The New Concept was born when the Owens Valley sky captains Don Partridge and Tom Kreyche foresaw yet another depressing energy shortage following the ’82 Cross Country Classic. After the White Mountains, those towering bastions of empirical stress analysis, had wrought their havoc for another year, conditions would cool and mellow. The massif, caressed by the young frigid winds, would gloat over its annual spoils of crushed aluminum downtubes, dented leading edges and shredded Dacron while far, far below, the sky captains would watch the car loads and truck loads and van loads of desperately eager, apprehensive hang glider pilots dwindle to nothing. Surely this awesome place offered greater prospects!
What about “iron thermals?”
Hadn’t the aerial flip-flop master Art Scholl himself told them Bishop Airport was the best location in the entire country for an air race?
Of course! That was it!
The New Concept.
Before the eyes of the sky captains roared visions of sleek and sexy ultralights powering between thermals. Then, when the varios started screaming, the pilots would slap the kill switches and the props would feather! Fold! Retract! Just think what evolution in design they could bring about!
It would be like hang gliding all over again.
The ultimate ultralight flitted before their imaginations, longingly desirable but indistinct — lost beyond the tropopause. Oh! It was all too exciting!
They had to tell George!
George was ecstatic. He’d been playing with the idea of an ultralight soaring contest for years, but the development of capable aircraft had taken so long. But now — Yes! — the time was ripe. The Mitchell Wing in its various forms, the Minibat, the Delta Nomad — those were soaring ultralights, not just hang gliders with engines bolted on. And there was that new ship, the one he’d just seen in Porterville. It was a beautiful, efficient design with a prop that hid in the cantilever wing. His friend Tasso Proppe called it a quantum leap ahead of the fabulous Mitchell Wing.
The pilot had been Mark Smith of San Marcos, California. After many years of designing model planes, Mark had drawn on his experience to build this powered prototype. And it was so clean.
The engine hid in the upper wing surface with only the top of the cylinder head exposed to the wind-stream. At Porterville, it had flown like a dream.
George wanted to get his hands on that ship. He was desperate to fly it.
He and Tasso called Mark’s business, Mark’s Models, but his dad answered.
“No way!” Ron Smith snapped. “I just don’t want anyone else flying that airplane until it’s been wrung out. Now don’t bug me!”
The craft was tricky. Unusual. Mark had said as much. It didn’t fly like an airplane. It was more sensitive. A new pilot was sure to get into trouble if he flew it at this stage of development, felt Ron. He didn’t care who this George Worthington was.
But Mark knew of George’s reputation. George had been California’s Class Champion for distance in sailplanes with a spoilerless ASW 12! He’d been first to claim the hang gliding world records with a futuristic Mitchell Wing! He’d been flying since he was 17. He’d flown stub-winged Starfighters in the Navy! Mark was in awe of George’s ability and experience. There was never any question in his mind. The Wanderer would be in better hands with George at the stick than if Mark were flying it himself.
He arranged for a demonstration at Ocotillo Wells dry lake a week after Porterville.
There were thermals there. Dust devils danced across the hard pan. George and Tasso each took the Wanderer up for trial flights. From below, Mark watched them thermal his creation. What marvelous skill they had! The Wanderer climbed and pranced on the invisible columns of lift. Intense feelings of pride surged through him. He had created a true soaring ultralight!
George landed. He said it thermalled like a dream. Oh, it could use a little more aileron travel. And Tasso thought the elevator was too light. But these were minor adjustments. All in all, it was superb. Superb!
Now it was Mark’s turn.
The Wanderer roared down the lake bed. Rising easily, it climbed to six hundred feet. Mark found a thermal and banked into it.
“I’ll show them!” he thought.
The rising air lifted the nose. He pulled back on the stick to milk every last bit of lift. But the ship stalled and slipped! Suddenly Mark was in his very first spin, pointing straight down at 65 mph. Terrified, he pulled back on the stick to recover.
BLAM!! A wing snapped off!
