It is impossible to study naval aviation in the 1950s without the story being overshadowed by the failure of the Westinghouse J40 turbojet engine. One could argue with no small amount of justification that the failure of that program is the story of naval aircraft development in that decade. A number of factors combined to create the problem, but at the root of it I believe is the complete separation of Air Force and Navy technical programs during the era. Not only did each service manage its own engine development programs (Navy engines ended in even numbers, such as J40, while Air Force engines carried odd numbers, such as J57) they also ran their own overlapping weapons development programs. Examples of the results of these separate lines of development include the heat-seeking AIM-9 Sidewinder missile developed by the Navy and its Air Force counterpart the Hughes AIM-4 Falcon. When the Falcon proved a failure in Vietnam the Air Force was forced to adopt the AIM-9 which has been the standard American IR missile for decades since. The escalating costs and redundancy associated with such programs are primary influences that resulted in the commonality backlash of the early 1960s, mandating that the services develop in cooperation a small number of airframes which could, with some modification, be adapted meet multiple role requirements. That failed. However, the idea that certain subsystems such as engines, missiles, guns and radars could be successfully shared by the Air Force and Navy was repeatedly proven.
My reading on the subject doesn’t pinpoint a single cause for the powerplant’s failure. Neither the management nor the engineers at Westinghouse appear to have been particularly incompetent. It seems that as a group they were simply unable to make the jump from their successful but far less complex early designes to a cutting-edge high-performance turbojet. Because the Navy had put all of its eggs in Westinghouse’s basket, practically all of their fighter designs originating in the late 1940s were affected, including the F7U Cutlass, F4D Skyray, F10F Jaguar and of course the F3H. (Interestingly, Ed Heinemann of Douglas anticipated the failure of the J40 and wisely designed the Skyray fuselage to accept other engines.) It was such a disaster that after a string of crashes due to engine failure, every surviving aircraft in the original batch of F3Hs was humiliatingly towed from the McDonnell plant through the streets of St. Louis, loaded onto barges and shipped down the Mississippi to NAS Memphis were they were written off as airframe maintenance training articles. Later production Demons incorporated the Allison J71 and thus equipped the aircraft served in the fleet until 1964, when the last squadron converted to the F4H Phantom II. The Phantom, of course, was powered by the phenomenal General Electric J79…an engine that sprang from a USAF development program. The Navy adopted another Air Force engine in the Pratt & Whitney J57, which was put to good use in the F8U Crusader and A3D Skywarrior.
As for the F3H itself, it is overshadowed by its contemporaries. The F4D was more radical, the F8U was the hottest day fighter the Navy every deployed and the F4H is simply a classic. Despite being a bit underpowered, pilot’s memoirs point to a good aircraft with responsive handling and few major faults. It was the first successful high-performance missile-armed interceptor to enter the fleet and paved the way for the groundbreaking Phantom II.
Joe Baugher’s site is a good place to start researching the Demon. You should also check out his primer on the Navy’s pre-1962 aircraft designation scheme which can be confusing. To get a sense of where the Demon fits in the chronology of naval aircraft development, and to read more about the J40 fiasco I strongly reccomend US Naval Air Superiority by Tommy Thomason. It is a thorough examination of naval fighter development and is the single best aviation book that I own. Steve Ginter is a prolific author and his volume on the Demon is also well worth owning, though it is pricy compared to new hardback offerings such as that by Thomason.