Jets capture nearly everyone’s imagination, and it’s not hard to see why. They’re fast and powerful, and they look really cool, so it’s no surprise that people are thrilled to see them. However, not every jet is an awesome airplane like the F-16. Indeed, hundreds of mediocre, if not outright terrible, jet aircraft have seen service. Here are 10 of the worst jets to take to the air. They failed for a variety of reasons, but the common thread is that nobody wanted to fly these turkeys.
10 Vought F7U Cutlass
Before being acquired by Northrop Grumman, Vought produced some of the United States Navy’s best-known and most successful fighters. During World War II, Vought designed the F4U Corsair, which saw service in the Pacific theater, and during Vietnam, naval aviators used Vought’s F-8 Crusader. In between, Vought produced a variety of unusual aircraft, chief among these being the F7U Cutlass. Designed to modernize the US Navy, the F7U ended up being a dangerous and unreliable airplane, ending the lives of many pilots through crashes and accidents.
The Cutlass was a unique design for the time, completely abandoning tail control surfaces in favor of a large swept-wing design inspired by wartime Messerschmitt experimental fighters. However, during testing, problems became obvious. Although the Cutlass was fast, it struggled to stay aloft in certain flight regimes and had huge problems with its engines. Powered by early Westinghouse turbojets, the Cutlass did not have enough thrust to perform well during takeoff and landing. The first three prototypes crashed, as did the first two airplanes delivered to the Navy. Still, the Cutlass went into full production. Pilots joked that Westinghouse toasters had more power than Cutlass engines.
Vought produced 320 examples of their futuristic fighter plane, but once they reached squadron service, reports of problems poured in. Squadrons could barely keep their fighters in the air due to their intense maintenance requirement and lost many planes due to takeoff and landing accidents. Overall, one-fourth of all Cutlasses in service were lost in accidents, and pilots gave the fighter unfortunate nicknames like “The Gutlass Cutlass” and “The Ensign Eliminator.” Most squadrons ditched the F7U in favor of older, more reliable fighters until something better came along. Despite the failings of the Cutlass, the Blue Angels flew two Cutlasses as part of a side demonstration at air shows. This is the only thing that the Cutlass really succeeded at.
9 PZL M-15
The Polish-designed PZL M-15 is one of the strangest-looking jets to ever go into production. Not only is it the only mass-produced jet biplane in history, but it is also the only jet crop duster to enter service. Soviet authorities in the 1970s felt a pressing need to replace the agricultural fleet of aging biplane crop dusters with something that was more economical and could also spray large collective farms more effectively. For years, Soviet farms used Polish agricultural planes, so the company PZL took responsibility for the new design.
Part of the requirement was that the new airplane had to use a jet engine, something that nobody had ever done. PZL built a test airplane to see if making a slow-flying agricultural jet was even possible. They found that given the right aerodynamics, the M-15 could fly at 161 kilometers per hour (100 mph) with a top speed of only 200 kilometers per hour (124 mph). When the M-15 entered service, it was the slowest jet ever produced. Because it was such a loud airplane, engineers nicknamed it “Belphegor” after the noisy demon in Christian mythology.
Unfortunately, the M-15 did not live up to expectations. Its engine guzzled fuel, making it more expensive than the old crop dusters. Having a jet engine increased the top speed over past crop-dusters, but not by much, and the M-15 ended up being a major disappointment. Out of the 3,000 examples ordered, PZL only delivered 175 before the Soviets pulled the plug on the project.
Interestingly enough, many NATO analysts believed that the M-15 had a more sinister purpose. Given its large tanks for pesticides, the M-15 was thought to be actually intended for chemical warfare against troops during a Soviet invasion of Europe. Whether or not that is the case remains unknown, but it’s more than likely the M-15 would have failed at that, as well.
8 Yakovlev Yak-38
When the Harrier Jump Jet entered British Naval service, other world powers saw the advantage of having a Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) fighter. The US license-built the Harrier for the Marine Corps, while the Soviet Union had to design their own unique fighter. Produced by the famous Yakovlev design bureau, the Yak-38 bore an outward resemblance to the Harrier but was an inferior airplane in every aspect. In fact, the Yak-38 ended up becoming one of the most useless naval airplanes ever put into service.
Despite the cosmetic similarities to the Harrier, the Yak-38 used a different lift jet system. Yakovlev engineers placed two small thrust vector jets at the end of the fuselage and two lift jets behind the cockpit. Due to differences in engine design, the Yak-38 used much more fuel than the Harrier during takeoff. This significantly limited the combat range of the Yak-38 to only 1,300 kilometers (800 mi), and that was without any weapons. In hot weather, the total possible flight time dropped to only 15 minutes, making the airplane completely useless as a fleet interceptor.
Beyond the dismal endurance, the Yak-38 suffered from engineering flaws and an overly simple design. With only four weapon pylons, pilots barely had any armament. To save weight, designers elected to not fit the Yak-38 with any radar beyond a rudimentary range finder, a huge disadvantage in modern aerial combat. Even if those systems had worked, the Yak-38 was still an absurdly dangerous airplane to fly. The lift jets only had a working life of 22 hours before needing a complete overhaul and were prone to failure if the intakes ingested too much gas. Losing just one lift jet doomed the airplane. To limit fatalities, Yakovlev fitted the fighter with an automatic ejection seat that would fire if the airplane rolled more than 60 degrees to either side during takeoff or landing. That system got good use.