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40 Years Building a Dream

Jul 19, 2023Jul 19, 2023

Al Casby is not only working to restore a Vought F7U Cutlass, but its reputation as well.

There are aircraft with bad reputations. And then there are aircraft with really bad reputations. A notorious example is the F7U Cutlass fighter manufactured by Chance Vought.

"Our job was to test the Cutlass," wrote U.S. Navy test pilot and astronaut Wally Schirra in his autobiography, Schirra's Space. "The company soon became ‘Chancy Vought’ to us, for in our judgment the Cutlass was an accident looking for a place to happen, a widow maker." Indeed, when the Cutlass debuted with the Blue Angels in 1953, its hydraulics system failed after a steep climb to 1,100 feet. A backup system kicked in, barely in time for the pilot to stick the landing, streaming hydraulic fluid as he taxied down the runway.

Yet the Cutlass has its champions. Chief among them is Al Casby, a pilot who has spent more than 40 years working to restore an F7U to flying condition and to prove the jet's detractors wrong. His immaculate 12,000-square-foot hangar located at Falcon Field in Mesa, Arizona, is not only a workshop, but a shrine dedicated to all things Cutlass. His is not an idle pipe dream: He's acquired a well-preserved Cutlass airframe (Bureau Number 129554), eight engines, and miscellaneous bits and pieces in his determination to restore the F7U to airworthiness.

It's been quite a long time since a Cutlass roared through the sky. The aircraft sprang from a 1945 Navy fighter competition for a carrier-based fighter capable of flying 600 mph and up to 40,000 feet. The F7U was the Navy's first jet with swept wings and the first designed with afterburners. Pushing design conventions even further, the innovative Cutlass was also the United States’ first tailless production fighter.

"I do think it's one of the coolest-looking airplanes ever," says Michael Hankins, curator for U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps post-World War II aviation at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. But, he adds, "it had design elements that were a little too forward looking, too ahead of its time, that didn't quite come together in a way that was operationally successful. Mostly because it had immature technologies that were not as reliable yet as they would be later."

Eventually entering service with 13 squadrons beginning in 1954, the big twinjet fighter was underpowered, and its then-novel 3,000-psi hydraulic system (twice the pressure of its contemporary aircraft) was a maintenance nightmare. The F7U's reputation was further marred by a series of crashes—some spectacular—resulting in an accident record considerably worse than other fighters of the day.

The crash-prone "Gutless Cutlass" was in service for just a few years before being withdrawn from the Navy's fleet squadrons in late 1957. Of the 307 Cutlass units built, Casby knows of only five whole airframes remaining today.

Given its reputation, Hankins was surprised to hear that someone wanted to restore and fly a Cutlass. "But, certainly, I understand the passion aviators have for airplanes," he says.

Quest of a Lifetime

Casby's passion for the F7U began when he was eight years old. His father was an illustrator who kept a collection of magazine advertisements in his design studio. It was there that young Casby came across an ad in the Saturday Evening Post depicting a navy-blue Cutlass rocketing skyward above an aircraft carrier. "I was absolutely dumbstruck," says Casby of the colorful, dramatic image. "In fact, that's not the right word…I was in love!"

He became obsessed with the Cutlass ad—and with the aircraft itself. Like many boomer kids, Casby channeled his fascination with airplanes into model building. "I spent my allowance on issues of Scale Modeler," recalls Casby. When he was 16, he entered a scratch-built F7U-3 Cutlass model in a 1976 contest celebrating the nation's bicentennial, held near his Detroit-area home. The model, which took two years to build, won overall best of show. (Read more about the boomer generation's obsession with model airplanes in "Some Assembly Required," Summer 2022 issue.)

Al Casby has spent more than 40 years hunting for F7U parts, including the mid-section of an airframe that had been gifted by the Navy to an elementary school in Chicago. (Courtesy Al Casby)

Casby then traveled to Washington, D.C., for a national contest, where his model again won best of show. Says Casby: "With the Cutlass model donated to the Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, I realized I couldn't top this honor in modeling again, and I set my sights on the next adventure, one that would consume my life 24/7 to this day: to acquire and restore an F7U to flying condition."

He got busy with letters and phone calls. In the days before the internet, tracking down Cutlass artifacts required some detective work.

Casby's search took him, of all places, to a playground in Chicago. During the late 1950s, the Navy donated surplus aircraft to municipalities and schools to promote aviation. Oaklane Elementary School had been gifted with a Cutlass (Bureau Number 129622) that had once served as a maintenance trainer at the Naval Air Station in Glenview, Illinois.

