They called it the Ensign Eliminator.
There were many who said the aircraft was unstable, underpowered, had bad visibility and its engines flamed out when it rained.
For the F7U Cutlass, one of the Navy’s first jet-powered aircraft, rumors and mistruths started by those who never flew the aircraft unfortunately became its reality, and created a less-than-stellar reputation that followed the fighter-bomber during its short stint in the fleet.
“The F7U aircraft has been saddled with an almost Edsel-like reputation that careful analysis and dedicated research proves to be anything but true, said Al Casby, an F7U expert who owns Cutlass Aeronautics in Mesa, Ariz. “If anything, the aircraft was well built, met its design specifications, and provided the Navy what it asked for at the time.”
Regardless of the lingering and misrepresented myths that have dogged Cutlass over the last 70 years ago, there was total agreement that it was one of most exotic and futuristic-looking aircraft designed and built at the start of the jet-fighter age.
A fully restored version of this spectacular Cold War-era aircraft, built by the Chance Vought Aircraft company in 1953, is now on exhibit on the USS Midway Museum’s flight deck.
“It is very exciting to have completed this restoration effort,” said Walt Loftus, Midway’s air wing director. “This is a very unique aircraft and it’s a great addition to Midway.”
The restoration route for Midway’s newest aircraft exhibit was long, circuitous and involved tens of thousands of volunteer hours.
“It was originally slated for the USS Hornet Museum, but the museum was unable to get the restoration started,” said Walt, “It came to us in 2007. It was received in very poor condition along with another Cutlass that we used for parts.”
Three years later, the aircraft, which was actually flown by Wally Schirra, one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts, was sent to the Vought Aircraft Heritage Foundation’s retiree group in Dallas for additional restoration support. The Texas-based retiree group, many of them in their 90s, rebuilt the fuselage, cockpit and landing gear.
“The Vought retirees worked on the aircraft a total of five years,” said Walt. “Their team was about 15 people and they normally worked six hours a day three days a week. Being able to work with the Vought retiree group on this project was great. They dedicated more than 56,000 man-hours to the restoration.”
In June 2018, the Cutlass, which accumulated only 273 flight hours while in the fleet, was shipped back to San Diego for Midway’s air wing team to finish the job. Over the course of the next four years, Midway’s restoration team completed the structural repair on the fuselage, wings and outer wing panels. Roughly 80 percent of the aircraft required some form of refurbishment ranging from minor repairs and major restoration to completely replacing and remanufacturing aircraft components.
“The wing and outer wing panel skins were a challenge,” said Walt. “The originals were a sheet of plywood with a thin sheet of aluminum on either side. We had to use fillers and a thicker piece of aluminum. The manufacturing process used to originally build the wings is no longer available.”
Four years, and more than 20,000 volunteer hours later, Midway’s air wing finished the restoration project with a glistening coat of silver paint to help the Cutlass resemble its former self when she flew with Attack Squadron 212 (VA-212) on the USS Bon Homme Richard (CVA-31) in 1956.
Just before Christmas, the aircraft was finally moved from its long-time home at Hangar 805, Midway’s primary aircraft restoration facility at Naval Base Coronado, to Midway’s flight deck. On hand for the F7U’s arrival was Dick Cavicke, a 91-year-old retired Navy Captain who logged more than 400 flight hours in the Cutlass along with 26 carrier landings.
“I’m very pleased that it’s here on Midway,” said Dick, who flew F7U’s with Fighter Squadron 124 (VF-124), the first west coast Cutlass squadron starting in 1954 and deployed the following year on the USS Hancock (CV-19). “There aren’t many F7Us on display, so there a very few Cutlasses available for the public to see and to learn about.”
Midway’s restored Cutlass is only the second to go on public exhibit, with the first F7U being at the National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola, Fla. Seeing the aircraft on the museum’s flight deck brought back a flood of memories of being one of the Navy’s first Cutlass pilots.
“Flying the Cutlass was very dramatic,” said Dick, who was the assistant operations officer on the staff of Carrier Division 1 (CARDIV 1) deployed on the USS Midway in the early 1970s. “It was quite exciting because it was a dramatic looking airplane and it flew very well. I’m very happy the Midway now has one to help the public understand what it was and admire it as I still do.”
“The volunteers here were very eager to work on the F7U and accomplished an outstanding job of taking parts from three different aircraft and fitting everything together,” said Royce Moke, Midway’s aircraft restoration project manager who oversaw the refurbishment of the Cutlass. “I am very proud of the volunteers for the outstanding work they do restoring the aircraft that go on display on Midway.”
Amazing and cutting‑edge “firsts”
- 1st tail-less U.S. fighter
- 1st U.S. Navy swept-wing fighter
- 1st aircraft to incorporate afterburner
- 1st U.S. Navy supersonic production fighter
- 1st aircraft to release bombs while in supersonic flight
- 1st Vought aircraft with fully-pressurized and air-conditioned cockpit
- One of the 1st U.S. Navy tactical aircraft capable of delivering a nuclear weapon
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