Sideways and weightless, he pushed on the canopy — but it jammed!
Below the spinning horizon, the world rushed to meet him. In desperation, he struck out the forward canopy windshield and pushed his parachute through the opening. It blossomed open a scant 100 feet from the ground.
George ran to the wreckage as it smashed upside down into the lake bed, fearful of what he would find. But incredibly, Mark was okay.
“I felt as if I had witnessed a miracle!” George said.
George laid the blame on Mark.
“The fact that a wing came off does not mean that the ship is flimsy, weak or understrength,” he wrote in the June 1982 GLIDER RIDER. “In any light, clean soaring machine, it seems reasonable to say you can pull the wings off with a combination of high speed and an abrupt and sudden backward movement of the stick.”
The ship was okay.
Mark needed some work.
In the conservative Journal of the Soaring Society of America, SOARING AND MOTORGLIDING, George and Tasso published a controversial article on the Wanderer. Outraged by their seemingly casual attitudes regarding conventional engineering practices, aircraft designer Kevin Renshaw wrote, “One will not live to be an old pilot if he makes a habit of flying brand new aircraft designs without adequate ground testing and static loading in particular. I have seen many cases of a critical part being analyzed very carefully only to have a failure occur in some other area than that which was expected. Six hundred feet above the ground is not the place to find out that the wrong area of the wing fitting was analyzed.”
George responded immediately.
“I must admit to a habit of flying gliders and ultralights without first checking into the area of ‘ground testing’ and ‘static loading.’ But I would like to make it quite clear that I do have self-imposed rules as follows: (1) I will not fly any machine in the role of a test pilot; (2) I will not fly any machine, owned by another person, unless that person flies it first just prior to my flight; (3) I do try to evaluate the designer-builders and have been known to go on the principle of faith.
“I am 62. I love to fly and have flown over 300 different makes and models of flying machines during 43 years of ‘everyday’ flying. I feverently believe that I will not die as a result of an aircraft-related cause. If I have a fault regarding ‘safety’ in general, it is in the area of being overly-fearful and overly-cautious.”
Tasso, despite having admitted to running a faulty stress analysis on the wing fitting that failed, also had a few words for Renshaw.
“I grew 72 years old spending my productive years as a professional engineering test pilot. Static loads wouldn’t have helped us much, then. We didn’t know the loads. We flew and measured to find out. That seems to be habit-forming: I am still at it.
“To me, it’s a lot cheaper to take some calculated risks and get some answers now. Oh, that’s heresy, I know, but without this attitude, aeronautical engineering wouldn’t be what it is today.”
“What kind of bugs me about their answers,” Renshaw said, later, “was: ‘We’re older. We know better. We know everything there is to do and we’re not going to get hurt. It’s you new guys coming into it that aren’t going to survive,’ and that kind of thing.
“It was not really a good example.”
Mark was rebuilding the Wanderer. He strengthened the center section and beefed up the fastenings where the twin tailbooms met the fuselage. He changed the elevators and made them less sensitive. But the aileron linkages, which George had described as “marginal,” remained the same.
“Something brand-new and wonderful is about to happen,” George wrote in the July HANG GLIDING. “An announcement has been made that on September 10, 11 and 12, 1982 there will be a soaring contest for ultralights, that’s right, the world’s first cross-country soaring contest for ultralights will take place in Bishop, California.”
George was excited. He was ready. He was going to sweep it.
But the Wanderer wasn’t ready.
Mark finished the reconstruction in early August. A friend was supposed to trailer it to Oshkosh but family troubles got in the way. It sat in the trailer, ready to fly. But somehow George and the Wanderer never got together.
Thursday night, the 9th of September, the Sky Captains watched dismally as the fourth and final contestant arrived for the pilot’s meeting. It’s a new sport, they told themselves. Giant oaks from little acorns grow and all that . . . How could they expect anyone else to make it, they thought, philosophically, when their own entry wasn’t even ready? The barren DSK D-26 Nomad dangled forlornly in the shadowed hanger, hungering for the backordered 16th-inch rivets, deprived of September’s thermals. And what were they going to do with all those T-shirts? Oh, well. At least the quality of the pilots was pretty good.
