by Adam Estes
If there is a piston-engined fighter-plane which best embodies the definition of a hot rod, it would have to be the Grumman F8F Bearcat. Its small frame, powerful engine and incredible handling characteristics have made it a favorite for all those fortunate enough to have flown one. The rare opportunity to purchase a pristine example of this magnificent breed has appeared, once again, at Courtesy Aircraft Sales; this being an F8F-2 painted to represent a Bearcat once flown by the U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels aerial demonstration team.
Grumman built this Bearcat as construction number D.1162. The US Navy soon accepted it as Bureau Number (BuNo) 121776 on November 18, 1948. However, by this point, the U.S. Navy was already transitioning into jets so, like many other Bearcats of the period, the aircraft remained in Stateside units and aircraft pools, from Fighter Squadron 113 (VF-113) at Naval Air Station San Diego in California, to Marine Fighter Training Squadron 20 at MCAS Cherry Point, North Carolina, to aircraft reserve pools at NAS Alameda, California, NAS Norfolk, Virginia, and NAS Corpus Christi, Texas. The US Navy struck the aircraft from their inventory on January 9, 1957 with only 606 flying hours logged.
On January 22, 1960, BuNo 121776 was acquired by Kaman Aircraft, based out of Bloomfield, Connecticut. The company used this and another surplus F8F-2 (BuNo.121707 – now at the Planes of Fame Air Museum) as static wind generators for crosswind helicopter testing. Even though Kaman never flew these F8Fs, they still registered them with the FAA for proof of ownership; BuNo.121776 became N1030B and BuNo.121707 N1027B.
In 1970, however, Kaman no longer needed their Bearcats, donating them to the United States Marine Corps Museum (now the National Museum of the Marine Corps) in Quantico, Virginia, which preserved them in storage. While BuNo.121707 left Quantico in 1978, BuNo.121776 remained in storage at Quantico until 1996, when H. Wells purchased the airframe and almost immediately sold it to Air SRV Inc. and the Lone Star Flight Museum in Galveston, Texas.
With the new registration N68RW, BuNo.121776 made its first post-restoration flight on January 15, 2003, at Bluebird Aviation in Milton, Florida. The fighter flew in the colors of F8F-1 BuNo.94996, an example of the type which once flew with the Blue Angels. The fighter made numerous appearances at air shows across the United States, even appearing at the Reno Air Races with the legendary Nelson Ezell at the controls, although it did not compete in the Unlimited Class.
Another highlight in BuNo.121776’s airshow days involved the occasions it flew in formation with F/A-18 Hornets serving with the Blue Angels, showcasing the historical legacy of the legendary demonstration team. Founded in 1946, and gaining its name from a New York City nightclub, the Blue Angels originally debuted in June 1946, initially flying the venerable F6F Hellcat, but transitioning onto the Bearcat just two months later. An aspect of the early Blue Angels performances featured a mock dogfight staged between the Hellcats (and later the Bearcats) with an SNJ Texan trainer. Painted to represent a Japanese A6M Zero in an all-yellow livery, the SNJ was dubbed the Beetle Bomb. Later, the SNJ was replaced with another Bearcat which inherited the Beetle Bomb nickname and also performed in mock dogfights. When the team switched over to the Grumman F9F Panther in 1949, the Beetle Bomb Bearcat remained as part of the act. However, following a fatal accident on April 24, 1950, the Beetle Bomb routine never again featured in a Blue Angels demonstration.
According to Courtesy Aircraft Sales, only 22 F8F Bearcats remain in existence, with six of these belonging to government-owned collections (four in Thailand and two in the USA). The remaining 16 are civilian-owned, with 15 of these residing in the USA.
BuNo.121776 is now on the market again. Being freshly overhauled, it is one of the finest examples of its kind, and we look forwards to the day that this magnificent aircraft again has the opportunity to perform at future airshows!