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MY FAVORITE World War II fighter aircraft is the Grumman F6F Hellcat. Though I certainly respect this carrier-based stalwart’s record number of kills over the Pacific, my favorite tale involves the skies of southern California in 1956.
The Hellcat first flew in 1942 succeeding the Grumman F4F Wildcat. Though developed after its rival Vought F4U Corsair, the Hellcat proved more capable in carrier ops. (The Corsair had problems with low-speed stability and its long nose compromised the pilot’s view forward.)
Hellcats and Corsairs used the same powerplant: the R-2800 Double Wasp, an air-cooled 18-cylinder radial manufactured by Pratt & Whitney. The Double Wasp had two banks of nine cylinders, some versions with a novel shotgun-cartridge starter assist. Firing the shell sent an explosive impulse driving a piston downward in one of its 18 cylinders.
Its 46-liter engine produced 2100 hp and gave the Hellcat performance superiority over the Japanese Mitsubishi A6M Zero. Hellcat pilots were credited with destroying 5163 Japanese aircraft, with a kill-to-loss ratio of an estimated 19:1. The British Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm also flew these carrier-based fighters.
Hellcats also provided much of the glorious—and also some of the harrowing—photography of carrier-based combat. I suspect I first saw these aircraft as part of Victory at Sea, a documentary TV series first broadcast in 1952 – 1953.
The series’ soundtrack music by Richard Rodgers and Robert Russell Bennett is stirring and memorable. One of its segments, “Under the Southern Cross,” was given words by Oscar Hammerstein and became the pop standard “No Other Love.”
A total of 12,275 Hellcats were produced between 1942 and 1945. These accounted for 75 percent of all aerial victories recorded by the U.S. Navy in the Pacific.
And, amazingly, one Hellcat victory, of sorts, was against two state-of-the-art U.S. jet interceptors in 1956.
The military had experimented with radio-controlled drone aircraft as early as WWII’s Operation Aphrodite. The eldest Kennedy son, Joe, Jr., was killed in 1944 testing of a BQ-8, a modified B-24 Liberator flying bomb, when the plane exploded prematurely. Later, in 1946, an F6F-5K Hellcat drone flew through radioactive clouds during nuclear weapons tests in Bikini Atoll’s Operation Crossroads. Others were used as flying bombs in the Korean War and also as target drones in Navy flight training.
At 11:34 a.m. on August 16, 1956, a bright red Hellcat drone took off from Point Mugu, 50 miles west of Los Angeles, to be a target in missile testing. But instead of heading out over the Pacific, the drone lost communication with its radio control, gently circled and headed away from the ocean.
Navy Point Mugu alerted Air Force Oxnard, just 5 miles to the northwest, for immediate action, and Oxnard scrambled a pair of Northrup F-89D Scorpion interceptors, each equipped with 104 Mighty Mouse rockets in wingtip pods.
Though unguided, the Mighty Mouse rockets were aimed and dispatched electronically, and for this reason the Scorpions’ gun sites had been removed. The jet interceptors tailed the errant Hellcat at 30,000 ft., by now over Fraser Park, their two-man crews holding fire until the three aircraft reached an unpopulated area.
The Hellcat turned back toward Los Angeles. In their first attempts near Castiac, the Scorpion crews employed automatic mode, but a design flaw prevented firing. They resorted to manual and fired salvos totaling 84 rockets. The Hellcat emerged unscathed, though one source says a few rockets bounced off the aircraft’s fuselage without detonating. The rockets then plunged to earth and sparked brush fires near Newhall.
One Mighty Mouse skipped through Placerita Canyon and ignited oil sumps of the Indian Oil Company. Two workers opted to eat their lunch under a tree rather than in their utility truck. A good thing, as rocket fragments completely destroyed the vehicle. Ground-based firefighters got into action In the nick of time too, as one of the brush fires came within 300 ft. of the Bermite Powder Company’s explosives plant.
Meanwhile, up top, the Hellcat drifted off toward Palmdale. The Scorpions exhausted their weaponry with two more salvos missing the Hellcat, but causing havoc on the ground.
One chunk of shrapnel burst through the front window of a Palmdale home, ricocheted off the ceiling, through a wall and lodged in a kitchen cupboard. Fragments from another rocket shredded the left front tire of a station wagon driving down a Palmdale street and put 17 punctures in its radiator, hood and windshield. Recounted aerospace archaeologist Peter Merlin, “As the drone passed over Palmdale’s downtown, Mighty Mouse rockets fell like hail. Miraculously, no one was hurt.”
By this time, the two Scorpions were low on fuel and headed home to Oxnard. The Hellcat ran out of fuel about eight miles east of Palmdale, took down three Southern California Edison power lines and cartwheeled itself to destruction near what’s now Avenue P and 110th Street East.
For a while there, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Aero Detail and demolition experts from Edwards Air Force Base were finding Mighty Mouses (Mice?) buried up to their tail fins. Five hundred firemen took care of the brush fires.
Pieces of the errant, but elusive, F4F Hellcat were identified in 1997 by aero archaeologist Merlin. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2015