1st October 2014. Lakeland, Florida, USA. Although still classified as an “endangered species” by the Florida Wildlife Commission, Florida panthers are making a comeback.
However, it is still rare to see examples of the cats with the exception of the human Jacksonville-based Florida Panthers professional ice hockey team.
The foregoing is particularly true of the winged aluminum variety produced by Grumman in the 1950s. Three F9Fs exist in the Sunshine State, one in pristine condition on display at the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, another at the Valiant Air Command in Titusville and the third awaiting restoration in the Golden Hill complex at Fantasy of Flight in Polk City.
One of a trio of famous naval aircraft of the period, the others being the Vought F4U Corsair and Douglas Skyraider, the Grumman F9F was likewise a workhorse during the Korean Conflict.
Although slower than the U.S. Air Force’s North American F-85 Sabres and Soviet MiG-15 fighters, Panthers performed valuable escort, fighter-bomber and reconnaissance roles.
Occasionally, F9Fs engaged in air-to-air combat and the feline’s claws (four M3 20mm cannon) could be quickly lethal when cornered. Straight-wing Panthers could and sometimes did consider enemy aircraft as prey and pounced.
This was spectacularly proven on 18 November 1952 when Lieutenant Royce Williams of VF-781 was flying from the carrier USS Oriskany and attacking the North Korean port of Hoeryong. Soviet Navy pilots in MiGs scrambled to intercept; Williams shot down four. A Flight Journal article titled Four Down! details the action.
Other pilots excelled with the Panther as well. For example, Lieutenant Joseph J. MacBrien, a Royal Canadian Navy exchange pilot, flew the type from 15 September 1952 to 18 May 1953.
After leading a flight on an interdiction mission against supply and storage targets near Pukchong on 1 February 1953 MacBrien was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
He was cited for “extraordinary achievement.” The citation read as follows: “For extraordinary achievement while flying a jet fighter (Panther) on a combat mission over communist held North Korea on 1 February 1953. Lieutenant MacBrien led a flight of jet aircraft against an enemy supply area near the town of Pukchong on the vital east coast supply route.”
Additionally, Neil Armstrong, the future Apollo 11 astronaut and first human to walk on the moon, piloted F9Fs, as did U.S. Marine Corps pilots John H. Glenn, Jr., Friendship 7 and STS-95 Discovery astronaut, and Ted Williams, the Boston Red Sox baseball legend. In fact, as a result of his superb airmanship Ted Williams was once awarded the Air Medal.
Notably the U.S. Navy Blue Angels operated Panthers. To the delight of audiences, the aerial demonstration squadron used F9F-2s from 1949 to 1950 and F9F-5s from 1951 to 1955.
Former U.S. Navy air intelligence officer J.R. Hafer encountered Panthers several times. “There were a few F9Fs still in service when I entered the Navy in 1963. Most were used as photo reconnaissance aircraft and drones,” he remembered.
“I specifically remember one landing aboard USS Yorktown from Naval Air Station Point Magu, California, and subsequently having two pods mounted, one beneath each wing,” he recalled. “They were for F56 cameras.”
J.R. elaborated on usage. “Once we flew the F9Fs near Cuba, and just prior to the Gulf of Tonkin incident we launched a camera-equipped Panther to reconnoiter over Laos.”
Mr. Hafer remarked, “Panthers were ‘screamers.’ One could tell an F9F from the sound without even looking up when a Panther overflew.” He concluded, “The howl was very unique and caused spine-tingling; the J-48‘s audible emissions must have been frightening for the enemy.”
The referenced timbre and spectacular footage of F9Fs are preserved in the entertaining 1954 film The Bridges at Toko-Ri which starred iconic actors William Holden, Mickey Rooney and the future Princess Grace (the lovely Grace Kelly) of Monaco.
All naval aviation aficionados present and future are therefore able to enjoy and appreciate the planes through the theatrical release, and Floridians are blessed to share their home with three of the surviving ‘animals.’
The author (John T. Stemple) thanks J.R. Hafer for his cooperation during the preparation of this article.
Sources and Suggested Readings
Awards to the Royal Canadian Navy for Korea
Canada and the Korean War
Canada in the Korean War
Captain Theodore Williams Crash Lands
Flight Journal: Four Down!
Florida Panther Net
Green, William and Gordon Swanborough, The Complete Book of Fighters, New York: Smithmark, 1994, p. 106.
Grumman F9F Panther
Grumman F9F Panther
Grumman F9F Panther
Grumman F9F Panther vs MiG-15
John Herschel Glenn, Jr. (Colonel, USMC, Ret.)
Korea Veterans Association of Canada Inc./ L’Association canadienne des vétérans de Corée
National Naval Aviation Museum
Naval Air Station Point Mugu
Notable Panther Pilots: Ted Williams & Royce Williams
Royal Canadian Navy
The 15 Minute War at 26,000 feet
The Official Ted Williams Site: Korean War
USS Oriskany launches F9F Panther fighters during the Korean war
Ted Williams Panther Jet Clips
Valiant Air Command