The U.S. Navy was late to the revolution. The Army Air Forces put in an order for its first jet, the Bell XP-59, before the U.S. entered World War II. The Royal Air Force used the jet-powered Gloster Meteor against buzz bombs in July 1944, and the Luftwaffe was well under way; in July of that year, its Me 262 was already shooting down Allied fighters. But air forces have long runways on which to land fast, unproved airplanes. For the Navy, with its peculiar habit of landing aircraft on ships, the transition to jet aircraft was more hazardous and therefore slower. The service wouldn’t field its first operational jet, the McDonnell FH-1 Phantom, until 1947.
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Two more jets entered the Navy fleet before the Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation, which had a long history with the service, was ready with a jet-powered version of its storied “cats.” (The F4F Wildcat and F6F Hellcat were the mainstays of the Navy in the Pacific during World War II, and the F8F Bearcat is generally considered the king of propeller-driven fighters, though it entered service in the Navy too late to see combat in World War II.) The Grumman F9F Panther was a conservative design; it had straight wings, a conventional tail, and the rugged structure for which Grumman had earned the nickname “Iron Works.”
But the Panther played a significant role in ushering the Navy into the jet age. It flew the vast majority of the service’s combat missions in Korea and was the first Navy jet to shoot down a MiG. The Panther never achieved the iconic MiG-killer status of the glamorous swept-wing F-86 Sabre; it earned a different reputation. While it performed the dangerous grunt work of ground attack, it became known as a tough bird that brought its pilots home, including three Korean War pilots who either were, or would become, celebrated American heroes: Boston Red Sox slugger Ted Williams and future astronauts John Glenn and Neil Armstrong. What little glamour the Panther won came Stateside: It became the first jet flown by the Blue Angels, the Navy’s flight demonstration team.
According to Corwin A. “Corky” Meyer, Grumman’s chief test pilot during the 1940s and ’50s, Grumman itself lagged behind the rest of the industry in jet fighters because of its long-term policy of “cautious prudence in approaching all new things.” One Grumman policy, for example, was to use only proven production engines for new aircraft. John Karanik, Grumman’s propulsion chief, had concluded that available American engines like the Allison J33 and Westinghouse J34 weren’t reliable enough for single-engine overwater flying. So Karanik traveled to England, where Frank Whittle in 1937 had built and tested the first turbojet engine. There, Karanik found his Panther powerplant: the Rolls-Royce Nene, a 5,000-pound-thrust, centrifugal-flow turbojet that was more powerful than anything the Americans had, and had also proven very reliable. The first two XF9Fs flew with Nenes, and Pratt & Whitney would be granted a license to produce the Nene under the designation J42 for production aircraft.
The first Panther took to the air in November 1947, from the 5,000-foot runway at Grumman’s Bethpage, Long Island plant. The weather conditions were “the foulest of any first flight in my experience,” recalls Meyer in his 2006 memoir, Corky Meyer’s Flight Journal. (He died in 2011.) For safety’s sake, the first landing had been planned for the longer runway at nearby Idlewild (now JFK) Airport. Soon after takeoff, Meyer executed a few stalls and found the Panther well behaved. He said it “performed like a J-3 Cub.”
Meyer would discover, however, that when he began testing its emergency fuel control, the new jet wasn’t so docile. At 33,000 feet the engine flamed out and, despite many attempts, would not restart. Finally, at 3,000 feet, Meyer abandoned efforts to restart and set up for a belly landing in a Long Island potato field. Miraculously, on short final, the engine restarted by itself, and Meyer managed to pull up and land safely at Bethpage.
When the Navy took over testing of the Panther, the jet suffered an embarrassing moment hardly in keeping with Grumman’s reputation. During its first arrested landing, on a runway at the Navy’s test center at Patuxent River, Maryland, the sudden jolt to the tailhook pulled off the entire tail section. The engine was still firmly attached to the forward fuselage and running normally. The pilot, believing he had simply missed the cable, applied full power for a go-around. Alerted by radio to his predicament, the pilot aborted the tailless takeoff. (Subsequently, Grumman strengthened the tail attach joint.)
The Panther entered the fleet in 1949, and landings continued to present problems. “I flew the Panther during my first cruise on the USS Boxer,” says Robert Morris, a former Navy pilot who lives in San Diego, California. “I would end up in the barricade a number of times because of a faulty tailhook. The Panther had a bad hook dashpot [a hydraulic cylinder that dampens movement]. The hook would bounce up and down across the deck.” The Boxer, like other carriers, had a barrier that would catch an airplane in case of just such a problem with the arresting gear. On one trap, Morris put his Panther down in perfect position, but “the hook was skipping right over all the wires. On one of my barrier encounters, the canopy came off its hinges and hit me on the shoulder.”
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.”