Think the F-35 is Bad? It Could Always be Worse: F7U Cutlass-worse

Lockheed Martin’s F-35A/B/C Lightning II gets more than its fair share of bad press these days. But, as they say, it could always be worse. Let’s have a look at one of the US Navy’s dullest moments in developing and buying fighters.

By the end of the Second World War, the United States Navy was looking to get itself in on some jet action. The McDonnell FH Phantom was the first step in that direction, though all it really did was prove that it’s possible to land jet-powered fighters on carriers. The Navy was hooked, no pun intended. On June 1st, 1945, a little less than six months after the Phantom’s first flight in January of that same year, a new project was initiated to build a carrier-based day fighter, able to fly for sustained period at 600 mph at an altitude of 40,000 feet. Chance Vought’s entry was arguably the weirdest and most unconventional of them all, and somehow… it won.

Waldemar Voigt, a former bigwig engineer at Messerschmitt during the war, contributed to the design of Vought’s proposal, factoring in lessons learned while being at the forefront of the German wartime aviation industry, which was far ahead of the Allies in many respects. Working under the leadership of Rex Buren Beisel, the designer behind the F4U Corsair, Voigt and the project team came up with a stubby fuselage, two wide and swept wings, twin vertical stabilizers mounted on said wings, and a pair of engines emanating from the rear of the fuselage. Dubbed the V-346 by Vought, it had a high angle of attack thanks to the tall, spindly nose gear beneath the raised cockpit. It utilized elevons, which at the time were fairly new to the aviation world, and all of the aircraft’s control systems were hydraulically backed. The Navy liked the proposal enough that Vought was awarded the contract. The new name of the V-346 would be the F7U Cutlass.

By 1948, Vought had built a flying prototype, the XF7U-1, and the aircraft took to the skies in September of that year. Two more prototypes were completed, and all three were promptly lost to crashes. An omen of things to come, it would seem. The Navy pushed ahead and still ordered a batch of production aircraft, two of which were also soon lost. Control and thrust issues constantly plagued the jets, but the Navy wasn’t yet interested in cutting the program. The “improved” F7U-2 was supposed to fix the control reliability troubles, but complaints about the two J34-WE-32 non-afterburning turbojets still floated around. They were grossly underpowered, given the size and weight of the aircraft. The F7U-2 would have used two Westinghouse-built J34-WE-42 afterburning turbojets, but the Navy decided to cancel their order for 88 of the type in favor of the F7U-3, which wound up being the full-rate production iteration of the Cutlass. This time, outfitted with a set of J46-WE-8B turbojets… it was still underpowered.

A U.S. Navy Vought F7U-3 Cutlass (BuNo 129597) from Attack Squadron VA-212 "Rampant Raiders" aboard aircraft carrier USS Bon Homme Richard (CVA-31). (US Navy/released)
A U.S. Navy Vought F7U-3 Cutlass (BuNo 129597) from Attack Squadron VA-212 “Rampant Raiders” aboard aircraft carrier USS Bon Homme Richard (CVA-31). (US Navy/released)

The placement of the cockpit, originally structured as such to increase the pilot’s visibility, proved to be a massive obstacle for pilot visibility during carrier launches and recoveries. The unusually tall nose gear which gave the aircraft its high angle of attack was prone to folding and collapsing under stress, especially during the rough carrier traps which constantly see nose gear slam down onto the deck after the main gear have touched down. Parts, including the landing gear doors, were known to fall off in-flight, and engine fires were also common occurrences. The Cutlass soon gained a number of nicknames, the majority of which were very unsavory, and for good reason. The “Gutless Cutlass” and the “Ensign Eliminator” were among the most popular ones, the latter owing to the high accident rate. Pilots soon found that the engines couldn’t operate well in wet conditions. In fact, they outright didn’t function at all. Flameouts in rain were very common, and this made the Navy brass extremely hesitant to deploy their newest fighters aboard carriers. Nevertheless, the Gutlass Cutlass made it aboard six carriers for a total of seven cruises between 1955 and 1957. Further variants of the jet were ordered: 12 for photo-recon and 98 with the ability to sling four AAM-N-2 Sparrow I missiles. Overall, 288 Cutlasses were finally procured by the Navy.

