Elgin Wells is not crazy.
Spend a little time with the man, though, and you might wonder. It’s hard not to when you see the gray-headed Peachtree Corners grandfather strap a parachute over his jumpsuit and depart into the night sky, his custom “Starjammer” tumbling through the atmosphere like a UFO coming in for a crash landing or a flaming Christmas tree hurled from the heavens.
But this is Elgin Wells. He likes strange aircraft, aerobatic flying and LED lights on his plane, and, no, he is not crazy. He’s just himself, a longtime Gwinnett County resident and jazz musician turned modern day Wright brother.
Over the course of 15 years, he designed and built his own innovative plane and now dazzles bystanders in a way that Orville and Wilbur might have if they’d only had a Pink Floyd concert in mind when they pioneered aviation.
The invention has found Wells small fame on the airshow circuit.
The Starjammer has 255 lights and a 4,000-watt sound system, all controlled by pre-programmed performance sequences invented and plugged into an on-board laptop by Wells. It might not be as important to history as the flying machines the North Carolina brothers came up with, but it does turns some heads.
That was clear last week at the Cherokee County Airport in Ball Ground. Wells goes there because his tricks aren’t allowed over the Gwinnett airport in the more-populated Lawrenceville area.
Wells takes off, leaving a creeping white snake of smoke trailing behind, and pulls stunt after stunt. He flies upside down, climbs straight up until his engine seems sure to stall, turning wing over wing.
As he flies, people stop all around. Workers near the airport stop. People driving by stop. Everyone looks toward the sky as the peculiar plane dances.
Wells is used to the attention. He’s been getting it since 2010 when the Starjammer first took flight and he began to treat airshow audiences to the marvel.
He’s also used to the questions about the machine, one of the most common being: Why?
The answer is complicated. To understand, you have to go further into who Wells is.
First, he’s wanted to fly since he was a child. His father was an air squadron commander in World War II and a commercial pilot for Delta. The younger Wells, though, had his sights on aerobatics. When the father found out, he sold the plane so the boy wouldn’t hurt himself.
Decades later, Wells fell back into flying and found himself drawn to night airshows. They were fantastical displays but had one problem, according to Wells.
“Most of the guys that were going to fly airshows at night were using gunpowder, pyrotechnics, big sparklers and conventional fireworks,” Wells said. “I did not want to put gunpowder on my airplane” because because of the fire hazard.
No, Elgin Wells is not crazy.
He decided to use lights instead. To accomplish the task, he enlisted the help of friends from around the metro area and spent many late nights at the Gwinnett County Airport plugging away at the unusual goal.
The simple answer of why Wells devoted so much time over 15 years is that he likely would’ve been up all night doing something anyway. He doesn’t sleep much.
In addition to his work on the Starjammer, the 65-year-old boasts a catalog of 13 albums and has toured around the world with his music. He runs a video production company, plays 20 instruments, builds his own guitars and violins, does experimental carbon fiber work, gives motivational speeches, and on and on.
He says he can’t help but stay busy.
“Life is fascinating,” he said. “I’m absolutely in love with being alive and in the process. Everything is just so freaking interesting to me. I love people. I love things. I love ideas. I stay fired up pretty much all the time. It’s hard to find a day when I’m not excited about something.”
No, he’s not crazy at all.