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Les Sebald - (1920-1997)
SSA member and "Soar Truckee" (California) patriarch Les Sebald passed away in his sleep the night of March 10. Although Les' health had been slowly declining for years, his passing was still a shock to those of us who knew and loved him. He is survived by his wife, Claire, two daughters, a son and two grandchildren.
Les grew up on the east coast, attending Lehigh University before WW-II intervened. During the war he served as a technical representative of the naval research labs in airborne electronics. He was fond of telling how he was "detained" for using the term "Radar" at a military base while that acronym was still classified.
After the war, Les worked for Sperry Gyroscope on the east coast before being recruited by Eddie Rickenbacker to come to work for United Airlines at their newly established engineering facility in San Francisco. Over his long career at United, Les rose through the ranks to become one of United's chief electronics guru's, being responsible for the first practical airborne weather radar.
Les learned to fly gliders with the Northern California Soaring Association at Hummingbird Haven gliderport in Livermore, California during the early seventies when a fellow United employee and club member, Ulf Gustaffson, suggested he try the sport. Les was hooked from the beginning. Les bought a Zugvogel in partnership with Galen Asher. Later he bought an HP-14 "Li'l Indian" (LI), in which he flew for many years and which earned him his last (distance) diamond.
Les talked about using the United facilities at SFO to blow glider canopies, about his outrageous cross-country flight in mountain wave, about the shenanigans his crew at United would pull while flight testing aircraft. Les even enjoyed soaring on the job. He loved to tell the story of "soaring" a 727 on a non-revenue flight in mountain wave conditions from the right seat while in a holding pattern near Mammoth Lakes, CA.
Center: "You've been holding for quite some time, United 123, do you want to divert to Las Vegas for fuel?"
Les: "Fuel? Not a problem, sir. We're not burning any."
Talking about it, Les told me "I needed about a sixty degree bank to keep in the lift, the turning radius was so big. United's chief test pilot was in the left seat and kept asking me 'Are you sure you want to be banking that steep Les?'" Les always liked to bend the rules. I liked him for that.
After retirement from United in 1975, Les devoted his time to running Soar Truckee. He loved it. He lived for it. During winters, Les couldn't wait for May and the opening of the Summer season. At Truckee, he worked seven days a week, all Summer long, without pay. People just don't behave that way unless they're doing what they love. Les did what he loved. Always. I admired him for that.
He was recruited by various electronics companies but stuck with what he loved: aviation. Work at United was play for Les, and he couldn't wait to go into work each morning. In the glider community, Les was known for his savvy at radio repair. People sent him broken radios from around the country, and he could often be seen repairing them in the office, between serving customers at Truckee.
Les loved to talk about the early days of Silicon Valley. He was there at the beginning, and, being in the electronics business, knew or met many of the early luminaries including the Varian brothers and Professor Fred Terman, considered the founder of Silicon Valley.
Les had his first heart attack in 1968 while on vacation in Honolulu and ultimately, twenty-nine years later, it was his heart that gave out. The doctors told him he had an enlarged heart, a sign of disease, but, to his many friends around the world there was never any doubt: Les had a big heart of gold.
He was extraordinarily generous to soaring. In addition to his activities at Truckee, Les served on committees for the SSA, wrote columns for Soaring magazine and testified as an expert witness on Doppler Radar. He financed at least four gliders for the NCSA and numerous ones for individuals around Northern California. He had a knack for building a fierce loyalty among his customers at Truckee from all around the world.
Les had been in declining health, especially in his last year. He became tired easily and had significant problems with his joints. In his last year he designed and built the special antenna so our club's modified cordless phone could be used on the flightline. At Byron airport about six weeks prior to his death, I recall him hanging out, enjoying the flying and the people.
At a dinner with Les and Claire about a month before he died, Les was, as always, full of wit and humor. I pulled out a tape recorder to capture the after dinner conversation. "Oh, You don't want to record what I have to say." He chuckled, but kept on talking, kept on telling his stories and re-living what was a very exciting and rewarding life.
My intent was to record his words for transcription into an occasional "Sebald Story" for our club newsletter, but events have interceded and now I'm left with a momento I will cherish.
Good-bye old friend.
- Mike Schneider