Regarded as a radical departure from traditional aircraft design, the Cutlass suffered from numerous technical and handling problems throughout its short service career. The type was responsible for the deaths of four test pilots and 21 other U.S. Navy pilots. Over one quarter of all Cutlasses built were destroyed in accidents. The poor safety record was largely the result of the advanced design built to apply new aerodynamic theories.
The Cutlass was Vought's entry to a U.S. Navy competition for a new carrier capable day fighter opened on 1 June 1945. The requirements were for an aircraft that was able to fly at 600mph (966km/h) at 40,000ft (12,192m). The design featured broad chord, low aspect ratio, swept wings, with twin wing-mounted tail fins either side of a short fuselage. The cockpit was situated well forward to provide good visibility for the pilot during aircraft carrier approaches. The design was given the company type number of V-346 and then the designation F7U when it was announced the winner of the competition.
Pitch and roll control was provided by elevons; it is notable that Vought called these surfaces "ailevators" at the time. Slats were fitted to the entire span of the leading edge. All controls were hydraulic powered. The very long nose landing gear strut required for high angle of attack takeoffs was rather weak, and a collapse could seriously jeopardize the pilot's safety. The F7U was also largely let down by its underpowered Westinghouse turbojets, an engine which some pilots wryly observed put out less heat than the same company's toasters. Naval aviators referred to the F7U as the "gutless cutlass" or, in kinder moments, as the "praying mantis".
Three prototypes were ordered in 1946, with the first example flying on 29 September 1948, piloted by Vought's Chief Test Pilot, J. Robert Baker. The maiden flight took place from Naval Air Station Patuxent River and was not without its problems. J. Robert Baker lost his life while flying the same aircraft a few weeks later when he lost control and crashed. During testing one of the protypes reached a maximum speed of 625mph (1,058km/h)
Production orders were placed for the F7U-1 in a specification very close to the prototypes, and further developed F7U-2 and F7U-3 versions with more powerful engines. Because of development problems with the powerplant, however, the F7U-2 would never be built, while the F7U-3 would incorporate many refinements suggested by tests of the -1. The first 16 F7U-3s had non-afterburning Allison J35-29 engines. The -3 with its Westinghouse J46-WE-8B turbojets would eventually become the definitive production version, with 288 aircraft equipping 13 U.S. Navy squadrons. Further development stopped once the F8U Crusader flew.
The F7U bore the fleet nickname of the Gutless Cutlass in reference to its lack of engine thrust; consequently its carrier landing and takeoff performance was notoriously poor. The J35 was actually known to flameout in the rain, a very serious fault.
The Blue Angels Navy aerobatics team flew two F7U-1 Cutlasses as a side act during their 1953 show season in an effort to promote the new aircraft, but did not use them as part of their regular formation act. Both the pilots and ground crews found the aircraft generally unsatisfactory and it was apparent that the type was still experiencing teething troubles. During the Blue Angel's first airshow appearance in 1953 pilot Edward "Whitey" Feightner, the former program manager for the F7U, experienced a total loss of hydraulics on a full afterburner takeoff and steep climb. While trying to gain enough altitude for ejection he was able to stay with the aircraft until the back up system came on. He clipped trees on the end of the runway, causing the left engine to flame out. With hydraulic fluid streaming back in a bright flame, he made a hard turn and got the plane back on the runway, much to the excitement of the crowd. Later, while traveling to the airshow at Glenview Airport in Chicago, Blue Angel's pilot LT Harley MacKnight, experienced an engine flameout in his Cutlass, forcing him to make an emergency landing at Glenview. Traveling with him, "Whitey" Feightner was redirected to make his landing at Chicago's former Orchard Airpark, which had been expanded and renamed O'Hare Airport. The runway had just been completed and was covered with peach baskets to prevent aircraft from landing until it was opened. Lt. Feightner was told to ignore the baskets and land on the new runway. As a result, LT Feightner's F7U became the first aircraft to land on the new runway for Chicago's O'Hare Airport. Following these incidents the two F7U were deemed unsuitable for demonstration flying and were flown to Naval Air Station Memphis, where they were abandoned to become aircraft maintenance instructional airframes for the Naval Technical Training Center.
Seven F7U Cutlass are known to have survived.