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F4F Wildcat By Dana Bell (2014)
Aircraft Pictorial #4
Classic Warships Publishing

The Grumman F4F Wildcat went down in history for several key reasons, including the fact that it was Grumman’s first monoplane fighter and that it represented the first line of defense against the Japanese in the early days of the war in the Pacific, even though the Mitsubishi Zero outclassed it in nearly every way.  Even though it has been out for a while, Dana Bell’s book, F4F Wildcat, is worth a close look as it represents a key resource and reference on this historic warbird.  
As Grumman’s F3F began its flight test program in 1935, the sun was setting upon of the age of the combat biplane.  At that time, its successor, the F4F, started to come together on Grumman’s drawing boards.  The first design, the XF4F-1, was a biplane with a barrel-shaped fuselage and hand-cranked main landing gear.  The Dash-1, even on paper, was inferior to the Brewster Buffalo, so the XF4F-2 took shape as a monoplane.  Despite the significant design changes, it too was outcompeted by the Buffalo.  After again losing the contract for a new Navy fighter to Brewster, Grumman was determined to make the design work.  They rebuilt the prototype as the XF4F-3 with new wings, a new tail configuration, and a supercharged Pratt & Whitney R-1830 Twin Wasp radial engine.  Finally, the Wildcat design had reached maturity.

Orders for F4F-3s started to come in by early 1940.  France was the first to order F4Fs.  France fell to the Nazis before they could receive their airplanes, so those deliveries were diverted to Royal Navy who christened the new fighter the Martlet.  The U.S. Navy named their F4Fs as the Wildcat and began to operate them in October 1941.

At the outset of the war in the Pacific, the Wildcat was generally outperformed by the Mitsubishi Zero’s greater speed and maneuverability.  However, the Wildcat was more rugged and survivable with its armor and self-sealing fuel tanks.  U.S. Navy pilots, however, realized they could capitalize on the strengths of the Wildcat while exploiting the weaknesses of the Zero.  The development of the “Thatch Weave” tactic by CDR Jimmy Thatch epitomized this approach and philosophy.  Navy and Marine Corps Wildcats played a prominent role in the defense of Wake Island.  F4Fs also served as the Navy’s primary fighters during the Battles of Coral Sea and Midway and contributed to the campaign at Guadalcanal.  The Wildcat continued to shoulder these duties until the F6F Hellcat and F4U Corsair came onto the scene in 1943.  In the Atlantic, the Navy employed F4Fs in Operation TORCH and Wildcats remained in service until 1945 on escort carriers in the ATO. 

Some 7,800 Wildcats were built by Grumman and General Motors, with the latter taking over production in 1943 so Grumman could focus Hellcat production.  During the war, Navy and Marine F4Fs and FMs flew more than 15,500 sorties and claiming 1,327 kills.

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This book follows the standard 72-page format by Classic Warships.  It is the fourth in a series of books published by renowned aviation historian and author Dana Bell by this publisher over the last ten years or so.  Each one of these titles is expertly written, insightful, lavishly illustrated, and thoroughly and deeply researched (with newly discovered information and never-before published photos including material from the National Archives).  If you’re familiar with any of the earlier or later titles in this series, you’ll find the same consistently high quality writing, layout, printing, and information.  In other words, this is a beautiful book filled to the brim with great written material and rich visual information.
While Bell’s F4F book is richly informative, it is presented in rather concise fashion and never feels overwhelming or wordy.  This is one of the keys to the success of Dana Bell’s books.  The book begins with a general history of the airplane and an overview of F4F serial numbers.  It then transitions into an extended photo essay using very carefully chosen photos that continue the story.  These include detailed images of the prototype XF4F-2 using original Grumman photos to trace Wildcat design evolution, from the earliest production F4F-3s, the one and only Wildcatfish prototype (BuNo 4038 modified with EDO floats), the General Motors FM-1, and early production airframes in combat (including a few Fleet Air Arm Martlets).

This larger story of the Wildcat complemented by a wealth of detail photos, such as of the engine and the firewall, variations in cowling design, carburetor air intake designs, the taller rudder that was introduced in 1943, the early over-wing floatation bags, and so forth.  There are also excellent detail photos of the landing gear, tail wheel, and the retractable arresting hook.  Cockpit coverage is extensive, demonstrating the layout of a typical F4F-3 and FM-2 over several pages.  Most of these are archival images, but one depicts in color the instrument panel of the FM-1 at the National Air and Space Museum.  Telescopic and reflector sights are also covered.  Antenna diagrams are provided, as are a close look at the interior of the fuselage behind the pilot that contained a reserve emergency fuel tank and radios.

The book also provides good coverage of the guns, gun bays, and shell ejection ports.  There’s also some close-up images of Wildcat drop tank fittings.  The F4F was primarily known an air-to-air fighter, but it did carry air-to-ground munitions on occasion.  Dana Bell’s book documents these relatively rare loadouts and configurations, including 100-pound bombs, 500-pound bombs, HVAR rockets, and even napalm bombs converted from drop tanks.  The book concludes with a series of rich “in-action” photos into late 1945 and a wealth of original contractor engineering drawings depicting aircraft configurations, wingfold positions, fuselage cross-sections, and more.  And of course, as Dana Bell is widely known as an aircraft paint scheme subject matter expert, several pages are filled will color drawings and schematics of paint schemes (pre-war and wartime schemes, including Fleet Air Arm Martlets), escort carrier force markings, and even squadron badges.


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There’s really nothing to critique in this excellent volume.  While the length of the books is certainly sufficient, I am sure that many readers, including myself, would probably wish that it had been longer yet still.  As I have remarked on every other one of Dana Bell’s titles, this book features high-quality reproduction of original archival photography.  Opening the cover is a little bit like getting into a time machine that transports readers back to the era of the F4F Wildcat – just shy of hearing its engine roar to life and smelling the exhaust.  If you’re like me, you just might think a little more content could extend your stay just a little longer.

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Dana Bell’s F4F Wildcat book is a superlative volume.  As with all his other works, it is engaging, impeccably researched, and immensely informative.  Wildcat fans and students of naval aviation especially will regard this book as a cherished reference while scale modelers will find it living on their workbench no matter what scale or kit of the F4F they’re working on.

We are grateful to Dana Bell for his generosity in sharing a copy of the book with Detail & Scale for this review.  You can find it available at, hopefully at your local hobby shop, and at Classic Warships website ( where you can also see their other titles.

Haagen Klaus
Scale Modeling News & Reviews Editor
Detail & Scale

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** Click on the thumbnails below to view a larger image.**



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