The Navy's Frontline in Korea
The U.S. Navy's first jet-propelled aircraft to enter combat was the F9F Panther. The Grumman-built aircraft may have also have been the world's first jet-propelled aircraft to shoot down another jet. Continuing a long line of Grumman-built fighters that dates to the FF-1 "Fifi" biplane of the early 1930s, the F9F was the firm's first turbojet aircraft. Its design was initiated in October 1946 as the Navy sought second-generation jet fighters from several manufacturers.1
The XF9F-1 was designed as a two-seat night fighter with four wing-mounted turbojet engines, a competitive design to the Douglas F3D Skyknight. Four powerplants were needed because of the low power available in contemporary jet engines. However, the British had developed the far more powerful Rolls-Royce Nene engine, which produced 5,000 pounds thrust and was adopted for the aircraft, now designated XF9F-2. The very attractive, streamlined prototype first flew on 21 November 1947. The aircraft was soon ordered into production as a fighter-bomber. (Its contemporary, the McDonnell XF2H-1 Banshee, first flew on 11 January 1947, and like the F9F, was quickly placed in production.)
The initial F9F-2 Panthers to enter squadron service had permanent, 120-gallon wingtip fuel tanks. Fixed armament was four 20-mm cannon in the nose; up to 2,000 pounds of bombs and rockets could be carried on wing attachment points.
Fighter squadron VF-51 was the first to receive the Panther—the F9F-3 variant—in May 1949.2 In August the Blue Angels flight demonstration team and Marine fighter squadron VMF-115 received the F9F-2. (The Blue Angels flew the plane until November 1951, when they transitioned to F9F-5, followed by the F9F-6 and the F9F-8.)
By the summer of 1950 the Navy had made a remarkably rapid transition from piston to turbojet aircraft. When the Korean War erupted in late June 1950 the only U.S. carrier in the Far East was the 27,100??-ton Valley Forge (CV-45). She had arrived in the western Pacific in May 1950 and was steaming just north of Hong Kong when the North Koreans struck. On her decks was Carrier Air Group 5, a typical carrier air group of the period. It consisted of two fighter squadrons with 30 F9F-2B Panthers; two fighter squadrons with 28 piston-engine F4U-4B Corsairs; an attack squadron with 14 piston-engine AD-4 Skyraiders; and detachments of several special-mission aircraft.3
After first being diverted to the Formosa (Taiwan) Strait in a show of force, the Valley Forge and the British light carrier Triumph raced to the coast of Korea where, early on the morning of 3 July, they launched strikes against airfields and other facilities in the area of Pyongyang, North Korea's capital. The threat of North Korean air attack against the carriers was considered negligible, but the task force was only 100 miles from Red Chinese airfields on the Shantung Peninsula and 220 miles from Soviet airfields at Port Arthur.
The initial strike by 57 U.S. and British warplanes included eight Panthers, with others being held ready on the Valley Forge's flight deck in the event Chinese or Soviet aircraft appeared. The North Koreans were taken by complete surprise. They felt a degree of safety in their capital, which was more than 400 miles from the nearest U.S. airfields, in Japan. Two airborne piston fighters—Yak-9s—were shot down, one each falling to the guns of F9Fs piloted by Lieutenant (junior grade) Leonard H. Plog and Ensign E. W. Brown of VF-51. They were the first Navy jet pilots to down an enemy aircraft. The jets then turned their cannon against ground facilities. There was no opposition, and all 57 aircraft returned safely to their carriers. An estimated nine aircraft were destroyed on the ground.
Although the Valley Forge was soon reinforced by other U.S. carriers with Panthers and Banshees, their only aerial opponents were a few North Korean piston-engine aircraft.
The first all-jet air battle in history was fought on 8 November 1950, when four Soviet-piloted MiG-15s engaged four U.S. Air Force F-80s. U.S. records accord the first MiG-15 kill of the war to an F-80 pilot in that encounter. But Soviet records show no MiG losses on that date. Soviet scholars speculate that the jettisoning of drop tanks by the MiGs and the tactics used in escaping the F-80s might have suggested to U.S. pilots that their prey was hit and falling.
At the time, the MiG-15 was the world's most advanced operational fighter. It used a derivative of the Rolls-Royce Nene engine, which had been sold to the Soviet Union, and had entered squadron service in the Soviet Air Forces just a year earlier.4 With a maximum speed of 680 mph, the MiG-15 was considerably faster than the F-80C Shooting Star (580 mph) and the F9F-2 Panther (526 mph); the MiG-15's 51,000-foot ceiling was also superior to the F-80C (43,000 feet) and F9F-2 (44,600 feet). The Red plane was armed with one 37-mm cannon and two 23-mm guns, more powerful weapons but with a slower rate of fire than the six .50-caliber guns in contemporary Air Force or four 20-mm guns in Navy fighters.
