Flying Tigercats: And Then There Were Five

A couple of strays join the prowl, and the world’s supply of flyable Grumman F7Fs increases by two-thirds.

Steve Hinton flies Rod Lewis's Tigercat to its new home in San Antonio. (Bob Cardin)

What could possibly get your juices flowing again once you’ve flown 1,000 mph at treetop level in a Lockheed F-104 Starfighter? For legendary test pilot Darryl Greenamyer, the answer was a straight-wing, propeller-driven, downright dowdy-by-comparison airplane that exited the Grumman factory during World War II.

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That plane, the F7F Tigercat, was anything but dowdy in its day. Sleek and slender, with two brawny radial engines churning out 2,100 horsepower each, the Tigercat was Grumman’s cheetah, outrunning the company’s other portly felines: the Wildcat, Bearcat, and Hellcat. Of the 364 Tigercats built over three years starting in 1943, only three were flying by the summer of 2008 (look for a photo in the “Sightings” department of our December 2008/January 2009 issue). But two more have just joined their ranks.

Greenamyer still boasts the low-altitude speed record that he set in that F-104 in 1977 (996 mph, 80 feet above the Nevada desert). “Nothing was as fun as that,” he admits. He was a Lockheed test pilot in the company’s heyday, and flew the SR-71 Blackbird beyond 2,000 mph. He’s also one of the most winning—and most enduring—of pilots to compete at the Reno Air Races.

But for the past couple of years, Greenamyer’s been content in the hangar rebuilding his Tigercat, whose top speed doesn’t quite exceed 450 mph. And yes, he says, it’s a thrill to fly. “I can’t remember the projected takeoff roll, but I think on a cool day it’s about 900 feet. That’ll really squash you back in the seat.”

In 1990, Greenamyer traded four airplanes, including a World War II-era B-25 Mitchell bomber, for a flyable Tigercat owned by the U.S. Marine Corps Museum. “I remember flying it out of Quantico [Virginia] on a handheld radio, and just wandering across the country,” he says. He brought it to Ramona, California, just northeast of San Diego, where he kept it for a year. Then he flew it to a small landing strip at his ranch about 10 miles away, where he kept it for several more years parked under a large oak tree. Concerned about corrosion, he took it apart and trucked it up to Mariposa, a small town on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains outside Yosemite National Park, and stored it in a warehouse.

Fast forward a decade. Greenamyer got the itch to put it back together, this time in Thermal, California, minutes down the road from his current home in Indio, both a short drive southeast of Palm Springs. He hopes to sell the restored Tigercat for $975,000. “I’m gettin’ up in years, and I might as well get rid of it,” he says. “That warehouse is full of what some call junk and others call treasure, and I just don’t need it. I’m gonna kick the bucket some day, and my kids will walk in there and say, ‘What’s this?’ and put a match to it.”

He used a forklift for many of the parts, including the one-ton engines. He used existing steel frames for supports, built a few more, and used chain hoists to get parts off the ground and move them around. He borrowed a set of jacks from a friend at Aerotrader in Chino, California.

“I trailered it down here in three or four loads and began putting it together,” he says. “I guess the hardest part was getting the pieces out of the barn and getting them here.”

Greenamyer worked without any notes or plans, and had his own electronic scales to weigh the aircraft as it came together. “I’ve been in this business for a while, and I’ve rebuilt plenty of airplanes. I knew how to put this one back together because I’m the one who took it apart.”

The fuselage was already in a cradle. To this he attached the main wings, engine nacelles, and landing gear. He had never removed the nose gear, so the tailless plane was soon standing on all three wheels.

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