RogerBW's Blog

Vought F7U Cutlass 22 March 2014

The Cutlass was a high-subsonic carrier-borne fighter, flying off Essex and Midway-class carriers.

There were really only two things wrong with the design. Unfortunately those two things were the airframe and the engines.

Allegedly based on captured German designs, the Cutlass certainly benefited from a German engineer, Waldemar Voigt formerly of Messerschmitt. Among other projects, he had designed the Me163's C model and the Me264 long-range patrol aircraft. There was a certain Me163 lineage traceable in the Cutlass: it had no tailplane, just a pair of vertical stabilisers at the back of its large swept wing.

While it was not a true delta wing, the Cutlass airframe had many of the same characteristics, in particular a high stall speed and mushy handling as one approached the stall limit. This made it less than ideal for carrier operations. Worse was the attempt to mitigate this by making the nose gear very long, promoting a nose-high attitude for takeoff and landing: not bad in itself, but carrier landings are rough, and the long, spindly gear had a habit of failing when it slammed into the deck.

The engines were two of the same Westinghouse J34s used on the XF-85 Goblin parasite fighter. They were underpowered even at the design stage, and the actual engine produced 30% less thrust than had been promised. Various other engines were tried in successive production runs, including the Allison J35 that tended to flame out in rain, but ultimately Vought settled on the J46; even this gave a thrust/weight ratio of less than 1/3.

What this meant in practice, particularly combined with the sluggish response of all the early turbojet engines, was an aircraft that would quietly drift into trouble and not have the power to get out again. Over a quarter of the aircraft built were lost to accidents. It was known informally as the "Gutless Cutlass" and the "Ensign Eliminator"; in the hands of an expert pilot it wasn't too bad, but for normal squadron fliers it was too demanding.

The Cutlass also suffered from reliability problems. The Blue Angels had a pair for the 1953 show season, but both of them had to make emergency landings (hydraulic failure and flameout in one case, flameout only in the other) and they were withdrawn from display flying. Most carrier air wings issued with them managed to find some excuse to "beach" them, usually because of maintenance problems, and leave them ashore during deployments.

Later upgrades gave the Cutlass the ability to carry Sparrow radar-homing missiles, and a ground-attack version was planned, but this never saw production. Once the F-8 Crusader became available in quantity, the US Navy couldn't get rid of the Cutlass fast enough.

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