Having completed around 1,000 displays over the last 40 plus years, a few stand out as the most memorable. One such occasion took place at Old Warden in June 2016, and it stood out for three reasons; firstly, it was the first major outing following the Shoreham tragedy which caused such a knee jerk reaction from the CAA that we feared it would end display flying as we knew it for ever. Secondly, trips in The Fighter Collection’s (TFC) Grumman Bearcat were a rarity for your correspondent, being some way down the pecking order behind TFC’s boss and his Chief Pilot, and trips away from Duxford tend to be few and far between. Lastly, the site at Old Warden naturally gives itself to displaying an aeroplane to its maximum potential, which in turn tends to bring out the best (or arguably the worst!) in any pilots lucky enough to display there.
So the stage was set, and three warbirds set off from Duxford for Shuttleworth’s Fly Navy show. Pete Kynsey was in the Corsair and Dave Southwood in the Wildcat, whilst I had been dealt the trump card with the Bearcat. We arrived en masse – well, as a three-ship – and having flown through together, split up to fly some individual solos. Having completed these, we then reformed to join into a chronologically choreographed pageant that only the test pilot brains that inhabit Old Warden could think up, such was the complexity of the timing. Anyway, it all worked out in the end and after around 20 minutes of duffing up the site (as some wag subsequently opined) we set off for home.
From a historical point of view, no Bearcats flew during the Second World War, their combat pedigree being proven mostly in the Indo-China theatre in the hands of the French. TFC’s Bearcat (G-RUMM) was built in 1948 and served with the US Navy until 1957, when it passed into civilian ownership in America. Following a major overhaul in the mid-1970s, it was acquired by TFC in 1981 and has become the longest serving member of TFC’s fleet of aircraft.
From my own perspective, any Bearcat display is all about demonstrating the aircraft’s energy potential, which means maximising the machine’s power to weight ratio. To put it into perspective, compared to an early Spitfire or Hurricane the Bearcat comes out upwards of 40% better with its massive R2800 bolted on the front. Thus it’s not the easiest aeroplane to display, because you need to use the vertical a lot or pull pretty hard to stay in front of the spectators. Alternatively you could always use a reduced power setting, and in fact after the first few manoeuvres that’s exactly what tends to happen. It goes against the grain to do this – energy is the lifeblood of display flying – but the Bearcat is one aeroplane where you can recover the energy in spades if you need to do so.
So the general theme is for a fast arrival, around 350kts (or Mach 0.6 as it says on one part of the aircraft’s airspeed indicator), and pull up into the vertical for however many rolls the airspace allows. The initial pull bleeds off a bit of speed, but once offloaded and pointing at the heavens, airspace generally becomes the limiting factor and you find yourself going through 5,000ft without much effort. Not that it is something to make a habit of, because you’re now nearly a mile away from the crowd, rapidly becoming a receding dot and, given the British climate, probably disappearing into cloud! But the aircraft’s potential has been demonstrated, so at this point it’s worth slowing things down a bit by concentrating on looping type manoeuvres, as well as rolling or working the famous Old Warden ‘bend’ to give the photographers some decent topside shots.
But bring the power back up to max continuous, and after a couple of energy recovery manoeuvres you’re back in the ballpark of being able to use half vertical rolls at the end of the display line to reverse direction if required.
That’s a brief description of riding the Bearcat; I say riding, because at times it certainly feels as though one is along for the ride, the aircraft having a will of its own once you’ve pointed it in the direction you want to go. It’s a pretty awesome machine in its own right, but when viewed during those legendary ‘dogfights’ of yesteryear between Stephen Grey in the Bearcat and Ray Hanna in the Sea Fury, one can only marvel at the spectacle of what was essentially the pinnacle of piston-engined fighters.
Which one got the top spot? You decide…