The Gutless Cutlass
In the early jet age, pilots had good reason to fear the F7U.
- By DC Agle
- Air & Space magazine, August 2013
Greater St. Louis Air and Space Museum
(Page 2 of 5)
“We determined right off the bat it wasn’t the answer,” says Feightner. “But the Navy wanted to get some time on it. I actually took it aboard ship and made 14 landings before the airplane broke in half right behind the cockpit during a landing.”
Why the push to showcase the aircraft? “It was politics,” Feightner says. “There were Congressmen, senators, and we had a couple of pretty senior officers who wanted their airplane to be the Blue Angels airplane.”
The team went with Grumman F9F Panthers instead, and relegated the Cutlass F7U-1 to the two soloists, Feightner and Lieutenant Mac MacKnight.
While the Panthers were grounded for fuel control problems in the spring of 1952, Feightner, in a blue and gold Cutlass, made his Blue Angels airshow debut, flying a one-man show for VIPs in Pensacola, Florida. “I rolled down there, hit the afterburner, and headed straight up,” he says. “We didn’t have any other airplane that could do that in those days. I just started to climb, then I lost the hydraulics. You couldn’t eject until you got to 1,500 feet, and I topped out at 1,100, then headed straight down. I have the stick [full aft] and nothing is happening. The ground is getting bigger and all of a sudden everything hooks up again and the airplane goes nur-ooop. So now I’m flying—but there is a row of trees at the end of the runway. I couldn’t get over them so I just picked out a space between two trees and carved a hole through them.” Streaming hydraulic fluid and wood pulp, Feightner wrestled the Cutlass onto the runway and even managed to taxi up to the crowd.
“There is dead silence. They saw me hit the trees and knew I had a big emergency. Everybody is waiting to see what would happen. I get out and step off and a big cheer went up. Admiral Price comes over and says, ‘Man, that was a real airshow.’ ”
Feightner and MacKnight flew the Cutlasses almost daily. They endured hydraulic system and landing gear failures, inflight engine fires, and, on one occasion, pieces of landing gear doors falling onto a grandstand, miraculously missing everyone. By June, the Panthers had returned to flight, and the Cutlass solos were cut.
None of the 14 F7U-1s built between 1950 and ’52 made it to squadron service. But there was a new F7U in the offing. Improvements included new engines, a longer, thicker, and sturdier airframe almost a third larger than the original, and additional access panels for easier maintenance. On December 20, 1951, the F7U-3 made its first flight.
“Our job was to test the Cutlass,” wrote F7U Navy test pilot—later astronaut—Wally Schirra in his autobiography, Schirra’s Space. “The company soon became Chancy Vought to us, for in our judgment the Cutlass was an accident looking for a place to happen, a widow maker.”