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.