In November 1951, at Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Maryland, Lieutenant Commander Edward “Whitey” Feightner received the call he had been waiting for. On the line was an admiral from Naval Air Training Command, who told him he had been selected for the Navy’s flight demonstration squadron, which would eventually adopt the name the Blue Angels (after a Manhattan nightclub).
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“It’s a big thing to get a Blue Angel position,” says Feightner. “You get the royal treatment, travel the country, get to meet a lot of good people, have fun at airshows, do some great flying and some valuable recruiting for the Navy. There are few better jobs.”
Feightner had just one question: What airplane would the team fly?
“He said the F7U-1 Cutlass,” recalls Feightner, at the time a Navy test pilot with the most flight time in that very aircraft. “I told him I just resigned.”
Conceived in part from swept-wing, tailless research recovered from the German manufacturer Arado after World War II, the Chance Vought F7U Cutlass was a radical departure from not only every other naval aircraft, but just about anything in the air at that time. It had no tail. Its vast, swept wings (with an area totaling 496 square feet) were nearly as long from leading to trailing edge as they were from root to tip. Its monster nosegear—the first to be fully steerable—placed the pilot 14 feet in the air, and during carrier landings tended to collapse. It also had the first hydraulic system at high pressure: 3,000 pounds per square inch—twice the pressure of the systems on other Navy jets—and all-hydraulic flight controls with built-in “artificial feel,” which restored control-surface feedback to the pilot.
Besides being exotic, the Cutlass was burdened with immature systems. Its hydraulic system constantly leaked and lost pressure, and its engines, like those on most early jets, failed to produce the power expected of them.
Feightner’s impromptu resignation was not the first associated with the Cutlass. “I was in carrier division flight test,” he says. “Other than the factory test pilots, three [of whom] already got killed in the jet, only two other people had flown the Cutlass. One was the guy ahead of me in carrier division. He had gone out on a flight in this strange new thing and encountered major control system problems. He managed to avoid crashing, and when he came down he walked in, threw his helmet on the ground, and said, ‘I quit.’ ”
In the summer of 1951, Feightner began putting the F7U-1 through its paces. When the Blue Angels call came, he had already determined that the Cutlass was an airframe to be reckoned with. Just not by him.
“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.”