Panthers At Sea
U.S. Navy Panthers weren’t highly evolved, but they could shoot. And they were air conditioned.
- By David Noland
- Air & Space magazine, June 2013
National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)
(Page 2 of 4)
Pilots assigned to Panther cockpits were a mix of World War II veterans, with hundreds of hours of prop time, and those who went straight from flight training to the jet. “I was in a very early F9F-2 squadron, out of [Virginia Beach’s Naval Air Station] Oceana,” says World War II veteran Dan Stinemates. “We were told we were getting rid of our Corsairs and getting new Panthers. We got our planes directly from Bethpage.”
For Stinemates, who would eventually fly the Vought F7U Cutlass, one of the most challenging—and deadly—Navy fighters ever built, the initial jet training program was minimal, to say the least. “Things have changed a lot since those days,” he says. “The ops officer said, ‘You and I are going to read the F9F manual and pick up the two planes that are ready.’ We read the manual, drove to Norfolk, and got in two F9Fs. [We] plugged in the external power, hit the ‘Go’ switch, taxied, and flew off.” Grumman’s ferry pilots weren’t even around to brief Stinemates and his squadron mate, but he was unconcerned: “It’s got a stick and a throttle. What’s the big deal?” says Stinemates today.
After takeoff, Stinemates found the Panther very pleasing to fly. He spent about 20 minutes getting to know the aircraft, stalling it and putting it through basic maneuvers. And he discovered that the hallowed advent of the jet age brought a welcome, but pedestrian, benefit. “I started out in World War II flying F4Fs,” he says. “I was flying those prop planes on the East Coast. You know what the humidity is like there, and our nylon flightsuits were just wringing wet. It was a hot summer day, and I can’t tell you how happy I was to get in the air-conditioned cockpit of that F9F.”
Royce Williams, who began his career in open-cockpit biplanes and worked in the plastics industry after retiring from the Navy in 1980 (although he was briefly recalled in 1981), transitioned to the Panther from the brutally powerful F8F Bearcat. “The Panther was extremely quiet, and you didn’t have the torque, [so you] went straight down the runway,” he says. “It didn’t maneuver any greater than the Bearcat—in some respects less—but there was something about flying a jet. It was more advanced. It had better radios, had TACAN [Tactical Air Navigation], and its gun systems were very reliable. Everything seemed like a step up.”
In an attempt to provide a better transition for propeller-trained pilots, the Navy eventually offered more training for its prospective jet pilots and bought Lockheed F-80s from the Air Force. “Before I flew the Panther, they sent me down to Pensacola to fly the F-80,” says Neale Smith, who found his way into Navy fighter squadron VF-22, which had the F9F. “It was very exciting. I flew the first Panther, which had 5,000 pounds of thrust and the [license-built] British Nene engine, and then we got a new version that had about 300 more pounds of thrust.”
After flying Vought Corsairs, Smith, who would go on to log time at United Airlines flying everything from the DC-3 to the Boeing 727, was unwillingly assigned to a squadron that flew TBMs, hulking World War II torpedo bombers modified for electronic countermeasures missions. “My buddy and I went to the assignments officer at Norfolk and said ‘We’re fighter pilots and we don’t fly these things,’ ” he says. Smith’s frequent, and annoying, visits finally paid off. “Two pilots had just been killed in VF-22, and that’s how we got into VF-22,” he says. “I loved the speed and the ‘flat hatting’ [high-speed passes at low altitude]. What else was a 22-year-old supposed to do?”
The Korean War began in June 1950, and almost immediately the Panther was in combat. On July 3, a VF-51 Panther stationed aboard the USS Valley Forge shot down a North Korean piston-engine Yak-9, the first air-to-air kill by a Navy jet.
On November 18, 1952, the Panther had its greatest moment of glory. Under cold, overcast skies, a flight of four F9F-5s launched from the USS Oriskany on a combat air patrol near Chongjin, which was sufficiently close to the Soviet Union that the Panthers were needed to protect Task Force 77, which consisted of 25 ships, including three carriers and the famed battleship USS Missouri. At about the time the ship’s air controllers reported unidentified aircraft inbound from the north at 55,000 feet, a fuel pump warning light in the flight leader’s aircraft blinked on. As the flight leader and his wingman returned to the ship, circling until they could enter the next landing cycle, the other two Panthers, flown by Royce Williams and his wingman, David Rowlands, climbed in pursuit of the bogies. Breaking out of the overcast at 15,000 feet, Williams spotted seven MiG-15s, abreast, streaming contrails far above.