The jet age doesn’t hold a monopoly on goofs, blunders and outright failures where naval aviation is concerned. Indeed, the prop epoch not only had its fair share, but perhaps the posterchild for the genre, the F2A Brewster. Meant to be the Navy’s first foray into the carrier-based monoplane field it was instead shunted ashore, passed to the Marines and Allies where it was clearly outclassed by its competition. Yet in one theater it absolutely shined when placed in the hands of the Finnish air force in their defense against Russia. How could that have been the case? We will attempt to answer that and other questions with this issue of Flightdeck Friday.
In the mid-30′s, the frontline fighter for the Navy was still a biplane, manufactured by Grumman. The F2F had replaced the Boeing F4B and the improved version – the F3F-1 was slated to begin equipping the fleet in 1937-38. Still, it was clear that the future for fighters lay in an all-metal, monoplane with retracing gear and an enclosed cockpit. At least it seemed so to all but Grumman…
In 1935, the Navy issued an RFP for a carrier-based fighter to replace the F3F-1 and three companies responded – Seversky with a navalized version of the P-35, the XFNF-1, Grumman with an uprated F3F-1 (another biplane) as the XF4F-1 and Brewster with its design, labled the XF2A, and based on an earlier two-seat fighter design study for the XSBA. The XF2A would be powered by either a Wright XR-1690-02 or a Pratt & Whitney XR-1535-92. Armament consisted of one each .50 cal and .30 cal gun. A fully enclosed, framed glass canopy would provide better visibility for the pilot with a rollover bar to provide protection in case of a flip while landing. Still, because of the sheer bulk of the fuselage, a ventral window was provided to give the pilot better downward visibility in the carrier landing pattern.Grumman convinced the Navy to let it resubmit a monoplane design and as a rsult, submitted the XF4F-2 which also utilized the Pratt & Whitney R-1830 fourteen-cylinder two-row Twin Wasp air-cooled radial engine. All three protoypes were delivered to the Navy for testing between 1936-37.
The Seversky entry was quickly dropped when the prototype’s maximum speed topped out at 236 knots. The Grumman entry out of the box hit a top speed of 290 knots, but encountered numerous problems with the experimental engine, which tended to ground it for extended periods of time. The Brewster entry was slower by 10 knots than the Grumman but also drew high marks for its maneuverability form the Navy test pilots. In an effort to improve its streamlining, the prototype was sent to Langley Field in early 1938 for wind tunnel testing. There, it was determined that with various improvements to the cowl, ducts and other items, that its speed could be increased by a good 30 knots. The changes were made and performance dramatically improved, producing a maximum speed of 304 mph at 16,000 feet, an initial climb rate of 2750 feet per minute, and a range of 1000 miles. The aircraft now exceeded the 300 mph requirement.
Still, the choice wasn’t necessarily clear. Grumman had been building fighters for the Navy for some few years, going back to the FF-1 and as such, was a known quantity. Brewster, on the other hand, was less so. A spin off of the Brewster Carriage Company, founded in the early 1800′s as a manufacturer of horse-drawn carriages, Brewster had moved into the business of auto body manufacture. The small Brewster and Co. Aircraft Division was established in 1924, but the advent of the Great Depression severely curtailed aircraft manufacturing, stressing even the larger established firms like Boeing and Douglas. By 1931 the Aircraft Division had become dormant by 1931, until February 1932 when James Work, formerly a project engineer at the Naval Aircraft Factory in Philadelphia and briefly a vice president of the Detroit Aircraft Corporation, got together with a group of investors and bought out the Brewster and Co. Aircraft Division, renaming it the Brewster Aeronautical Corporation. The new company was established in Long Island City, across the East River from Manhattan, using the same building that had housed the former Aircraft Division and renting plant facilities from the Brewster car company.
The Navy opted to go with the Brewster design. On 11 Jun 1938, the Navy ordered a production run of 54 aircraft, under the designation F2A-1 which also constituted the Navy’s first production order for a monoplane fighter. To support the production, Brewster embarked on an expansion of production facilitites to include purchase of the vacant Pierce-Arrow Building, next door to its headquarters in Long Island City. Because an airfield wasn’t adjacent to the production facility, aircraft were shipped to nearby Roosevelt Field where they were moved through the final assembly and over to flight check. This woiuld eventually be replaced by a larger final production facility at Newark field.
