Patty with Pitts S-1S N8078 in Borrego Springs, Calif.
After going to an air show in Canada and a competition in Wisconsin in 1983, I knew that flying aerobatics was what I was meant to do. I lived in Anchorage, Alaska, working as a CFII, but all I could think about was "akro." So, after taking aerobatic lessons, I bought an 8KCAB Super Decathlon and tied it down at Merrill Field.
I joined the International Aerobatic Club (IAC) and devoured every issue they published for their members. Our tiny but active aerobatic community encouraged me to fly a few nearby air shows in Gulkana, Fairbanks and Skwentna, but I really wanted to stretch and try my hand at competition, and the only way to do that was to leave Alaska and fly.
I learned to fly with a DG and a wet compass. Setting a fix on the most visible mountain peak was the best way to get home. There were VORs and NDBs, but navigation was primarily IFR—I followed rivers, railroads and, occasionally, a road.
We used pilotage—mountain ranges and passes, lakes and rivers, and sometimes, islands filled with walruses. I was taught that the tiniest details of a sectional chart—a bend in a river, the contour of the foothills, the curve of a lake— would guarantee you'd find your way, at least to the next village and gravel airstrip, and a safe harbor if you needed to land.
Most flying in Alaska is done at sea level or in temperatures cold enough that even in the mountains, airplane performance is still good. But during the summer of 1984, however, I found that flying in the Lower 48 was different.
Flying from Anchorage to my first aerobatic contest in Fond du Lac, Wis., I followed the Alcan Highway through Canada. At my first stop in the U.S. to clear customs at Cut Bank, Mont., I remember smelling avgas for the first time because the weather was so warm. At almost 4,000 feet MSL, I had to lean for altitude on the ground, something I wasn't used to doing.
I finally got the little Super D started, and flew over Havre, Minot, stopping at Devil's Lake, N.D., before continuing eastward. Along the way, I discovered section lines, towers and more paved runways than I had ever seen.
I like to tell people that after running into rain and low ceilings, it took me longer to fly the 250 nm from Minnesota to Wisconsin than it did the 2,500 nm from Anchorage to Minnesota. I landed in Fond du Lac just in time to register for the Intermediate category and for my first competition flight in the "aerobatic box"—a 1,000-meter cube of airspace that I had only imagined so many times over the woods and tundra of Alaska. It was so small! I had no idea how I'd keep my entire sequence in that tiny airspace.
From the air, the white boundary markers made the box look about as big as a postage stamp. I was nervous and wondered why the heck I put myself in that situation, not to mention the competition sequences contained some maneuvers I had never flown. But, since I had no real expectations of dazzling anyone with my brilliance, I sloshed my way through and was pretty proud of the fact that I didn't come in last.
Electric tape on the window of Patty's Super Decathlon serves as a "sight gauge" for precision aerobatics.
All in all, it was a nerve-wracking experience, and I swore I'd never compete again. Maybe I should stick to air shows? I didn't mind being coached or critiqued because it was the only way to get better, but five judges on the ground grading every maneuver was too much!
Still, my growing love of aerobatics and perfecting lines and angles told me deep down this was exactly what I needed. I was looking for a place to excel, to go deeper and push my own boundaries.
So, I decided to try again the following month at the U.S. National Aerobatic Championships held at the Grayson County Airport in Sherman, Texas. At the invitation of Duane Cole, one of the air show greats, I flew to Fort Worth, Texas, where he offered me a place to stay and daily coaching. Luck Field was perfect—it was small, quiet and had an aerobatic box.
I'll never know if I was ready or not because the Nationals was rained out, but I made some new friends, and as luck would have it, one of them offered to sell me half interest in his S-1S Pitts Special, N8078. I certainly wasn't competitive, but I was ambitious, and this airplane could take me to the next level—the Advanced and Unlimited categories.
The Pitts is inherently unstable, which is what makes it such a great aerobatic airplane. So, before flying it, I flew the Decathlon to Midland, Texas, to fly with Gene Beggs, the premier instructor of the "Beggs/Mueller" method of emergency spin-recovery training.
We flew the spin course—upright, inverted, flat, accelerated—in his two-seat S-2A Pitts, and worked on advanced akro that I couldn't do in my Decathlon—tumbles, vertical snap rolls and tailslides—until I felt ready for the next step.
I soloed the Pitts, practiced a few hours and then headed west to Tucson for my second contest, The Tequila Cup. I was still nervous about competing, but was proud to say I came in second place in the Intermediate category! Just ask Wayne Handley—the only other competitor—who came in first!
The next contest was in Borrego Springs in the California desert, where I competed in Advanced. Most competitors start in Sportsman and like to do well before moving up through the categories. That's probably the sanest idea, but my plan had evolved into making the Unlimited category on the U.S. Aerobatic Team by the next fall, in 1985. I had no time to waste. I didn't know how long my good luck would last, so I figured if I wanted to compete in Unlimited, I had better fly in Unlimited.
N8078 was pretty basic. It had no radio, no transponder and the compass always pointed north. But who needs navigational instruments when you can read a sectional chart or a road map?
I followed railroads, read the names of towns on water towers and on highway signs, and learned that, in some parts of the midwest, there are still arrows painted on the roofs of barns pointing the way and distance to the nearest airport, remnants of days of transporting the mail by plane.
And oh, how I fell in love with something else—those beautiful square-mile section lines and angles that point in the cardinal headings and dominate so much of the landscape.
The Pitts had very limited fuel—about 1.5 hours endurance—so there were times I had to land at a controlled airport. I'd rock my wings at 1,500 feet over the tower and wait for the green light. After landing, I called the tower and they were always helpful and nice, but sometimes would ask to "speak to the pilot." When I told them I was the pilot, often there was stunned silence.
I ran into that a lot. A typical question when I'd hop out of my single-seat Pitts was, "Did you fly that thing?" or, "Where's the pilot?" I like to think things have changed, but sometimes I'm not so sure. Still, I really miss those days of flying freedom when I had a taste of being a real barnstormer. Today, it's difficult but still possible to fly coast-to-coast without talking to anyone.
After the Borrego contest in mid-October, it was time for me to deliver the Pitts to its home in western Minnesota before I headed home to Alaska. I was comfortable flying in winter conditions, but as I flew north into colder weather, there was snow on the ground and I froze in that little cockpit. The five-point harness that held me in tight for aerobatics made it impossible to move and get any blood circulating. The air vents blasted me with cold air and, of course, there was no heater or insulation.
At one point, I had to open the canopy in flight to scrape off the frost. By the time I got close to Granite Falls, my hands were so cold I had to keep switching them back and forth in my pocket so that when I landed, my "stick" hand would still be operational. It was brutal, but somehow worth the pain to be able to keep flying aerobatics. I dropped the airplane off at a strip of frozen grass, knowing I would return in the spring.
I learned a lot that summer. I wasn't sure where the journey would take me, but opportunities come along and it's important to take them, even if you're overwhelmed by the unknown. A long cross-country flight is just a series of short ones, and taking things one step at a time makes it easier to find your way.
Often, it's the detours along the way that make the journey more interesting. I had a long way to go, but this new sense of being on a "mission" was exciting. Sometimes you don't see the forest for the trees, but the trick is to be able to see both at the same time—and that's the secret to becoming a master. And, that's what I was looking for.