TALE OF TWO IRVS

Two of the most memorable characters I’ve met in soaring grew up in the Great Depression and by coincidence happened to bear the same first name. Though neither had much formal education, both became pioneering designers. One is ensconced in the Hall of Fame at the National Soaring Museum and the other should be.
Irv Prue was a technician at Lockheed in the fledgling aerospace industry after WW II, and by all accounts was a helluva soaring pilot. He built his first glider with a surplus drop tank as a fuselage, attaching homemade metal wings and a V tail. Working alone in his Pearblossom, CA shop, he was renowned among soaring home-builders as the prince of sheet metal fabrication. His Prue Standard was for a short time the standard in the rapid evolution of racing sailplanes, and his enormous Prue II became the highest performance two-seater of its time. It was lost to a wind storm, but a second version with slightly shorter wings and a T tail now rests in the Soaring Museum, having flown a world distance record out-and-return flight from Crystalaire in the 1970s.
Irv Culver was an intuitive genius who never went to college – except to lecture on graduate physics. While working for Kelly Johnson at Lockheed’s covert research and design office Irv answered the phone one hectic day with a sardonic, “Skunkworks,” referring to a fictional distillery in the old Li’l Abner comic strip. According to legend Johnson fired him for that indiscretion, something he’d often done before… and of course Irv was back at work the next morning.
The epithet stuck. That outfit, source of such advanced craft as the U-2 and the SR-71 has long since become a household name, and cute little Pepe Le Pew is now the widely displayed mascot of Lockheed Martin Corp.
Culver’s first glider was the all wood Screaming Weiner, its thirty-eight foot wingspan configured to fit in his garage. Auto-towed from dry lake beds with 5,000 feet of surplus wire (in those days hemp rope was too expensive), he flew the Weiner high and very far across the Mojave in an era when most glider pilots could stay aloft for only a few minutes.
Irvs Prue and Culver rose from different backgrounds but their suns set in remarkably similar fashion. Prue’s final project was a ‘primary’ glider like those of the very first generation, in which the pilot sits out front, completely exposed. All metal and held together by 150 rivets, it was designed not to soar, but to be built, deconstructed and then built again year after year in high-school shop classes. For that aircraft’s only flight, aficionados of several persuasions lined both sides of the runway to capture the moment as Prue, well into his eighties, was towed aloft behind a car. My indelible memory is his whishing by just after liftoff, his feet at my eye level in huge black shoes, newly polished. The flight was very short, but went well of course. A faint little dip of the wing in each direction, one just before release and one just after, to a cotton soft landing. And it would be his last.
That very evening, Irv Culver was convalescing in a residence at the same airport. His final project had been consulting on the superlight foot-launched Carbon Dragon, opposite end of the spectrum from those mega-powered near-space exotics he helped create generations earlier, yet still pushing the limits of innovation. As Culver glided into dementia’s twilight he’d be staring blankly at his coffee cup when some key word in ambient conversation would arouse his once-dazzling mind, causing him to brighten and grumble, “Wrote a paper about that.” When asked to elaborate, he’d lose me completely. Was he over my head, or departed from his own? No matter, his work was done.
One rainy Sunday, Prue sat telling stories of his heyday, flowing from one saga to the next as I listened spellbound. After two fascinating hours he stood, looked at his watch and said, “Well, thanks for listening.” I begged him to stay, but his therapy was complete and he ambled off. Never saw him again.
To have stood in the shadows of these giants is a priceless blessing and an everlasting privilege. It’s said that in their prime our two Irvs were rivals who thought poorly of each other – perhaps because they were so alike. But time alters everything. I had the honor of knowing them both near the end of their lives, and one of the most touching tableaux I’ve ever witnessed was these two fading patriarchs across a table from each other, heads down, whispering and scribbling on a napkin. Teamed up at last, and driven still to concoct new marvels, even as their shared hourglass ran out.
Both Irvs passed on only months apart, and to sadly little acclaim. Their lives had been long, supremely noble flights of unprecedented fancy, but their ends, like all good landings, were anticlimactic. Such is the way.

