One of the most exciting aerobatic aircraft of the 1930s and '40s, the Grumman Gulfhawk II was built for retired naval aviator and air show pilot Al Williams. As head of the Gulf Oil Company's aviation department, Williams flew in military and civilian air shows around the country, performing precision aerobatics and dive-bombing maneuvers to promote military aviation during the interwar years.
The sturdy civilian biplane, with its strong aluminum monocoque fuselage and Wright Cyclone engine, nearly matched the Grumman F3F standard Navy fighter, which was operational at the time. It took its orange paint scheme from Williams' Curtiss 1A Gulfhawk, also in the Smithsonian's collection. Williams personally piloted the Gulfhawk II on its last flight in 1948 to Washington's National Airport.
One of the most exciting aerobatic aircraft of all time was the Grumman Gulfhawk II, built by Grumman in Bethpage, Long Island, for the Gulf Oil Companies. It was delivered to Roosevelt Field, Long Island, in December 1936, to be used by Major Alfred "Al" Williams, former naval aviator and Marine, who at the time was head of Gulf’s aviation department.
This sturdy little biplane nearly matched the F3F standard Navy fighter that was operational at that time. The Gulfhawk II was powered by a Wright Cyclone R-1820-GI 1,000-hp engine equipped with a three-blade Hamilton-Standard propeller. The wings, of unequal span and like those of the earlier F2F-1, were constructed of aluminum spars and ribs and were fabric-covered. The fuselage was monocoque construction covered with a 0.032-inch aluminum alloy, and could accommodate only the pilot. Modifications were made in the construction withstand the high-load factors encountered during aerobatics, and the aircraft was equipped for inverted flying for periods of up to half an hour.
The Gulfhawk II was painted bright orange, with the fuselage having blue trim and the wings black-edged white stripes radiating rearward and outward on the top surface of the upper wing and the bottom surface of the lower wing.
For twelve years, from 1936 to 1948, the plane thrilled many an air show spectator throughout the United States and Europe. It was a feature attraction at such meets as the Cleveland Air Races, the Miami All-America Air Show, and the New York World's Fair, demonstrating precision aerobatics and the then-new technique of dive bombing.
In 1938 the Gulfhawk II was crated and shipped to Europe. Aviation enthusiasts in England, France, Holland, and Germany were treated to Major Williams’ daring maneuvers in the colorful little biplane. During this overseas visit the only other person ever to fly the Gulfhawk II, the famous German World War I ace Ernst Udet, piloted the aircraft over Germany. In exchange, Major Williams became the first American to fly the vaunted Messerschmitt 109.
The Gulfhawk II was also used as a flying laboratory. A new pilot's throat microphone was tried out in it in 1937, and during Word War II, the Gulfhawk II was used to test oils, fuels, and lubricants under extreme operating conditions.
Many aviation cadets viewed the aircraft during its three-month tour of flight-training fields in 1943. Major Williams made the tour at the request of Gen. H. H. Arnold to demonstrate airmanship and precision aerobatic flying.
On October 11, 1948, the Gulfhawk II made its last flight. At Washington National Airport, Major Williams took his plane through a demonstration of aerobatics, and then taxied to a strip adjacent to the airport administration building where he shut off the engine and removed the stick, formally decommissioning the historical airplane. It was then presented to the Smithsonian Institution and became part of the National Air and Space Museum’s collection.