Elgin Wells was known as high-flying aerobatic entertainer to some and a showman and teacher who could play more than a dozen instruments, but Eddie Owen knew him first and foremost as a friend.
Owen had known Wells, who lived in Peachtree Corners, since the mid-1970s when they met through a mutual friend. Over the years, Wells became a popular teacher at Eddie Owen Presents at the Red Clay Music Foundry, and he performed during Duluth Mayor Nancy Harris’ last two State of the City addresses at the Foundry.
“He was just a top notch guy,” Owen said. “They didn’t come any better as a teacher, an entertainer, a musician, a composer and as a friend. He was just top notch in all of those areas.”
The longtime friendship made the news that Wells was killed in a plane crash in China while training for an upcoming air show extra hard for Owen to hear. Wells’ wife Lisa called Owen and once they connected, she delivered the news.
XinhuaNet reported Wells’ plane — “Starjammer” — crashed at Shangjie Airport in the city of Zhengzhou in central China on Wednesday. He had been on a training flight for the Zhengzhou Air Show 2018, which is scheduled to open today, according to the news outlet.
Chinese officials are reportedly investigating the crash to determine what caused it.
“It was horrible to hear,” Owen said. “I had the opportunity to speak to Lisa, his wife, about it yesterday and I’m just devastated by it. He had such passion for flying and the acrobatics and he was very good at that. He was so excited for the China trip and for what it could lead to.”
The son of a World War II air squadron pilot turned commercial pilot, Wells told the Daily Post in 2015 that he knew he wanted to be a pilot when he was a kid and learned to fly when he was 18.
“My dad was a real pilot: He was a P-38 squadron commander in the Pacific in World War II and after that he was a career pilot with Delta,” Wells said in a video interview. “When I turned 18, he said, ‘Do you want to learn how to fly?’ And I go, ‘Yeah,’ and so he had a friend of his teach me how to fly.
“Unfortunately, the trainer that be bought for me to fly was an aerobatic trainer and all I did was fly upside down and gauge the gyros, and when he found out I was doing that, he sold it so I didn’t fly from the time that I was 21 until I was 40.”
His “Starjammer” plane — which is covered in 255 LED lights and a 4,000-watt sound system — was flown for the first time in 2010. Over the years, his aerobatic stunts have earned him some notoriety on the air show circuit.
He chose to cover his plane in LEDs because they were a safer alternative to the flashy techniques night airshow pilots had been using.
In 2015, he said not having fireworks on his plane allowed him to do “much more aggressive aerobatics” during air shows.
“In other words, pretty much any maneuver I can do in a daytime air show, I can do in a nighttime air show,” he said. “Everybody just thinks it’s as cool as can be.”
Experimental Aircraft Association Chapter 690 Treasurer Randy Epstein said chapter members who gathered at their hangar at Briscoe Field for their usual Thursday night dinner were trying to process the news out of China.
Wells was “a member and good friend” of the chapter, said Epstein, who is also a former president of the chapter. His band sometimes provided entertainment at chapter events and he did several presentations at the chapter’s summer camps.
“He’s been doing aerobatics for I don’t know how long and he’s been in emergency type situations in the past that he handled very well … We’re all kind of in shock about the whole thing and don’t really understand it at this point,” Epstein said.
But Wells’ work as an aerobatic pilot was only one side of him.
Wells was also a jazz musician who released more than a dozen albums. He gave private music and songwriting lessons at Eddie Owen Presents at the Red Clay Music Foundry.
The last time Wells was at Red Clay Music Foundry was a week ago and although he was expected to be gone for an extended period of time, Owen said his students were looking forward to his return.
“Almost every one of his students had decided to just wait until he came back to resume lessons,” Owen said. “They weren’t going to pick up other teachers.”
He led the Be Duluth Band for Harris’ talk-show style 2017 and 2018 State of the City Addresses, playing flute and guitar among other instruments.
“He was probably one of the more talented musicians I’ve ever known,” Owen said. “He plays like 14 instruments, and he’s a composer and a writer, and a good showman on stage.
“(He was also) probably one of our absolute favorite teachers. He taught many things. He taught cello and violin, he taught bass and horns — because he could play both trumpet and trombone — and stage presence. He was just one of our favorite teachers among the students. Both kids and adults liked him. He was just a total consummate professional.”
Harris said Wells was a “brilliant musician” with a charming demeanor that will be missed. She recalled him encouraging her to play piano at her State of the City Address earlier this year.
“He was a true advocate for beginning musicians in that he was insightful and experienced,” she said in an email. “He instilled confidence in many, including me when he encouraged me to play piano with the band.
“Elgin was a class act!”