A quarter of all the Vought F7U Cutlass fighters built ended up crashing.
On a fall day in 1955, newly minted Ensign Dick Cavicke was amazed by the number of servicemen gathered on his squadron’s flight line to gawk at the U.S. Navy’s hottest new fighter, the Vought F7U-3 Cutlass. He and other naval aviators fresh from flight training were excited that they’d soon be flying the futuristic-looking jet. Better yet, their visiting Marine pilot buddies were envious.
When first test-flown in 1948, the XF7U-1 prototypes caused a sensation in the aviation press. The public was fascinated, too, since Vought’s bat-like jet looked like something Flash Gordon might fly to the planet Mongo. Early flight tests had proved the fighter was exceptionally fast, with phenomenal maneuverability, prompting the Navy to order 14 production F7U-1s for further evaluation and carrier suitability tests.
Resulting from a 1945 Navy fighter competition for a carrier-based day fighter able to fly at 600 mph and 40,000 feet, the tailless, sweptwing XF7U-1 proposal eked out a win for the Vought Aircraft Company, known for its unusual designs. Rex Beisel, a brilliant aeronautical engineer responsible for the bentwing F4U Corsair, led the design team.
Concerned that the lead in jet fighter development was falling to the Air Force, the Navy needed a game changer, and the revolutionary Cutlass looked promising. F7U-1s delivered to the fleet in 1950 for evaluation incorporated many firsts: It was the Navy’s first sweptwing jet, and its first airplane designed with afterburners and hydraulically boosted flight controls with a built-in “artificial feel” system. The distinctive-looking F7U was also America’s first tailless production fighter, incorporating twin vertical fins midway out on a radically sweptback wing. Roll and pitch control were provided by elevons, which combined the dual function of ailerons and elevators.
Because there were no flaps, the Cutlass flew approaches at a very high angle of attack. Full-span leading-edge wing slats enabled low-speed flight, and to facilitate the high-pitch attitudes required for landing and catapult launches the plane had an elongated nosewheel strut, giving it a pronounced nose-up stance on the ground. Armed with four 20mm nose cannons, the single-seat fighter featured a pressurized cockpit comfortable up to 50,000 feet, tricycle landing gear and a Vought-designed ejection seat.
The “dash-one” failed miserably in carrier suitability tests. Pilots simply couldn’t see over the long nose well enough to land the jet on a flattop, a trait it shared with early versions of its illustrious predecessor, the F4U Corsair. Powered by two reliable but anemic Westinghouse J34 turbojets, the Cutlass also proved dangerously slow to respond to late wave-offs. By the time carrier suitability tests were completed, it was clear there were serious technical bugs inherent in the design. All three prototypes had crashed, along with two production F7U-1s before they could even be delivered to the Navy, killing three Vought test pilots in the process.
The problems were so bad that the F7U-1s were never put into squadron service, and a follow-on order for 88 F7U-2s with uprated engines was scrubbed. Two dash-ones did serve briefly with the Navy’s Blue Angels aerobatic team as solo performers, but were soon parked for lack of parts and waning enthusiasm for the airplane.
But the Navy still thought the tailless fighter had enormous potential. With the onset of the Korean War, it tried again in August 1950, ordering a redesigned version powered by new Westinghouse J46-WE-8 engines, then still in development. Although similar in planform to the dash-one model, the F7U-3 was essentially a new airplane.
Vought designed the F7U-3 to be bigger, faster and more robust for carrier ops. To accommodate the larger J46 engines, it had a deeper, longer fuselage. The four cannons were repositioned from the nose to the upper lips of the engine air intakes, allowing for a sharply truncated nose section with a raised cockpit to improve pilot visibility during carrier approaches. The twin-jet fighter was also provided with an in-flight refueling probe, two wing pylons to accommodate either fuel drop tanks or bombs, and a removable conformal belly pack for 32 Mighty Mouse rockets.
The Navy, in need of a carrier-based fighter capable of countering the deadly MiG-15s over Korea, assigned some of its best “sticks” to ready the complex F7U-3 for service. Pilots such as Wally Schirra and Don Shelton evaluated the big fighter under operational conditions during Project Cutlass at NAS Miramar in San Diego. After nearly a decade of development, the Cutlass finally entered frontline service in May 1954 with VF-81 on the East Coast. Eventually the Navy fielded 13 Cutlass squadrons equipped with the F7U-3 fighter and heavier, more advanced F7U-3M Sparrow I missile-armed interceptors.
