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THE LITTLE BIG MAN
By W.G. Hill
Those of us who knew Al Santilli well tended to think of him as the Albuquerque Soaring Club's Yoda. All wise and imbued with the ability to levitate, albeit with the assistance of his trusty Libelle. All knowing and somewhat vertically challenged. By the time he reached his nineties, he was less than five feet tall.
Because Al was of Italian descent, he gesticulated with - what else - his hands which were totally out of portion with the rest of his body. Those knurled fingers could often be found with a piece of tow rope in them as Al wove weak links for the club. It has been said that during the course of teaching Mark Mocho how to splice a weak link that Al did so with the rope behind his back.
Al's flying career goes back to the mid ‘30's where he was a frequent fixture at the national soaring contests in Elmira, New York. His class "B" Glider license, number 114, (what you have in your pocket is not a license, but a certificate), was signed by Orville Wright.
Behind that owl like stare was a mind that forgot nothing! Ash Collins remembered a day when some Japanese visitors were attempting to communicate with Ash when in walked Al. He extended a hand in greeting and then started to converse with our guests in Japanese! Sixty plus years ago during WW II Al had spent some time in the pacific theater and had become fluent in that language.
During the summer of 2006 we were visited by Holger Weitzel and his wife who were trekking across the US with their motor glider in tow. Bob Hudson was in the throws of introducing Al to the Weitzels when Al initiated a conversation with the couple in fluent German. Of course he also spoke Italian. Yet another language Al knew well was that of Morse code. He was certified at a rate of 40 words per minute.
Al obtained his engineering degree from Brown University in Boston. Being an engineer requires a very linear mind set combined with a "Mr. Spok" like penchant for a logical overview. Of course Al was all that. You had only to take your check ride with Al who was a Designated Pilot Examiner to discover this was so. Al's oral exams were known for morphing into a lecture on minutia that may or may not be related to the knowledge requirements for the license sought. Eight hours of oral exam/ground school were the norm with Al, but you were a good deal more informed than when you started the exam.
Al was not all linear in his thinking; in that diminutive chest beat the heart of an artist. Al seemed to have the ability to create lift where none existed. He would take a tow mid afternoon and would not be seen back at the airport until all had landed. If you were to join him in a thermal, you could expect a running critique of your flying/soaring ability until such a time as he out climbed you and left you wondering what had just happened. Al was also the recipient of the FAA's Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award, which, among other things requires Fifty years of flying. Rumor has it that the women who work in the Albuquerque Flight Standards District Office had something to do with the award as Al would frequent their office in order to flirt with them and tell them stories.
A few days after Al passed away I was on a cross country flight and very low but not too far from a dirt strip. I had dumped my water ballast and was about to enter the pattern for landing when BANG! I was smacked in the rear by a ten knot thermal. Bear in mind that until that time all I had encountered was nothing but sink for the last ten minutes. I rolled into the updraft and watched the averager park at ten knots. There was just no reason for the lift to have been as consistent or strong as it was. As I wound my way back up I had a feeling that I was not alone and so asked out loud, "Al, is that you?"
I met Al in 1976 when I joined the Albuquerque Soaring Club. I had sold my trusty standard Libelle in order to purchase a 15 meter sailplane. Al had flown with me in one of the club's two place gliders as I had expressed a desire to assist with the club's instructional program. Apparently Al deemed me worthy as not too long after flying with me, he offered me the use of his Libelle. He knew that I had been pining for a single place of my own and so reasoned that with a modicum of Glasflugel time under my belt, I could be trusted with his personal steed. I was somewhat taken aback as I had never seen anyone but Al fly that Libelle. He didn't have to ask me twice.
By the time Al, (who's name can be found listed in the Soaring Hall of Fame), finally gave up flying he had reached the age of ninety-three. I think the thing that finally grounded Al was an issue with balance. He had fallen a number of times and had become confined to a bed at an assisted living facility.
Up until that time, Al's SOP was to drag his Libelle out of the club hangar without assistance of any kind. Tow it out to the runway and takeoff for the better part of the day.
Al had become a fixture as well as an integral part of the club's collective personality. We all knew that in the not too distant future, Al would no longer be a presence on the airfield. We often speculated that one day Al would take a tow only to have the Libelle return to earth without him. I guess in a way, that's what has happened.
I fondly remember a day long ago when a TV crew came out to the airport looking for Al. I was standing beside him when the camera man asked me where he might find Mr. Santilli. I put my arm around his shoulder, pulled off his cap, kissed him on the top of his head and said, "This is Mr. Santilli." Al just looked up at me and rolled his eyes. I'm going to miss that look.