HI ALL

It’s great to be back open and taking advantage of the great lift. We had a super busy weekend and are very proud of and grateful to our entire crew, for their diligence and adherence to the new mitigation procedures.
While we’re just open on Saturday’s and Sunday’s for the time being, we will be towing this Friday 5/22!
If you’d like to schedule an upcoming lesson or book a glider rental and you have a Schedule Pointe account, for the present time and until further notice, you must check for availability on Schedule Pointe and then e-mail us to schedule your reservation. Please include your cell number. Please do not schedule your reservations yourself.
When we confirm with you, you’ll receive our new mitigation procedures. Be prepared to bring a mask, and your own water and sanitizer. We look forward to seeing you at the field!
Stay safe and healthy and wishing you good spirits,
The Soaring Academy Crew

HI ALL

As we reported last week, we’re planning to reopen this Saturday May 16th, with a modified schedule and procedures, for instruction, glider rental and private tows.

If you’d like to schedule an upcoming lesson or book a glider rental and you have a Schedule Pointe account, for the present time and until further notice, you must check for availability on Schedule Pointe and then e-mail us to schedule your reservation. Please include your cell number. Please do not schedule your reservations yourself. Until further notice we are only operating on Saturday’s and Sunday’s. When we confirm with you, you’ll receive our new mitigation procedures. Be prepared to bring a mask, and your own water and hand sanitizer. We look forward to seeing you at the field!

Stay safe and healthy and wishing you good spirits,
The Soaring Academy Crew

STIR CRAZY?

Seems cabin fever is now the new indemic, and everybody’s catching it all at once. Flyers under lockdown can be like caged birds, with brains way too big for the chore. It’s only natural to daydream about wonderful flights, past or future, and all the adventures we have or have not yet enjoyed. Fantasy is a fundamental human element, essential to mental health. But after all of that’s exhausted and you’re still stuck inside, how ‘bout the other extreme, flights made memorable by excruciating tedium? Got to be a story there somewhere.

Beginners might suppose it impossible to get bored aloft. I thought so myself for a few years, until entropy overtook me. I’d already logged several hundred hours of CFI before ever experiencing the faintest hint of dispassion for soaring. It happened where you’d least expect, my first checkout at a gliderport in the Southwest, eagerly expecting to have my mind blown. Prior to that, everywhere I’d been the challenge of simply staying aloft preempted any shade of indifference, but this was just too easy.

A booming thermal came as no surprise. I’d seen ten-knotters before, though never to 9000 AGL! With no clouds anywhere and the nearest hills miles away in two directions, I thought, ‘Now I’ll start to learn this new language of the desert.’ I asked the instructor where to head next, and he was audibly yawning as he said, “Ah just go straight, you’ll hit lift.”

He was right. What we tripped into seconds later felt the same as what we’d left. No strategy, no tactics, nothing but gobs of tall blue thermals standing shoulder to shoulder. So now I knew that aerial ennui was also a thing.

 

My personal benchmark for stir craziness was a typical late summer day in hazy old New England. I’d been mowing grass since morning, persuaded there wasn’t much up there to miss. All flights had been short ones, reporting not quite enough of anything anywhere, liftwise. The day was well past peak by then and business slow, so I took my usual 1800-foot tow to trusty old Elmore in search of a cure for gravity.

Turned out those discouraging debriefs were accurate, no lift of any kind — except a certain small declivity in the slope collecting a smidge more than its share of both sun and wind. In the 2-33’s smallest possible figure-eight, I was able to hang at one altitude for (abashed to admit) one of my longest flights that season. Three whole hours, actually.

Cabin fever began halfway through the first hour, anticipating a slide for home after the very next turn, or maybe the next… turn after turn after slow return. As the fever raged through its second hour, I sang versions of Eighty Hundred and Eighty Eight Bubbles of Eights on the Wall, but that got old too. Mused for a while about going full zen and flying all night (as it happened, there was a full moon scheduled). Had to grin at the notion of search-and-rescue folks tramping diligently through the woods until my shadow crept over them at two in the morning… No, that wouldn’t do, they might get mad and shoot me down.

On and on it went, delirium eventually settling to sheer drudgery, through what seemed a thousand nearly identical figure-eights, and honestly never gained or lost more than fifty feet. Grew more than a little drowsy at the helm before sunset mercifully stilled the breeze and brought an end to that voluntary ordeal, but I did stay up! And that’s the whole story. Five mile tow, six mile final glide, and a ton of zeros in between.

So yes, even soaring can become boring. But when circumstances make it so, remind yourself that a case of numb butt is more enjoyable in the air than on the ground.

And similarly, a case of numb butt on the ground is less permanent than one in it.

Happy hiding!