In 1944, the United States Navy's Fast Carrier Task Force navigates towards victory in World War II. Navy Pilot Robert Turnell launches his newly designed Grumman F6F Hellcat from the deck of the USS Wasp, and fights against the legendary Japanese Mitsubishi A6M Zero. "Chronicles of Courage: Stories of Wartime and Innovation" is a co-production of Vulcan Productions and NBC Learn.
Chronicles of Courage -- F6F Hellcat
KATE SNOW, reporting:
After years of destructive fighting, America is on the move, navigating its way toward victory in World War II, and the Navy is on the hunt for Japanese ships.
NEWSREEL ANNOUNCER: Somewhere in the Pacific, the U.S. Navy Carrier Task Force steams into Japanese waters.
SNOW: Navy pilot Robert Turnell is part of that naval fleet, called the Fast Carrier Task Force, stationed aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Wasp.
ROBERT TURNELL (Pilot, U.S. Navy): It consisted of five task groups. There were 20 carriers in that task force, which is a lot of airplanes.
SNOW: Naval warfare has changed drastically since the start of the war. Instead of ship-to-ship combat fought mostly by battleships, opposing ships now may never even get close enough to see each other. Now, fighter planes are launched into the sky from aircraft carriers, a revolutionary concept at the time. They battle one another in the air and shoot at targets below.
NEWSREEL ANNOUNCER: The sky is filled with flaming tracers and shell fire.
SNOW: The Fast Carrier Task Force further enhances this strategy, by grouping several carriers together into a flotilla, creating a highly mobile floating air base that can act as the main striking force against the Japanese military.
TURNELL: Probably 16 or 1,700 aircraft in that flotilla. All we did was go up and down the Pacific and hit targets.
SNOW: In order for this carrier task force strategy to work, the U.S. Navy must control the skies, but its primary fighter plane, the Grumman F4F Wildcat, is slower, heavier, and less nimble than its Japanese rival, the legendary Mitsubishi A6M Zero.
Dr. REBECCA GRANT (Military Aviation Expert): The Zero’s light weight helped make it extraordinarily maneuverable. It was a superb dogfighting platform. And it was a better fighter than the F4F Wildcat.
TURNELL: The Wildcat was an aircraft that you had to be an athlete to learn how to fly it, because all the controls were manual.
SNOW: Because the Wildcat is so difficult to fly, engineers at Grumman Aircraft take a hard look at its flaws, and replace it with an entirely new fighter plane -- the F6F Hellcat.
GRANT: The F6F was designed with one purpose in mind, and that was to defeat the Japanese Zero.
SNOW: Extensive technological and mechanical improvements are made to the Hellcat, including automatically deploying landing gear-- previously pilots had to crank it up and down by hand. The landing gear itself is also strengthened to better withstand hard landings on the pitching deck of a carrier.
In addition, the Hellcat's cockpit is designed to sit higher, giving the pilot better visibility when engaging in combat and landing on a carrier.
Another improvement is the addition of a state-of-the-art Pratt & Whitney R-2800 engine. At 2,000 horsepower, the Hellcat is about 70 miles per hour faster than the Zero.
GRANT: Its extreme speed both in climb and in dive gave the Hellcat an enormous advantage over the lightweight Zero.
TURNELL: The Hellcat was a much better fighter. It was bigger, had more speed. It was just a much better airplane.
SNOW: To allow more planes to fit onto an aircraft carrier, Grumman co-founder Leroy Grumman implements a concept called bio-inspired engineering. He uses an example in
Nature, a bird folding its wings back-to influence a new wing-folding system called the "Sto-wing".
The Sto-wings use a series of hinges to pivot and fold backward to tuck close to the Hellcat's fuselage.
This bio-inspired wing saves enough space to double the number of planes that can be
packed onto a carrier. More planes equals a stronger defense.
NEWSREEL ANNOUNCER: Official Navy pictures show a deck load of death ready for delivery.
SNOW: With these improvements, engineers succeed in helping the Hellcat become the Navy's number one fighter, and its answer to defeating the Zero in combat, as Turnell experiences firsthand during a dogfight.
TURNELL: There were eight Zeros in the air, and each one that came down, there was an F6F sitting there with their guns loaded and cocked and ready to go and we shot down eight of them.
SNOW: With its numerous technological innovations, the Hellcat goes on to become one of the most versatile fighter planes of World War II, helping the U.S. Navy to assert superiority over the skies, and the Fast Carrier Task Force contribute to Allied victory in the Pacific.
DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK, Calif. — The fighter jet was flying low over the desert valley when it banked and dove into a ravine. Between the ancient walls, it rumbled like a giant marble careening around a wooden floor. The noise, a stark contrast to the quietude of the desert, is part of the lure for the military veterans, aviation enthusiasts and photographers who gather at the top of "Star Wars Canyon" on the western edge of Death Valley National Park.
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