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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.
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.
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?”
“Did you build it?”
“Do you know who I am?”
“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.