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.
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.