There was Jeff Stephenson, the Economy King, in from Porterville with his wonder wing, a Mitchell Wing B10 — a wing so white it hurt the eyes at noon. A wing so smooth, so ahhhh… And this guy knew how to thermal (thank god!). Hadn’t he flown 70 miles on a quart of gas or something ridiculous? And what a fuselage! With an outboard motor, the fiberglass thing would be mean in water sports.
Steve Grussock, the fellow who flies straight down (stall — what’s that?), dropped in from his Kasperwing factory in unpronounceable Issaquah, Washington, dragging along veteran hang glider pilot Scott Rutledge to sniff out thermals in a second Kasperwing. Grussock’s prototype fuselage was a work of art. In the air, it looked like a cross between the scout from the mother ship and a dragonfly eating a squash bug at max l/d. But it was beautiful. Beautiful! And all those colorful goodies inside. It looked as though you could reach right through that great clear canopy and touch them. And with those sculptured Kasper tips, those gigantic drag rudders — my god! — the thing was incredible!
And then there was the guy in the Hummer. (He’s flying a what?) Gil Kensey had come all the way from Provo, Utah, with Klaus Hill’s second Hummer. His oxygen bottle looked like a cannonball.
And then there was George . . . (Where is George?)
“It seemed strange,” Gil said, later. “Here we all are at George’s meet and he doesn’t even show up at the pilot’s meeting.”
It was 8:30 Friday morning. Mark was chasing Jeff at the Wanderer’s top speed. They dipped down between the trees along the meandering Owens River, twisting through at 50 feet.
“I was doing about 60,” Jeff said. “I would imagine he would have had to pull almost two Gs in the stuff we were doing.”
They returned to Bishop for the first task, an economy run 17 miles south to Big Pine and back. While Don carefully measured the gas in the tanks of the ultralights, Mark reviewed the operation of the new Wanderer with George.
“George was in really good spirits,” Jeff told me, afterwards. “He seemed active and really involved and interested in what was going on.”
“I had taken a very, very close look at the Wanderer,” Gil recounted. “Mark and I had looked it over pretty closely and I would have had no qualms about flying it. To me, the machine looked very, very good. And I can understand how George felt about it by looking at it. In no way did the structure lead the potential pilot to believe that it was going to be inadequate.”
The ships launched, one after another. George built up a lot of speed, rose about ten feet, and leveled out to gain more speed before he climbed. Compared to the others, especially Jeff in the B10, who left the ground in a neck-straining power climb, it seemed like a somewhat trepidatious take-off. No one knew, except Mark — and few even suspected — that this was the first launch George had made in the rebuilt prototype. With less than an hour of experience with the previous aircraft — an aircraft with controls so light that he had stated “there was no way for the pilot flying the ship for the first time to coordinate the controls and to prevent both skidding and slipping during turns in turbulent thermals” — George had come to do battle with the wind gods on their home ground!
“The only thing I would have commented to George prior to launch, and I seriously considered doing it,” Scott said, later, “was the fact that he wasn’t wearing a helmet. It bothered me to see him jump in that plane without a helmet on. It really did. I guess he thought he was hopping in a sailplane.
“There were a lot of factors involved with him flying that was taking a nonchalance towards what was going on. More so than I thought he should have been comfortable with. Steve and I came here a day early to practice and see how bad conditions really were and try to assess what our abilities would be, instead of just hopping into the first task and assuming everything would be okay.
“I felt prepared for it, but I did not have that feeling when I saw George and the Wanderer. It seemed to me that there was a distinct lack of experience as far as him flying that wing in different types of conditions and preparing physically and mentally for this type of experience. I thought that he probably didn’t have enough airtime to warrant even being over here. Because if there is any test of structural integrity, this is the place.”
