Dispatch from my kitchen table: It’s a bright clear day. I could be flying. But I’m tired. It’s been a long season.
Instead, I’m sipping French roast coffee with my feet propped up on a chair, staring out my back door at the distant mesas. My flight journal lies open in my lap and I’m treating myself to a lazy look back at the season.
There are dozens of stories I didn’t have room to tell, even though I’ve been blessed with what ended up blooming into a 20-part series on Sport Air Racing League (SARL) air racing here at General Aviation News — a series that many times devoured four full pages of the magazine with words and images.
Memories flood back as I flip the pages. I’d forgotten about the cloud that looked like an elephant. The wild flowers filling the space between the runway and the taxiway at Palestine, Texas. Drinking wine in plastic hotel cups until we found traveling stainless steel wine “glasses” at REI. My first race medal. My first trophy.
The time Race 53 didn’t want to start after being on a cold damp apron all night. Seeing an airport with the improbable name of “Possum Kingdom” slide by on the moving map on my iPad.
The time a flock of seagulls scared the shit out of me in Louisiana. Finding out, the hard way, that many airports in the Midwest don’t sell fuel on Sundays.
And that there are still “dry” counties in the United States outside of Utah.
I saw smooth skies and turbulence I thought would break my wings. I learned more about our plane, and she changed as the season wore on. I dealt with the power hassles of modern cockpit electronics and overheated devices.
I learned to pack light. Then lighter. Then lightest.
I learned how to open a plastic water bottle one-handed.
On one page of my journal, I wrote, “I think I’m going to like the racing life.” Another time I wrote, “Worst bugs ever.”
I was trapped in fog for days in Clinton, Oklahoma. And spent another morning glaring at a fog bank in the ironically named Plainview, Texas. I learned never to rent a condo to try to save money, as races are sometimes cancelled due to weather.
Over the course of the season I met bigots, red necks, liberals, and tree-huggers.
I got to fly over the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Over the Rocky Mountains. And across the corner of the Great Salt Lake. One time I got home from a race only two days before I needed to leave for the next one.
At the bottom of one page, I scrawled, “Life is good.” Indeed.
I started the season a rookie and ended the season a veteran racer.
A better pilot
At the beginning of the season I was a good pilot. Now I’m a far better one. Partly because I flew great distances this year, partly because air racing is a precision sport, and partly because I simply have more hours in the air. More experience. More practice. More wisdom. It’s an unexpected gift for someone who’s been Civis Aerius Sum, a Citizen of the Air, for three-and-a-half decades.
Getting to the races turned out to be half the fun and twice the challenge. Sometimes solo, sometime with the entire family, I literally traveled far and wide this year. I stayed in wonderful hotels and absolute dives; tiny burgs and major cities. I ate some of the most amazing food I’ve ever experienced, and some of the worst.
I was invited into hangars both humble and amazing.
And I even spent the night trapped in an elevator during a blackout.
OK, not the whole night. But it felt like it at the time.
I saw amazing weather, and traveling such long distances I’ve come to appreciate how much it can change just over the horizon — and my respect for my aviation forbears has grown by leaps and bounds.
I can’t imagine what it must have been like with no more than a compass and a road map to guide you. I can look at near real-time weather hundreds of miles away on my iPad and steer clear of trouble never having seen it with my own eyes.
Because I’ve also seen some terrifying changes in weather when ceilings snapped shut on me with the speed of a bear trap.
The world from above is amazing. You can’t appreciate it from an airliner. Or even from 2,000 feet. To really feel our amazing planet you need to fly right above its face, your canopy open to smell the fields below, the dry canyon winds, the scented pines of western forests.
OK, let’s be 100% honest here. Air racing is the ultimate thrill. The concentration. The precision. The power under the cowl. The G-forces in the turns. The sounds, the sights, the smells — all intoxicating.
And when you add in the adrenaline rush that comes from trying to beat another pilot in your heat, well, there’s nothing better.
But it’s more than adventure and thrills. I’ve also gained a whole new family, if a mildly dysfunctional one: The family of air racers. My fellow racers come from every walk of life with only a love of flying and a competitive spirit in common. Each pre-race party is a family reunion.
And it’s a welcoming family. I was quickly accepted into the “tribe.” I feel at home with them. I like them. I look forward to seeing them and spending time with them at each race.
Of course, there were tangible awards, too. This season I made it to 13 races and for my efforts earned seven trophies, two plaques, two medals, one certificate, one lunch box, and a metal model of the Travel Air Mystery Ship, a late 1920s race plane.
And the title of National Champion air racer.
In an unexpected win, Patrick Webb of Preferred Altitude contacted me at AirVenture this year. His company sells licensed Ercoupe, Navion, and Stinson merchandise. He was interested in creating a line of officially licensed Race 53 merchandise.
As I sit here with my coffee, I’m wearing an official Race 53 Sweatshirt to keep out the morning chill. I gotta say I could imagine my life taking many paths, but having licensed merchandise built around me wasn’t one I was creative enough to imagine even in my wildest dreams.
Oh. And I haven’t told you about the Lego. A Race 53 fan has built an exact replica of our antique race plane out of blue and white Lego blocks. He’s going to submit it to Lego Ideas, the website where designs that get enough votes from the public are put into production. Who knows? Maybe someday I’ll walk into Walmart and see Race 53 next to the Lego City Helicopter, the Speed Champions racecars, and the Death Star from Star Wars.
Better still, maybe someday my competitors will walk into Wal-Mart and see Race 53 next to the Lego City Helicopter, the Speed Champions racecars, and the Death Star from Star Wars.
On being a National Champion
My finish line depression is finally beginning to lift, especially now that I’ve dropped my flying shirt off at the embroidery shop to have “National Champion” added to the sleeve.
Of course, the next line says “SARL Silver 2016,” not the SARL Gold 2016 I quested for, but I’m adjusting my sights.
I’m recognizing and appreciating my accomplishment. I fought long and hard to get where I am — even though I didn’t need to. The Bronze Champ, John Secord of Race 23, secured his trophy with only 265 points flying three races, to my 13 races and 1,340 points.
And he didn’t even come to the final race to accept his trophy.
Wild horses and rabid raccoons couldn’t have kept me away. When it wasn’t clear if Race 53 would be up and flying again in time, I planned to drive to Texas for the crowning of the season champs.
And now what?
I tilt the coffee cup sharply upwards to drain out the last of the strong, smoky liquid before it gets too cool. I slowly close my journal and set it on the kitchen table. It was an amazing year and, even at its worst, I loved every minute.
But now it is fully over. The last race is flown. The plane is in the hangar. The last journal page is written.
So now what? Do I do it again? Or do I move on to some other aerial adventure?
My League Points: Re-set to zero