Sadly, I’ve received news that Mark Stull, a 59-year-old airplane designer and builder who featured prominently in last month’s Popular Mechanics cover story about do-it-yourself aviation, died on Wednesday, November 16, in a crash near his home in Texas. Stull had just taken off on his first test flight of a new design when the accident occurred. According to a witness, he had climbed to about 50 feet when the aircraft stalled, flipped, and fell to the ground. Stull died instantly.
When I interviewed Stull earlier this year for the article, I was astonished by the risks that he described to me. He was constantly tweaking and modifying his aircraft, and would regularly take them apart and start new designs from scratch. This approach was no doubt fascinating to him intellectually, but it meant that he was constantly flying untested designs whose flying characteristics only became clear once he was in the air.
Stull is not the first aviator I’ve interviewed who has subsequently died in a crash. Last year, I wrote about John Graybill, who died while flying with his wife Dolly in Alaska. I’d profiled Graybill a decade before for National Geographic Adventure. Like Stull, Graybill knew that his passion for flying might someday lead to his death; like Stull, he was fatalistic about his chances.
“I have had many near-death experiences in my life. I am a thrill seeker,” Stull told me earlier this year. “I used to be a white-water kayaker, paddling steep, flooded creeks in Oregon. We used to say, if we don’t almost die, we aren’t having fun. I have no fear of death, but I fear being seriously injured.”
Like Stull and Graybill, I love to fly. Like them, I understand that doing so entails a certain amount of risk, but believe that by staying within certain parameters I can reasonably expect to live a long life. When I hear of an accident like Stull’s or Graybill’s, I have to step back and ask myself: am I really being as safe as I think, or am I deluding myself? Am I taking unnecessary risks? The answer may be no, but I have to ask the question again and again and again.
In cases like this, you often hear people say, “He died doing what he loved.” That may be true, but I can guarantee that in the final seconds, he didn’t love it at all.
UPDATE: Go San Angelo, the website of the San Angelo Standard Times newspaper, has put up a nice piece up about Stull by staff writer Laurel L. Scott.