The Mitchell and Kasperwings turned toward the base of the Sierra. They would use the morning thermals there to get them to Big Pine. Gil sat on the runway with a flat tire and watched George head straight down the center of the valley. George made the entire trip under power. If there were thermals of any consequence on the valley floor — and no one thought there would be — he didn’t find them.
He was the first to return. The others were busy working lift.
It was very, very strange behavior for the expert of expert thermal pilots.
It was between tasks. I was at the south end of Bishop having lunch with my brother-in-law when the gust front ripped through. Drying leaves, stripped from the cottonwoods, joined the swirling dust. The steel roof of the Econo Motors garage shrieked as if to tear loose. I estimated the speed of the front at 30 to 40 mph. It was typical for the valley — a very localized front, easy for aviators to avoid because the dry summer’s rising dust defined its limits while above, a dark cloud loomed. But a chill went through me — I wasn’t sure the ultralight pilots, new to the valley, would recognize it in time. I jumped into my old Chevy and raced the front the two miles northeast to the airport.
“Gust front coming!” I yelled to the group on the tarmac.
“How strong?” they asked. (Who is this guy? How can he tell if a gust front is coming?)
“If that was my hang glider,” I said, pointing at a Kasperwing, “I’d drop it on the ground right now. I don’t think I could hold on to it!”
They looked to each other in dismay.
George and Mark wheeled the Wanderer up the runway between some parked cars. Jeff faced the Mitchell Wing into the wind. The Kasperwing pilots sent their driver running for a van to block the wind. But only the edge of the weakening gust front touched us, rustling the sagebrush and gently shaking the ultralights like the teasing breath of an invisible giant.
“Everyone was a little nervous, then,” Jeff recalled, “because none of us were really experienced at flying here. George was the only one who had much time in this valley. He was interested in getting airborn as soon as possible. I won’t say he was pushing, because he wasn’t, really.
“He was afraid that the soaring conditions might deteriorate.”
As George stood by the Wanderer, waiting for the Sky Captains to start the event, he told Mark his flight plan. The task was north to White Mountain Ranch and return. He would head directly for the White Mountains, he said, and hunt thermals. He regarded the wind, crossing the runway from the west at ten mph.
“What is the crosswind take-off capability?” he asked Mark.
It struck me as odd that he didn’t know.
“In this wind, nothing to it,” Mark replied. “You won’t even notice it.”
From down the runway, Don waved. “Whenever you’re ready, George!” he yelled.
George strapped the parachute over his jacket, settled the porkpie hat onto his head, and carefully squeezed into the narrow opening behind the Wanderer’s sliding canopy. He looked up and mentioned to Mark that he had not yet flown the aircraft below 30 mph.
I almost dropped my movie camera. George didn’t know where the Wanderer’s stall was! That meant he couldn’t know what the ship’s characteristics were at the onset of stall. It had spun on Mark when he’d stalled it. Was that why George had flown fast, flown straight, and avoided thermalling on the first task? That made sense. But then, just what the hell was he doing in this contest?
“You can fly it a lot slower than that,” Mark told him.
George slid the canopy over his head and pinned it in place. Within the tight confines of the Wanderer’s cockpit, he fastened his safety belt around his waist and donned his gloves. George seemed hesitant in his actions this time, unlike the way he had been before the first task. I stood at the nose, looking down at George. I lowered the camera. Something was wrong. He seemed . . . frightened? No, it couldn’t be. It didn’t mesh with what I knew about the aviator extraordinaire George Worthington.
But as I watched him, I had an eerie feeling that he sensed his “fabulous luck” was about to run out.
He reached up and pushed at the canopy. He scowled. He pushed harder.
“Will this come away?” he asked. “It feels pretty firm…”
“Yeah,” Mark said. “It’s designed to.”
The Old Man seemed unconvinced.
“You’ll be surprised at how strong you are,” Mark reassured him, “with an adrenaline rush of fear.”
The pilots began to launch, each one intent on using as little fuel as possible yet still making it back within the time limit.