In formation, the F7U was commanding, but the jet was known as the "Gutless Cutlass" due to its underpowered engines. (Flickr/Robert Sullivan)

"Unfortunately, the mixture of an aircraft whose cockpit is 14 feet high and a curious elementary schoolboy turned out to be an emergency room admission more than a few times," says Casby. The Cutlass was subsequently broken up into manageable sections and farmed out to aircraft collectors.

Casby's first big score, in 1977, was the nose section of the former schoolyard jet, acquired from well-known aircraft collector Earl Reinert. "It was the first of many F7U pieces I’ve chased, and much to my mother's dismay, it displaced her Sedan DeVille from the garage to the driveway," says Casby. Two years later, he acquired the center section from the same Cutlass and, to his mother's relief, began storing his growing collection at a friend's farm. At the age of 20, Casby was well on his way to fulfilling his dream.

Still, scavenging parts for a Navy jet was not without risk. One effort in 1983 nearly cost Casby his life.

Casby had his eye on an F7U that had been flown by the U.S. Marine Corps for tests of high-speed mine-laying off the Florida coast. The aircraft eventually ended up neglected and parked on a ramp at Fort Lauderdale's Executive Airport. When Casby learned that the jet was slated for retrieval by the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York City, he obtained permission from the airport manager to first scavenge whatever he wanted from inside the Cutlass.

Casby's obsession with the Cutlass began when he saw the aircraft in a magazine ad. "I was absolutely dumbstruck," he remembers. (Courtesy Al Casby)

When he was 16, Casby's handmade F7U-3 Cutlass model won contests and was later donated to the Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida. (Courtesy Al Casby)

Hastily arranging time off from his newly acquired pilot job at Zantop International Airlines in Michigan, Casby flew to Florida and camped out beneath the jet for several days while working to harvest its innards. Stymied in his efforts to get at the jet's hydraulic reservoirs through access panels atop the airplane, he came up with Plan B. The engines had been removed, so he decided to burrow through one of the empty engine compartments.

"I’m gingerly crawling up into this dark abyss of the plane with a flashlight in my teeth and a wrench in my hand when I saw something ahead," recalls Casby. "I couldn't make 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 gigantic hornet's nest," says Casby. "I poked this thing, and all these damn hornets came out and made a beeline to my face. My eyes swelled shut as I frantically crawled backwards, slicing myself to ribbons, when I finally fell out the tailpipe." Lying on the ground, Casby knew he was in trouble. The venom from the hornets’ stings caused his throat to swell. He struggled to breathe.

Fortunately, the airport police officer just happened to be driving by when he saw Casby tumble out the back of the airplane. Running in amid the swirling hornets, the officer carried Casby to his patrol car and rushed him to the hospital. "Had he not done that, I would have suffocated—laying in the sun behind the Cutlass," says Casby. After his release from the ER, Casby armed himself with bug spray and returned to the Cutlass, collecting six boxes of parts.

Another challenge for Casby was locating a pair of engines he could overhaul. Fortunately for him, jet dragster drivers in pursuit of land-speed records during the 1960s had snapped up government surplus Westinghouse J-46 engines for as little as $250. These were the engines that powered the Cutlass, and Casby managed 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 dad (whom he calls "the Saint"), Casby mounted the J-46 on a makeshift stand that was chained to a backyard metal fence post and to the bumper of his mother's Cadillac. Next, they filled a 55-gallon drum with about 30 gallons of kerosene, ran an improvised fuel hose from the drum to the engine's fuel controller, and took their positions.

Jack Anderson (at left), who flew the Cutlass in the Navy, has been sharing what he learned with his friend Al Casby. (Robert Bernier)

"I attempted to start the beast," says Casby. "Fuel was pouring out the tailpipe as it turned and turned with no results." He fiddled with the engine some more. "Well, it finally lit off, shooting a flame all the way to the backyard fence, singeing a telephone pole as well as igniting the pooled fuel in the driveway," says Casby. "As it spooled up to full power, we all ran for our lives with the engine bouncing around for what seemed like an hour. But after roughly 30 seconds, it ran out of fuel after pulling the hose out of the drum. It bent the fence post about a foot and pulled the Caddy two feet out of the garage."

The police soon arrived. They wanted to cite Casby for disturbing the peace. "My father managed to talk them out of it, claiming it would destroy my up-and-coming aviation career," says Casby. "Thanks, Dad!"

