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Gutless was the Cutlass — or was Vought’s F7U something better?

30 November 2011

Gutless was the Cutlass — or was Vought’s F7U something better?

I vividly recall, as a boy, when I saw the Vought F7U Cutlass model kit. The fighter looked futuristic, slick and the pilot sat high with a commanding view all around. I was too young to realize the troubled history of the aircraft. The Cutlass was an evolutionary transition from straight wing jets to swept wing jets as turbojets were now the future, instead of piston engines, for high performance combat aircraft. The U.S. Navy needed a high performance fighter quickly and Vought designed the F7U. Though turbojets would be the future they were unreliable and the Cutlass was underpowered though it had a pair of Westinghouse turbojet engines. The original engines did not come to be so lesser performing engines were used. The F7U quickly earned the nickname of the “Gutless Cutlass” and its reputation would get tragically worse. A full quarter of the F7U Cutlasses produced were destroyed in aviation accidents, often taking their pilots with them. Such is the fate, sadly, of people and machines when paradigms are being recast — or when engines are unreliable, since high performance aircraft glide more like bricks than like flying machines. These engines were also known to flame out in rain and the pair of Cutlasses the Navy used with the Blue Angels were quickly, as well as unceremoniously, retired.

Whether the Cutlass’s design stemmed from the work of Alexander Lippisch (from liberated aeronautical data and possibly the man after WW II’s end), or not, the delta wing and elevons pioneered into the future. Historically, the Cutlass is part of the future Lippisch helped develop with his work on delta wing and tailless designs — the most famous being the rocket powered Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet.

This F7U is on exhibit in the National Naval Aviation Museum and can even be viewed from on high. The fact page on this aircraft can be read here.

The Vought F7U Cutlass at the National Naval Aircraft Museum — photo by Joseph May

The pilot was perched high above the flight deck so the wing could have a high angle of attack at launch — photo by Joseph May

The two engines were nestled close together which would be an unusual trait in future USN aircraft — photo by Joseph May

A better view to illustrate the Cutlass’s delta wing — photo by Joseph May

The cockpit of the F7U — photo by Joseph May

Introduced in the early 1950s the Cutlass made an impact regardless of its challenges and was the first naval aircraft deployed overseas with a missile armament. If the F7U had reliable engines then history would have been quite different. The full length leading edge slats made the Cutlass almost stall proof and it could pull as many G’s as the pilot could stand — it would have been an interceptor without peer, especially with an armament of 4 x 20mm cannon and 4 x Sparrow air-to-air missiles.

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The EAA published an excellent article on the good and bad points the Cutlass possessed — it can be found here.

Many more posts about the National Naval Aviation Museum and its aircraft can be found by pasting the name into the search window and selecting ENTER

A post on the Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet can also be found by pasting “Komet” into the search window and selecting ENTER

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. 30 November 2011 10:00

    Thank you for this fine summary of the Cutlass. Imagine what an aircraft it would have been with 2 x J42 = R/R Nene! 10,000 lb of reliable thrust as opposed to 9,200 lb of ‘I hope it doesn’t rain’! It would have been like a twin-engined Panther, with much better aerodynamics.

    • travelforaircraft permalink*
      30 November 2011 18:59

      Thanks Ross. What could have been the story if the Cutlass had those powerful and reliable engines!

    • travelforaircraft permalink*
      2 December 2011 18:53

      Thanks for this — these photos are great. Soplata saved a lot of aircraft from disappearing, no matter what others say he saved aircraft and made restorations possible.

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