The Eagles: “…so put me on a highway and show me a sign, and take it to the limit one more time…”
In 1984, I bought into a Pitts S-1S biplane—a single-seater with a 180 hp Lycoming engine and a fixed-pitch propeller. The S-1S was state-of-the-art at the time, and my half interest gave me “unlimited” opportunities to move to higher categories of aerobatic competition. I had flown to Texas to compete at the U.S. National Aerobatic Championships. We were rained out, and while it was disappointing, the silver lining was that I met the partner who offered to let me share his Pitts. It was time to move up from my Super Decathlon—from Intermediate to Advanced and finally the Unlimited category. After all the competitors flew home, I was left alone at a big empty airport with my new toy. I carefully soloed it and told my partner that before returning it to its hangar in Minnesota for the winter, I wanted to fly two contests—the Tequila Cup in Arizona and Borrego Springs, Calif., and he agreed.
At that point in my life, I was still amazed when anyone handed me the keys to their airplane. My husband had handed me the keys to his Cessna 185 and let me explore flying around Alaska, and now this. It was an opportunity I had been dreaming of. I had only flown one contest to this point, but from the first day I watched Unlimited competition flying, I said with conviction, “I can do that.” I was looking for something huge, something to excel at. If I flew hard and practiced everyday during the next season, I might be able to win a spot on the U.S. Aerobatic Team the next fall. But, a year would come up lightning fast, and I felt I had no time to waste.
I had been flying about five years with about 1,000 hours of mostly Alaskan time. I didn’t have a lot of time flying in the Lower 48.
For one, I had a lot to learn about flying in controlled airspace. I had studied all the rules for my Commercial certificate, but now, I had to put them into practice! Also new were section lines, power lines and tall towers, which are a particular hazard when ceilings are low. I also discovered there were people who didn’t like airplanes and who complained about noise—who would have thought?
But, flying in Alaska prepared me well in ways that really mattered. For instance, it taught me that a long cross-country flight is just a series of short hops; land if you’re unsure of the weather, and always leave yourself an out.
So I reverted to my training. I got out my sectional charts and a highlighter—Dallas-Fort Worth, El Paso, Phoenix, Los Angeles—and started planning my trip west. I drew a blue line down I-10, the long straight highway that would be the beginning of my long winding road into Unlimited competition.
The Pitts was bare bones, and I liked it. I had to fly using pure pilotage and IFR; I follow roads, or in Alaska, I follow rivers. The most sophisticated instrument in the cockpit was the compass, and it always read North. Well, North-ish, but I figured I had section lines and roads, the sun and my trusty sectional charts to guide me. The absence of a radio was okay with me, too. I didn’t really want to talk to anyone, and radios weren’t required by IAC to compete at the time (although I have to admit there were times that I really wished I had one, especially later on in the trip when I returned the airplane to Minnesota). Besides, at the time, I didn’t like wearing a headset, just ear plugs. The only time I felt I needed a headset was when flying west into the blazing ball of afternoon sun, and even then, it was just to hold the sectional chart as a makeshift hat bill. I learned I had to shade my face, so I used a ball cap instead. Later on, I discovered those Sporty’s slap-on shades for the canopy that I still use today (even with my state-of-the-art Bose A20s).
My bigger concern was the Pitts’ tiny fuel tank, which held just 19 gallons of fuel for about one-and-a-half hours of endurance. I’m very conservative about my fuel reserve, and have vowed to never, ever run out of fuel. Fuel management would be critical with October winds’ westerly flow, unless I wanted to make a humiliating unscheduled stop on a road. But, there are a lot of airports along I-10, and to play it safe, I landed about every hour, from Grayson County to Denton; to Abilene; Big Spring; Pecos, Van Horn and into El Paso the first night. It was slow going, but hugely exciting for me to see that part of the country for the first time, low and slow from the air.
I liked landing at medium-sized, uncontrolled airports, avoiding controlled airspace, but if I had no other option and had to land at a controlled airport, I had some tricks up my sleeve. I’d sometimes call ahead on a pay phone and ask permission to land or, failing that, I could fly overhead at 1,500 AGL, wag my wings and wait look for a light gun from the Tower—with red for “hold” and green for “cleared to land.” On future cross-countries I would use this method more than once.