Vought had sought to improve performance via the more powerful J46 engines, with thrust projections of 6,000 pounds dry and 9,000 pounds in afterburner. In reality the J46 delivered barely 65 percent of the power promised, making the F7U-3 (at 24,000 pounds combat weight) adequate at altitude but sluggish when flying the high angle of attack approaches required for carrier landings.
The technology was new, the learning curve was steep and all Navy jets of the era suffered high accident rates. Even so, it didn’t take long for the Cutlass to acquire a bad reputation. The basic problem was power—there wasn’t enough. Pilots found themselves flying carrier approaches at high power settings, with no thrust reserves available unless they kicked in the afterburners. Going in low and slow, they could easily get behind the proverbial power curve, a sure prelude to a ramp strike. How bad was it? If an engine failed, pilots either diverted to a nearby land base or ejected. It was too dangerous to attempt a single-engine landing on a carrier.
A litany of additional woes plagued the Cutlass. Some were common to other jet fighters of the era, such as engines occasionally flaming out when guns or missiles were fired. Others were peculiar to the Cutlass: The novel 3,000-psi hydraulic system was a maintenance headache, and after repeated carrier landings the 9-foot-long nose strut had a tendency to shear, slamming the nose down and sometimes spearing up through the cockpit floor, firing off the ejection seat.
When Ensign Cavicke reported to fighter squadron VF-124 at NAS Miramar direct from flight training in 1955, he was unaware of the jet’s reputation. Which was good, since another handle the fighter would soon acquire was “Ensign Eliminator.” Despite that, Cavicke recalled that he enjoyed flying the Cutlass. He also noted that VF-124 had inherited a cadre of experienced F7U pilots and mechanics from Project Cutlass. “Those people knew what they were doing,” he said. “Maintenance was good, and we knew the plane’s limitations.” Although he came to realize that the Cutlass’ engines limited its potential, when everything was working right it was an excellent fighter-bomber—rugged, maneuverable and fun to fly.
While the futuristic Cutlass turned out to be a disappointment for the Navy, it proved to be a big attraction at airshows, becoming an icon for the jet age when automobile stylists mounted Cutlass-inspired hood ornaments on ’56 Chevys.And many naval aviators enjoyed flying the controversial fighter, some claiming that with an exceptional driver the Cutlass was an exceptional airplane.
Retired Rear Adm. Don Shelton, a former Project Cutlass pilot and F7U-3 transitional training unit team leader, wasn’t so sure about that, saying, “You couldn’t push the limits of its envelope while dogfighting a Cutlass, like they did to survive with Hellcats and Corsairs during WWII.” Pilots were particularly leery of the fighter’s propensity to tumble out of the sky after an aerodynamic stall, a phenomenon known to engineers as a post-stall gyration.
Never popular with carrier skippers, accident-prone Cutlass squadrons were routinely ordered off the boat. And years after the fighter had been retired—but not quite forgotten—whenever prospective naval aviators watched training films of carrier landing accidents, the underpowered “Gutless Cutlass” starred in some disastrous crashes.
Despite the fighter’s appalling accident rate, the Navy bought 307 Cutlasses of all types, including 12 F7U-3P photorecon ships that were never put into squadron service. Additionally, an order for 146 copies of an attack version, the A2U-1, was canceled in 1954. Though the Cutlass served as a pioneer for future generations of Navy aircraft, a quarter of all F7Us built crashed before the type was withdrawn from fleet squadrons in 1957.
Long after F7Us disappeared from flight decks, the scuttlebutt among pilots at NAS Miramar was that the Navy had persisted with the Cutlass program only to keep Vought Aircraft, a venerable Navy supplier, busy. Rumor perhaps, but the problematic fighter did keep Vought’s production lines active until 1955. By then they were ready to produce what the Navy really wanted: the acclaimed F8U Crusader.
Originally published in the July 2012 issue of Aviation History Magazine. To subscribe, click here.