Friday, September 28, 2018

George Morse Jr. Gone West - Farewell To The Designer Of The Prowler Aircraft And A Prolific Experimental Builder

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

George Morse Jr.
Gone West 
Farewell To
The Designer Of The Prowler Aircraft
And A
Prolific Experimental Aircraft Builder

It is with great sadness and a heavy heart that I announce to the Prowler Aviation community, and the experimental aviation community, that the designer of the Prowler Aircraft (and founder of the original Prowler Aviation) has passed away on June 27th, 2018.  He was 90 years old.  George had not been feeling well and ultimately passed from sepsis associated with his illness.

Here is the program from his funeral service on Sep 14th:

George Morse Jr.    9/2/1927 to 6/27/2018
(The reason for the nearly 3 month delay in his funeral service was due the the 2018 Carr Fire in northern CA.  George wanted to be buried in the Northern CA Veteran's Cemetery with his wife of 65 years, Kathleen.  The fire burned literally up to the perimeter of the cemetery.  The associated mandatory evacuations forced all the services scheduled at the cemetery to get delayed and re-scheduled.)

The last time I saw George was when we had lunch together sometime in very late May.  He seemed fine then and we talked about Prowlers and such the way we always did.  I updated him on the status of all the current builders and owners.  He was always interested to know what was happening with all the Prowler airplanes and their builders and owners.  To me, he never really seemed to age.  He pretty much always looked like he did on the very first day that I met him almost 13 years ago.  Here is a picture of him and Kathleen in Oct 2005 on the day we rolled into Redding with a Penske truck full of everything we owned:

George and Kathleen are survived by their 5 children and many grandchildren (outlined in the funeral program above).  The family has been awesome to me and has entrusted me with numerous Prowler related items that belonged to Kathleen and George.  They have given me hundreds of Prowler photos, several magazines with articles featuring the Prowler, dozens of newspaper clippings, several framed photos of Prowlers and the "Holy Grail" - George's bronze Lindy Award that he won at EAA in 1986 when he took his original Prowler to Oshkosh.  Check this out!:
So cool!  I am so flattered and appreciative that the family has entrusted me to keep this award with the new Prowler Aviation!  This is an incredible part of the history of Prowler Aviation and I am so happy to be able to keep it with all the other Prowler history that I've collected over the years.  Thank you all, so much!

I never really comprehended the depth of George's experimental aircraft work.  It wasn't until I was going through the 100's of pictures from the family that I saw how many different experimental aircraft that he either built or worked on in some way.  George either built, or re-built, several airplanes in his life.  Here is an RV that he worked on in the driveway:
And, there was a BD-4:
Of course, there was the Steen Skybolt:
And, there may have been more that I'm not yet aware of.  However, the Skybolt was the airplane that led him to develop an alternative engine to power his airplane.  Being very practical, George was just put off by the extreme cost of certified engines.  So, he set out to convert an auto engine that could power his Skybolt.  The result was the Olds F-85 aluminum block engine with a gearbox that he designed to fit on the front of the engine and the back side of the engine adapted to turn various accessories (distributors, pumps, etc.).  Here is what it looked like installed on N85GM:
This turned out to be quite a successful design and he ended up starting a company called AutoAviation and building approximately 30 of these system that he sold to Skybolt builders and others.
In fact, George's Skybolt was built in 1979 and was still flying in this 1997 article.  Check it out here:

Here is a later version of the same engine design, except that this used a Rodeck block engine that would eventually power the 1st Prowler:

