Flightline: 162 - Grumman F11F-1 (F-11A) Tiger
Originally designed as a modernized F9F Cougar, the F11F-1 became the USN's second supersonic fighter, and was flown by the Blue Angels.
In 1952 the Grumman Aircraft Company began a privately funded program to upgrade the F9F Cougar, applying the Area Rule to the fuselage, replacing the engine with one more powerful, and redesigning the wing. This project, given the internal ID code G-98, eventually resulted in an aircraft with almost no resemblance to the Cougar, but the potential performance interested the USN's Bureau of Aeronautics enough to order two prototypes in 1953, under the designation XF9F-8 (later changed to XF9F-9).
Orthograph of the F11F-1. | Illustration: aviastar.org
In addition to a new, area-ruled fuselage, the new aircraft's wing had full-span leading edge slats and trailing edge flaps, with roll control achieved using spoilers rather than traditional ailerons. For storage on aircraft carriers, the F-11 Tiger's wings manually folded downwards, unique for a USN carrier aircraft. The XF9F-8 was designed for the Curtis-Wright J65 jet engine, a license-built copy of the Armstrong-Siddeley Sapphire, fitted with an afterburner. Given the predicted performance, the tailplane was all-moving. The plane would be armed with four Colt Mk.12 20mm cannons, and the wing was equipped with four hardpoints for unguided rockets, AIM-9 Sidewinder IR missiles, or drop tanks.
The first prototype was delivered in 1954, and due to delays with the afterburner-equipped J65 a standard model was fitted instead. Despite this, the aircraft nearly reached Mach 1 during its maiden flight on 30 July 1954, while the second prototype flew for the first time on 2 October 1954. The first prototype suffered an engine flame-out and crashed at Grumman's Calverton plant on Long Island on 20 October of the same year; the pilot was not seriously injured, but the aircraft was deemed to be not economical to rebuild. The remaining prototype was transferred to Edwards AFB for further testing, which included refitting with an afterburning engine and its first supersonic flight. Flight testing revealed some minor handling issues, which required some modifications to be made to the production model, including redesigned vertical tail surfaces with a narrower chord rudder, boundary layer splitter plates on the air intakes, a clear sliding canopy to improve rearward visibility, and a slightly longer nose.
One of the two XF9F-9 prototypes, likely at Grumman's factory in New York state. | Photo: USN
The US Navy ordered 388 production models of the aircraft, now designated the F11F-1 and given the name Tiger, keeping to the tradition of giving Grumman aircraft feline names. An additional 85 F11F-1P photo recon aircraft were ordered as well. The production F11F would be fitted with full weapons suites, including AN/APG-30A ranging radar, as well as retractable inflight refueling probe.
Carrier trials took place aboard the USS Forrestal in April of 1956, which revealed further issues. The Navy found the range of the F11F marginal, and Grumman responded by adding additional fuel tanks to the intake walls and vertical fin, adding 130 gallons capacity, bringing the total to 1,049gal. Handling issues resulted in a 60° fillet being added to the front of the wing root, and the nose was extended by six feet to accommodate the AN/APS-50 fire-control radar, which was never actually fitted to the Tiger.
Two F11F-1 Tigers of VT-23 ("Professionals") at NAS Kingsville, Texas. BuNo 138643 is a "short nose" version from the 1st batch of 42 aircraft, while 141797 is from the 2nd batch of 157 planes. The long nose was for a radar never added. | Photo: USN
An F11F-1 during carrier evals on the USS Forrestal in 1956. Note the downward folded wingtips. | Photo: USN
A short service, and ignominy
Seven U.S. Navy squadrons flew the F11F-1: VF-21 and VF-33 in the Atlantic Fleet and VA-156 (redesignated VF-111 in January 1959), VF-24 (redesignated VF-211 in March 1959), VF-51, VF-121, and VF-191 in the Pacific Fleet, flying from the smaller Essex-class carriers Intrepid, Lexington, Hancock, Bon Homme Richard, Shangri-La, Forrestal, Saratoga and Ranger. The Tiger had a short service life with front-line squadrons, with the last being withdrawn from VF-33 and VF-111 in April 1961. The F11F was judged to be inferior to the F8U which entered service at the same time, having a slower top speed and being shorter ranged than the Crusader, as well as having a slower climb rate. The production contracts were canceled after 199 were completed, with the entirety of the run of F11F-1P recon variants being canceled.