Early Service: USN
The first F2A-1′s (with several mods to include the 950 hp Wright R-1830-34 engine, telescopic site and improved windscreen) were delivered in Jun 1939. Already slipping in schedule, by Nov 39 only 5 had been delivered. Additionally, a problem with carbon monoxide build-up in the cockpit had to be dealt with. Another problem also manifested with the increased weight of the improvements – landing gear collapse, problematic for aircraft in general, but for one intended for carrier operations it was not a good
sign. As it was, this problem would plague the F2A throughout its service life. As problems mounted and delays extended a mere handful (11) were finally garnered by the Navy to equip VF-3 onboard Saratoga. Despite reaching this IOC milestone, the Navy opted to hedge its bets and convinced that the problems experienced by the XF4F-2 were not fatal or representative of an inherent design flaw, The Navy also placed an order for an advanced version – the XF4F-3, a foruitous decision as it formed the basis of the F4F Wildcat (and future Flightdeck Friday subject). Fifty-four F4F-3′s were ordered and soon supplanted the F2A as the Navy’s lead fighter. Despite garnering enough to outfit a second squadron – VF-2, the famous “Flying Chiefs” squadron, the Navy began to cut its losses, first by declaring a substantial number of the first lot as “surplus” and then assigning subsequent aircraft to the Marines for shore-based operations. As the war in Europe was going hot, the demand for fighters, any fighter, was rising and interest from nations overseas. When the F2A finally saw combat, it was savaged by Japanese fighters at Midway with the Marines losing 15 of 25 fighters. This loss rate pretty much sealed the F2A’s reputation with the Sea Services who not long after withdrew it form combat. Instead, owing to its handling ability, it was relegated to training and support squadrons stateside where it served as an advanced trainer for fighter pilots transitioning from training aircraft to fleet fighters.
Buffaloes In Foreign Service
Several countries expresed an interest in the Buffalo (as the Britis named the F2A), but it was in service with the Finns during the Continuation War (1941-44) that the fighter from Brewster finally gained fame (though the Finns never referred to it as a Buffalo, calling it instead a number of other namesknown simply as the Brewster, or sometimes by the nickname Taivaan helmi (“Sky Pearl”) or Pohjoisten taivaiden helmi (“Pearl of the Northern Skies”). With most of the Navy specific equipment removed, a “field” improvement by Finnish engineers to the R-1830 (inverted one of the piston rings which in turn stopped the oil leakage problem), the F2A (or by its export model designator – B239) was a nimble, long-legged (range) aircraft with exceptional endurance partnered with its easy maneuverability. Finn aviators were aware of its performance at Midway and using the lessons learned form that battle, wrote a new handbook on tactics with the F2A – with outstanding results. The Finns loved it and the combat talleys showed – Brewsters of Lentolaivue 24 (Fighter Squadron 24) were credited with 477 Soviet aircraft destroyed, against the loss of 19 Brewsters: a victory ratio of 26:1. The last aerial victory by a Brewster against the Soviet Union was scored over the Karelian Isthmus on 17 June 1944.
The F2A quickly faded from the scene with few examples left after the war. No fully intact aircraft was thought to exist until the summer of 1998 when one was found submerged in the frigid Russian lake, Big Kolejärvi, about 50 kilometers from Segezha, Russia. This aircraft was identified as one of the 44 Model 239s sold to Finland during the Winter War. With equal amounts of subterfuge and skullduggery, the aircraft was smuggled out of Russia and eventually found its way to the US where it will be minimally restored and displayed in its Finnish colors at the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola.
* Crew: One, pilot
* Length: 26 ft 4 in (8.03 m)
* Wingspan: 35 ft (10.7 m)
* Height: 12 ft 1 in (3.68 m)
* Wing area: 208.9 ft² (19.408 m²)
* Empty weight: 4,732 lb (2,146 kg)
* Max takeoff weight: 6,321 lb (2,867 kg)
* Maximum speed: 284 mph at sea level, 321 mph at 16,500 ft (457 km/h, 517 km/h)
* Cruise speed: 160 mph (258 km/h)
* Range: 965 mi (1,553 km)
* Service ceiling 30,000 ft (9,144 m)
* Rate of climb: 2,290 ft/min (673 m/min)
* 2 x 0.50 cal (12.7 mm) nose-mounted machine guns
* 2 x 0.50 cal (12.7 mm) wing-mounted machine guns
* two 100-pound (45.36 kg) underwing bombs