Phil Bolger, An influential and open mind

Builders,

When I am asked who was the largest single influence on my work with Corvairs, the answer invariably surprises, because Philip C. Bolger was not an aviator, he was one of the worlds most prolific boat designers.

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He was an iconoclast, a man of very strong personal philosophy, a first rate historian, and a very entertaining writer.  He designed more than 600 boats, several hundred of these were specifically designed for amateur plans construction. Had his talent been directly applied to homebuilt aircraft, the EAA might be far larger than it is now.  It would certainly have more options than we have today.

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Bolger’s thinking and method of design was unlike anyone else: when designing a boat, he often wrote a short story, something he called a ‘use scenario’, and this wasn’t a mission statement of facts, it was a dramatic piece, focused on the mindset, expectations, adventures and experiences of the people in the event. Only then, did he go back and design a boat that would fit into his story.

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This is the exact opposite of a plane designer like Rutan, who so loved canards, that he designed every plane as a canard, and suggested them no matter how poorly they served applications like STOL planes.  Conversely, Bolger had no loyalty to any layout, he was so well versed in all types of design, the best boat emerged, not just an ill fitting permutation of a single layout.

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I built an number of Bolger Designs over the years, including a 29′ “Tennessee”  The man detested speaking on the phone, but he was a prolific corresponder, and he would return lengthily handwritten answer letters to any well thought out question. His answers would include references to everything fro Thor Heyerdahl to Voltaire.  Over the years I read every book he wrote, many, many times over., and built up a little stack of letters from him. Boats were his life, but he loved planes also, I once noticed that he had donated a lot of rare photos to the EAA museum.  He was not a zealot, his life was broad.

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In 2009 he walked out into his yard and killed himself with a .45 automatic. Both his father and grandfather has succumbed to horrible deaths from Alzheimer’s. Phil was 83, and had undeniable symptoms. It was the last act of a man who defined himself as his ability to think clearly. The last letter I got from him was written shortly before the end. It contains no trace of the decay he dreaded.

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-ww.

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Phil Bolger

Phil Bolger in 1949

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The best book Phil Bolger ever wrote was 1994’s “Boats With an Open Mind.” It doesn’t matter if you are thinking about designing boats, planes, houses or cars, the book is a priceless examination of how personal values are woven into the best designs at the DNA level. Warning, after you read this you will no longer be able to tolerate mass produced consumer items aimed at appeasing idiots with short attention spans. Be prepared to look at everything you use, from vehicles to furniture to art, in a different light.  Among designers of the last 50 years, he is the ultimate advocate of simplicity. The common connection is that sailing small boats at sea is unforgiving, just like flying.

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You can read Bolger’s New York Times Obituary here:

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/01/us/01bolger.html?_r=0

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For builders who are wondering, yes I write many of these stories months or years earlier, and often publish them when some event makes the subject relevant. This is  true of biographies of people I found particularly important in my life.  Today we are working to prep for CC #35 in four days, and I brought this story, and the one on Bernard Fall out of incubation to provide food for thought while we are working long hours in the shop.

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A Real Journalist, Bernard Fall

Builders:

From my previous story, CNN and Wolf Blitzer: “Flammable Helium” , people might assume that I have no respect for journalists. This isn’t actually so, I have great respect for the craft, I just can’t stand entertainment celebrities pretending to be journalists.

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I have few redeeming features, but one is that I am particularly well read on 20th century conflicts and political movements. Before I was in aviation, I earned a degree in Political Science from St. Leo University. Most people hardly pick up a book as an adult, but I am a prolific reader.

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Much of what is known about 20th century history is due to the work of real journalists like Upton Sinclair, H.L Mencken, Edward Murrow (see: Thanksgiving) Eddie Adams, Robert Capa and Dickey Chapelle. But if I had to pick one journalist that captured my respect, it is Bernard Fall.

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 Fall with Americans In Vietnam.

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Fall was considered to be an expert on French indo China, and he devoted much of his life to accurately reporting and writing books about both the French and US experiences there, in hopes of avoiding the catastrophe that came anyway.

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For contrast, consider todays best known “Foreign Correspondent”  Andersen Cooper.  He is the son of uber-wealthy heiress Gloria Vanderbilt. He was a child and youth model, and attended the most elitist schools in New York, grew up surrounded by wealth and celebrity. On the other hand, Fall was from Austria, but his family fled  to France to evade fascism. After the Fall of France, his father joined the resistance, was captured, and tortured to death by the Gestapo. His mother was sent to Auschwitz, where she was one of the 1.1 million murdered. Bernard evaded capture, and began fighting with the resistance. At age 16 Cooper is partying a exclusive clubs in Manhattan; at 16 Fall is in combat against Nazis and executing collaborators. The former is the training of a celebrity, the latter is that of a combat journalist.

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Fall emigrated to the US and became a well known author and college professor. He spent many years in South East Asia, and was an acknowledged expert in the cultures. He had personally interviewed Ho Chi Minh.  To the great cost of our country, the Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson administrations chose to ignore Fall’s warnings. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover painted Fall as a French spy, and they believed him without any evidence.

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Fall continued anyway, covering the war from the front lines. On February 21st 1967, while operating with Marines, he stepped on a land mine and was killed. He was a husband, father of three, and his life ended at age 40.

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You can see an old film of his widow reading the letter he wrote addressed “send only on case of my death” at this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BpNE4p8nmnQ

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Fall’s two best known works are “Hell in a Very Small Place” and “Street Without Joy.”  Andersen Cooper’s best known work is co-hosting the broadcast of New Years eve with comic Kathy Griffin. In all fairness, Cooper is a much better celebrity than Fall was.

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In the story: Thought for The Day – Have we squandered the great gift? I pointed out that celebrated American writers Neil Sheehan, and David Halberstam were both tricked by a North Vietnamese spy posing as a journalist. When you read their work, you get the impression most of it was filed from a hotel bar, not the front lines. They were easy to fool because unlike Fall, they were never soldiers, nor did they speak the language. It is worth noting that Robert Capa, Dicky Chapelle and Bernard Fall were all killed by land mines, a fate that Neil Sheehan, and David Halberstam  were in little danger of in Saigon bars, and something that seems very unlikely to befall Andersen Cooper  on New years eve in Times Square.

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-ww.

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