After an unscheduled, but sadly warranted, mid-season bottom-end engine overhaul at Barrett Precision Engines in June of last year, I was faced with the decision to cancel an air show I had booked the winter before—the Truckee Tahoe AirShow and Family Festival. I've had to cancel very few air shows, so while it was necessary, it wasn't an easy phone call, especially as the show was planning a tribute to women in aviation. The organizers are a class act, and while disappointed in losing one of their aerial performers, they understood my predicament and invited me anyway. They had planned a lot of events, and I was to be their guest speaker at a Friday night dinner and silent auction, help do interviews for the local radio station and participate in their Young Eagles day.
I'm a terrible spectator, so I don't go to many shows where I'm not flying. I think I performed at the second air show I ever went to. As a kid, I wanted to jump into the circus ring, race the go-cart and be up in the cockpit—not in the back of the bus. I feel like a duck out of water when I sit on the ground, but on the other hand, I like watching shows once in awhile because I learn from having a spectator's view of what looks good from the ground, and how performers use presentation and music.
So, I flew the friendly skies and landed in Reno, rented a car and drove up the hill to Truckee, passing Reno-Stead Airport, where the Reno Air Races are held and where I've performed. The last time I was there, though, I was flying an OV10 for CAL FIRE and was coming off a big BLM fire just to the north.
Truckee is a very cool little gold rush town in the Sierras at a field elevation of about 6,000 feet. I've had some fun times there, not the least of which was flying a show once in a four-cylinder-engine airplane with the density altitude rising above 9,000 feet. It's a good thing I have a hard-and-fast rule of getting at least three practice flights at any high-DA show beforehand. An interesting little tidbit about Truckee I picked up from Wikipedia: It was named after a Paiute chief whose native name was Tru-ki-zo. When the first Europeans who came to cross the Sierra Nevada encountered his tribe, the chief rode toward them yelling Tro-kay, which is Paiute for "everything is okay." The travelers assumed his name was Truckee and considered him Chief Truckee thereafter.
After checking in to my hotel, I drove to the airport to see what kind of mischief I could get into. I was meeting my friend Heather Jay who had flown in from Chico to crew for me for the weekend. I wasn't going to need a lot of "crewing" because I was airplane-less, but was definitely going to need my posse to have the most fun possible. I had previously given Heather her first akro lessons (you can read about it here: www.planeandpilotmag.com/pilot-talk/let-it-roll/pre-aerobatics.html) and later her tailwheel endorsement. I was anxious to see her new purchase, a 7KCAB Citabria, so when I found her at the FBO, I said, "Let's fire up that thing and fly to KGOO." Grass Valley is about 90 nm to the southwest, and I wanted to visit my good friend Hoser Satrapa and the boys at the Tanker base, so off we went. It would also give me a chance to see if Heather was using appropriate amounts of right rudder during takeoff and climb, so I could sit in the backseat and "critique" her like the old days. I'm sure she was really excited about that! But, since she's building time and working on her CFI, the extra "dual" received would be welcome.
There's nothing like flying over the Sierras in the summertime. The air is clear and smooth, even over the high mountains, and there's just so much to look at—valleys and canyons, rivers and trees. It's simply beautiful. After a great visit with Hoser and the gang, we flew back to TRK to find the other member of our posse, Julia Hamlin. Julia is one of my "air show kids." She was 12 years old when she introduced herself at Oshkosh, telling me in no uncertain terms that she was going to be a pilot and asked if she could be part of the crew. We put her to work every year after that until college, watching her enthusiasm for all things aviation grow. With her ratings and a BA in Aviation, Julia told me earlier this year she was applying for an internship with Cessna's Discover Flying Challenge. I told her, "Julia, this internship was meant for you; you have to get it!" And she did, flying a brand-new glass-paneled Cessna 172 around the West Coast for the summer, representing Cessna and demonstrating it to pilots at events like the Truckee AirShow.
Julia wanted to show off her beautiful airplane, so Heather and I climbed in, and we headed for the jewel that's Lake Tahoe. In the air, I texted another good friend, Bobbi Thompson, the Airport Manager for KMEV (Minden, Nev.), and asked if she was free for lunch. The answer was affirmative, so Julia pulled the throttle back and made the big descent into Carson Valley on the east side of the Sierras into KMEV—a rangy, uncontrolled ex-military base with a big sport aviation following. In fact, 40% of traffic is devoted to glider tow and motor glider operations. Heather, Julia and I had a fun visit and lunch with Bobbi, and headed back to Truckee.
The weekend wasn't all parties—well, maybe it was! At the Friday night silent auction and dinner, I was happy to spread the word about how important air shows are to exposing people to aviation. Dinner was under a tent at the airport, and it was beautiful to watch the long shadows of the sunset on the runway.
The Truckee AirShow was a real success with perfect weather, spectacular scenery and a good turnout. And, even though I didn't perform, it turned out to be one of the most fun shows of the summer.
I thought about what made the weekend so special. Because "women in aviation" were being honored, I was living it by hanging with some of my favorite female aviators. Heather, whose dad was an executive with Piper at Reid-Hillview Airport when she was growing up, was a ramp rat from an early age. She always loved airplanes, but said she didn't start until the "ripe old" age of 21 because, she said, "I didn't think I could do it. Only smart people could figure out instruments, reading charts, understanding ATC." Heather is a smart cookie, but lacked confidence. Now when I fly with her, she's one of the most confident and relaxed pilots I know, and I'm sure that aviation has given her confidence in all areas of her life. Julia has her sights set on a career in corporate aviation (her fiancé is going for the airlines), and I have no doubt she'll have a long and successful career flying awesome biz jets. She's smart, competent and enthusiastic, and will be able to call her shots. Bobbi impresses me to no end. Her aviation career has spanned 40 years, including having 3,500 hours in fixed-wing airplanes and helicopters. She's an FAI world record holder, has produced air shows for 35 years, owned an FBO, is an air racing and aviation consultant, and now an Airport Manager, and there's more. I'm surrounded by so many accomplished women, and oh yeah, there's me—I'm still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up.
Vi Cowden, World War II pilot and WASP, told me when I asked her what it was like to be a woman flying P51s in World War II, "Patty, let me tell you something—extraordinary women have always done what they wanted to do." Some people might call these women extraordinary, and I certainly think they are, not because they're women in aviation, but because they're competent, have vision and use their talent. If they were men, would they be considered extraordinary? Maybe not.
When I got my pilot's license in 1980, women who pursued careers in aviation were considered different, gifted, extraordinary. They were to be admired for sure, but with more women pursuing careers in aviation today, the less out-of-the-box unusual it has become. Women in aviation are becoming more ordinary all the time, and that's a good thing!
Men sometimes tell me they think women are better pilots because they have more finesse, intuition and so on, but I usually disagree with them. Learning to fly and becoming a good pilot is the same for everyone—ability is learned and practice makes perfect. Men or women, the airplane doesn't know the difference.