Also, I tried to plan my trip to avoid narrow runways of less than 50 feet in width. When in the landing attitude, the Pitts’ nose totally blocks the runway from view, is blind out front, so you must use peripheral vision and a lot of footwork to stay straight on the runway and avoid any excursions into the tumbleweed. If the runway was narrow or winds were strong, or sometimes both, I used a bush-flying technique that served me well: I’d “honk” on the brakes shortly after I touched down and hold the stick back, so I could land pretty short! But, it wasn’t easy on the brakes, and I know it must make people cringe to think about it. (After I brought the Pitts to Alaska, I had to use a different technique and be very careful about applying brakes on icy runways, lest I slip and skid.) I’d sometimes call ahead on a pay phone and ask permission to land or, failing that, I could fly overhead at 1,500 AGL, wag my wings and wait look for a light gun from the Tower—with red for “hold” and green for “cleared
I must have been a bit of an oddity. I got lots of, “You flew that thing?” comments, and while the locals and airport bums came filing out of the woodwork to see “the girl in the Pitts,” people were generally friendly and helpful to me, and I always felt safe and knew I could ask for help if I needed it.
It’s funny, but little, odd details still stand out in my memory. Other things that stood out for me—the amazing burritos at the FBO in Pecos, flying beneath the big smokestack as I came around the bend into El Paso, dipping over the border into Mexico (just a teenie bit) and wagging my wings to say,“Hello.”
The Avra Valley Airport was a revelation. Just northwest of Tucson, it was the perfect place for an active aerobatic community with its uncontrolled airspace and aerobatic box. Its most prominent member was the legendary Amos Butell.With long, flowing white hair and a red bandana, Amos flew like a wild man. His hospitality was unmatched. In the corner of his hangar, which later became my hangar and home base for many years, sat a weird sculpture, Amos’ balled-up S-1T Pitts, like a piece of art. We lost Amos a year later, but anyone who met him never forgot his free spirit. After I moved into his hangar, I have to say I felt his presence on more than one occasion. The Tequila Cup contest was a blast, and I came in a close second! But that was because Wayne Handley, the future aerobatics star, came in first, and there were only two of us in the Intermediate category. We still laugh about that today.
From Avra Valley, I headed for Borrego Springs, a small outpost in the desert near the Salton Sea. Airports were fewer and further between, but I still wanted to stay over I-10. I hip-hopped my fuel stops across the desert and, like everyone, I stopped in Blythe, where I got stuck for three days due to high winds.
I was comfortable flying in turbulence and strong winds, but taxiing was another story. When the winds were that strong, there wasn’t enough braking authority to keep me going straight. I was anxious to get out there, and I finally asked a couple of guys to walk my wings out to the runway so I could take off. As I veered off I-10 to turn south to Borrego, I got out my road map just to make sure I didn’t make any wrong turns, and I even flew down on the deck to read road signs a couple of times, just to make sure.
The contest in Borrego went well. I flew a strong enough routine to move up to the Advanced category, which only made my commitment to mastering this sport even stronger, and then started the long flight back to Minnesota.
Flying those two contests confirmed what I suspected: I was on the right path. Competition aerobatics flying was a great sport, and people involved were real contributors to aviation and “all about the flying.” Pilots arrive at contests early, and there’s always someone willing to critique you and help you improve your flying skills. At this stage, of course, for me it wasn’t about “winning” or “beating” anyone. It was about learning and improving my performance in every flight. I had chosen the right sport—one with speed and grace, awesome equipment, and one that pushes the pilot both physically and mentally.
Part of the fun of competition flying is getting there. I love flying solo. It takes a lot of teamwork to get in the air, but then, it’s all up to you. It’s the freedom of being in the air and going somewhere, calling your own shots, and the satisfaction of completing the mission. Today, I fly with all the modern conveniences—two radios and state-of-the-art navigation equipment. At 180 knots, I’m going twice as fast as I was in my Pitts days. I’m grateful for the speed and the luxury, but I wouldn’t trade my early experiences in aviation for anything, and no matter what happens to my instruments, literal or otherwise, I’ll have a good sense of situational awareness that still serves me well.
How many pilots today learn to fly by pilotage only—to look around at the shape of a lake, a bend in a river, a curve in a road, the place where a railroad intersects? You can experience it. Why not turn off your GPS and, what the heck, turn off your radio, too? The gadgets aren’t what flying’s all about. It’s the freedom from them that is.