The Brewster F2A (usually known by the name it bore in British service -- Buffalo) was the first monoplane fighter to enter service with the US Navy. The Brewster Buffalo fighter has somewhat undeservedly gotten a bad rap by historians, having usually been relegated to the ranks of one of the greatest failures on the part of the Allies during the Second World War. It was indeed true that in British, Dutch and American service, the Buffalo was outclassed in both performance and firepower by its Japanese opponents, although the contest was actually not as one-sided as some historians might suggest. However, judged by its service with Finland it must be considered one of the most outstanding fighters of the Second World War!
The Brewster Aeronautical Corporation was a descendent of the Brewster Carriage Company, which had been founded in the early 1800s as a manufacturer of horse-drawn wagons and carriages. By the early 1900s, the firm had moved into the manufacture of automobile bodies. Shortly after the First World War, the company entered the aviation market when it subcontracted for the manufacture of aircraft floats. In 1924, the Brewster and Co. Aircraft Division was established. However, the Depression put a severe dent in the aircraft business, and the Aircraft Division had become dormant by 1931. In February of 1932, James Work, formerly a project engineer at the Naval Aircraft Factory in Philadelphia and briefly a vice president of the Detroit Aircraft Corporation, got together with a group of investors and bought out the Brewster and Co. Aircraft Division. The reorganized company was named the Brewster Aeronautical Corporation. The new company set up shop in Long Island City (located in the Queens borough of New York City, just across the East River from Manhattan), using the same building that had housed the former Aircraft Division and renting plant facilities from the Brewster car company.
At first, the Brewster Aeronautical Corporation remained a fairly small operation, making most of its money by building subcomponents for other aircraft manufacturers. However, in 1934 they secured a Navy contract for an aircraft of Brewster design -- the XSBA-1 scout bomber. The XSBA was rather innovative for its time, and was an all-metal monoplane featuring a retractable landing gear and an enclosed bomb bay.
New business for Brewster came in the form of a 1935 US Navy requirement for a carrier fighter intended to replace the Grumman F3F biplane. This Navy requirement called for a plane capable of 300 mph, and three companies entered the competition -- Grumman, Seversky and Brewster. Grumman proposed yet another biplane fighter, which was assigned the company designation G-16. It was basically an uprated F3F. Seversky proposed a navalized version of its P-35 Army fighter, which was given the company designation NF-1. The Brewster Aeronautical Corporation submitted a proposal for an original mid-wing monoplane which was given the company designation of Model B-139. The Model B-139 stemmed from an earlier design study for a two-seat fighter based on the XSBA. Designed by a team headed by Dayton Brown and R.D. MacCart, it was a cantilever, mid-wing monoplane with a stubby, all-metal fuselage and a riveted metal skin for the fuselage and the wings. Only the ailerons, rudder, and flaps were fabric covered. The cockpit was fully enclosed, and the landing gear was fully retractable. The gear leg, when retracted, fitted flush into a bay on the underside of the wing, while the shock absorber, axle and tire retracted into a wheel well in the fuselage underside. The original design features a simple open ring cowling around the engine, which was to be either a Wright XR-1690-02 or a Pratt & Whitney XR-1535-92 driving a variable pitch propeller. Armament was specified as one 0.30 cal and one 0.50 cal machine gun mounted in the top of the engine cowling, synchronized to fire through the propeller arc. However, provisions were made for an additional 0.50-in machine gun in each of the wings. A fully-retractable tail hook was installed at the extreme rear of the fuselage. An unusual feature was a ventral window in the fuselage belly, providing the pilot with some degree of a downward view.
On February 2, 1936, the Navy ordered a prototype of the G-16 biplane design from Grumman under the designation XF4F-1. On June 22 of that year the Navy ordered one prototype from Brewster. Under the naval system of aircraft designation, Brewster was assigned the manufacturer's identification letter of 'A', which had previously been allocated to the General Aviation Corporation (ex-Atlantic). Since General Aviation had already produced an aircraft designated FA back in 1932, the designation XF2A-1 was assigned to the Brewster aircraft. The navalized Seversky P-35 was never given an actual contract, and was hence never given an official naval designation.
