Warries and Stories
Sea Fury - Gus Larard
At first take the Bearcat is not like a potential partner of breathtaking beauty. Perhaps the attraction is more like a desire to get to know her for what she represents - her raw power and performance, her purpose, her history this particular airframe was once the mount of Neil Armstrong.
As the last of the piston engine fighters produced by America, she is the ultimate challenge for the pilot who lives to fly big pistons, tailwheels, huge propellers, and lots of oil. For a pilot smitten by Britains crowning piston engine achievement, the Hawker Sea Fury, life is not complete without being make able to make ones own comparison between the best of both sides of the Atlantic.
The F8F is one of the long line of successful Navy fighters produced by Grumman, and one cannot help think of how far Grummans Cat fighters have gone between the Wildcat at the beginning of WWII through the Bearcat at the end, to the F14 in just over 30 years. At the start of the Pacific War the US Navy found that their Wildcats were outclassed in maneuverability when up against Zeros flown by Japans early war experienced pilots. Grummans initial response was the Hellcat a much more powerful fighter than the Wildcat with the best power to weight engine available, the ultra-reliable 2000hp Pratt and Whitney R2800 - the Hellcat combined the needed firepower, engine power and maneuverability to outclass the threat. The enemy countered with a new challenge though the Kamikazes. The Navy needed a fighter that was still equal to or better than the Hellcat in air to air combat, but had a much better capability to protect the fleet from the one way high speed suiciders they needed rapid launch capability, superb climb performance, and a higher speed dash. This fighter did not need a robust ground attack capability; Hellcats and Corsairs could still provide that the focus was on building a higher performance interceptor / air superiority fighter. The Hellcat was cut down, slimmed, and sharpened around the same engine and the Bearcat was born. The Bearcat was the fastest piston engined fighter ever built, and established the world climb record to 10,000 ft. This record was broken by a jet 10 years later but the jet could not take off in a 115 ft.
The Bearcat is squat, with stubby wings - all attached to a massive propeller with an engine-independent constant speed oil system drum which looks just huge on such a pudgy aeroplane. Unless she has been lovingly wiped for hours before the flight, her business like dark US Navy scheme is laced with huge streaks of oil running back from the exhaust stacks to the tail on each side. Perfect.
The original aircraft was supplied with a unique defensive innovation; the outer 40 of the wings being designed to snap off at above 9g or at excessive IAS. The Manual states If a pilot exceeds the safe limit to a point where an airplane would normally start to disintegrate, the airplane is designed to shed its wing tips. Carrier approach speed needs to be 40 knots faster if the wingtips were indeed ejected to scare off a pursuing zero. On taxi out at the Reno Air Races this year, it was noticed that the world record holding racer Bearcat Rare Bear appears to already have had its wingtips snapped off. The Bearcat is also equipped with special hydraulic dive brakes the Manual says that in the event of a high speed dive reaching compressibility and elevator/tab authority being lost, actuating the dive brakes may save the day. Makes one wonder how fast the early test pilots got this machine.
Internal fuel for an aircraft whose engine can guzzle 200+ gals/hr is not huge; at 185 gals. This is all you would want of course for cockpit alert for inbound Kamikazes. For a cross country if one doesnt mind slowing down to a sedate 200 KIAS cruise, fuel flow can be bought back to 50 gals/hr. There is however provision for 3 drop tanks for trans-Pac deliveries. With internal fuel only the fuel system is designed for fighter pilots fuel from the only tank is either on or off.
After strapping in, the feel is of being in a no nonsense, dedicated gun platform. The cockpit is unusually snug for an American fighter; as compact as a Mirage or Hunter. Visibility is good, as one would expect with a bubble canopy cockpit.
The Manual says to close the canopy for engine start. After watching a pilot get in with a white T-shirt to test run it once, then get out with an interesting oil-black shoulder scheme; the reason appeared obvious. The real reason however is stack fire apparently if the engine is started too rich the flames from the stacks will go straight up the wing into the cockpit, apparently there were more than a few singed Bearcat pilots who later regretted trying to be cool when starting.
