Dispatch from P14, Holbrook, Arizona: Looking down off my wing, I can see the ramp is nearly empty. Most of the race planes have already left. Gone home. I know I’m slow, but geez, couldn’t the other racers have at least waited until the last plane landed before they called it a day?
I key the mike button on my yoke as the tip of the dirt runway slides beneath the nose, “Race Five-Three, finish.” I snap the yoke to the right, the nine-and-a-half-foot ailerons cartwheeling the Ercoupe into a steep bank, showing her belly to the timing judges.
There’s actually no need to turn that sharply.
But it feels good.
I give my signature victory wing wag, the last wag to the left morphing into a smooth arcing turn to base for Runway 21, and slide the throttle back. The dull roar of the engine fades to a purr and Race 53 coasts down out of the deep blue Arizona sky.
I come in low over the sagebrush-spotted plain that surrounds the airport, over the numbers, and down onto the tar-patched spiderweb of a runway. The wheels kiss the pavement and the Thunderbird 150 Air Race is over.
It’s not going to be one for the record books. At least not for Race 53. In fact, my money’s on my time being the worst of the season.
The cards were stacked against me from the start. The T-bird didn’t have a short-course option — Race Director Dennis Collins assured me no one would mind waiting around for me to finish — so I had to carry a lot more fuel than I usually do. Each extra gallon of fuel weighs about six pounds. Each extra pound slows you down.
Plus the race launched from 5,262 feet above sea level, with a mandatory minimum altitude of 7,657 feet above Turn 3 at Mogollon Airpark. At these altitudes, aircraft performance is reduced: Engines are not as strong, there’s less air for the propeller to bite into, and even the wings simply don’t work as well.
It was a warm day too, further reducing horsepower and aerodynamic performance. In addition, I had a nasty headwind on the longest leg of the racecourse. For much of the way the ground speed was a very un-race-plane-like 87 miles per hour.
I reach up and slide my door down into the belly of the plane beneath me, letting in a blast of warm air. I expected a slow run.
And all those other factors aside, I had one more strike against me: A 140 extra pounds of speed-killing ballast in the form of copilot Lisa Franklyn Bentson, who at this very moment is doing the closest thing to a happy dance you can do in a cramped cockpit. She’s swinging her shoulders to music only she can hear, and spinning her right hand in a circle above her head — mimicking a cowboy getting ready to lasso a calf.
“Oh yeah,” her voice crackles over the headset, “I roped me a pylon.”
I can’t help but laugh, “You’re such a dork, Bentson,” I tell her as we turn off the active runway and onto the taxiway. But I secretly admire her ability to express joy in such a natural and unabashed way.
“By the way, congratulations are in order,” I tell her. “You’re now, and for all time, an air racer.”
It takes a moment. Her little dance stops and a slow smile spreads across Lisa’s face. A smile bigger than the mile-wide Meteor Crater we just raced around.
It’s probably sacrilege for an air racer to say this, but speed really isn’t everything. Sharing experiences with friends and family is what really matters. And I made a deal with both my teenage son Rio, and with our buddy Lisa, at the beginning of the race season that I’d share the racing with them.
Well, I guess it was more of a promise than a deal. I made it clear I’d need to fly solo most races to maximize my chances of winning, but that I felt that both of them should experience at least one real race.
After all, they’ve both helped plan and test race strategy and tactics, and they’ve both copiloted practice runs and the cross-country commutes to and from many of the season’s races.
I also offered to let my wife copilot, but she just looked at me like I was crazy and didn’t even bother to utter a response. And my mom’s not too sure how she feels about the high-G maneuvers. She enjoys being in charge of ground operations.
I gave Rio carte blanche to choose any race he wanted. He chose the AirVenture Cup. I told Lisa I’d take her on a race where we had no competition in our Class. That turned out to be the Labor Day weekend Thunderbird 150 Air Race.
So yeah, we were going to end up with a horrible speed. But I shared the joy of racing. And that’s what matters most.
Of course, it’s not like doing that made me lose the race. I still won my heat by virtue of being the only FAC6 plane in the race. Even if it had taken us 10 hours to complete the course, we would still have gotten our 100 race points and our first-place trophy.
Well, that is, we would have gotten our trophy, if the race trophies weren’t still on a UPS truck somewhere in the wilds of the Southwest. I’m told it will be shipped to me later.
Via the U.S. Postal Service.
Sharing the flying experience
Speaking of sharing aviation, we were exposed to a whole different type of sharing in Arizona.
For background, a Sport Air Racing League (SARL) tradition is the pre-race party. Like everything else in the league, the party varies from race to race. At the Bob Axsom Race we had a Dutch-treat meal at the Mexican restaurant in the parking lot of the official race hotel. At Texoma, Race Director Pat Purcell threw a hell of a hangar party with Texas-sized steaks and football-sized baked potatoes, with black and white checkered flags, banners, and balloons setting the tone. At the Big Muddy, racers and the locals partied at a local microbrewery. And at the Thunderbird the party was a potluck dinner.
