Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Grumman's Fifi

The story of Grumman's very first airplane is a convoluted one...the Navy hadn't really asked for the plane, and it had its genesis in the demise of another manufacturer and the need to move floatplanes around on land easier. What resulted, though was one of the enduring dynasties in Naval Aviation.

Before the days when aircraft carriers were the Navy's centerpieces, it was the battleships, heavy cruisers and destroyers that ruled the seas. In battle, the advantage was to whomever could see - and thus accurately shoot - the farthest. An eye in the sky gave our Admirals and Captains the vantage point they needed, and in the 1920s, it was scout aircraft like the Vought O2U Corsair that served in this role.

Equipped as a floatplane, several of these planes were carried aboard each ship (see Eyes of the Idaho), and launched off of catapults mounted on the aft gun turret and on the stern. At the end of the sortie, the plane would land in the water next to the ship and be hoisted back aboard. The system worked well at sea, but when the Corsairs had to come to land, handling of the floatplanes was cumbersome, at best. Special dollies with small wheels had to be fitted to the main float's hull before the plane could be pulled out of the water.

Meanwhile, Leroy Grumman and company had left Loening and set up shop on their own. Of the original investors, Leroy had mortgaged his house (for a whopping $16,950) and was the largest shareholder, so he got to name the new company after himself. Work was hard to come by at first, and Management kept their crews busy - if not happy - building truck and trailer bodies. Because of Grumman's former work for Loening on their OL amphibian, Navy planners approached Leroy to see if they could come up with a retractable landing gear system that could be mounted in the Corsair's float, similar to the system that the OL was equipped with. Grumman and his team improved on the Loening's simple swing-up design, which left the wheel sticking out into the airflow, with a folding design that left the wheel stowed flush in the side of the float. It worked well, the Navy loved it, and consequently ordered the Grumman Model A float into production. Corsairs equipped with the new float were designated O3U.

The concept of main landing gear that retracted flush into the structure was so compelling that the Navy the approached Grumman to see if his team could come up with a similar retrofit gear design for the Boeing F4B fighter plane. The forward-thinking Grumman saw Boeing as a potential rival for future aircraft contracts, and was rather disinclined to help the competition improve their design. So in reply, Grumman offered a cleansheet two-seat fighter design on 2 April 1931 that promised significantly improved performance over the Boeing. The Navy jumped at the offer, ordering a single prototype which the designated XFF-1.

Besides the revolution in gear design, the aircraft also featured a state-of-the-art all-metal stressed-skin fuselage design, and an enclosed cockpit. The performance improvements, including a top speed of 207 mph, were nothing less than astounding, and a new dynasty of Navy fighter aircraft was born. The production FF-1, which became affectionately known as the "Fifi", had a run of 64 aircraft. Technology continued to move forward at breakneck speed, though, and the FF-1 only remained in frontline service for two years before becoming eclipsed by the further improved, smaller single-seat Grumman F2F fighter. But a dynasty had been born, with continuing design improvements that led, model after model, to the famed F4F Wildcat of WWII.

The only air combat victory scored by an FF-1 came when a license-built Canadian Car & Foundary G-23 (CC&F built an additional 57 aircraft for export customers) variant flying for the Spanish Republicans shot down a Heinkel.

Only one FF-1 survives, and is on display at the Naval Aviation Museum.

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