night fighter and saw action when it shot down two Soviet-made Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes of the North Korean Air Force.
The Tigercat remained in service with the Marines until 1954, when the introduction of more modern jet fighter aircraft largely took over its role.
In 1949, surviving airframes of the Tigercat were flown to the US Navy storage facility at the Naval Air Station Litchfield Park in Arizona. Many of the Tigercat units were scrapped or broken down for spare parts but others were purchased as surplus for non-military uses.
Some Tigercats were kept in limited service for aerial fire fighting and water bombing duties on the west coast of the United States until the end of the 1970s. One F7F-3N unit was modified as an aerial refuelling tanker for an airfield in California and served in this role until the late 1980s.
At the time of writing, eight Tigercat airframes have been kept in an airworthy condition by private collectors and all of these consist of the F7F-3N variant. Others have been preserved as static displays.