A lot of moving parts characterized the development of aeronautics from 1941 to the end of World War II in 1945.
For the U.S. Navy, the creation of the twin-engine XF7F-1 Tigercat design in the summer of 1941 was a blend of technology and tradition.
The F7F stayed with the Navy’s traditional preference for air-cooled engines, using a pair of powerful R-2800 radials. Conventional wisdom said air-cooled engines were easier to service and supply on shipboard than engines that relied on a liquid cooling system. In fact, Lockheed proposed a navalized P-38 powered by air-cooled radial engines, but that remained a paper airplane.
The XF7F was a clean execution of form-follows-function designing. The round engines were neatly faired into two large nacelles to provide as much streamlining as possible, along with space for the main landing gear.
The fuselage was free of constraints imposed by the typical single-engine fighter design, where the powerplant dictated the cross-section shape and size. The F7F’s fuselage was a lean, narrow, streamlined shape culminating in a long pointed nose that housed a first for U.S. Navy production fighters — a nosewheel.
Though premised as a fighter, the Tigercat was designed to be able to heft a 1,000-pound bomb under each wing or an aircraft torpedo under the centerline. Alternately, long range streamlined drop tanks could be carried.
The F7F originally had a measured height of 15′, 2″ to the top of its tail. Tests conducted by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) at Ames Research Laboratory in California in 1945 and 1946 validated an extension of the tail for improved stability and control and to diminish dihedral effect, which is the roll produced by sideslip. The new tail put the F7F at a towering 16′, 7″ above the surface. The change only slightly altered the movable rudder area, but increased the vertical fin surface from 28 to 38.3 square feet.
Meanwhile, carrier suitability tests found problems with the Tigercat, including issues with its wishbone tailhook, especially in slightly skewed touchdowns.
With no Navy carrier deployments, World War II ended without Tigercats in combat. Marine Corps F7F-2 nightfighter variants were en route to the Pacific, but hostilities ceased before they saw action.
The F7F-3 fighter continued in production with delivery to Marine Corps units after the end of the war. The original short tail was changed to the taller version during the production run.
F7F-3N nightfighter versions, with the taller tail, had a second cockpit for the radar operator. Some of these saw service with the Marines during the Korean War, flying nocturnal interdiction missions and twice downing North Korean Po-2 biplanes operating at night.
The Tigercat came at a transitional time, when Navy and Marine future fighter plans were based on jets. As one of the last piston-engine fighters, the F7F-3 boasted a top speed of 435 miles per hour at 22,200′, according to the official U.S. Navy Airplane Characteristics and Performance Data issued by the Bureau of Aeronautics.
The Tigercat’s power and maneuverability were appreciated by aviators of the day, and now air show visitors can see that same performance when top warbird pilots like Stew Dawson and Steve Hinton put F7F-3s through their paces.
With just over 260 F7F-3 and F7F-4 versions built — small numbers compared to wartime production runs — it’s a wonder any Tigercats survive today. That longevity is due to the Navy’s insistence on making the F7F fighter capable of carrying heavy bomb loads.
Kreitzberg Aviation of Salem, Oregon, is credited with making the first Tigercat air tanker conversion around 1958, capitalizing on its load-carrying ability.
Initial F7F-3 air tanker conversions used the underwing pylons for two retardant tanks. This was later upgraded to a bulbous slipper tank attached to the fuselage that could carry 800 gallons of retardant.
If that load was less than some other air tankers, the F7F got to the target and returned faster, making more sorties possible in the same amount of time.
When Tigercats were no longer needed as air tankers, they found homes in museums and warbird collections, with several airworthy as this is written.