The Navy’s

by Dr. Marshall Michel
86th Airlift Wing historian

***image1***The U.S. Navy’s first carrier jet fighters were an unremarkable group of low performance straight wing aircraft, their only concession to modernity being tricycle landing gear to keep jet exhaust from burning the wooden flight decks.

The exception was the remarkably rakish and radical Chance Vought F-7U-1 Cutlass, a tailless jet that offered the promise of really outstanding performance. The F7U-1 brought many firsts for the Navy – very low aspect ratio swept back wings, mid-wing mounted vertical stabilizers, a high-pressure hydraulic system and afterburning engines.

The Cutlass first flew in September 1948 and was quickly ordered into production, but as the test program progressed, the Navy found several problems. While the low aspect ratio wing provided exceptional maneuverability at high speed, it gave little lift at low speeds, even with high lift slats along the entire leading edge of the wing.

To fly slowly to land on a carrier the F7U-1 had to fly at high angles of attack – in layperson’s terms, the nose had to be very high. Such an approach not only blocked the view of the deck but also required unusually long nose gear strut to allow it to touch down and take off at a very high angle of attack.
Additionally, the Westinghouse jet engines did not provide the needed thrust, and newer Westinghouse engines produced only half the promised thrust. Finally, the new hydraulic system was unreliable. One test pilot remembered that so many hydraulic warning lights came on in a normal flight it was like “sitting inside a pinball machine.”

When the Cutlass worked, it was a fast and maneuverable machine, with a roll rate of more than 550 degrees a second, and when the slats were extended the aircraft would not stall. The Blue Angels acrobatic team received two Cutlasses which they used in the 1951/1952 season in the solo and high performance portions of the show, and the combination of its futuristic configuration and extremely noisy after-burning engines thrilled the show spectators.

The problems were worked and an almost new aircraft, the F7U-3, produced but major problems persisted. The hydraulic problems were never solved, and the nose high approach to the carrier caused more problems. When a Cutlass caught the wire, the long nose gear strut slammed down on the deck, and the pilot sat directly over the nose strut.

Even a normal landing jarred his spine, but after a number of landings the nose landing gear began to break, resulting in a broken back or death for the pilot. In one 14-month period the Cutlass had almost eight accidents per 1,000 landings, while the average for other Navy jet fighters was about three per 100 landings.

In a search for a “mission match,” the last 98 were completed as F7UMs carrying the AIM-7 air-to-air missile, making it the first all-missile armed fighter in the U.S. inventory. But the need for a radar to guide the missiles added more weight, as did the addition of more fuel, and the weight was too much for the low powered engines.

The F7U was dropped from the Navy inventory in 1956, having lost almost 25 percent of the 300 produced in accidents, which killed four test pilots and 21 other Naval aviators.