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When I was six years old, I had my first exposure to homebuilt airplanes. My father took me with him when he visited three pilots from our area that were building what was known of as a Cassutt Racer. A Cassutt is a small single seat airplane designed by Tom Cassutt to meet all the requirements to compete in a new racing class called Formula One. Jim Clement had purchased a set of plans in the early 1960s, thinking it would be fun to build an airplane. Many EAA members may know Jim for his outstanding talents as a craftsman and the many Wittman Tailwinds he has built over the years. Shortly after he began building his Cassutt, his good friends Jerry Coughlin and Eldon McDaniels decided that they had to have one as well.

Once the airplanes were completed, the three were often seen flying together all over our area every weekend. Eldon became a skilled aerobatic pilot and obtained a low level waiver from the FAA and performed at airshows in his Cassutt. It was at our local airport’s annual chicken barbeque fly-in that I saw Eldon’s routine, complete with a newly discovered maneuver by a Czechoslovakian pilot called a Lomcevak (headache). I told my dad on that day I was going to be a pilot and I wanted to build a Cassutt.

Cassutt airplane

I told my dad on that day I was going to be a pilot and I wanted to build a Cassutt.

I earned my pilot’s license right out of high school with financial help from my parents, purchased a set of Cassutt plans, and was able to obtain a partial project from a local pilot. Five years and many late nights later, my Cassutt was ready to head to the airport. The Cassutt only has a 16 ft. wingspan, so I was able to put it onto a trailer and take it to the airport fully assembled.

It was Thursday, September 20, 1984, at about 2:30am, while the town slept and the police were eating donuts, that my airplane came down the main street of our town. Some drunk bar-goer probably saw it and thought, “I guess I had a few too many tonight.” Safely tucked away in a hangar on the north end of the airport, I could finally exhale. It was safe and it was done… or so I thought.

Unfortunately, the weather outlook was not good, with rain, storms, and low clouds forecast for the next few days. Later in the day the FAA inspector came and approved my airplane with no squawks and a big congratulatory handshake. Over the next couple of days I was able to do some taxi testing between rain showers and the airplane was determined to be ready to fly. The only person I wanted to fly the first flight test was Eldon McDaniels and he agreed without hesitation.

Sunday, September 23, 1984, is a date that will be etched in my mind until the day I die. Right at dusk, what I believed to be a tornado hit the airport and collapsed six hangars. My airplane was in one of them. What would officially be called a straight-line wind event ended up becoming the worst day of my life. This photo shows the first thing I saw once we finally got some pieces of metal removed from the hangar. All the dreams and all the hours of hard work gone in an instant. I cried like a baby.

collapsed hangar

The Cassutt under pieces of metal in the collapsed hangar.

Back at my shop just four days after taking it to the airport, I could not even look at the airplane without wanting to take a sledge hammer to it and throw the pieces into a dumpster. Six months went by and I did not touch it. In fact, I wanted nothing to do with it. My father could see my pain and as a parent wanted to help. He called Eldon McDaniels, explained the situation and asked if he might fly over the house someday with his Cassutt. And on a beautiful day right after lunch the unique sound of a Cassutt came over the house. We may have lost a few shingles from the roof on that first pass, but the 20-minute private airshow that ensued was incredible. Before the end of that day, I had the entire airplane taken apart and a list of materials I would need to start the rebuilding process.

On July 17, 1986, it was back at the airport and the FAA came back time to inspect the airplane and issued my airworthiness certificate. Eldon was there and we strapped him into the cockpit and he taxied to the north end of the airport. To see the tail come up and the mains break ground for the very first time was breathtaking. My dream was climbing into the wild blue with a master at the controls. Seeing it do its first aileron roll filled me with joy and I could see the pride in my father’s eyes. Two weeks later, on July 31, with perfect weather, I made my first flight—which went flawlessly.

When I flew the airplane to Oshkosh for the first time, I had the ultimate validation of my hard work and perseverance. I noticed a man walking around my airplane and came over to talk with him. He said, “Is this your Cassutt?”

“Yes.”

“Did you build it?”

“Yes… twice.”

“Do you know who I am?”

“No.”

