Panthers At Sea

U.S. Navy Panthers weren’t highly evolved, but they could shoot. And they were air conditioned.

After serving in the Korean War, the USS Boxer went on a tour of the Pacific in 1955, carrying a pair of F9F-5 Panthers, Grumman Aircraft’s first jet fighter for the U.S. Navy. Panthers flew most of the Navy’s combat missions in Korea. (National Archives and Records Administration)
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By the time the Korean War ended, in July 1953, the Panther was on the verge of obsolescence. Despite the aircraft’s successes against the MiG-15, the Navy had decided that competing with newer MiG designs required a swept-wing jet. When the initial Panther contract was signed, in 1946, Grumman had declined the Navy’s invitation to build a swept-wing version because the company felt more research was needed. But in March 1951, five months after the MiGs appeared, Grumman started work on just such an aircraft, the F9F-6 Cougar. The Cougar joined the fleet less than two years later, but never saw combat in Korea.

With the arrival of the Cougar, the Panther began to be retired from frontline Navy service. The Marines hung on to a few until late 1957. A total of 1,385 Panthers had been built. Many Panther pilots ended up flying Cougars; for most, it was their first swept-wing experience.

During the 1980s and ’90s, at least two Panthers passed into civilian hands and flew sporadically. One, rescued from a playground and restored to flying status in 1983, was flown on the airshow circuit for 11 years by Philadelphia-based attorney Arthur Wolk, who won millions of dollars in court representing the victims of commercial aviation disasters, including the crash of a United Airlines DC-10 in Sioux City, Iowa, and a string of Boeing 737 mishaps attributed to rudder malfunction. “It was more docile than any aircraft I’ve ever flown,” says Wolk, who put 350 hours on the F9F-2. “But it was underpowered. And you really had to pay attention to the fuel. At times, you could literally watch the fuel gauge needles move.”

Wolk’s Panther was destroyed in 1996 when shortly after takeoff a fuel control failed. Wolk was able to nurse the airplane around for a landing, but due to an inoperative airspeed indicator, he landed hot and slid off the end of the runway, barely escaping with his life.

The last remaining potentially flyable Panther resides at the Cavanaugh Flight Museum in Addison, Texas. In 1995, after a two-year, 25,000-hour restoration by the museum, the F9F-2B flew to the annual fly-in at Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and won Grand Champion Warbird. But it hasn’t flown since. “It’s very expensive to fly, and it’s the last one left,” explains the museum’s Doug Jeans. “We just have no desire to fly it anymore.”

The unrefined but earnest Panther wasn’t the fastest, the highest-flying, or the most lethal postwar fighter. Yet it introduced thousands of pilots to jet aviation, primped for the Navy as a shiny Blue Angel, and even had a second career with the Argentinian navy, for which it flew until the late 1960s. It was a handsome little jet, stalwartly true to its Grumman cat lineage.

David Noland still has the complete set of the Topps “Wings” airplane cards that he collected at age seven, including card number 100, the F9F Panther.

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