Monday, February 7, 2011

Larry Newman, 2011

Larry Newman, 63, one of the seminal manufacturing/marketing dynamos in the early days of hang gliding who made the successful transition to ultralights, has died after a reported 3-year battle with pancreatic cancer.
Larry Newman
Larry was a flamboyant entrepreneur who successfully sold his ElectraFlyer hang gliders.
When people started sticking motors on the foot launched craft, he came out with a new company, American Aerolites, to produce the Eagle ultralight.
I first flew the Eagle with Plane & Pilot Publisher Steve Werner back in 1983.  I remember it vividly: while Steve was up on a test hop, I was taking photos of his flight next to the runway at Coronado Airport, north of Albuquerque, near Larry's factory...and I got stung twice by fire ants.
American Aerolites Eagle
I almost jumped out of my jeans, it hurt so bad.  I thought I'd been shot in the leg.  I could barely see the critters but what a painful wallop they packed. 
After the success of the Eagle, Larry debuted the revolutionary, composite-fuselage, clear mylar-winged Falcon, a wonderful, radical design leap forward that would fit in well with today's S-LSA...and this was 26 years ago!
Today, to qualify as a Light Sport, it would need a fixed nosegear: the production Falcon had a cockpit pull-up retraction system that worked very well at reducing drag.
Always a superb (and shrewd) marketer, Larry managed to get Chuck Yeager and Delco batteries to endorse and use the Falcon in TV commercials, which ran for years and was a big success for Delco.
I had the great pleasure to fly Chuck's Falcon in the Greater Arizona Ultralight Air Race in 1984. 
I must report without intending to brag that I won the race...entirely by accident.
Photo courtesy Aerosoft
I say that because I got completely lost on the course, buzzed around for ten minutes looking for the pylon, then found it and flew the rest of the race firewalled.  The only pilot skill I exhibited was flying a crab course where everybody else seemed not to understand how to compensate for a 15-knot wind.
The winner was to be the pilot who completed the course in the fastest time...without exceeding the FAR Part 103 legal limit of 63 mph, straight and level, full throttle.  Yep, the Sport Pilot Rule that limits LSA to a top level speed of 120 knots had its germinus in the 1980s.
Anyway, my final average time for the 108-mile course was 62.58 mph!  Now you know why I say "accidental" winner.
Clearly the Falcon was capable of much faster than legal flight.  I wonder today how many LSA, especially these sleek composite ships, nudge the 120-knot limit by a few knots.  Maybe FAA will send up some air cops with speed guns.
I remember practicing before the race.  I'd run a few laps around a practice course and was on short final to land when I saw someone on the tarmac, furiously waving a red shirt.
"What an idiot," I mumbled, wondering what the hell he was doing.
As I got within 50 feet of touchdown, the guy was still there.  I suddenly realized it was Larry, and he was trying to wave me off from landing.
"What the...?" I said to myself, then checked the right side of the cockpit.  I'd forgotten to lower the nosegear!
"Dumbass," I mumbled, powered up for a go-around, dropped the gear, and flew the whole pattern that way.
After I landed, he grinned at me with a "You dumb s---" look...then eased my embarrassment by saying, "Don't feel too bad: Chuck landed in it a few weeks ago with the nose gear up."
He meant the great Chuck Yeager.  Larry introduced me to the legendary USAF test pilot a few months later.  Chuck  gave me a quick glance, a perfunctory handshake, then made to move off to join some other people.  I felt slightly invisible but my ego was none the worse for wear: Chuck was a huge hero of mine, as he was for a lot of pilots.
But Larry grabbed his arm and said, "Wait up, Chuck: Jim's the guy who flew your Falcon in the big race and won it!"
Suddenly Chuck's face lit up in a broad grin and he reshook my hand with substantial vigor.  "Well hell, Jim, great to meet you!"
Suddenly we were members of the same club...for a few moments anyway.
I saw Chuck a few years later in the Warbird area at Oshkosh and reintroduced myself.  I remember thinking at the time, "Man, he's getting up there in years."
At first he didn't remember me, not surprising since he'd become a highly visible and sought-after celebrity by then.  I reminded him of flying his Falcon - which had carried the nickname "Glamorous Glennis" after his late wife.  The Bell X-1 rocket plane carried the same famous moniker.  Chuck was the first human to break the sound barrier in level flight in the X-1, in 1947.
As years before, his face lit up briefly in a smile, then his brow wrinkled and he said, only half joking, "Hell, Jim; you got old!"
I laughed.  (I'm 22 years younger.)
I ran into Larry Newman a few years later.  He'd long since drifted away from the hang glider biz and hooked up with Ben Abruzzo and Maxie Anderson to be the first, in 1978, to cross the Atlantic in a balloon -- the Double Eagle II.
Double Eagle II
Later Larry accomplished the same feat in a different balloon with a different crew, this time being the first to cross the Pacific.
Ben crashed and died at 55 taking off in a light twin with five women aboard, at the same Coronado Airport where Steve Werner and I first flew that spidery-framed Eagle ultralight.
Maxie Anderson had died, at 48, two years earlier during a balloon race in Germany.
I'd wondered whether that was hard on Larry: to lose the people he'd made history with, and so much life still ahead of them.
Larry was an excellent and well-rounded pilot.  Before the hang glider and ultralight game, he'd flown for the airlines, and after the hang glider, balloon and ultralight adventures, he returned to the professional cockpit. 
He had a penetrating gaze to go along with a cocky Joker's smile that could easily intimidate you with his abundance of self confidence.
Larry wasn't always the easiest guy to have a casual conversation with either.  Try to BS your way through a topic he was conversant in, or disagree on a cherished belief, and he'd nail you right on the spot...grinning all the time, almost seeming to revel in your discomfort as he dared you to prove him wrong. 
I saw Larry the last time at an event in Washington, D.C. to honor his flight over the Atlantic.  We talked briefly; I could tell life had mellowed him considerably.  He'd had his share of triumphs and setbacks, as do we all, and life had etched his face and soul accordingly.
His big smile and bright eagle's penetrating stare were still there, but there was a resignation, and an acquaintance with humility and gentility too, and that's how I'll best remember him.
Fly high, fly long, Larry Newman.


Anonymous said...

I read your comment to Mr. Larry Newman. I want to tell you that you wrote a great tribute to him an that he would be very pleased and honored!
Robert Farquharson
East Peoria, IL

James Lawrence said...

Thank you Robert, I appreciate your comment.

John LaTorre said...

Hi, Jim!

I'm glad to see you're still around and writing. I remember you from our days at Flight Designs, so long ago.

Reading about Larry on the EAA memorial page, I've found it amazing what a range of reactions people have had, from "wonderful human being" to "the most treacherous human I've ever known." It's as if they were talking about two different people. Larry could be many things to many people, all in the same day, depending on what he wanted them to see.

You may know that I worked for Electra Flyer for two and a half years, running its sail loft (the same job I had at Flight Designs), and had a chance to study him up close. I remember him as a person with both enormous charm and a prodigious ability to hold a grudge. My understanding is that his personality underwent a profound change in the 90's, and I think I would have liked to meet him after that transformation. I respect him for his undeniable accomplishments in aviation, lament his shortcomings and the way he treated those who had business with him, and mourn the loss of both the man and the man he could have been.

James Lawrence said...

Hi John, great to hear from you. Thank you for your thoughtful and honest insights and recollections. Larry was a complex man and left a strong impression with every person he met.