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 3 of 5)
But in some respects, the F7U-3 showed promise. Cutlass drivers found a number of things to praise about their new ride: It was a stable bombing platform, nimble, fun to fly, and, with its strengthened airframe, almost unbreakable. Feightner loved the fighter’s roll rate, which at 570 degrees a second was three times that of most production jets.
The F7U became a staple in hobby shops. Oldsmobile appropriated the name for a 1954 sports coupe. The Cutlass also provided the inspiration for the hood ornament on the 1955 and ’56 Chevrolet Bel Air.
In the spring of 1954, after six years of flight testing, three carrier suitability trials, and almost a decade of development, the first of 13 F7U-3 Cutlass fleet squadrons became operational. Early squadrons found out that the new! improved! Cutlass was also the most complicated to maintain. “I flew around 380 hours in the jet and never once wrote Okay on the [maintenance] sheet,” Feightner says. “There was never nothing wrong with it.”
All high-performance jets of the era—the North American FJ-1 Fury, the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star, the McDonnell F2H-2 Banshee—had their share of unique incidents and accidents, but the sheer number of high-profile Cutlass misfortunes was tough to beat. Like the time Vought test pilot Paul Thayer ejected from a flaming prototype in front of an airshow crowd on July 7, 1950. Or when Lieutenant Floyd Nugent ejected on July 26, 1954, only to watch the Cutlass, loaded with 2.75-inch rockets, fly serenely on, orbiting San Diego’s North Island and the Hotel Del Coronado for almost 30 minutes before ditching near the shore. When the left engine on Lieutenant Commander Paul Harwell’s Cutlass caught fire moments after takeoff on May 30, 1955, Harwell ejected and never set foot in the F7U again—giving him more time in a Cutlass parachute than in the actual aircraft. An electrical failure forced Tom Quillin to abort a training mission and declare an emergency. Quillin returned to base only to learn he was number three in the emergency landing pattern, behind two of the three other Cutlasses he took off with.
On December 11, 1954, during a low-altitude, high-speed pass before thousands of onlookers at the christening of the USS Forrestal at Newport News, Virginia, Lieutenant J.W. Hood’s F7U-3 suffered a wing-locking mechanism malfunction. The airframe came apart, an engine blew up, and Hood was killed when he was catapulted into the water. On July 14, 1955, before the first deployment of a Cutlass squadron at sea, an F7U-3M Cutlass pilot flying carrier qualifications off the coast of San Diego was waved off as too low on approach to the USS Hancock. In a sequence shot by Navy camera crews, the Cutlass, flown by Lieutenant Commander Jay Alkire, is descending, though its nose is pointing skyward. The landing signal officer sprints across the flight deck only moments before the Cutlass hits the carrier, breaks apart, and falls over the side as a fireball consumes the tail end of the ship. Alkire was killed.
The F7U-3 shared a design flaw with the F7U-1: two anemic Westinghouse jet engines. The company promised Vought and the Navy it could build an engine for the -3 that would generate 10,000 pounds of thrust in afterburner. By the time the J-46-WE-8A was delivered, Westinghouse had dropped the estimate by 10 percent. Later evaluations indicated it could put out no more than 6,100 pounds. And no existing engine would fit the Cutlass’ airframe.
Vought engineers, concerned about the kickback load on the nose landing gear actuator and mounting structure, added small turbines, powered by engine bleed air, to pre-spin tire on the nosegear tires to 90 mph. But the nosegear strut continued to fail, despite efforts to reinforce the structure by 30 percent. A weak drag link brace tended to give out during landing.
The USS Hancock, like most aircraft carriers of the day, had a straight deck (the switch to angled decks began in the mid-1950s). To come to a stop before running out of deck or into the aircraft parked at its far end, pilots were required to grab an arresting wire with the aircraft’s tailhook or rely on a series of canvas safety nets and metal cables. On November 4, 1955, when Lieutenant George Milliard tried to land, the tailhook on his Cutlass floated over all 12 arresting wires. Too low and slow to go around, Milliard went into the barrier, where the nosegear failed. The strut drove up into the cockpit and into the base of the ejection seat, triggering the ejection seat firing mechanism and knocking off the canopy. Milliard was launched 200 feet forward. He hit the tail of a Douglas A-1 Skyraider and later died of his injuries.