During development, Brewster engineers concluded that their original design would be underpowered, and decided to switch engines to the 950 hp Wright R-1820-22 Cyclone nine-cylinder single-row air-cooled radial. The Seversky NF-1 was essentially the basic P-35 airframe mounting a 950 hp Wright R-1820-22 Cyclone engine instead of the Wasp engine that powered the Army land-based versions. An arrester hook and bomb racks were added, and a larger bulged windshield was provided.
The original Grumman XF4F-1 had been a fairly straightforward revision of the F3F biplane fighter. Believing that their biplane design would probably be obsolete even before it flew, Grumman tried to persuade the Navy that they should start working on a monoplane design. On July 28, 1936, the Navy agreed, cancelling the XF4F-1 biplane project and ordering instead a monoplane design, which was designated XF4F-2. Grumman chose to use the Pratt & Whitney R-1830 fourteen-cylinder two-row Twin Wasp air-cooled radial engine for its design.
The three competing designs all took to the air in 1937.
The XF4F-2 from Grumman flew for the first time on September 2, 1937. During test flying, it reached a maximum speed of 290 mph, 10 mph faster than the early XF2A-1. However, the XF4F-2 experienced some serious engine problems which kept it on the ground for extended periods of time.
The Seversky NF-1 was completed about June 3, 1937, and was flown to Anacostia on September 24. However, by the end of April of 1938, the NF-1 had been eliminated from the contest, since its maximum speed was only 250 mph and suffered some lateral instability.
The XF2A-1 flew for the first time in December 2, 1937, and was turned over to the Navy in January of 1938.
Wind tunnel tests carried out at Langley Field during May of 1938 indicated that the maximum speed of the XF2A-1 could be increased by 30 mph by improving the contours of the air intakes and exhaust outlet ducts, by modifying the fairings around the fuselage guns, and by installing undercarriage wheel covers. Although it was not practical to make all these recommended changes, the XF2A-1 was returned to the factory for an improvement in streamlining, a redesign of the engine cowling, and a reconfiguration of the carburetor and oil cooler air intakes. The performance improved significantly -- producing a maximum speed of 304 mph at 16,000 feet, an initial climb rate of 2750 feet per minute, and a range of 1000 miles. The aircraft now exceeded the 300 mph requirement and won praise from test pilots for its maneuverability.
Because of the engine problems being experienced at that time by the Grumman XF4F-2 aircraft, the Navy opted for the Brewster aircraft. On June 11, 1938, the US Navy ordered a first production run of 54 aircraft, under the designation F2A-1 (BuNos 1386-1439). This was the Navy's first production order for a monoplane fighter. Just after receiving the go-ahead from the Navy for F2A-1 production, Brewster went in search of larger quarters. On July 29, 1938, Brewster purchased the vacant Pierce-Arrow Building that was next door to its headquarters in Long Island City. The location of an aircraft manufacturer in the middle of an industrial area is sort of odd, since it was not adjacent to an airfield and the finished planes had to be trucked in sections out to an airport some distance away and then reassembled. Initially, this was done at Roosevelt Field which was further out on Long Island. In June of 1940, Brewster leased the eight-story Ford building adjacent to the Pierce-Arrow building. At about the same time, the Roosevelt Field final assembly facility was replaced by a larger hangar at Newark Airport in New Jersey, where the final aircraft were assembled and tested.
Despite Grumman's loss of the fighter contract to Brewster, the Navy admitted that none of the XF4F-2's problems were not really of a fundamental nature, and the Navy awarded a contract to Grumman in October of 1938 for a more advanced version known as the XF4F-3. The Grumman design, later to emerge as the Wildcat, was to prove a much more successful fighter than the F2A.
451 Brewster XF2A-1
Powerplant: One Wright XR-1820-22 Cyclone nine-cylinder single-row air-cooled radial rated at 950 hp for takeoff and 750 hp at 15,200 feet. Performance: Maximum speed 304 mph at 16,000 feet. Initial climb rate 2750 feet per minute. Service ceiling 30,900 feet. Landing speed 67 mph. Weights: 3711 pounds empty, 5017 pounds gross. Dimensions: Wingspan 35 feet 0 inches, length 25 feet 6 inches, height 11 feet 9 inches, wing area 209 square feet. Armament: One 0.50 inch and one 0.30-inch machine gun.