“His take-off was real clean,” Jeff remembered. “Real nice. He turned to the left and headed out toward the hills. Shortly after he cleared, I took off. I climbed a little faster and went over the top of him. Shortly after I passed him, I flew into what seemed to be a thermal at rather low altitude — about 400 feet. I thought I’d give it a try, anyway. I did one 360, and as I came around, I saw George. He was moving toward me, maneuvering under me. And we were pretty close to the same altitude, within 100 feet.
“It looked almost like a proposing action when he was coming over. A couple of times, his attack angle looked odd. At one time, it looked like he was on the verge of a stall, flying along at a nose-high attitude and carrying power to keep it from stalling. He didn’t lose any altitude when he brought the nose down.
“Evidently, he had some power on at the time. It just struck me as odd. Flying under a high angle like that, you’re going to burn up more fuel and you’re going to waste time. ‘He must be trying to feel the ship out,’ is what I thought.
“The thermal didn’t seem to be overly turbulent or anything else. Normally, thermals have some amount of turbulence in them, but it wasn’t anything you couldn’t deal with easily. I went around on another 360. I hit some sink as I went out one side of the thermal. When I came back around again, I looked for George.
“And I couldn’t see him anywhere!”
Scott was at 800 feet, a quarter of a mile away.
“The air was mildly lifty,” he told me. “And it was really a better climb-out situation than we’d had for the first task, or for the preceding day that Steve and I came and practiced. It was relatively smooth. In fact, it was smoother at that time than it had been on any other occasion that I’d flown.
“I was intently watching the Mitchell Wing and the Wanderer to see if they were going to catch anything. It looked as if both of them were starting to work a thermal, except, in my opinion, they were both extremely low to the ground. My whole attitude was to get as safely as possible to 1000 feet and cruise. I would have been at parachute-effective altitude. And that’s really the major concern.
“They were working something that had a fairly good size to it. George wasn’t banked up at all. Not even 30 degrees. And for a thermal, that’s keeping a pretty wide and flat turning radius. They were making clockwise turns. The Mitchell Wing was slightly more toward the hills than the Wanderer.
“But as George was 360ing, the inboard wing broke. It broke right in the air. And it looked like there was a puff of dust that came off it.”
Gil, in the Hummer, was directly below Scott at 300 feet.
“I saw the glider slip,” he said, “but I don’t know if it had failed prior to that or not. I was real surprised that it came apart, especially in the air that it came apart in. That’s what leads me to believe that it might have been a slip that helped to induce the failure.”
“When the wing broke,” Scott said, “he entered what looked like a spin with the wing that was intact still at a flying attitude for a half-second or so. It was continuing in the turn with one wing straight up and the other one pretty much at a right angle to it. And it didn’t take but a second before the other wing was straight up in the air, matching the one that was broken. The fuselage was on its side. It continued a slow spin with both wings straight up in the air, plummeting towards the ground. It impacted going straight down. From 400, maybe 500 feet.
“I’d say the whole thing, from the breaking of the wing to impact, was 5 or 6 seconds. I don’t think he had enough time — I don’t think he had enough altitude — to effectively do anything.”
I was filming Jeff Stevens through the camera lens when someone cried out.
“It’s on fire!”
We stood frozen, our breaths stopped, as George began his fall from the sky.
“Oh, no! George! Oh God!” It was Mark Smith, behind me. Screaming. “Throw the ‘chute, George! Throw the ‘chute!”
Don grabbed Joey and they hurtled away on his Kawasaki down the runway at full bore.
“Where is he?” I demanded, searching desperately through the telephoto. “Where is he?”
“There!” Mark’s brother said. “Below the Mitchell Wing!”
About three miles away, Jeff was diving the Mitchell to land near the wreckage.
I grabbed the arm of a spectator, Carl, with a nearby van.
“I’m an Emergency Medical Technician. Let’s go! George might need us,” I said.
Mark and his brother ran to the van.
“Do you have room for us?” he asked Carl.
“Yeah. Get in.”