Well, not for the racers. We weren’t required to fly in with a dessert or salad. But the residents of the Mogollon Airpark, AZ82, threw a potluck hangar party for us at their mountain strip at Overgaard, Arizona, 45 miles southwest of Holbrook.
The private airpark features a 3,436-foot paved runway with parallel taxiways down both sides. Dozens of feeder taxiways weave through the tall pines that surround the field, connecting individual hangars and houses to the runway. Nestled in the trees, each house is like a private island — you’re hardly aware of other homes and hangars — and yet the residential airpark is home to 166 flying families (with room for more, as I understand it).
Residents Curt and Ellen Randoll kindly moved their Mooney out onto the apron behind their house and set up tables, chairs, and a buffet line to turn their hangar into a banquet hall. And, wow, what a hangar it is: Insulated and sheet rocked, with heat and air conditioning, doors featuring giant windows for light, and a floor featuring the most beautiful epoxy-style coating you’ve ever seen.
Really, we didn’t need the tables. The floor was so clean we could have eaten off of it.
There was pulled pork, turkey, Shepard’s pie, casseroles, enchiladas, hot dogs for the kids, and salads and desserts galore. Someone brought a bottle of Clos du Bois cabernet sauvignon. I took it as a good omen and had a glass. Or maybe two.
It’s hard to tell when you’re drinking wine from a plastic picnic cup.
The Randoll’s hangar, big enough not only for the Mooney, but for an under-construction mountain bush plane, was packed with happy, noisy people. People sharing the love of flying. With the cool night air and pine forest all around, it felt more Colorado than Arizona to me.
The gathering made me think about the bonds among flying folk. We’re a flying family. My mom and I. Rio and my wife Debbie. Lisa, my adopted sister.
Racers, in a broad sense, are a family, too, and those of us in the Sport Air Racing League are yet another family.
And this large community of neighbors in the mountains of Arizona is also a family, sharing the joys of flying and the camaraderie of a common bond.
Air Racing for Two
Air racing is high-intensity flying. Solo, it commands a heavy cockpit workload. Your heading must be precise. You have to pay attention to the required altitudes on each leg. Turns need to be sharp and on the money. Radio frequencies need to be changed.
As with all flying, you need to watch for traffic — both other racers and other aircraft sharing our skies — and monitor the health of the machine.
And you need to adjust your strategy for winning as the circumstances around you change. When do you climb? When do you hold? When do you trade altitude for airspeed?
And unique to Race 53, there’s never a hands-off moment. God, I love it!
So at the Thunderbird 150, it was not only a joy to share the heady experience of racing, it was also a joy to have some help with the workload. Out on the racecourse, Lisa and I shared the cockpit duties. When I was flying, she took care of the radios and ensured that we were following the race brief.
Lisa flew the longest leg — about a third of the race — from right after the pair of turns around Meteor Crater to the Mogollon Airpark, the site of the race’s pre-party. She bucked turbulence and strong crosswinds, but held course and altitude with a minimum of swearing. Well, minimum for Lisa, anyway.
It was slow going. But we didn’t care. We were having fun. And isn’t that what flying should be about?
Plus, the race was beautiful. Unlike the flat lands of Texas, where many of our races take place, the T-bird course overflew rugged painted desert, high mesas, deep jagged ravines, dense pine-covered mountains. And of course, we raced around Meteor Crater, the giant scar in the desert left behind by a 150-foot meteor that blasted a circular hole in the crust of the earth 50,000 years ago.
How bad was our final speed? By the time we taxied across the nearly deserted ramp, shut down, climbed out of the plane, and walked into the terminal, all the race speeds were posted, including ours at 106 mph. Pretty awful, especially given that the race had a speed-favoring start that allowed us to gain altitude and speed before crossing the start line.
It was my worst race time ever.
But it was also one of the best times I’ve ever had.
My League Points: 1,030. I’ve cracked the one-grand mark on race points! Unopposed in my class at the Thunderbird 150, I picked up 100 points for the race, even though my speed was slow.
My League Standing: I remain in second place, both in the League overall and in the Factory Category, behind Team Ely, who also raced unopposed in the Thunderbird race.
The Elys still command the top slot in the leader board, now at 1,070 points, remaining fully 40 points ahead of me. Earlier in the season I was tied with them, but I have never once pulled ahead of them (damn it).
In other race news, Jeff Barnes of Race 411 falls to second place in Experimental behind Ken Krebaum in Race 118. To his horror, when Barnes showed up at his hangar the day before the race, he was greeted with cement trucks and a gaping hole in his taxiway trapping his bird in its nest, and he had to “scratch.”
Krebaum made the race and defeated one plane in his class, raising his point total to 870 points, now 50 points ahead of Barnes.
Meanwhile, AirVenture Cup star Mike Patey also had to scratch the morning of the race: His Turbine Lancair blew a tire taking off from Lake Powell en route to the race.
In air racing, fate and fortune play a big role in victory and defeat. And I’m counting on both to help me pick up 50 points before the end of the season.
Come race with me!