At rest, the Cutlass had a nose-high attitude due to the long nose wheel strut, a feature designed to maintain a high angle of attack for the wing during takeoff and landing. The Cutlass was also the first Navy fighter designed from the beginning for engine afterburners, and the first swept-wing, tailless carrier plane. Its performance was phenomenal for its design period, but it would take too many years to become operational.
Vought engineers began their design in June 1945, choosing the swept-wing tailless shape to avoid compressibility problems, and their Chief Aerodynamicist has stated that this decision was made before German research on the type was available. Six companies responded to a Navy day fighter design competition announced January 25, 1946, but the Vought V-346A design submitted April 15, 1946, won a contract on June 25 for three XF7U-1 prototypes.
First flown September 29, 1948, by Robert Baker at Patuxent, Maryland, the XF7U-1 was powered by two 3,000-pound thrust XJ34-WE-32 engines, and armed with four 20-mm guns below the cockpit. An F7U-1 contract had been awarded July 28, 1948, but delayed by Voughtís move from Stratford to Dallas, the first flew March 1, 1950. Four of the 14 F7U-ls were completed that year, but two crashed before delivery, as had all three prototypes, killing three Vought test pilots. A September 1949 order for 88 F7U-2s had been canceled and serious problems discouraged the Navy from attempting any squadron use of the F7U-l.
But the Korean War led the Navy to persist in developing the high performance potential, and on August 21, 1950, the F7U-3 with J46 engines with afterburners was ordered. A heavier aircraft with more fuel, strengthened landing gear with extended front strut, and two wing pylons for 1,000-pound bombs or 250-gallon drop tanks, the F7U-3 could add a belly pack for 32 2.75-inch rockets. APG-30 radar in the nose aimed four Mk 12 20-mm guns, with 720 rounds, that had been moved to upper lips of the engine air intakes offered.
Since the Westinghouse engine deliveries were delayed, the first 16 F7U-3s were provided with Allison J35-A-29s without afterburners. The first example flew December 20, 1951, but the J46-WE-8As were not available until 1953, and accidents and mechanical problems delayed fleet introduction until February 2, 1954, when F7U-3s reached VF-81. Deliveries of 180 F7U-3s ended March 9, 1955.
Four Sparrow I beam-riding missiles, or 1,000-pound bombs, could be carried by the F7U-3M, which had APQ-51B radar and additional fuel. Two were converted from F7U-3s, and first flew July 12, 1954. Because of their bomb capacity, F7U-3M squadrons were redesignated as attack units. Vought delivered the last of 98 new F7U-3Ms August 12, 1955, and VA-83 made the first overseas deployment (on Intrepid to the Mediterranean) of a Navy missile squadron in March 1956, when 11 Cutlass squadrons were operating.
Twelve unarmed F7U-3P photo planes in 1954/55 never became operational, but are included in the Cutlass total of 307. Some Navy fighter squadrons had been redesigned attack (VA) units in anticipation of fighter-bomber equipment. An order for 146 A2U-l attack versions of the Cutlass, however, was canceled in November 1954, and standard fighter models were issued to three such squadrons.
Bedeviled with a high accident rate, the big Vought fighters were withdrawn from squadron service after November 1957, but they did serve to introduce the Fleet to the new, complex breed of airplanes that the future would bring to carrier service.