"I have spent my whole life in aviation. I love
gliding and soaring."
So wrote Donald S. Mitchell, a man
whose life reflects an obsession with flight, a persistent
dream that a man could, with only the slightest assistance
from technology, ascend to the sky on winds of desire.
It would have delighted Don Mitchell if the wood,
foam and fabric of his farsighted creations could
be shaken off and the pilot spread his arms and spin
upward in the guise of his true capacity --a homesick
angel. Certainly all his life Mitchell relentlessly
displayed this same degree of homesickness for the
blue vault of heaven.
Don Mitchell was born in Scotland in
1915. His parents immigrated to the United States
when he was seven and during his school years he fell
in love with gliders, building his first one while
attending Alameda High School under the tutelage of
an ex-WW1 flyer. Later he became a student at the
Boeing School of Aeronautics in Oakland, California.
In the thirties Mitchell worked for
United Airlines at Oakland and Fresno as a radio operator
and Station Attendant. But soaring was now deep in
his blood and he quit his job to move to San Fernando
where he sought out Hawley Bowlus and implored him
to teach him to design and build gliders and sailplanes.
He trained under Bowlus for the next six years and
for a total of eleven years, worked with him as his
right-hand man on many projects. Together they built
the Baby Albatross sailplane, which had its maiden
flight in February of 1938. They began to produce
plans and kits of the Baby Albatross. During that
year they turned out eight kits, two of which were
sent to Durban, South Africa.
As an experiment, Bowlus and Mitchell
attached a four cycle, 16 horse power "Radio
Plane" engine on the front end of the Baby and
flew it at Rosamond Dry Lake.
Along with Al Essig, Bowlus and Mitchell
began Bowlus Sailplane Inc.toward the end of 1938.
In the early forties, Mitchell designed
and began to build a 50 foot, two place, retractable
landing gear flying wing glider. He devised a moveable
surface he called a Stabilator, which was a combination
aileron and elevator, rendering stability without
the necessity of a tail. During this time he continued
kit production of the Baby Albatross as well as participating
in public demonstrations and Air Shows. During this
time he was appointed Soaring Editor of Western Flying
Mitchell left Bowlus Sailplanes to
teach aircraft welding at Aero I.T.I., located at
Grand Central Air Terminal near Glendale. Then he
went to Timm Aircraft to mold the fuselage of an all-wood
trainer for the military, later assisting the FAA
with its static testing of the aircraft.
In early 1942 Timm Aircraft received
a contract to build the Waco Glider CG-4A. Mitchell
was sent to two furniture manufacturers in Los Angeles
to organize the construction of the CG-4A wings. Weber
Showcase, one of the manufacturers, hired Mitchell
to take charge of their production. While all this
was going on, he still found time to join Bowlus in
the evening and weekends to work on the designing
and building of two trainer gliders as well as a scale
prototype of the Cargo Glider XGC-16.
During the first part of 1943 Mitchell
left Weber and rejoined Hawley Bowlus to work full
time on the XGC-16 prototype, while still giving some
time to his Flying Wing. Al Criz and Hawley organized
and formed the General Airborne Transport Company,
because of military interest in the Cargo Glider.
Then GATC landed the contract for three XCG's and
Mitchell was made Director of Projects.
While Mitchell worked in this capacity
he found time to build a scale model of the XGC, converted
to use his external stabilators. The plane was successfully
tested over the dry lakes.
The military cancelled the Cargo Glider
Project. Bowlus and Mitchell began work on what later
became the Dragonfly. In 1945 Nelson Aircraft was
formed to meet the perceived market for power gliders.
Mitchell participated in the FAA flight certification
tests of the Dragonfly. Then Bolwus appointed him
Supervisor of Production.
In April of 1946 Mitchell completed
construction of his Flying Wing. The FAA isssued an
Experimental Airworthiness Number for it. The wing
was flown as a glider by Mitchell, Bolwus and Paul
Tuntland at the dry lakes. Then Mitchell mounted a
Nelson 2-cycle engine on it and flew it as a power
After the war, depression hit the aviation
industry and Dragonfly production stopped. The San
Fernando shop was closed up and most employees laid
off. Mitchell joined Ted Nelson and Harry Perl in
San Leandro to work on a design for a new power glider.
The first prototype proved disappointing and they
began on a second power glider project. While Mitchell
worked on this project, he began on his own time to
construct a new flying wing glider, which he called
the Osprey. This was a single place, fifty foot span
all-wood wing. He employed his stabilator external
surface control system.
In 1950 Mitchell tested the Osprey
at Hayward Airport, making several low flights to
caliberate the controls. A short time after this the
building where the Osprey was stored burned to the
ground, abruptly ending its promising career.
Mitchell threw himself into designing
and building the Nimbus series of sailplanes. The
Nimbus III won the High Performance Sailplane Design
Award at the 23rd National Soaring Contest in Gande
Prairie, Texas. It also won the Hawley Bowlus Helm's
Award at the San Diego Soaring Meet at Torres Pines.
Mitchell kept busy during the later
sixties and early seventies, effecting repairs and
custom modifications on a series of different aircraft.
Then in 1976 he built the first Mitchell Wing hang
glider, the first rigid-wing, three-axis control hang
glider. This ship had such outstanding characteristics
that after its first public flight Mitchell received
orders to build twelve of them. George Worthington
bought one and went on to set three world records
Business was getting so hectic that
Mitchell organized Mitchell Wing Inc. at Porterville,
California. Orders came in from all over the world.