The Smithsonian’s Air & Space magazine recounts a half-amusing/half-disturbing set of incidents involving the Cutlass, including the time Navy pilot Tom Quillin aborted a training hop after experiencing an electrical failure. After calling in his emergency to the tower, he learned that he was actually third in line in the emergency landing pattern… behind two other Cutlasses that were stricken with problems of their own. But that’s where the semi-humorous stories end. The Cutlass was responsible for the deaths of a number of naval aviators, due to its poor design. Carrier commanding officers, at times, ordered the Cutlass component of their air wings off their boats because of crashes and losses that would see pilots and deck crew injured or killed.

A number of airframes were permanently grounded as maintenance workpieces for training purposes; others still became hangar queens. Eventually, the majority were scrapped after a stint in a boneyards, and a handful were retained as museum pieces and gate guardians. The Navy final withdrew the Ensign eliminator from service in 1959 altogether, a mere seven years after it was originally introduced. Some maintain the sentiment that it was still seven years too many. So the next time you complain about the F-35, be thankful it isn’t nearly as bad as the F7U once was.
F7U-3 Cutlass, BuNo 129595, 'D 412', of VF-124, suffers ramp strike on landing aboard USS Hancock during carrier qualifications off of the California coast. The pilot, LCDR Jay Alkire, USNR, executive officer of VF-124, along with a number of deck crew. (US Navy/released)
F7U-3 Cutlass, BuNo 129595, ‘D 412’, of VF-124, suffers ramp strike on landing aboard USS Hancock during carrier qualifications off of the California coast. The pilot, LCDR Jay Alkire, USNR, executive officer of VF-124, along with a number of deck crew. (US Navy/released)

2 thoughts on “Think the F-35 is Bad? It Could Always be Worse: F7U Cutlass-worse

  1. with shiny new diploma I ran wind tunnel testes on the F7U-3 and followed its stability and control issues as revealed through flight tests. The relationship of the F7U-3 to the smaller-fated F7U-1 was rather like the relationship of the Grumman Hellcat to the wildcat- it was a larger perpetuation of the earlier airplane, but in this case -a mistake. The J-46 never produced its advertised power – but the design itself had more inherent flaws than any production fighter I can think of, although it did not pitch up at stall- just sliced to one side or the other and entered- not a true spin but “post-stall gyration.” It also had “roll-pitch coupling”- pull g’s and roll and the plane went all over the sky. If afterburners were lit at max. speed at sea level it bucked violently- the “JC maneuver” -called so by those pilots lucky enough to survive. (hands off the stick!) After just two days of flight tests, the Air Force evaluation team did not want any part of it.
    I also think the f-35 “A’ is getting an undeserved bad rep. it is now released for IOC, ahead of time and under budget. This sounds like a repeat of the F-111 fiasco- remember the F-111B?Bruce Bower, Rosamiond, CA


  2. On ne sauve pas un échec en se cachant derrière un autre, qui plus est d’un autre temps et pour d’autres raisons. Attention à vos jugements qui me semble plutôt très personnels. Je n’ai rien contre le F 35, par contre j’adore le Cutlass tout raté qu’il soit. Sa silouhette que j’ai jadis construite en maquette est unique et a ses fans. Le F 35 n’a par contre rien de très original et n’est même pas aussi impressionnant que son ainé le Raptor. Pour ce qui est de leur utilité, ces vilains canards sont tous deux exemples du manque de compréhention d’une part, et d’une inconstance des ambitions de l’autre qui créent une situation impossible à satisfaire. Dans les deux cas les responsables sont derrière, pas sur le terrain. Les hommes auxquels ce matériel est destiné en pâtissent pendant que les responsables se trouvent la plupart du temps des excuses et on se focalise sur la machine qui n’est que le résultat de cumuls d’incompétences et de manque de lucidité ! Au lieu de vouloir du tout en un même si la solution est attrayante, il aurait été plus réaliste de chercher quoi faire du résultat obtenu. Les deux appareils n’ont pas trouvé leur voie mais s’il faut absolument comparer, comparons les pertes financières des deux projets et vous verrez que le Cutlass n’est vraiment pas un comparatif adéquat.


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