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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The decision caught F7U pilot Alex Sotir and others by surprise. “We are taxiing out and all of a sudden I see this jeep with a ladder go flying by me,” Sotir recalls. “The jeep stops the skipper and a guy runs up the ladder and hands the skipper an envelope. Next thing I know we are returning to the line and the skipper tells us the Navy is taking our aircraft away. They didn’t even want us to carrier-qualify in the Cutlass.”

A few years back, Sotir met some Navy pilots at a wedding reception and got to talking shop. “We asked each other the usual questions about our squadrons and which planes we had flown,” Sotir says. “When I told them Cutlasses, they looked at me…. They figured something had to be wrong with me.”

“The Cutlass could be made into a pretty good flying machine with a few modifications,” wrote F7U-3 pilot John Moore in The Wrong Stuff, about his Navy flying days. “Like a conventional tail, tripling the thrust, cutting the nosewheel strut in half, completely redoing the flight control system, and getting someone else to fly it.”

Even after Martin started his Cutlass purge, Chance Vought was still cranking out F7Us. Along with 180 F7U-3s, Vought built 98 -3Ms, the first aircraft in Navy inventory capable of carrying the Sparrow air-to-air missile. Vought also built a dozen -3P photo-reconnaissance Cutlasses, and tried to interest the Navy in 250 of the ground attack version, the A2U-1 (the Navy ordered them, then cancelled before production began).

Even those who liked the airplane admit it had its shortcomings, but maintain that if the Navy had spent the time and money to adequately address them as it had for airplanes like the Vought F-8 Crusader or the Douglas A-4 Skyhawk, the F7U could have been a sweeter ride. Supporters say it was a necessary step in the advancement of naval aviation, and that while the numbers were bad, so were the numbers of just about everything involving jet fighters and aircraft carriers in the early to mid-1950s.

“I liked flying the Cutlass,” says Don Shelton. “I checked out a lot of guys in it, and for the most part, once you got the guy above the threshold of fear and trepidation and got him in the air and flying, then he liked it.”

Dick Cavicke never encountered much fear and trepidation, even on his first day at VF-124, when a classmate from flight school crashed a few minutes into his first Cutlass flight. Cavicke bridled at a local newspaper’s attitude when announcing the end of the Cutlass: “The Miramar newspaper said, ‘VF-124 junks Cutlasses and gets new F3H Demons.’ That really torqued those of us who were flying the F7U-3,” he says. “So when the day came, being the maintenance officer of the squadron, I deemed it necessary that one of our Cutlasses needed a test flight, and a few minutes before the Demons were set to arrive, I come smoking by. My squadron buddies said it was a thing of beauty—the plane was totally shrouded in vapor. Soon after, the Demons, which were limited because of some early engine problems, came putt-putting by at a much slower speed.”

Ultimately, between June 1954 and December 1956, 13 fleet squadrons received Cutlasses. In 1957, Chance Vought analyzed major F7U-3 accidents. At 55,000 hours cumulative flight time, 78 accidents, and one-quarter of airframes lost, the Cutlass had the highest accident rate of all Navy swept-wing fighters.

DC Agle has flown a Cutlass. To this day his mother has no idea what happened to her car’s transmission and rear axle.


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