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Fifi the Goblin; Grumman’s First Fighter

August 4, 2021
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Grumman – now Northrop Grumman – is a legendary aircraft constructor. For generations now, the company has been one of the primary builders of aircraft for the United States Navy. The manufacturers products have long had a reputation as tough, dependable and powerful aircraft that have flown off almost every carrier that the US has operated.

In fact, so many Grumman fighter aircraft types have been adopted, that they have their own naming tradition – the “cat” – series.

The first of these was the F4F Wildcat, which made its name battling over the Pacific in World War Two. The last (so far) was the F-14 Tomcat, one of the most formidable aircraft to ever launch off a flight deck.

With Grumman such a part of naval fighter aviation, I thought it would be interesting to look at the company’s first carrier fighter.

The Grumman FF – known as the “Fifi”

 

Perhaps not the most inspiring nickname, but you can understand where the guys who called it that were coming from.

In 1930 the Us Navy asked Grumman if they could come up with a way to retrofit their existing Boeing F4B biplane fighters with Grumman’s patented retracting wheel undercarriage. Grumman were not too keen on this idea, thinking it unlikely to be workable, and not inclined to give away any secrets or ideas to rival companies on what was, after all, cutting edge technology.

So, they made a counter proposal – they would build the US Navy a new fighter which would set new standards for carrier fighters at that time.

 

Though to modern eyes the FF looks somewhat dumpy, even clumsy, it was indeed the state of the art. On top of its retracting undercarriage the aircraft had an enclosed cockpit and a fuselage of all-metal construction, though the biplane wings retained fabric coverings.

Despite this, the FF had a great advantage over the existing aircraft of the day in terms of its streamlining, making the FF a fast aircraft for its day.

The prototype – XFF-1 – first flew in December 1931 and clocked a top speed of 195mph. Over the next year tweaks were made at the suggestion of the test pilots and in December 1932 the US Navy ordered 27 of the aircraft as the FF-1.

Powered by an improved Wright Cyclone-F radial engine, this had a top speed of 201 mph, a definite improvement over the F4B which was the Navy’s newest fighter. Moreover, the FF-1 did this with a two-man crew, both seated under the long, glazed canopy.

Armament was two .30 calibre or one .30 calibre and one .50 calibre Browning machine guns fixed forward firing in the aircraft’s fuselage, while the observer in the rear had a .30 calibre gun on a flexible mount. The aircraft also had the capacity to carry one or two 100-lb bombs.

As the FF-1 was being ordered, Grumman was also testing another variant. This, with a different engine, equipment and an increased fuel load, would be ordered as a scout fighter for the US Navy as the SF-1, with 33 of this variant serving.

Though Grumman had produced a thoroughly modern fighter, the rate of development in aircraft at the time meant that the FF’s were a transitional type that would have extremely short front line lifetimes.

 

FF-1s first deployed in June 1933 aboard the USS Lexington. But in 1935 they were being replaced by Grumman’s next fighter, the F2F, and by late 1936 the FFs had been relegated to reserve squadrons.

The surviving twenty-two airframes would be converted into advanced trainers by the Naval Aircraft Factory, designated the FF-2. These served until 1940 and then were largely scrapped.

But this is not the end of the FF story. Grumman made some prototypes of the SF-1 to try to keep the US Navy interested, mainly by fitting Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp engines to the design. This culminated in XSBF scout bomber, which ultimately went nowhere.

Grumman also produced a civilian variant, the GG-1. This made several publicity campaign flights and caught the attention of the Canadian Car & Foundry. They licensed production from Grumman in 1936 under the designation G-23 and subsequently built 52 FF’s. And some of these saw a surprisingly long and busy usage.

Single examples were sold to Japan, Nicaragua and Mexico, which also wanted to set up a production line but nothing came of this. But in 1937 the Spanish Republican government, pitted in a desperate civil war, ordered fifty FF-1s. The problem was, as a US-origin aircraft, the sale was embargoed by the American government.

A subterfuge was put into place that faked the sale of the aircraft to Turkey. This managed to sneak 34 of the aircraft into Spain in 1938, but then the ruse was uncovered and the remaining sixteen were returned to the factory.

It was one of these that was sold to Mexico, but the remaining fifteen languished until September 1939 and the outbreak of World War Two. Up until that point the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) had refused point blank to even think about buying the thoroughly outdated aircraft, but now, with few choices, they took them.

One suspects they weren’t very happy about this state of affairs, and the official name they gave the aircraft reflects that – the Goblin Mk.I.

 

I mean, it is kind of perfect, isn’t it?

Anyway, the 15 Goblins entered service in December 1940 with the RCAF and patrolled the waters off eastern Canada as well as providing “air defence” for Halifax harbour. They apparently did not do well in the Canadian winter and were replaced after a year by P-40s.

No doubt the RCAF pilots were glad to see the back of them.

But it was in Spain the aircraft lingered the longest. As said, 34 were obtained by the Republican, and these entered combat in 1938. The Spanish seemed to have been more forgiving in their attitude to the appearance of the G.23, as they nicknamed it the “Delfin”, or “Dolphin”.

Despite this, as a basically obsolete aircraft, even by the mish mash standards of the Spanish Civil War, they did not do well. Hopelessly outclassed by the aircraft of the Nationalists the FF’s saw their best use as ground attackers.

Of the 34 aircraft supplied, 23 were destroyed and they achieved one air-to-air kill against a Heinkel He-59 bomber – an aircraft from the same period as the FF. The eleven remaining aircraft were then taken into service by the victorious Nationalist’s and formed a squadron in Spanish Morocco.

 

Here they are reputed to have served until 1955.

Of the 116 FFs reportedly built, only one survives that I am aware of.

The Nicaraguan Air Force flew their example until 1942, at which point it was dumped in a scrap yard. In 1961 it was spotted by an American pilot, purchased and restored. In 1966 it was given to the Naval Aviation Museum in Florida.

 

And that is the story of the Grumman FF. An aircraft that was revolutionary for about a year, but which rejoiced under two of the most distinctive nicknames ever granted to a single aircraft.

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Ed Nash

Ed Nash

Ed Nash has spent years traveling around the world. Between June 2015 and July 2016 he volunteered with the Kurdish YPG in its battle against ISIS in Syria; his book on his experiences, Desert Sniper, was published by Little, Brown in September 2018.
Ed Nash

Ed Nash

Ed Nash has spent years traveling around the world. Between June 2015 and July 2016 he volunteered with the Kurdish YPG in its battle against ISIS in Syria; his book on his experiences, Desert Sniper, was published by Little, Brown in September 2018.

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