Hastily arranging a leave of absence from his newly acquired pilot job with Zantop International Airlines in Michigan, Casby flew to Florida and camped under the plane for several days while he worked to collect its entrails. Hampered in his efforts to reach the plane’s hydraulic tanks through the access panels on top of the plane, he came up with a plan B. The engines had been removed, so he decided to reach into one of the empty engine bays.
“I was crawling cautiously into that dark abyss of the plane with a flashlight in my teeth and a wrench in my hand when I saw something ahead of me,” Casby recalled. “I couldn’t figure out what it was. It wasn’t anything I was familiar with. I soon learned a very valuable life lesson, and that is: when you see something you’re not familiar with, don’t poke it with a wrench.”
“It’s a giant hornet’s nest,” Casby says. “I was blowing this thing and all these damn hornets came out and headed for my face. My eyes closed as I frantically crawled backwards, cutting myself to ribbons as I finally fell out of the tailpipe.” Lying on the ground, Casby knew he was in trouble. The venom from the hornet’s sting swelled his throat. He struggled to breathe.
Fortunately, the airport police officer happened to be walking by when he saw Casby fall from the back of the plane. Running through the swirling hornets, the officer carried Casby to his squad car and rushed him to the hospital. “If he hadn’t done that, I would have suffocated — lying in the sun behind the Cutlass,” Casby says. After his release from the emergency room, Casby armed himself with bug spray and returned to the Cutlass, collecting six boxes of parts.
Another challenge for Casby was finding a pair of engines that he could repair. Fortunately for him, jet dragsters in pursuit of land speed records in the 1960s had bought government surplus Westinghouse J-46 engines for just $250. These were the engines that powered the Cutlass, and Casby was able to secure a “not so gently used” J-46 from a driver in 1979.
After tinkering with the engine for a few weeks, Casby decided it was time to test it. With the help of his father (whom he calls “The Saint”), Casby mounted the J-46 on a makeshift stand that was nailed to a metal fence in the backyard and to the bumper of his mother’s Cadillac. They then filled a 55-gallon drum with about 30 gallons of kerosene, ran a makeshift fuel hose from the drum to the engine’s fuel controller, and took their positions.
“I tried to start the beast,” Casby says. “Fuel was pouring out of the exhaust as it revved and revved to no avail.” He fiddled with the engine some more. “Well, it finally lit up, shooting a flame all the way up to the backyard fence, igniting a telephone pole, as well as igniting the accumulated fuel in the driveway,” Casby says. “When it was cranking up full power we were all running for our lives as the engine bounced around for about an hour. But after about 30 seconds it ran out of fuel after you removed the hose from the drum. He bent the fence post about a foot and pulled the Caddy two feet out of the garage.
The police soon arrived. They wanted to sue Casby for disturbing the peace. “My father was able to talk them out of it, saying it would destroy my future aviation career,” Casby says. “Thanks, Dad!”
Setting the record straight
Now 63, Casby has amassed an impressive 30,000 flight hours and continues to add time to his logbook as an Airbus A320 captain. In addition, he has accumulated so much knowledge about the Cutlass that he has begun sharing his technical expertise with renowned institutions such as the National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola, Florida, and the USS Midway Museum in San Diego.
Casby believes that the F7U series suffered a setback during its relatively short service life. Some pilots who flew the plane also agree with him. One is Dick Kawicke, a retired Navy captain. In 1954, Cavicke reported to Fighter Squadron VF-124 straight from flight training with no previous experience flying a swept-wing aircraft. Although Cavicke was unaware of the F7U’s tarnished reputation, the loss of a friend who had joined the squadron a few days earlier and crashed on his first flight in the Cutlass caught his attention.
After a brief ground workout, Kavike climbed into the single-seater Cutlass and drove off. His initial impression was that “the F7U handles very well and is extremely stable.” Nevertheless, his squadron saw an increase in incidents after being assigned to fly the aircraft aboard USS Hancock (CVA-19). “High gross weight landings in the Cutlass became dangerous because of the slow throttle response,” Kawicke explains. “If the aircraft slowed down, full military power would not always correct the sinking rate up close.”
Still, as the Navy gained more experience with the Cutlass, “it proved to be a very strong and capable attack aircraft,” Kawicke says. “When everything worked as it should, it was an excellent fighter-bomber – robust, maneuverable and fun to fly.”
“Most of the badmouthing of the Cutlass comes from people who have never flown it,” notes Kawicke. Casby agrees and works with Kavike and others determined to set things right. Casby says, “This plane really is my life and after a lot of research I realized that the things that are being said about it are simply not based on fact.”
As part of his efforts to restore the F7U’s reputation, Casby has created an 1,800-square-foot library and museum in his hangar, complete with Cutlass maintenance manuals, logbooks, and recordings of his personal interviews with former F7U pilots. When asked which driver stands out, Casby doesn’t hesitate. “John Glenn,” he says. Glenn tested the F7U-3s and solved the nagging problem of the engines sometimes failing when the aircraft’s guns were fired. He was a US senator when Casby wrote him a letter that simply said, “I’m in love with Cutlasses, can we talk?” Glenn graciously accepted.
Former naval aviator Jack Anderson learned of Casby’s Cutlass restoration efforts while attending a model airplane swap meet wearing a Cutlass hat. Anderson recalled, “Someone came up to me and asked, ‘What do you know about Cutlass?’ I told him I had flown in them. That conversation led him to meet Casby. Now that he is a frequent visitor to Casby’s hangar, Anderson and Casby have become friends. “We get together and talk about the flight characteristics of the airplane,” Anderson says. “At least the things I can remember in my old age.”
Anderson, who flew the F7U-3 straight out of flight training in June 1956, recalled that the Cutlass was “fast, very maneuverable, and had a pressurized cockpit, which made it a comfortable plane to fly.” However, he notes that the jet was underpowered, especially during the carrier’s approach. “And the hydraulics were constantly a problem,” he adds.
Anderson is impressed with Casby’s determination to get his Cutlass flying again: “I have no doubt that he will. It’s just a question of how long it will take. The problem—and I don’t want to say it’s a problem—is going to be really concentrating on the flight characteristics of the airplane and learning to deal with them. It’s not like an airplane with swept wings. It’s different.”
“People ask me if I’m scared to fly the Cutlass,” Casby says. “Absolutely not. I have the benefit of 52 years of training and the benefit of basically building the plane from scratch.”
And he’s aware of the F7U’s shortcomings, among them its problematic 3,000 psi hydraulic system—now common, but at the time using double the pressure of modern jets. Through research, Casby found that although the Cutlasses operated at higher pressures, standard fittings were used, resulting in frequent leaks and failure of the hydraulic system. He will retrofit his aircraft with modern fittings designed for 3000 psi hydraulic systems.
It was a long job, but with the plane restored, Casby has plans. “I would love to be in the air show and take it to Oshkosh,” he says. “But to be honest, if I could fly the plane once, I would have achieved what I’ve dreamed of since I was eight years old.”
Robert Bernier writes about America’s first aircraft carrier, the USS Langley, in the winter 2022 issue Air & Space Quarterly.