“I am Tom Cassutt.” He took a few steps back, put his hands up like a movie director framing a shot and said, “This is the image I saw in my head when I designed this airplane. I would put this in the top three Cassutts that I have ever seen. You’ve got the lines perfect, well done.”

Needless to say, for the rest of the convention I was walking tall.

Cassutt airplane

Never give up on your dream!

Michael Olah
Latest posts by Michael Olah (see all)
12 replies
  1. Dale Hill
    Dale Hill says:

    Michael, Great story of perseverance on your part to create something from scratch and then to recreate it after such a disheartening turn of events!
    BTW, how did you do at Reno? The fact you were there speaks volumes.

    Reply
    • Mark Garrard
      Mark Garrard says:

      Race results 1994:
      Raced as #86, named Sara Jo.
      Competed at the Reno National Championship Air Races in the Formula One class. The primary pilot was Michael Olah from WI Dells. Qualified in 24th place with an average speed of 184.875 mph. Raced in Heat 1C. Finished in 8th place with an average speed of 177.166 mph. Raced in Heat 2C. Finished in 7th place with an average speed of 177.936 mph. Raced in the Bronze race. Finished in 7th place with an average speed of 174.817 mph.

      Reply
      • Michael Olah
        Michael Olah says:

        Mark, thanks for digging up the race data. I built my Cassutt as a sport airplane and not a racing airplane. But the lure of racing it sounded like the ultimate adventure.. I was the only competitor that flew to the event. Everyone else brought their airplanes on a trailer. The trip there and back was a big part of the adventure. Wisconsin to Reno with no radio, no GPS, and no ELT. Dead reckoning all the way. I knew I would not be competitive, but I would argue that I had the best time of anyone their. Got to meet and spend time with 2 legends, Bob Hoover and Leo Loudenslager.. Hoover raced Lefty Gardner’s P38, and Leo flew daily air shows. Stuck my head in Leo’s airplane after his routine and saw +10 and -9 G’s on the meter, unreal. I could go on and on. It was a trip and adventure of a lifetime.

        Reply
  2. Robert Kunkel
    Robert Kunkel says:

    Wow! Cool story, Michael! I can only begin to imagine the burst of pride you must have felt when Tom Cassutt hand-framed your baby. Congratulations, and well done.

    Reply
  3. Blanc
    Blanc says:

    Sometimes, even on the worst days, a good show on beetv can turn things around. It’s amazing how a little entertainment can make peace with a very bad day. Thanks for the reminder

    Reply
  4. Pat Shapiro
    Pat Shapiro says:

    Wonderful story, Michael. Brought tears to my eyes. I felt it all. After 38 years, my one and only airplane flew away with a new owner. It was time. Sad but he will have many more happy flights.

    Reply
  5. William Mackey
    William Mackey says:

    What a great story. Maybe late 70s I shared a copy of the Cassutt Racer to my Grandad, a chiropractor who raised me near the SAC base and N Dallas. I asked is he thought “we” could build this airplane. He asked me to call Dick Cavin, flew 747s to Hi for Braniff. Dick invited me to a local EAA chapter Christmas dinner. I asked a guy there if he knew Cavin. He said yes and was the guest speaker, Tom Cassutt. I said wow, I recently bought a set of your plans. Now am 75 and still have those plans, just never had the time to build one. He told a great story about his racer, very interesting.

    Reply
  6. Sparkie
    Sparkie says:

    I can well relate to this kind of story, and very familiar with Tornados… Not aircraft related, but weather related, I was 13 and One morning at about 5:30 PM I got a very rude awakening like I cannot describe.. I am not sure how I survived, The tornado hit our house, and took the roof off of the house as well as sucked all the windows in about 2 inches from the vacuum. I woke up by the sound of a Freight Train right on top of me being rained on because my roof over my head as well as my ceiling was gone… Behind our house was a small forest, the Tornado took our roof and drove it straight into the ground with only about 6 feet of it sticking out of the ground – Some events you just cannot forget!

    Reply
  7. Randy Weselmann
    Randy Weselmann says:

    Great article! I’ve had a few setbacks building airplanes but nothing that devastating. To meet the designer at Oshkosh was awesome!

    Reply

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