The Bear Is Back
The winning-est Bearcat in air racing steps up once more to the starting gate.
- By Preston Lerner
- Air & Space magazine, November 2009
Tyson V. Rininger
(Page 3 of 5)
In those days, warbirds were selling for peanuts. Even so, Shelton couldn’t afford a flyable one. So in 1968, during a TWA layover at Chicago O’Hare Airport, he drove to Valparaiso, Indiana, to check out a wrecked Bearcat. The pilot had botched a landing and the airplane had cartwheeled. For six years, it had languished in two sections. The engine, wingtips, right landing gear, instruments, cockpit controls, and several other critical systems were missing. The owner was asking $2,500. Sold!
Toward the end of World War II, Grumman designed the Bearcat as a replacement for the U.S. Navy’s F6F Hellcat fighter, and the Bearcat was revered for its superb maneuverability and climb rate. The winner of the first air race at Reno was a stock Bearcat flown by Mira Slovak, and the Unlimited class, starting in 1965, was dominated by Bearcats flown by Darryl Greenamyer. (One of his aircraft, fittingly named Conquest 1, is now on display at the National Air and Space Museum.) Relying on the racing verity that there’s no replacement for displacement, Shelton planned to beat Greenamyer by replacing his aircraft’s original engine, a Pratt & Whitney R-2800, with a more powerful modified Wright R-3350.
On a rainy December afternoon in 1968, Shelton and Cliff Putman, crew chief at the time, trucked the Bearcat to an airport in Compton, south of Los Angeles. Bill Hickle, a Northrop structures engineer and wannabe air racer who rented a hangar at the airport, saw them roll up. When he walked over to investigate, Shelton asked him if he knew anybody with a welding rig.
“Well,” said Hickle, “I’ve got a welder over in my hangar.”
Shelton: “We need some repairs to this thing. Do you know anybody who could do it?”
Hickle: “Basically, that’s what I do for a living.”
He went to work on the airplane, first doing structural analysis, later as crew chief. Now 69 and white-haired, running an aircraft service and repair business, Hickle still volunteers to work on the Bear even when it means making paying customers wait. “I haven’t seen every flight in between,” he says, “but I’m the only one that I know of who’s seen the first flight and the last flight. I’ve been 40 years on the Rare Bear, and I’ll not get involved with another airplane. This is the one that’s got my attention. It’s like my only child.”
The Bearcat was painstakingly reconstructed with a donated R-3350 engine of unknown provenance shoehorned into the cowling. Nine months after he had trucked the wreck to Compton, Shelton flew the airplane to Reno for the 1969 races. Hickle remembers people looking at the big engine, shaking their heads, and muttering, “You stupid suckers.” Nobody in air racing had tried such a radical conversion before, and the Wright radial was still dogged by a reputation for setting B-29s on fire during World War II. Sure enough, the first engine blew up. In 1970, another 3350 of uncertain vintage also went kerplooey.