I spent the winter of ’84 giving tailwheel instruction, getting more aerobatic training and working on my helicopter rating. After I soloed the Bell 47G, I had a lot of fun flying it to the base of the Chugach Mountains that rise over Anchorage. I carved my initials in the snow with the skids and landed in little clearings, sometimes finding a lone moose staring back at me. In February, I flew a local airshow in my snowsuit and spent my spare time reading the IAC magazine Sport Aerobatics. I had been in a competition aerobatic box three times now—once in the Super Decathlon and twice in the Pitts S-1S. Now my plan was to go to the Lower 48 in early spring and learn how to fly Unlimited and qualify for a place on the U.S. Aerobatic Team. This was the beginning of my spending many summers away from Alaska and many winters at home.
My instructor in Alaska, Jack Nielsen, flew for JAL like my dad. He taught me a lot in the Super D, and I also took a trip to Pompano Air Center in Florida, a popular aerobatic hub at the time, to fly with Clint McHenry. Clint, a member of the U.S. Aerobatic Team, was instrumental in importing the first Extras and Sukhois into the U.S. We worked on advanced maneuvers and techniques—snaps on a 45 degree line, flat spins, tailslides and vertical rolls. While I met Clint as a student, he later became one of my best friends, a mentor and “roll” model (forgive me, I couldn’t resist) for me in aerobatics and in life.
In early March 1985, I left for Minnesota to pick up our Pitts. When I got there, the runway hadn’t been plowed, so we pushed the Pitts out of the hangar, and I flew it off-road and heading southeast to Springfield, Tennessee, where the ground wasn’t frozen and there was an aerobatic box. Even though I had no compass, no radio and no navigation instruments, I had my paper charts, and the little airplane sped along with the wind at my back. I made the 650 miles to Springfield uneventfully, with four fuel stops and clear skies.
I don’t know what they made of me when I showed up with my Pitts and my cowboy boots. I wasn’t sure of the protocol, so I didn’t call ahead, but got a nice welcome anyway. I got a hotel nearby and planned to practice three or even four times a day. Now, here I was in Springfield. I had the airplane and all I had to do was fly—a lot. I had a massive amount to learn if I was going to qualify for the U.S. Aerobatic Team a few months away. I felt some pressure to succeed, but since the first time I had watched competition aerobatics, I had no doubt that I could do it. I decided to train in a very methodical fashion: to plan each flight and do it in a way where I could gauge my progress. My first flight of the day would be the compulsory, the second, I would work on my freestyle, and the third flight was devoted to “unknown” maneuvers—the combinations of figures they would give you at a contest 24 hours before you had to fly it without practicing. At the end of the day, I would always add some fun, airshow-type freestyle maneuvers. I kept detailed notebooks of the flights and advice I was given. I have a stack of them, one for every year I competed.
Springfield is also where I almost died. Before soloing the Pitts a few months before, I had trained with Gene Beggs, widely known as the expert on the emergency spin recovery technique of “hands off, power off, full opposite rudder.” This technique worked in every type of spin in the Pitts—and in most spins in other aerobatic airplanes—flat, inverted flat, accelerated flat, etc. I felt I was pretty good at spins, but I’ve since learned that if you think you’re good at anything, it’s probably the thing that will bite you later. Aviation keeps you humble.
“…if you think you’re good at anything, it’s probably the thing that will bite you later. Aviation keeps you humble.”
I remember the day well. There was a high overcast and the light was flat. I climbed to about 5,000 feet AGL on the south side of the runway, rolled inverted and entered a spin by pushing the stick forward. I then added full power to bring the nose up and opposite aileron to flatten the spin out. As I descended through 3,000 feet, I pulled throttle and stick back, expecting to recover, but the airplane kept spinning. I neutralized the aileron and nothing changed. I kept spinning. The akro box is over a stand of big trees, and I remember looking at those trees coming closer when I heard Gene’s voice distinctly say, “Power off.” I had my hand on the throttle and pulled it a little farther back, past the detent, and the nose started to drop a little, but I was still spinning. Then I heard Gene say, “Hands off.” I took my hands off the stick, which in my mind is a last-ditch effort—and the airplane rotation sped up briefly, then started to recover. “Full opposite rudder” stopped the rotation, and the airplane started to fly out of it. I don’t know how low I was, but it was below 1,000 feet, and those trees were getting closer and closer when I put my hand back on the stick and pulled out. It was probably that last little bit of power that I had that kept the nose up and the airplane flat in the spin, but at that point, I just wanted to get on the ground and analyze it later.
The Pitts is a challenge to land in almost any circumstances, and on the first pass, I had a wing down and never got the airplane lined up straight with the runway, so I went around and brought it in for another try. I taxied in, got out of the airplane, and only then realized that my hands were shaking. I put the Pitts in the hangar and decided I’d had enough for one day. The next day, one of the local aerobatic pilots, who later became a good friend, said, “Hee-hee, I noticed you ‘dinged’ the left aileron yesterday. Rough landing?” Huh? You can’t get away with anything in this sport! Apparently, on my first attempt at landing, I miraculously scraped the bottom of the aileron, which dropped below the wingtip, but I didn’t scrape the wingtip.
People ask me if I’ve ever scared myself. Yes, of course, but it’s not something you feel when it’s happening. You’ll react to a life-threatening situation the way you’ve trained for it. There’s no question about it. That’s why emergency procedure training is so important in any extreme sport. This turned out to be a good test for me because you never really know how prepared you are. You also have to be aware of the physical reactions to danger, like my shaking hands, which can degrade your performance, but in my experience, this happens only after the immediate event when conscious thought returns.
I was fortunate to have a husband who didn’t panic or reflect any doubt in my ability when he knew I must be at risk. The fact that he supported my habit emotionally made it all the more possible. We were a team, and you can’t succeed in any sport without teamwork and a support system. I was also developing friendships with people in the sport. My parents didn’t raise me to be fearful, either. They wanted me to be brave. When I see people at airshows watching their kids who are fascinated by airplanes looking up at the sky, then show fear about it in front of them, it bothers me.
I got back on the horse the next day and kept up my training schedule, then returned home a few weeks later. It was exciting knowing I had so much to learn about aerobatics and energy management, and how to put combinations of maneuvers together to make optimal use of airspeed and altitude. My biggest challenge was learning how to perform under pressure. I’ve never felt nervous flying an airshow, but competition is a different game. At the same time, I was a rookie, so I wasn’t under any pressure to win a contest.
I flew a full season of nine contests between May and late September and trained almost every day. It was a rare privilege, a dream for most people, to be able to devote yourself full time to your sport. This is how you get really good at something. In late September, at the U.S. Nationals, I qualified for the U.S. Aerobatic Team. I felt I had to prove myself to earn these fabulous aerobatic airplanes, and now I had. The following year, I would fly a different airplane, a more powerful Pitts S-1T, and would compete in the UK at the 1986 World Aerobatic Championships.
I don’t know why I’m so driven to achieve, to prove myself, to “show them.” I think it’s an innate quality combined with life circumstances. I could have stayed closer to home, and in many ways, it might have been a wiser choice, but I had to take the reins of the wild horse before it disappeared into the wilderness. My husband once gave me the best advice I’ve ever gotten, in a world where good advice is hard to find. After I got my pilot’s license, I said, What now? What am I doing? He said, You have an opportunity; just see where it will take you. When I expressed doubts about my ability to be good at aerobatics, he said: Fly one contest and one airshow, and then take it from there. When you might only have one chance at doing something, how can you let it go?