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Flying Was Glider Pilot's Passion

Man's friends struggle with grief, questions after fatal crash at start of a cross-country race.

June 21, 2003|Allison Hoffman and Mitchell Landsberg | Times Staff Writers

In a glider, there is no motor, no vibration, no sound.

"You become a bird," said pilot Larry Tuohino. "I have flown with flocks of sea gulls, pelicans, hawks. They look at me in the cockpit, and we fly together." His voice dropped to a hush. "You can't walk away from it," he said.

Gene Carapetyan had walked away from the other great passion of his life, sailing, after navigating halfway around the world by the stars and a sextant. Flying was different. "It was what he loved to do," recalled his daughter, Page Carapetyan. "He didn't have to talk about it. It was all over him."

On Thursday, Carapetyan had set off on the first leg of a once-in-a-lifetime event, the Return to Kitty Hawk cross-country glider race from Llano, near Palmdale, to Kitty Hawk, N.C. But within minutes of his release from a tow plane, something went wrong.

It would be hours before anyone found him, his limp body still in the cockpit of his craft where it had crashed into a ridge a few miles south of Llano.

As the race came to a one-day halt Friday, friends and relatives of the 61-year-old Carapetyan struggled with grief and a thousand questions about what caused his glider to crash.

"We're all completely befuddled," said Dan Gudgel, the tow pilot who had lifted Carapetyan's glider to 2,000 feet before releasing it at 1 p.m. Thursday. The last words he heard from Carapetyan were "One Echo Charlie, off tow," to which he replied, "Have a safe flight." Gudgel didn't see what happened after that.

"Some people are foolish when they fly, but this gentleman was not one of them," he said.

Glider planes are motorless crafts, usually made out of fiberglass, that are towed into the air and then released. Pilots pursue thermal updrafts, often indicated by fluffy cumulus clouds, and glide from one to the next seeking "lift" to speed their planes. Thursday had been a perfect day for soaring.

Louanne Peck, Carapetyan's companion, had watched his glider plane get towed up. She then drove off in the crew trailer across the desert toward Jean, Nev., where the fliers were scheduled to land in the late afternoon.

She waited to hear Carapetyan radio in to confirm that he was aloft and racing, but heard only the patter of calls between the members of other crews. By the time she got to Barstow, her concern had grown to worry and she stopped to call his cell phone, thinking he might have landed out of radio contact. By the time Peck reached Nevada, she said, "Planes were already landing in Jean, but not my Gene."

Carapetyan was an adventurer who, within minutes of meeting her at a singles event at the Long Beach Single Sailors' Club in 1987, invited her to sail to the South Pacific with him. "He didn't realize it had been one of my life dreams," Peck said. The pair spent two years journeying from Long Beach to Tahiti and back in a 38-foot sloop. Within a few years, though, Carapetyan had grown bored with sailing and decided to devote himself to gliding.

Flying was his first love, anyway. He had flown planes for more than 40 years, according to close friend Hugh Laughlin, and made his living selling airplanes and aviation equipment in Phoenix before retiring to Long Beach in the mid-1980s. There would be no Barcalounger retirement for him. He moved to Hawaii, then to Corona del Mar.

"He wasn't the type to sit around and wait for a hot toddy," said Laughlin. "He had to be active, doing something all the time."

By early this season, Carapetyan had received a Diamond Badge for soaring more than 500 kilometers (310 miles) in one flight, and had hopes for earning the 1,000 Kilometer Badge before the end of the season. "There's a small group of top competitive [glider] pilots in the world, and Gene was in the stratosphere," Tuohino said.

When word of Carapetyan's disappearance reached Llano, the flight team at the Crystal Gliderport sent up a search plane along the race route. The wreckage of Carapetyan's plane, easy to spot with its 49-foot wingspan, was quickly found in the eastern foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains.

The National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration sent investigators to determine what caused Carapetyan's glider to crash.

The investigators retrieved a flight data recorder, according to Fred Robinson, who runs the flight school at Crystal Gliderport. The Los Angeles County coroner's office retrieved Carapetyan's body late Friday afternoon.

Laughlin, who started flying with Carapetyan during their days at Jensen High School in Scottsdale, Ariz., did the final safety check on Carapetyan's German-made Schleicher craft before he took off. "There are only four critical things to check, and they were all bolted together," he said. He dismissed the likelihood of pilot error, saying Carapetyan was too experienced for that. The only cause that made sense to him was a medical emergency, although he said Carapetyan was in good health.

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