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Richard A. Wolters

If Hollywood had scripted the final flight of Richard "Old Dog" Wolters, critics probably would have sniffed that it was, well, too Hollywood.

"Old Dog" died while flying alone and his ultralight plane landed itself with his body, intact and unmarred. The plane was damaged, but observers said they were convinced that a living pilot could have walked away from the unassisted bean field landing.

Dick Wolters, nationally and internationally recognized for his books and magazine articles, was especially known in the soaring community for his delightful and classic book, "Once Upon A Thermal", which chronicles his discovery of and deep love for the sport. He also wrote a picture-filled guide, "The Art and Technique of Soaring", and it was from his immersion in competition soaring that he received the moniker "Old Dog", which was his call sign during contests. The "old" referred to his age of late 40s, and "dog" referred to his love of hunting and show dogs and to the books he wrote about training them.

"Old Dog's" final weeks before his death in 1993 were marked by a renewed enthusiasm for sailplanes and flying. That spark lifted him from a blue funk resulting from an earlier diagnosis of congestive heart failure that, according to an old friend, Dick feared would forever shut him off from the out-of-doors activities that he relished all his life.

One weekday evening in September 1993, Dick entered a small room at the Virginia Aviation Museum in Richmond, looking every bit like the Mark Twain character he portrayed in one-man shows abroad, and surveyed the small room for a place to sit for the lecture. The speaker was to be R.C. Moore, a World War II glider pilot, who was going to talk about his experiences flying CG-A Wacos at Normandy and other major European invasions.

Wolters chose a chair by my wife.

I whispered, "That's Dick Wolters." "Do you want to trade seats?" she asked, unnecessarily. She had read my copy of 'Once Upon A Thermal', probably at my urging, so she knew who Dick Wolters was.

After exchanging seats with Barbara, I introduced myself to Dick, and we fell into an easy conversation about soaring and his books. I mentioned one of my favorite anecdotes in 'Once Upon A Thermal', about the time he landed out in a New Jersey field during a contest and was approached by the farmer-owner before "Old Dog" climbed out of the cockpit. Dick assured him he was okay, but the farmer continued staring at him speechless and with some deep concern on his face. It turned out that the red felt-tipped pen in Dick's shirt pocket was leaking.

Dick laughed. "You know," he said, "I thought about that just a few weeks ago." He said he was driving on an Interstate highway that passed by that very field, and when he saw it, he said he laughed out loud as he recalled the expression on the farmer's face.

Then, Dick told me, with some excitement in his voice, that although he had not flown gliders for nearly twenty years, he was going to do so during the upcoming weekend. I asked where, and he replied, "At a club near Waynesboro."

"That's my club!" I responded. The club is Shenandoah Valley Soaring and it operates out of Eagle's Nest Airport in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, near the Blue Ridge Mountains. (It was from a mountain top meadow, just a few miles from Eagle's Nest, that Richard C. Dupont launched his Bowlus Albatross, by auto tow, and flew to Frederick, MD about 122 miles away. That flight, on September 21, 1933, set a U.S. glider distance record at the time.)

Dick did indeed arrive at Eagle's Nest the following Saturday, and with club instructor Jay Darmstader, he made a flight in our 2-33. He was a bit rusty on tow, Darmstadter recalled later, but it was a good enjoyable flight for both. While hanging out with club members that afternoon, charming them with stories, Wolters watched SVS member Walter Grooms fly onto the field in an ultralight, and his interest in that type of craft immediately perked up. He quizzed Walter at length about ultralights and about requirements - or relative lack thereof - for flying them.

Dick liked what he saw and heard. That previous April, 1993, he was hospitalized for heart problems and he confided to Garvey Winegar, the outdoors writer for The Richmond Times-Dispatch and a long-time friend, that he feared he would no longer be able to take part in activities he loved. But his health improved during the following months, and his September visit to our SVS club at Eagle's Nest helped rejuvenate him.

So impressed was he with Walter's ultralight that within weeks he bought a Titan Tornado ultralight in partnership with Tim Wright, a Richmond-based aviation writer-photographer and pilot (who also flies ultralights). The plane's original owner delivered the Titan to Dick's farm near Richmond on Thursday, went through basic familiarization instructions with him and Tim on Friday, and on Saturday, October 9, 1993, Dick decided late in the afternoon - nobody else was around- to make a flight on his own. It was his final flight.

Winegar, in his Times-Dispatch column the following Friday, wrote about the death of his close friend.

"After 72 interesting summers, if an already-damaged heart decides to call it quits, then the October sky above gentle Hanover County is as good a place as any to be, and better than most," Winegar said.

Wolters' heart gave out while he was flying around his Hanover County farm, in a craft that Winegar said gave "Old Dog" "as much pleasure and excitement as a bike gives a child at Christmas."

Tim Wright said it was "a Disney day, one of those perfect crisp fall days. The trees were colorful, the sky was a deep blue." Tim, who was not present at the time, said Dick apparently couldn't wait to get in the air with the Titan.

It's unclear how long he had been flying, but witnesses said that from about 800 to 900 feet, the plane started making a gentle left-handed spiral to the ground and landed in a bean field about a mile away from Dick's farm. The sun was just setting when the ultralight returned to earth with Dick's body.

"Those of us who knew Dick are of one accord: Given an option, he would have enthusiastically chosen just such a manner in which to go," Winegar wrote in his column later that week.

In the air, around sunset on a perfect autumn day.- an ending that shows truth is sometimes stranger and better that Hollywood's.

Beverly Orndorff, a retired newspaper writer, is a member and instructor at Shenandoah Valley Soaring Club.

Posted: 3/1/2005


Final Glide 

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