Depending which theory you subscribe to, make sure there are no hydraulic locks in the cylinders i.e. whether you pull them through gently by hand or, tickle them over with the starter an important precaution for the R-2800 on the first flight every day.
Start is typical radial. Crack the throttle 1/3 of an inch. Stick back with the knees, boost pump on, then 3-5 seconds prime cold, zero to 2 hot, depending on the individual engines temperament. Engage the starter count 4 blades- mags on. As she fires, a delicate dance of hands moving between maybe a tickle more prime to keep her moving, a very slow introduction of mixture, and possible action with the throttle depending on how rightly or wrongly you got the prime requirement and mixture intro. At Reno this year, another slightly over-primed Bearcat this year had 3 thundering backfires on start due mixture too fast. He flew anyway, the result a Mayday call a few minutes after take-off as he lost most of his power, but fortunately just enough remained to turn back onto downwind and land it. A large part of the inlet manifold had been blown loose by the backfiring. Note to self if backfiring occurs on start shut down and check it out!
Once she is running smoothly, immediately retard the mixture to nearly cut-off, looking for a smooth sweet spot. The R2800 gurus say it should be as kept as lean as possible during ground ops pre-flight, or oil will build up on the plugs and be cemented at take-off power as full operating temperature is reached.
The best part about the start is the clouds of aggressive blue and black smoke spewing rearwards out of the exhaust stacks. There are always bystanders, and dont they love it! The streams of high speed horizontal clouds continue for a good minute or so. Uninitiated bystanders who stand directly behind the aircraft will be thoroughly sprayed with oil. The usual check of hydraulics, mags, switches on and we are off.
The aircraft is straightforward to taxi, with a fully castoring tailwheel and asymmetric braking. Forward visibility is fairly good for being seated so close to an R2800 - as long as excess oil was wiped off - but slight weaving is still needed.
Run-up is typical once operating temperatures are reached. This is the first time you notice how much closer to the engine you are in this than in most fighters. it is loud. Very loud. Normal before take-off checks set the hydraulic powered, 2 position, oil cooler door either open or closed, and the electrically controlled cowl flaps about 1/3 open visually.
Another Bearcat specific technique the huge prop is so close to the ground, the take-off must be made in the 3 point or almost - attitude, or a rather disastrous prop strike is possible. The other great caution given to new pilots is that the gear must be retracted very quickly after lift off as it is extremely difficult to avoid overspeeding the gear retraction limit speed 140 KIAS. One recommendation is to not even to attempt to raise the gear on ones first flight as things happen too fast just climb out steeply then come back to land in slow time.
One last check the runway is clear before obscuring most of it with the nose. Last thing before rolling, lock the tailwheel. The flight manual take-off power setting is 54/2700, recommendation is to go for a just a little less due to slightly different octane modern fuels. 50 therefore; but no less, or under-design loads may be placed on the pistons. In the Bearcat the pilot is much closer to the engine and prop than in the Corsair or Sea Fury, and no-one seemed to mention just how much louder, and how much closer one is to the high revving heavy metal. So throttle up to select a deafening roar louder than any other fighter a second glance at the boost only 30 so far hmm forcefully push it smoothly up towards 50 the crescendo is indescribable! RPM spot on, oil pressure good. And then things really start to happen the nose wants to pitch down as potentially 2000-odd hp kicks in stick hauled back to hold the tail down. A hefty bootfull of right rudder needed. The prop is also trying march her sideways off the runway notice that almost full right aileron is applied in an attempt to keep the wings level. This is a handful!
Then shes off hand races down to the gear lever wishing that the first time one actually got to manipulate the unlock mechanism and move the handle was not while the IAS needle is racing towards 140 KIAS. With the high lift-off attitude, retraction by 140 actually turns out to be not that much of a problem then the nose can be lowered and the power eased back to 41/2600. As this is being done, the VSI needle seems to be oddly pegged at its limit of 5000 fpm! Oil door closed, boost pump off, cowl flaps in a bit more. Suddenly were at 10,000 feet; Back to a cruise setting of 30/1850. Heart thumping, profuse sweating, limbs shaking, throat parched desert dry by the adrenaline. Need to cruise around for a bit and let the brain try to assimilate what just happened, and re-compose.