Mark was wringing his hands, totally distraught, trembling in the seat next to me.
“Oh, George! Oh, George!” he kept saying in-between sobs. “This is my worst nightmare! I know he’s hurt! Oh, George!”
“What happened?” I asked him. “What did you see?”
“He slipped out of a turn,” Mark gasped. “He stalled. He went straight in.”
Carl was backing out of his parking space. Everything seemed in slow motion.
“Did he throw the chute?”
Mark just shook his head, staring at nothing.
Far out on West Line, Don was a speck roaring away at 100 mph. If George really needed us, I knew, we would never make it in time.
“I kept looking through my soaring windows to see if he was possibly above me,” Jeff told me, “but I couldn’t see him anywhere. Finally I looked down and I saw the wreckage on the ground. I went down and landed to see if I could do anything.”
Jeff landed in a flat field just to the east of the Laws-Poletas Road and rolled to a stop fifty feet from the Wanderer. The wreckage was upside down. The wings were broken. It was a bad crash.
He pulled himself out of the Mitchell Wing and searched the sky, hoping against hope that George would be there, descending safely under parachute. But the sky was empty.
Jeff ran to the Wanderer. The wings were folded together. The fuselage and left wing lay upside down on top of the right wing. Jeff crouched down and looked up inside the fuselage. George was there, still strapped in. There was blood all over his face but he wasn’t bleeding.
“George!” Jeff called. There was no answer.
He reached inside and felt George’s wrist for a pulse. There was nothing. He felt the terrible awareness of death seep into his soul yet again. This was the fourth time he had seen someone die in an aircraft. Last summer it had been Jet Kirby, who had lost a wing when the root failed on his Goldwing at Elsinore. At least, in one way, this was better. Jet had taken four hours to die.
He heard a motorcycle approaching. The thought – the hope – that he might be wrong, that George might just be unconscious, occurred to him.
Jeff ran to the barbed-wire fence at the edge of the field as Don and Joey slid to a halt.
“Call an ambulance!” he yelled.
Don dropped Joey and spun the bike around. He tore by us as we approached the scene. I leapt from the van. Joey was also trained in emergency medicine. We ran to the wreckage.
I dropped to my knees and looked up at George. He wasn’t breathing. He was either dead or about to die. The only thing that could save his life would be CPR – but we couldn’t do it with him upside down.
“We’ve got to turn him over!” I cried.
We all grabbed the wing and gently rolled the fuselage over. It was surprisingly light. I held George’s head, concerned about neck injury.
George was still gripping the canopy frame. We pried his fingers loose. There was blood everywhere from a gash on his head.
We attempted CPR. Joey gave mouth-to-mouth while I worked his chest. Soon our clothes were soaked with George’s blood. I think we both knew he was dead, we just couldn’t accept it. It was George Worthington, after all. George was our teacher. George showed us how to do this stuff safely. George was immortal . . . wasn’t he? George couldn’t die. Not here. Not today. This was George’s contest. This was the future of ultralights. Could ultralights have a future without George?
“We tried to save him,” I told the woman in white from the ambulance. “We gave him CPR but . . .”
“You wasted your time,” she said. “Dead men don’t bleed.”
Later the Coroner would tell me he had died instantly.
Stunned, I walked slowly back to the road. Mark stood on the berm, visibly shaken, his jaw twitching, eyes wet and begging me not to tell him the terrible truth. That George was dead.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“I killed him,” he choked, his voice faint with horror. “I killed George . . .”
“No, Mark,” I responded, trying desperately to reach him. “You didn’t kill him. He knew exactly what he was getting into, here. More than anyone else. He knew! George made a mistake. Whether it was up there or back at the airport, it doesn’t matter. Aviation doesn’t allow us to make mistakes and survive. When George climbed into your ship, he assumed the risk. All of it. Don’t blame yourself . . .”
I reached out to comfort him. His eyes widened and he gasped. He backed away from me, turned, and stumbled down the road, sobbing.
Then I looked down at my hands.
They were thick with George’s blood.