The Gutless Cutlass

In the early jet age, pilots had good reason to fear the F7U

The “Gutless Cutless” earned its nickname primarily from its underpowered engines. A Vought F7U-3 in May 1953. (Greater St. Louis Air and Space Museum)
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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.

The Hancock’s skipper ordered every Cutlass off the ship. VF-124 spent the majority of its western Pacific cruise at the naval airfield in Atsugi, Japan. Two months later, after a Cutlass nosegear collapse on the Ticonderoga left its pilot with severe back injuries, the carrier’s skipper ordered the Cutlasses of VF-81 ashore at Port Lyautey, Morocco. “You got to understand, the commanding officer of a carrier is the lord, God, and everything else of that carrier,” says Don Shelton, who in the early 1950s was a Navy test pilot on the Cutlass program. “Most of them didn’t appreciate having the F7U aboard.”

“The skippers never really liked it because it took up a lot of space and they never could really do anything with the airplane,” says Feightner. “The Cutlass was pretty short-legged.” Soon after launching from a carrier, the pilots had to begin thinking about where to put the thing down. “They used to say if you put a 3,000-pound bomb on it, you couldn’t go far enough to keep from blowing up both you and the ship,” Feightner says.

Then there was the post-stall gyration.

On January 11, 1955, Lieutenant J.D. Lindsay was at 28,000 feet when his maneuvering brought him close to a stall. Suddenly the F7U-3 went head over heels. Violently thrown about the cabin, Lindsay ejected and survived. Nine days later, Lieutenant Commander Bud Sickel investigated the flight regime that had caused the loss of Lindsey’s Cutlass. After tumbling 18,000 feet and trying every recovery technique he could think of, Sickel ejected.

“It was a pretty wild ride,” says Shelton. “He got out just in time for the parachute to open and landed in a plowed field and went in all the way up to his hips, which was the only thing that saved his ass.”

When Lieutenant Morrey Loso found himself in a similar situation, he let go of the stick and fumbled for the overhead ejection handles. To his astonishment, the Cutlass leveled off. Subsequent wind tunnel testing confirmed that the usual rules for exiting uncontrolled flight didn’t apply to the Cutlass. Just a little aft pressure on the stick, or let it go entirely: With enough altitude, the airplane would likely recover on its own. But by then, the Cutlass’ reputation was such that Vice Admiral Harold M. “Beauty” Martin, commander, air force of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, began replacing his squadrons’ Cutlasses with Grumman F9F-8 Cougars.


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