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Grumman F4F/FM Wildcat

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Wildcat - US Navy's Leading Fighter Early in WWII

U.S F4F Wildcats flown by Thach and O'Hare

Wildcats flown by Lieutenant Commander Jim Thatch and Lieutenant Edward O'Hare (rear aircraft). US Navy photo.

The F4F Wildcat was the US Navy's leading fighter for the first two years of WWII and was one of the earliest types supplied to Britain under Lend-Lease, where it was called the Martlet in RAF service.

Originally planned as a bi-plane (this version was never built), it was re-designed as a mono-plane to meet the USN specifications. The first version was underpowered compared to contemporary fighters and because of its initial inferiority, the Brewster Buffalo was chosen for production by the navy. The F4F then underwent a series of improvements, including inclusion of the powerful Pratt & Whitney R-1830 radial engine and after being accepted for production, it became the most advanced USN fighter and orders for the Brewster Buffalo ceased.

F4f Wildcat with folded wings

F4F Wildcat with folded wings, being lifted on board USS Long Island, August 1942. US Navy photo

Wildcat Armament

Armament on the Wildcat started with two .50 inch machine guns in the fuselage which were eventually replaced with four or six guns in the outer wings with some versions having an underwing rack for two 250 pounds of bombs or rockets.

The F4F Wildcat was the fighter used by Lieutenant Edward O'Hare who shot down five Mitsubishi G4M bombers s near Rabaul on February 20, 1942. For this action O'Hare was awarded the Medal of Honor, and also became the US Navy's first ace of WWII.

Thach Weave Tactical Maneuver Balances Playing Field for Wild Cat

Diagram of Thach Weave

Illustration of Thach Weave by R. Neil Marshman.

In 1942 and 1943, the F4F continued to be faced by the numerous Mitsubishi Zero, which proved to have a much faster climb rate and was more agile than the Wildcat. To compensate for this inequity, Lieutenant Commander Thach devised a tactical maneuver for the aircraft to help balance the playing field. The Thach Weave, as it came to be known, used two elements working jointly as defenders or attackers. As they weave back and forth across the sky, the one element could defend the other against attackers. It was found to be a significant fighter tactic when tested by Thach and Lieutenant Edward O'Hare, and when first used in combat during the Battle of Midway, the Thach Weave proved to be highly successful.

F4F Wildcats on deck of aircraft carrier

US Navy photo.

The Wildcat did prove early in the war that it was a sturdy aircraft compared to the Japanese Zero and just after the US entered the war, pilot armor and self-sealing fuel tanks were added which increased its durability. Design improvements eventually lead to the FM-2 in 1943, which was produced by General Motors (Eastern Aircraft Division) under license enabling Grumman focus production on the more modern Hellcat. Photo to the left shows Wildcat fighters of squadron VF-8 on USS Hornet aircraft carrier in 1942.

Replacement of theF4F Wildcat and Wildcat as Escort Carrier Fighter


Replacement of the Wildcat by the Grumman F6F Hellcat and the Vought F4U Corsair, began to occur in 1943. The career of the F4F took a new path as it was displaced by these larger, faster, and more powerful aircraft which became the primary fighter aircraft of the fleet carriers. The smaller F4F Wildcat was assigned to escort carriers where space was more limited. Here it took on critical duties working admirably in conjunction with other carrier aircraft in anti-submarine work in the Atlantic and amphibious assault support in the Pacific.

And so the Wildcat had held the line during the dark days of early World War II when the US Navy was outnumbered by the Japanese Navy and ill-prepared to deal with the advanced Japanese fighter aircraft. And later in the war it effectively performed the role of escort carrier fighter.


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Museum Wildcats on our website

FM-2 Wildcat at Palm Springs Air Museum


* F4F/FM Wildcat facts

Category Fighter plane

General Motors Eastern Division
Introduced December 1940
Used in
United States Navy
United States Marine Corps
Royal Navy
Royal Canadian Air Force
Number built 7,722
Cruising speed 155 mph
Max. speed 320 mph
Altitude 39,500 feet service ceiling
Range 770 miles
* Numbers are approximate