The Vought Company designed the Cutlass as a tailless, carrier-based fighter for high speed and high rate of climb. Three models were designed, F7U-1, F7U-2 and F7U-3, but owing to problems with the power plant in the F7U-2, only the F7U-1 and F7U-3 were produced. Experience with the F7U-1 indicated that the F7U-3 would benefit from redesign of the airframe. The most obvious of the changes was in the nose section. All F7U-1s served as trainers; only the F7U-3 deployed in the fleet as a fighter aircraft.
The Navy awarded Vought a contract for the XF7U-1 on 25 June 1946. The aircraft first flew in August 1948. The first squadron delivery of an F7U-3 did not occur until May 1954; the Cutlass was last reported in squadron less than four years later on 30 November 1957. A total of 305 F7Us were delivered to the Navy.
The Cutlass design was a tribute to innovation. It featured a pressurized cockpit and tricycle landing gear before they became common in aviation design. It was also the first aircraft to reach production that used afterburning engines. For the Navy it was the first aircraft to have swept wings and use a high-pressure hydraulic system. The F7U-M variant was the first figher plane equipped with air-to-air guided missiles.
Despite these advances the Cutlass faced serious deficiencies. Its J34 Westinghouse engines, still relatively new at the time, could not give the craft the power necessary to function effectively. Even after redesigning the craft for a more powerful J46 engine the Cutlass still lacked the thrust necessary to function effectively as a fighter. In this respect the F-7U was ahead of its time, it would be several years before engines powerful enough for the Cutlass became available.
The Cutlass faced many other design problems. The nose landing gear system contained a weak link brace that would crack when making a Carrier landing. This caused the nose gear to collapse and usually resulted in injury or death to the pilot.
The F7U had four 20mm cannon that were situated above the air intakes for the jet engines. When the guns were fired the engines were prone to stall out in mid-flight. This resulted in the loss of several pilots and planes. Eventually it was determined that the firing of the cannon simultaneously created a pressure wave near the air intakes that created a resonance in the eingine's compressor and caused the compressor blades to over heat and burnout. When the guns were modified to alternate shooting the problem was corrected. In addition, the F7U was also able to carry rocket pods under the wing and eventually modified to carry Sparrow I air-to-air missiles.
One variant, the F7U-3P was equipped for photographic reconnaissance missions.
Although it was not without problems, the Cutlass was popular with those who flew it. It was comfortable to fly, capable of "high-g" and acrobatic manuvers and offered good pilot visibility. The rakish Cutlass looked exciting, but its performance and flying characteristics were downright terrifying -- by the time the type was retired from service in 1957, it would be responsible for the deaths of four test pilots and 21 Navy fliers.
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