by Ed Leineweber
It’s been a long, productive and interesting life, filled with twists and turns along the way, like most. But for George S. Carpenter, Spring 2012 brought the possibility of new beginnings, and a chance to take care of unfinished business. You see, George just came through heart surgery that he went into with a 50-50 chance of surviving. Feeling much better now, thank you, George is ready for action. That beautiful, nearly complete Bowers Fly Baby he had to quit work on five years ago after his most recent heart attack might be seen in the skies over Southwest Wisconsin after all.
Originally from New England, George’s first exposure to aviation was not a positive experience. As a young boy of 11, George lived in Natic, Rhode Island. On May 6, 1937, he was out in the yard playing. His mother, listening to the Atwater Kent 5-band short wave radio, received news coverage of the arrival of the German passenger airship, LZ129 Hindenburg, at the Lakehurst, New Jersey, airship aerodrome. From these news reports, George knew the Hindenburg was headed his way.
Then it was there, 300 feet above the ground, landing ropes hanging free in anticipation of mooring, Swastikas emblazoned on its tail; it was an awesome sight for the young boy to behold. He knew that the guy who sent it over was a bum, but he couldn’t help being impressed by the huge, floating behemoth.
Soon after the Hindenburg sailed out of sight, the news coverage turned to horrified descriptions of disaster at the mooring mast. “The Hindenburg has caught fire; it’s burning, crashing!” exclaimed the correspondent, as the scene of indescribable death and destruction unfolded before him. George Carpenter has never forgotten his experiences of that dreadful day in his young life, but May 6, 1937, was not to be the last day the fate of the Hindenburg intersected his own.
Fast forward to 1947. By then George was married to Arline, had worked as an apprentice mechanic at the Quonset Point Naval Air Station in Rhode Island, and had finished a stint with the U.S. Army Air Corps. One day on his way past the New Haven, Connecticut, Municipal Airport, George noticed a Viking Flying Boat Company Kitty Hawk B8 biplane pushed off to the side, half covered by a tarpaulin. It was orange and black, and looked like it was ready for the scrap heap. Before the day was out, George bought that aircraft, including the parts that had been removed and were scattered all around the airport, for the junk price of $250. Shortly thereafter he and his friends hauled the whole works in the back of a barrel truck the 80 miles to his home airport in Coventry, Rhode Island.
The Kitty Hawk B8, N13250, was a 1933 model. It sported a Kinner B-5 125 hp 5-cylinder radial engine, and had two seats – one in front that accommodated two passengers, and one in the back, the pilot’s. Soon, with help from friends and old salts, and lots of work on his own, George had the Kitty Hawk flying.
George logged many happy flying hours in the old biplane before selling it to a friend a couple of years later. But before he and N13250 parted ways, George learned a fascinating and almost eerie fact from the aircraft’s flight logs: on May 6, 1937, as 11-year-old George was transfixed by the reports coming from the Atwater Kent, and starring up in wonder at the mammoth German blimp, this same Kitty Hawk was also in the skies overhead, serving as the photo plane documenting the arrival at Lakehurst of LZ129 Hindenburg.
Nor was this encounter with fate the last he and his Kitty Hawk were to share. George and Arline moved to Sauk County, Wisconsin, in 1948, where she was born and raised, both wishing to escape the East Coast for the quieter life of rural Wisconsin. About a year later they stopped at a root beer stand for refreshments. George noticed that the car behind them had a Rhode Island license plate, the state from which they recently moved. Thinking this an unusual coincidence, George approached the fellow driving, only to find that it was the very person to whom he had sold the Kitty Hawk! In the process of relocating to California, George’s buyer had sold the Kitty Hawk to another lucky pilot.
But this was not to be George’s last meeting with N13250. Many years later the venerable biplane was to find a permanent home on display at the New England Air Museum, in Windsor Locks, Connecticut, where you can see it to this day. http://www.airport-data.com/aircraft/N13250.html About eight years ago George, Arline and his nephew visited his old friend at the museum.
Over the years George Carpenter has owned and flown many other airplanes, including an Aeronca 7AC, which he bought brand new, a Taylorcraft BC12D, a Luscombe 8A, a Piper Colt and a Piper J4E Cub Coupe, among others. He developed a landing strip on his own property and also shared a small strip with friends along the banks of the Wisconsin River. Most of his flying was relatively uneventful, except for a couple of memorable events. One was a forced landing in a Fleet biplane, which was being ferried in from Canada. The Fleet’s Kinner radial engine quit over Willimantic, Connecticut, but was successfully landed in a field.
George was sent to fly the Fleet the rest of the way to its destination. Shortly after takeoff, the Kinner quit again, this time over rocky, forested terrain, and a second forced landing ensued. George landed on a logging road and was able to walk away from the wreckage uninjured, having followed the age-old advice to aim between two trees so the impact forces would be reduced, and the aircraft slowed, as the wings sheared off. (I’ve often heard that bit of advice myself, but never encountered anybody who actually made it work!)
In the years after moving to Wisconsin, George and Arline raised a family of six children, and are now blessed with grand- and great-grand kids as well. During his work years before his retirement in 1981, George worked as a union carpenter, including a stint at Badger Ordinance during the Korean War. Later he ran two successful small businesses, one a small construction company and the second, an engine overhaul shop specializing in Volvo cars. He backed off from flying for a while, during which time he got heavily into the American Stockcar Association racing scene, calling upon his own automotive and metal-working skills, and those of his sons, Roger and Neal.
George was an early member of the Experimental Aircraft Association and attended the fly-ins at Hales Corners and Rockford, before the move to Oshkosh. He remembers well Peter Bowers, and the 1962 EAA design contest that Bowers won with his iconic Fly Baby, a wooden structure, fabric covered, open cockpit, folding-wing, monoplane design. George bought the plans from Pete shortly after they came out, and always intended to build a Fly Baby for himself.
The opportunity presented itself following his retirement, and George hit it hard, building up a beautifully crafted airframe with many innovations of his own design, which he believes improves the finished product considerably. George was well on his way to completion when a series of heart attacks began to take him down. The last one, which struck in 2008, nearly finished him off. He hasn’t worked on his project since then. But things might be changing soon.
When I learned of George’s unfinished Fly Baby project recently, and tracked it down in his shop west of Sauk City, we didn’t think he would be able to walk from his house to his shop out back. He did make it, however, and we talked and struck up a friendship. George shared some of the details of his medical situation, and his desire to be accepted for a very risky heart valve replacement surgery. Only the sixth patient to undergo this procedure in Wisconsin, he viewed this as his only chance.
Despite his age, George was deemed an acceptable candidate for the procedure, which was performed in April at the University of Wisconsin Hospital in Madison. I think the doctors realized that George still possessed a zest for life, and was determined to survive, if given the chance. When I visited George at the hospital a couple of days after the procedure, it was readily apparent they made a good decision, betting on George. Now, with his new lease on life, George Carpenter is ready for life’s next challenge or adventure. He talks of driving his beautifully restored Volvo 544 Sport out west, maybe to see the Rockies again.
And then there is the Fly Baby, still out in the shop, so near completion. Maybe George Carpenter will finally get to finish that beautiful manifestation of his skill, enthusiasm and sense of adventure. Who knows, maybe he will even captain his own ship again someday, and drop in at a local fly-in near you. Don’t count George Carpenter out!