Stalls fairly straightforward clean break and a wing drop. In the landing configuration, it comes all the way back to just over 60 knots before it lets go very nice slow speed handling small stick movements, precise feel and response.
Steep turns again, small stick movements, precise feel, very stable, business like. Obvious, steadily increasing buffet during high angle of attack/higher loaded turns, easy to learn to judge the loaded stall and when it does let go little is lost with a slight back-off in pressure and a compensating squeeze of rudder to arrest the flick.
Aerobatics this machine does not seem to want to slow down when the nose is pointed up! With the recommended 41/2100 there is heaps of specific excess power. After each sequence she seems to be saying dont stop yet, theres more .. one could do this all day.
As this first flight is being conducted at Reno Stead field after a day of screaming Sea Furies, Mustangs and Bearcats have been doing practice and qualifying laps for the weekends races, there are a few others out having some late evening fun. Pulling out from some aeros, a Mustang is noticed coming in with good closure, sun behind him, 7 o-clock about a mile, slightly high. With the knowledge that the 7g corner velocity is 190KIAS, but this is an old aircraft with a pilot nearly as old; a 6g break is pulled; lift vector on. The Mustang keeps coming, but then sees he isnt going to hack the turn circle, then take his nose low out of plane for nose/tail separation and energy. With him now forward quarter, a roll is made to near wings level, full climb power applied the old power fight as taught in the early F18 days for fighting earlier generation fighters. The Mustang brings his nose up trying to crack the turn circle, when he does a slight roll into him increases nose tail and he seems to be going straight down like an elevator. Very soon 2800 cubic inches courtesy Pratt and Whitney gives the Bearcat a huge height advantage a barrel over the top and hes at 12 oclock, nose down trying to bug out. No contest at all.
Back to the field then. Seriously wishing this wasnt the end of the day at an event where everyone who is anybody in warbird flying in America is there every slightest error will be noticed; there will be plenty of good natured ribbing from those who have flown the Bearcat, more serious criticism from the experts who havent, and just one screw up will be immortalized in the minds of the entire community forever. Not to mention being uploaded for the worlds amusement within the hour. So just dont screw up, even though you have never done this before. Get every procedural step right, sweat the numbers, concentrate on the basic techniques, and have faith.
For the initial and pitch; this is the air races too high and you will be branded a whimp forever by the community. Too low this is a type rating check ride with the examiner and the FAA watching and you wont be getting to do it again. Anyway, pick a height that shows a degree of confidence without appearing too aggressive or reckless. Initial and pitch, a sea of upturned faces. Flaps selected full down on the break coming back through 220, they will actually come down progressively automatically as air loads reduce. Nice tight downwind, below 140, gear down. Typical downwind procedures. Curvilinear base turn, rolling out at about 100 ft at the published speed of 100 KIAS.
For the same reason as for take-off, the landing must be a 3 pointer. No fly it on tail high wheelers allowed on the first go with this machine. Ease the power back, select the 3 point attitude, hold, wait, and have some more of that faith. Really wish just now that you had flown something besides an airliner in the last month. The 67 knot stall showed there is plenty of justification for that faith. She behaves very nicely as she slows.
Landing a flood of relief to be in one piece, a bouncing, trundling roll out as the solid rubber tailwheel tyre transmits every bump with high fidelity.
Now remember to unlock the taiwheel, reconfigure the aircraft for shutdown, lean the mixture, and taxi in pretending a degree of composure that belies the emotional release of survival. Adrenaline overload.
A down to earth, honest, straightforward gun platform. As good as it ever got as a piston engined interceptor, and an awesome dogfighter totally business. And once youve flown her? Sexier than the rest. Except maybe for the Sea Fury now theres a conundrum that deserves more research ..
Now try to think of a way to communicate to the owner, who made this all possible, my profuse thanks for being fortunate enough to have the opportunity to fly this wonderful machine, and to thank him again on behalf of the rest of the world for putting in a significant amount of his resources to keep this piece of history flying.