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.”
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.