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Volmer Jensen - Remembered

When an airman folds his wings forever his buddies sometimes say he's "gone West". It's an old expression, dating from World War One, when such occasions happened almost daily in the lives of the young airmen posted to the Western Front. They would gather around the bar at the end of the day and drink a toast to his memory.

Well, Volmer Jensen has "gone West". He died in the early hours of this morning, 13 January 1998, having suffered a massive stroke in his 88th year. Unlike the young airmen of that long-ago war, VJ lived a full and rewarding life, which helps to mitigate the sorrow occasioned by his passing.

Volmer grew up during the pioneering years of aviation. He was born in Minnesota and moved to Seattle as a teenager, where his aeronautical education began early on. I have a picture of him hand-cranking the propeller of the first Boeing flying boat, c. 1923.

In 1925, Volmer undertook to get himself airborne. He did so, more or less, in a homemade hang-glider designed somewhat earlier by Octave Chanute, plans for which appeared in Popular Mechanics. The hang-glider was followed by a succession of gliders, one of which he built for a wealthy lumber baron, Tom Stimson. Tom wanted an improved model, but, alas, he lost his life in an airplane accident before the project got underway.

By 1930, Volmer was an accomplished sailplane pilot whose reputation became worldwide. He moved to Glendale, California, in 1937 and joined Hawley Bowlus, who was building an experimental twin-engine executive aircraft. In his spare time, Volmer designed and built the VJ-10 high-performance sailplane, which was subsequently purchased by the military for the assault glider training program.

Volmer spent the war years in the classroom instructing at Aero Industries Technical Institute. He could build anything, such was his expertise, and he had the happy faculty for being able to impart this knowledge to his young charger, both military and civilian.

As the war drew to a close, he began formulating plans for an affordable airplane. This was the VJ-21 and it drew heavily upon his experience with sailplanes. A feature pilots found most impressive was its superb forward visibility, distinctly advantageous in skies that were becoming increasingly crowded. Unfortunately, the postwar boom in private flying was a bust and the VJ-21 never got to the marketplace.

Volmer took up the sport of scuba diving not long after Jacques Cousteau came into prominence. He developed his own underwater camera and enjoyed exploring the waters of the Sea of Cortez. In those days it was an arduous journey accessing places like Bahia Los Angeles and Scammons Lagoon, so he built himself a two-passenger amphibian, the VJ-22 Sportsman. It was easy to build and was flying late in 1958, less than two years from conception.

The VJ-22 had been built as a private venture, purely for personal use, totally without a profit motive. It was so simple to duplicate, being built entirely of wood, and inexpensive that it was not long before VJ was being pestered with propositions from prospective Sportsman owners.

The upshot of this was that VJ was soon in the airplane business, albeit in a small way and somewhat reluctantly. Over a thousand would-be Sportsman owners bought blueprints and kits of parts over a period of three decades. Today, VJ-22s are flying on all the continents of this planet save Antarctica.

In the late '60s, with the advent of the new generation hanggliders, thousands of youngsters began taking wing in their "kites". They were flimsy, for the most part, and lacked control. There was a rash of fatal accidents. VJ was appalled by what he saw as needless carnage.

The upshot of this was the VJ-23, which was safe and sturdy. It also featured conventional aircraft controls. The VJ-23 quickly became popular with aspiring airmen and evolved, first with 8 hp and then 15 hp snowmobile engines, as the progenitor of the modern-day ultralight. The V3-23 was much in the news when Dave Cook flew his across the English Channel in 1972.

As stated previously, VJ could make anything. He was an artisan with few peers and expert in the use of virtually every tool in the machinists inventory. This led to his operating the Production Model Company for some three decades. The business produced prototypes and proof-of-concept models as well as simulations for film-makers. These included the Star of India sapphire for a film I can't now recall and the first S.S. Enterprise for the Star Trek series. The latter may be seen today in the Smithsonian.

A shy man, totally absorbed by his work, VJ never sought the limelight. Even so, he was a celebrity among airplane people, particularly the youngsters who wanted to fly in the Icarian style, with wings of their own creation. Occasionally, this led to his appearing before national audiences, such as the Johnny Carson Show.

It's the happy hour as I write this, so here's to you, Volmer! In my book, you rank with the true pioneers for having helped make personalized flying both safer and more affordable.

submitted by John Underwood

Posted: 3/1/1998


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