A formation of four Tigers from fighter squadron VF-21 ("Mach Busters"). | Photo: USN
2 F11Fs from Fighter Squadron VF-33 ("Astronauts") in flight in 1960. VF-33 was assigned to USS Intrepid for this cruise. | Photo: USN
The F11F Tiger holds the rather dubious distinction of being the first jet known to have shot itself down. On 21 September 1956, during a test-firing of its 20 mm cannons, pilot Tom Attridge fired two bursts midway through a shallow dive. As the trajectory of the cannon rounds decayed, the Tiger ran into the bullets as it continued its descent. Four rounds, luckily inert rather than explosive, struck the aircraft, one leaving a mark on the armored windscreen, two impacting the nose, and the last penetrating the engine compartment, destroying the compressor section. Attridge, who was not seriously injured, was able to land the ruined aircraft, which was later scrapped.
If I can't fight, I can at least teach
After being withdrawn from combat units, the Tigers continued on with ATU-203 (later VT-23) at NAAS Kingsville and ATU-223 (VT-26) at NAS Chase Field. Graduates of the advanced jet training classes moved from F9F-8T trainers to the F11F for supersonic experience before moving on to fleet fighters. A proposal was made to either convert existing aircraft or to build new a two-seat trainer version as F11F-1Ts, but the Navy was uninterested. The Tiger remained with the two training units until 1967, when they were retired to the Boneyard in Arizona. Because of this long service, the F11F were redesignated F-11As under the 1962 tri-service scheme.
An F-11A of VT-26 awaits reclamation at Davis-Monthan AFB in 1971. | Photo: RuthAS
From thoroughbred to show pony to test mule
Though it may have only served with front line units for a short time, the Tiger had a long life with the US Navy's Blue Angels demonstration team. The team acquired the short-nosed variant in 1957, and later traded them for the longer-nosed version, which they flew until 1968. In addition to their usual trips around the US, the Angels took their Tigers to Mexico in 1964, on a tour of the Caribbean and Europe (including the Paris Air Show) in 1965, and again to Europe in 1967. Crowds were enthusiastic for the deceptively powerful F-11, and in Paris the Blue Angels received a standing ovation, the only flight team to receive such appreciation. For the 1969 season, the Blue Angels transitioned to the F4J Phantom II, bringing an end to the USN career of the F-11.
Four of the Blue Angels F-11As in flight. | Photo: USN
The Blue Angels in flight over Niagara Falls in 1957. | Photo: USN
In 1973 two of the former Blue Angels F-11s were pulled from the Boneyard by Grumman for an evaluation of in-flight thrust reversers for tactical fighters. BuNo 141853 was fitted with a Rohr Industries thrust reverser, while BuNo 141824 was restored to flight condition as is to serve as a chase plane. Tests were conducted, first at Grumman's Calverton Facility and then at NATC Pax River, between 1974 and 1975, after which the two aircraft were returned to Davis-Monthan for storage. These were the last two Tigers to fly.
853 and 824, repainted for their test mission, in flight. 853 is closest to the camera ship, as is evident from the modified exhaust. | Photo: Grumman/USN
853 was pulled from AMARC again and preserved as a museum aircraft at the Pueblo Weisbrod Aircraft Museum. | Photo: Len Mozey
A number of Tigers, in front line markings or Blue Angel colors, are on display around the US, not bad for a plane only known for shooting itself down.
An F-11A in Blue Angels colors at the Kalamazoo Air Zoo. | Photo: Michael Barera
Disappointed with the performance of the F11F-1, Grumman began a study in 1955 to further improve the aircraft, resulting in the G-98J, a Tiger with enlarged intakes feeding a GE J79 turbojet (the same jet that powered the F4J and A3J. The Navy was intrigued enough to fund the conversion of two production F11F-1s (BuNos 138646 and 138647), creating the F11F-1Fs. The F11F-1F first flew in 1956, achieving Mach 1.44. Further refinement of the design, including a fuselage extension, wing root fillets, and an uprated J79, pushed the Super Tiger to Mach 2.04 in 1957, fully two years before the F4J, F8U, or A3J hit the same mark. Despite this blistering performance, the Navy decided against procuring the Super Tiger, leaving Grumman without a client for the aircraft. Grumman sought foreign customers, pitching the aircraft (variously designated F11F-2 or F-11B) to the Swiss Airforce, where it narrowly lost out to the Mirage III, then to the Luftwaffe, JASDF and RCAF, where it lost to the F-104 Starfighter (though the Lockheed bribery scandal taint that win to this day). The two Super Tigers remained at Edwards for further testing, then were used as ground and fire-fighting training until the middle 60s. The first aircraft was destroyed in the 1980s, while the second is on display at the China Lake Museum.
The first Super Tiger in flight, circa 1956. | Photo: USN
F11F-1F Super Tiger (BuNo 138647) on display at the The U.S. Naval Museum of Armament and Technology, NAWS China Lake, circa 2012. | Photo: Peter Kuntz