A distinguishing characteristic of the F7U is its long nose-landing-gear strut, which was needed for high-angle-of-attack takeoffs. (U. S. Navy)

Setting the Record Straight

Now 63, Casby has accrued an impressive 30,000 flying hours and continues to add time to his logbooks as an Airbus A320 captain. Additionally, he's amassed so much knowledge of the Cutlass, he has started sharing his technical expertise with renowned institutions such as the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida, and the USS Midway Museum in San Diego.

Casby thinks the F7U series got a bum rap during its relatively short service life. Some aviators who flew the aircraft agree with him. One is Dick Cavicke, a retired Navy captain. In 1954, Cavicke reported to fighter squadron VF-124 directly from flight training, having had no previous experience flying a swept-wing jet. 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 Cutlass flight had gotten his attention.

After a short ground school, Cavicke climbed into the single-seat Cutlass and launched. His initial impression was that the "F7U handled very well and was extremely stable." Nevertheless, his squadron saw accidents increase after it was assigned to fly the jets aboard the USS Hancock (CVA-19). "High gross-weight landings in the Cutlass became hazardous because of slow throttle response," explains Cavicke. "If the airplane got slow, full military power would not always correct a close-in sink rate."

Casby's 12,000-square-foot hangar, located at Falcon Field in Mesa, Arizona, is not only a workshop but a shrine dedicated to all things Cutlass. (Courtesy Al Casby)

Yet as the Navy gained more experience with the Cutlass, "it proved itself a very strong and capable attack aircraft," says Cavicke. "When everything was working right, it was an excellent fighter-bomber—rugged, maneuverable, and fun to fly."

"Most bad-mouthing about the Cutlass came from people who never flew it," observes Cavicke. Casby agrees, and is working with Cavicke and others determined to set the record straight. Says Casby: "This airplane really is my life, and after much research, I’ve come to realize that things being said about it are just not based on fact."

Casby has established an 1,800-square-foot research library and museum within his hangar, replete with flightsuits worn by Navy pilots. (Robert Bernier)

As part of his effort to revamp the F7U's reputation, Casby has established an 1,800-square-foot library and museum within his hangar—filled with Cutlass maintenance manuals, logbooks, and records of his personal interviews with former F7U pilots. When asked which pilot stands out, Casby doesn't hesitate. "John Glenn," he says. Glenn test flew F7U-3s and solved the vexing problem of engines sometimes failing when the airplane's guns were fired. He was a U.S. senator when Casby wrote him a letter simply stating, "I’m in love with Cutlasses, can we talk?" Glenn graciously accepted.

Former naval aviator Jack Anderson became aware of Casby's Cutlass restoration effort while attending a model airplane swap meet wearing a Cutlass ballcap. Recalls Anderson: "Someone came up to me and asked, ‘What do you know about the Cutlass?’ I told him I flew them." That conversation led to him meeting 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," says Anderson. "At least the things I can remember in my old age."

Anderson, who flew F7U-3s directly after flight training in June 1956, remembers the Cutlass was "fast, very maneuverable, and had a pressurized cockpit making it a comfortable airplane to fly." He notes, however, that the jet was underpowered, especially during carrier approaches. "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 he’ll get it done. It's just a matter of how much time it will take. The problem—and I don't want to say it's a problem—will be really concentrating on the flight characteristics of the airplane, and learning to handle them. It's not like a swept-winged airliner. It's different."

Steam rises from a catapult on the brink of launching a Cutlass from the deck of the USS Forrestal in 1956. (National Archives)

"People ask me if I’m afraid to fly the Cutlass," says Casby. "Absolutely not. I have the benefit of 52 years of study and the benefit of basically building the aircraft from the ground up."

And he's aware of the F7U's shortcomings, among them its problematic 3,000-psi hydraulic system—now common, but at the time utilizing double the pressure of contemporary jets. Through research, Casby has determined that although Cutlasses operated with greater pressure, standard fittings were used, causing the hydraulic system to frequently leak and fail. He’ll retrofit his aircraft with modern fittings rated for 3,000-psi hydraulic systems.

It's been a long slog, but once the aircraft has been restored, Casby has plans. "I would love to go on the airshow circuit and take it to Oshkosh," he says. "But, honestly, if I could fly the airplane one time, I’ll have achieved what I dreamed about since I was eight years old."

Robert Bernier wrote about America's first aircraft carrier, the USS Langley, in the Winter 2022 issue of Air & Space Quarterly.

Al Casby is not only working to restore a Vought F7U Cutlass, but its reputation as well. Quest of a Lifetime Setting the Record Straight Robert Bernier