The first day of a glider race across the United States was marred by the death of a veteran pilot Thursday when he apparently lost control of his sailplane and crashed into the San Gabriel Mountains.
Eugene Carapetyan, 61, of Corona del Mar, was among 45 pilots competing in the "Return to Kitty Hawk," a rare transcontinental race of non-powered aircraft from Los Angeles to Kitty Hawk, N.C. The event commemorates the Wright brothers' first propeller-driven aircraft flight.
Carapetyan, a retired aircraft equipment salesman, had just been towed aloft from a runway in Llano in his glider and released at 2,500 feet when he apparently encountered gusty conditions. His glider crashed just after 4 p.m. in the Angeles National Forest, about seven miles south of Big Rock Creek and Camp Fenner Road, according to the Los Angeles County Fire Authority.
"He was extremely well known and well respected as a pilot," said Fred Robinson, a friend and owner of Great Western Soaring School in Llano, east of Palmdale. "It was windy, gusty and turbulent in the mountains. Normally it's not a problem, but I think he got low in the mountains. I think it occurred a few minutes after release."
The race, joined by fliers from throughout the nation and Europe, is divided into 12 legs, with the first leg ending in Jean, Nev. Although none of the other pilots saw Carapetyan's craft plummet and crash, they knew something was wrong when he failed to arrive in Nevada two hours later and they hadn't heard from him on the radio.
Race contestants radioed back to Robinson to send out a search plane.
Within five minutes, the search plane had spotted the wreck. Paramedics hiked into the brush and found Carapetyan's body.
There was no word Thursday night about whether the race would continue this morning. Contestants are scheduled to make 10 stops across the nation, arriving in Kitty Hawk on July 4.
Commercial glider pilot Jerry Marshall, owner of Las Vegas Soaring Co., was scheduled to begin towing contestants into the air for the second leg of the race around midday today.
"This is very unfortunate, but I'm quite sure the race will continue," Marshall said.
Robinson agreed. "I'm sure they'll want to continue flying to honor their fallen comrade," he said. "I'd be disappointed if they didn't continue."