The Blue Angels and the Gutless Cutlass
A forgotten member of the Blue Angels history
In October 1946, the Vought F6U Pirate took its maiden flight. It was the first jet-powered fighter designed by Vought, and though it included some innovative features, such as composite construction and an afterburner, the Pirate was an abject failure. Undaunted, Vought carried on with the swashbuckling naming scheme and delivered the F7U Cutlass two years later. The Cutlass was a radical departure from the conventional design wisdom of the day. It was a tailless aircraft with a broad, thick swept wing and twin vertical stabilizers on the wings, a design which was likely influenced by research done by German company Arado during the war. It featured innovative, hydraulically-powered elevons, called "ailevators" by Vought, as well as hydraulic leading edge slats. The Cutlass was also the first Navy jet designed from the beginning to include an afterburner.
There's no question that the original Cutlass was a good looking aircraft. The prototype XF7U-1 Cutlass) is seen at the NACA Langley Research Center, Virginia in 1948. (US Navy)
In service, the Cutlass was a relatively stable yet nimble aircraft fly, and had a roll rate that was faster than anything else in the Navy. But that’s about the most good that could be said about it. When the Cutlass approached stall speed, it had a tendency to flip over. Maintenance was nightmare, and failures of critical parts, like the engine and hydraulics, were common. With its high angle of attack, it proved difficult to land on carriers. By the time the Cutlass left service in 1959, accidents had claimed the life of four test pilots and 21 fleet pilots. With the highest accident rate among all of the Navy’s swept-wing fighters, more than 25% of the Cutlass fleet was lost to accidents.
But in the early days of the Cutlass, the Navy was eager to show off their futuristic fighter to the American taxpayers and Congressional spenders. So two early F7U-1 Cutlasses were assigned to the Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron, better known as the Blue Angels, for the 1953 air show season. Painted in the official dark blue of the Blue Angels and emblazoned with a brilliant yellow U.S. NAVY on the side of the fuselage, the two Cutlasses did not take part in the team’s trademark formation flying, but instead flew solo demonstrations alongside the rest of the team in their straight-winged Grumman F9F Panthers.
However, the Blue Angel pilots suffered the same high maintenance and poor reliability as the rest of the Cutlass fleet. On the very first demonstration flight in front of a VIP audience in 1952, pilot Lt Edward “Whitey” Feightner took off and performed a steep climb in afterburner only to lose all hydraulics. Unable to gain enough altitude to eject, Feightner rode his Cutlass in a dive back toward the runway and managed to regain control once the backup system activated. Pulling out of the dive at the last second, he clipped trees near the runway and trailed hydraulic fluid as he landed. During another Blues show, a landing gear door broke free and fell into a grandstand, fortunately without injuring any spectators. And, in another aviation first, Blue Angel pilot Lt. Harding MacKnight performed the very first landing at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, which was still under construction at the time, when his engine flamed out during a ferry flight. Faced with such a harrowing experience, the Blues flew their Cutlasses to Naval Air Station Memphis and left them there to serve as training airframes.
(Ken Stoltzfus Collection)
Vought tried to address the shortcomings of the Cutlass, and by the time the F7U-3 was rolled out, the fighter may have been on its way to becoming a decent aircraft. But the Cutlass’ Achilles heel, its woefully underpowered engine, would remain its most serious fault, to the point that crews labeled it the “gutless Cutlass.” In fleet service, the accidents continued, pilots died, maintenance was extraordinarily time consuming, and the Navy officially put the unfortunate Cutlass out of everybody’s misery in 1959.