On 9 November, as U.S. carriers began strikes against Yalu River bridges, Lieutenant Commander William T. Amen flying a VF-111F9F-2B from the Philippine Sea (CV-47) shot down the first MiG to fall in battle to a naval aircraft. Although the MiG-15 was superior in performance, the Navy squadron commander chased the enemy jet from 4,000 feet up to 15,000 feet and down again before scoring the kill.5 Soviet records agree with Amen's claim. Thus, Amen may have scored the first MiG-15 kill of the war.
Commander Amen's victory was followed by F9Fs from the Leyte (CV-32) and Valley Forge shooting down two MiG-15s on 18 November. During the three-year conflict U.S. Navy carrier-based fighters are credited with shooting down 11 enemy aircraft. No Panthers were lost in air-to-air combat.
Two astronauts were among the Panther pilots who flew in the Korean conflict: Major John H. Glenn (VMF-311) and Ensign Neil A. Armstrong (VF-51). And Panthers starred in James A. Michener's article "The Forgotten Heroes of Korea" in The Saturday Evening Post (10 May 1952), his novel The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1953), and the film of the same name (1954).
Meanwhile, the Navy and Grumman had reached agreement on a swept-wing version of the F9F—which had been considered as early as 1946—and three F9F-5 airframes were modified to that configuration. These became the prototype for the F9F-6 Cougar.
Thus Grumman production of straight-wing F9F-2 through -5 Panthers provided the Navy and Marine Corps with 1,385 aircraft manufactured up to January 1953. The most numerous variant was the F9F-5 with 616 built, followed by 564 F9F-2s. Several F9F-2s were modified to a photo variant while 36 F9F-5P photo planes were produced by Grumman.
In the mid- to late-1950s most of the fighters on carrier decks were F9F derivatives. For example, by late 1954 the Navy had 16 carrier air groups; their standard composition was four fighter squadrons and one attack squadron, the latter flying the ubiquitous AD Skyraider. Two air groups had only three fighter squadrons with two AD attack squadrons, while another air group had three fighter squadrons flying Skyraiders. Thus of 62 fighter squadrons in the Fleet in December 1954, more than half flew F9F variants.
The rapid transition to newer fighters led to the early retirement of the straight-wing Panthers from naval service. The last Navy fighter squadrons gave up their straight-wing Panthers in 1956; Marine reserve fighter units gave up the aircraft two years later. The planes flew for several more years in utility and training roles, with several serving as drone control aircraft until the mid-1960s.
Only one other service flew the F9Fs. The Argentine Navy acquired 24 F9F-2 Panthers (plus some F9F-8T Cougar trainers), but these planes operated exclusively from land bases because the carrier Independencia's catapult was not powerful enough to launch them. One Panther was landed aboard the carrier by Commander Cesar Goffi. That plane was off-loaded by crane when the ship returned to port.
While the straight-wing F9F Panther earned an important spot in the early history of jet-propelled aircraft, it was one of the most ascetically attractive planes of the era and easy to fly. One would not have expected less from the "Grumman iron works."6
1. The first-generation fighters had been the North American FJ Fury, McDonnell FD/FH Phantom, and the Chance Vought F6U Pirate.
2. The identical F9F-3 was a fitted with the 4,600-pound thrust J33-A-8 engine produced by Allison, which the Navy had ordered as a backup against delays in "Americanizing" the Nene engine and setting up its production by Pratt & Whitney.
3. Official records (including pilot log books) differ as to whether these were F9F-2 or F9F-2B aircraft; in fact they were the latter. A large number of early production F9F-2s were modified to F9F-2B fighter-bombers with four pylons under each wing; beginning with the 365th F9F-2 the pylons were factory installed. The inboard pylons could carry a 150-gallon drop tank or bombs up to 1,000 pounds; the three outboard racks could carry 250- or 500-pound bombs or 5-inch rockets. Maximum external payload, however, was 2,800 pounds.
4. MiG indicated the aircraft design bureau named for Artem I. Mikoyan and Mikhail I. Gurevich. Later given the Western code-name Fagot, the MiG-15 was produced in greater numbers than any other jet aircraft in history with more than 15,000 built in the USSR, China, Czechoslovakia, and Poland.
5. Amen's victim was Senior Lieutenant Mikhail F. Grachev.
6. See Ren?
J. Francillon, Grumman Aircraft since 1929 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1989), pp. 314-330.