All the time while he was working on the AutoAviation project, George was planning and designing a new airplane to put his AutoAviation V8 engine into.  He explains in a promotional video how he came to conceive the looks of the Prowler and how he incorporated some of the looks of the P51 Mustang, Spitfire, P-40 Warhawk and the Me109 into an airplane that looked like a WWII fighter, but wasn't trying to look like any one specific WWII fighter; a very clever design philosophy!  See it here:
With a plan in mind, George set out to construct his 1st Prowler.  Here some pictures of this initial construction at his shop in Watsonville:
Notice the wire he used to silhouette what the final shape of the Prowler would be (below):
Interestingly, I think he built this airplane right side up so that he could take his vision of what he wanted the Prowler to look like and accurately cast it into the real thing. (Later, production Prowlers were built in a jig with the wing oriented leading edge down and trailing edge up.  Also, with adequate overhead space, the firewall and cockpit floor could be attached to the wing before removal from the jig).  But, for this 1st Prowler, he could envision things more easily with the plane sitting on the tables he built:
Ultimately, this beautiful aircraft was the result of years of George's creativity, craftiness, vision, determination, dedication and hard work:
What a awesome aircraft!  It was a real head turner!  It's easy to see why he won the Lindy award that I mentioned earlier!  After winning that award at EAA '86 and with the huge amount of positive feedback received from 1000's of letters requesting information about the Prowler, George decided to try to make and sell the Prowler as a kit aircraft.  Prowler Aviation was born!

After deciding to produce Prowler kits, George started searching for a place to set up shop and look for people to help him start Prowler Aviation.  He was not happy with the cost of renting shop space in Santa Cruz/Watsonville/Salinas area.  But, he found that he could get shop space for 1/2 the cost up in Redding CA.  They decided that George would move there to start Prowler Aviation and Kathleen would stay behind and keep working at her current job. 
George ended up renting 6,000 sq ft of shop space right next to the Redding Airport.  On 3/1/89 he moved Prowler Aviation into 3707 Meadow View Dr. in Redding.  Here are a few pics of the shop at various times during the production of the original 15 kits:

Eventually, George and Kathleen bought a home in Redding and she moved up to join George there when she finished working.  The company went on to produce 15 Prowler kits.  Of those 15 kits, 4 of those kits have been assembled and have flown.  One kit is now close to it's 1st flight.  One kit is mostly assembled, but not actively being worked on to complete it.  Currently, there are 3 kits that are actively being built.  There are 3 kits are currently owned, but not being worked on.  (The remaining 3 kits I have lost track of and not yet located).

Eventually, George had to retire from the experimental aircraft business and he closed down Prowler Aviation.  But, retirement could not slow him down.  He decided to take a partial kit he had (Kit #5) and build one more Prowler using the left over inventory that he had from Prowler Aviation.  George built N611GM and it got it's experimental certificate in 2001.  This was George's 3rd Prowler that he built and it was the one that he was most fond of:
After buying Prowler Aviation from George, he still did not slow down!  He then turned his attention to rebuilding a car that he found that he always had a passion for - a 1961 Oldsmobile Starfire convertible.  He started working on this car shortly after I moved to Redding.  He completed the restoration in late 2007 but continued to work on the car and fix things on the car up until very recently.  Here are a few pics of George, Kathleen and his Starfire:

I learned something from George around this time.  Several times I found him at his hangar laying on the cold, wet concrete floor under his Olds Starfire when he was 80+ years old!!  If I suggested in any way that I could help him - he'd say "I can do it!"  And, often it was followed with him saying;  "I  gotta have something to do.  If I sit on the couch and watch TV, I'll die!"  I believe he was right!  The lesson I took from this is that everyone has to have a reason to get up each morning and put their boots on and get out and do something.  His activity kept him going and kept him feeling alive - especially after Kathleen's passing 3-1/2 years ago (which left such a large gap in his life).

George was a complex guy.  I discovered at his funeral (from a story told by his son, Ray) that  George really only had an 8th grade education.  He could be stubborn to a fault, and this is principally why he only completed school through 8th grade - when he had every opportunity to compete high school (there is a longer, interesting back story).   Despite this, he went on to accomplish many amazing feats in his lifetime, ultimately designing and flying his own aircraft powered by his own auto-engine conversion design!!  He obviously could learn.  But, it had to be done George's way!

The world of experimental aviation has lost a staunch supporter and a real "can do" individual who did just that - he got out and did it.  He did what he wanted and accomplished myriad things that most of us just dream about.  No doubt, to be sure, George was also a dreamer!  But, his dreams were not a boundary - they were merely a starting line!  He took his dreams and make them real!  The world of experimental aviation would not be where it is today were it not, at least in part, for the accomplishments of Mr. George Morse Jr.!

Farewell, my friend.  Your legacy will live on through your family, friends and Prowler Aviation!

Here, in no particular order, are several more pictures that I have found of George and his airplanes: