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Mourning a Loss

September 26, 2011

For those of you who followed along with us on our 2010 race, I am deeply saddened to share the passing of my good friend and racing partner, Heather.

Heather experienced a brain bleed several weeks ago and though the Dr.’s made many attempts to reduce the swelling on her brain, they were unable to win the battle. Heather slipped into a coma on Saturday, September 24th and passed away in the early morning hours on Sunday, September 25th. Her husband, Leon, sister, Jennifer and friends, April and I were at her side.

We were blessed to have known her and are better people for it.


A Hero’s Welcome

August 4, 2010

Once the timing line was flown, I had a chance to actually take a look at the airport and see what it looked like.  Until now, all I had noticed was the timing tent and the timers taking notes.  Now I could see all the race planes that were lined up in the tie-down areas but I still had no idea about the growing group of onlookers making their way towards the taxiway.  Heather was concentrating on entering the pattern and getting us down….and I started snapping pictures of the runway.

It wasn’t until we landed that I saw a stream of AOPA staffers holding those beautiful neon posters and waving at us.  As we taxied off the runway, we were given instructions to park at the far end of the field (there were so many planes now that grass tie-down spots were being made to accommodate all the planes.)  Our taxi direction took us away from the crowd….but they followed us and were there as we exited the plane.

I can’t do justice with words to express my emotions.  Excitement, for sure.  Relief, absolutely.  Pride. Relief. Humility. Relief. Joy…..Relief.  I was so honored that so many of my friends at AOPA had taken the time to come out and welcome us.  Several of them already knew Heather – having met her at various aviation events throughout the past year or when she came to visit the HQ.  Many others felt like they knew her since they had been listening to me talk about the race for months in advance – or had been following along on the blog.  It felt like a hero’s welcome – though we didn’t consider ourselves heroic at all.  Merely determined to put our best effort forth despite all we had faced in previous days.  Victory was ours…no matter what the final standings would show.

What we didn’t know at the time was that our Spot GPS had stopped transmitting a signal somewhere over West Virginia.  Those who were watching (like my parents….) noticed that the GPS seemed to stay in one location.  I don’t think anyone REALLY thought we were in trouble….but I can see how that would be disconcerting…especially since it had been right on track all along.  I still don’t know why it stopped working, and I’m a little bummed that we don’t have a full record of our trip in “data points,”  but fortunately it was only the GPS and NOT us that stopped in the midst of WV!

Now out of the plane we had to unpack everything we wanted for the next 48 hours as the planes would be impounded.  The race committee would be meeting and reviewing timing scores during Saturday and Sunday – and would conduct inspections of those planes in the top 10 or 15.  No team would be allowed to enter their planes until the final inspections were completed.  I went and got the car while Heather began unloading our stuff.  (Remember the picture from our end of day in Illinois?… the plane looked like that, again!)  It seemed to take us forever to get the plane tied down, and finally make it over to the FBO to “check in.”  We received our credentials for the next several events and then made our way over to the meltdown party.

We parked near the hangar where it was being held, and could tell that the other racers were already in full swing of the party atmosphere.  As we walked the short distance from the car, we were met by applause as our fellow racers jumped to their feet and gave us a standing ovation.  We were truly moved by the experience.

Last Leg

August 2, 2010

I guess it’s about time I finish the race blogging…..sorry for the delay!  I notice from our blog statistics that a few of our faithful followers check back regularly for an update….my apologies for being lax in getting this written.  The saga continues…

As we departed West Virginia we knew we had to make a decision about altitude.  For the first time on our race, we had some “mountain” terrain to deal with.  This meant we would have to be careful to clear the tops, but we also had to stay clear of clouds.  This race was being flown VFR…so we couldn’t pass through the clouds that were forming at the 4000′ level.  Our intel told us that while we would see cloud cover for about 2/3 of the flight – the clouds broke up as we neared Frederick.  We decided that in this case altitude was our best bet, and we climbed to 7500′ to be up and over the clouds.

We stayed here as long as we could – and used flight following to be sure we were “keeping in touch” with someone.  As we neared Frederick, we began to look for a way down.  The clouds did not look like they had thinned out at all, and we began to think we would have to make S turns to lose altitude and avoid the clouds.  ATC wasn’t responding to us as we requested making an altitude change and by the time they did, we started to find our way down without much turning.  The clouds were thinning out – and we were able to make a relatively straight descent.

Now…I know Frederick is my home airport…but I have to be honest…I’ve not really flown all that often around here.  Most of the trips I’ve taken have been to the northeast so coming in from the West was new to me.  Heather and I were reading the sectional to see what to expect for the terrain – and as we came over the second ridge (we were getting low by now…) we strained to find the airport.  Once we got it in sight we identified the runway for the fly by and checked our procedures one last time.  We knew the altitude, made our 1 mile out call, and spotted the timers at the timing line.

We crossed the line at 4:12:11…..leaving us less than 48 minutes to spare!  We had made it!

The Home Stretch

July 10, 2010

We departed Southern Illinois University at about 6:45 a.m.  We knew we had to fly solid, clean legs and make our time on the ground at each stop short and productive.  We had hit our stride with regard to “planning” and “duties” and stuck to it for the remainder of the race.  We concentrated on flying the timing line at SIU, started our stop watches, noted the time, and I began the preparation phase for the flight ahead while Heather took us to altitude.

Once again we found we had little to no help from the winds.  Uncle Bruce had been up early gathering weather and we compared his intel to that we received from our morning Lockheed-Martin briefing.  I pulled out our sectionals and looked for any areas of concern and then moved on to reviewing the fly by procedures for Elkhart, IN.

Prior to this leg we had hoped to see our friend and supporter, Bill at the Elkhart stop.  However, we knew by this time that he was out of the state – and we wouldn’t have time to chat anyway.  Two days prior (this was now Friday) many of the teams had made it to Elkhart only to be greeted by confusion and bad weather.  Confusion came on the part of a controller (so we are told….) who perhaps “lost the picture” as Heather calls it, with all the planes approaching for fly bys to land and then returning to actually set down.  We don’t know all the facts, but we did talk with one of the teams involved in a “too close for comfort” situation while under control of ATC.

The weather was also causing problems for the teams both on the ground and in the air near Elkhart that night.  A tornado warning had been posted for northern Indiana, and many planes – something like 30 of 34 planes that had parked there for the night – were quickly put into hangars.  Those who weren’t so lucky had to wait out severe storm conditions in hopes that no damage would be inflicted on their planes.  (Just for reference, we were still in Waycross, GA at the time…and Bravoski was sitting on the ramp with one simple chock holding her in place.  It was so still in Georgia we didn’t even need to tie her down.)  The teams in Elkhart on Wednesday evening had been riding the tailwinds out in front of the storm, and now had the overnight to let them pass.

When we arrived in Elkhart, IN we saw team #7 heading out and found out from the Stop Chair that team #15 had come and gone already.  We fueled up, hit the restroom, grabbed some water (saw the remainder of snacks and evidence of the RON list (remain over night) from earlier days, caught up on weather and then headed out.  Bravoski was starting like a dream today.  Cooler temps up north along with Heather returning to her tried and true method of starting the plane.  One leg down….2 to go.

Next stop, Parkersburg, WV.  On this leg we chose to go high for two reasons:  our best weather info told us that higher was better from a wind standpoint and we knew there would be clouds from around 3500′ to 6500′ or so.  We headed up to 7500′ which had us up over top as more and more clouds were building the further east we went.  The ride was smooth (while at altitude) but as we started our descent, we could really feel the turbulence.  Heather had the plane and I was carefully reading the chart to determine how we could recognize where the airport was.  Our two GPS units came in handy, but we still couldn’t see runways.

The chart showed a “plant” on the western side of a river and we quickly identified that.  We were low now – getting set up for the fly by, but had to be sure to stay over top of several towers as we headed in to the airport.  Once over the river, we picked up the airport, lined up for the fly by – and did what we needed to do!  Past the timing line, Heather made a turn to come back to land, and again, we had to watch out for those pesky towers.

One team was just leaving as we taxied to park – though it wasn’t a team we had seen earlier in the day.  The heat had built up again and we kept looking at our watches….we were going to be tight on time, but we could still make it.  More snacks, a little bit of chit-chat with those waiting to see us, more weather talks and we were back out at the plane.  I was reading e-mail on my PDA when I saw my friend Joey had e-mailed everyone at AOPA that we had already taken off and would be there by 3:15 or so.  I quickly did the math and e-mailed her back that we were still on the ground at KPKB and wouldn’t likely be there until after 4.  As we took off, I sent a “We’re ok” e-mail from our Spot GPS.  This was my way of indicating to the 5 recipients of that e-mail that we were once again on the move.

Saluki Love!

July 5, 2010

Saluki love is a little shout-out to our friends and competitors from Southern Illinois University.  Three teams competed from SIU and I made it clear to them I was all about supporting the Saluki’s EXCEPT when they play my Uconn Huskies! (There’s just something about those dog mascots that you gotta’ love!)  So now it’s mid afternoon on Thursday and Heather and I are headed to Murphysboro-Carbondale as our fourth and final leg of the day.

By now we were operating as a well-oiled machine.  We had our routine for planning, flying, eating, timing, altitude, climb, descent, etc….  Heather did the climb out while I completed notes on our last timing run and made preparations for the one we would face at SIU.  We decided to climb to 7500′ as this would give us the least amount of headwind, and possibly even help us with a tailwind.  We thought we were making good time…but it may just have been that we didn’t have to alter our route this time.

We had been in the plane a long time and we were getting giddy.  Okay, I guess that’s not fair… I was getting giddy.  Heather and I had been making a great effort to fly a STRAIGHT line.  Her GPS was out at a 5+ mile view so we could see surrounding weather, but my GPS was zoomed in to a 1.2 mile view.  At one point during the cruise portion of this flight (I was flying, Heather was planning for the fly by,) Heather pulled the sectional chart ….looked at it a while and finally said “Okay, I have no idea where we are.”  We both immediately looked down at my GPS at which point we saw a big yellow screen with a pink line running through it.  Maybe you had to be there – but we cracked up!  Laughing almost uncontrollably because there was not a single identifying mark on the screen…just yellow and pink!  I told her “I have no idea where we are either!” as we continued to laugh.  At least we were on the line!  Finally we zoomed out and we were able to pinpoint our location on the sectional.  We were tired…and it was starting to show.

We made the field with time to spare as we did our fly by at SIU.  When we taxied to the ramp we were surprised to see two other race planes tied down.  Team #15 and Team #7 were also in Illinois.  We were greeted by the Stop Chair, Mike, and the first thing we asked is if either of those teams were having trouble.  (Having just faced 2 days of mechanical issues ourselves, we feared for anyone else who might be having problems.)  We were pleased to hear that both teams were fine, and had made the decision to stop here for the day. (We wouldn’t see them until Friday morning when we were all getting ready to leave.)

We took some time unloading the plane – but only after, once again, laughing a bit too much about what the back seat of the plane looked like!  I guess when you’re flying that much (and not spending a lot of time on the ground,) you just can’t keep it neat.  We took care of refueling and Mike helped us lug our stuff to the terminal building. 

Volunteers were there waiting for us with a nice assortment of snacks and drinks.  We really felt welcomed, and a little bad that they were all hanging out waiting on us!  Kathy L. was our designated driver and she was fantastic to take us to the hotel (and allowed me to make a quick stop at Walgreens,) and waited to be sure they had a room for us.

Heather and I walked next door to a restaurant and we were stupid-tired by this point.  It must have been 9:30 or 10:00 by now and we ordered dinner (the first real food we had seen all day….)  We must have looked like a sight…but we enjoyed our meal – were given a 25% discount because we were part of the race – and headed back to the hotel.   A little organizing for the next day, a few quick e-mails to those who were following us, a shower, and bed!  Morning would come too quickly!

Kathy was back to pick us up at 5:15a.m.  Bless her!!!!  She had such a great attitude and hugged us goodbye but told us she was waiting to watch us take off!  Several volunteers were there, again, this time with donuts and other snack food to help us on our way.  We saw Team #7 preflighting their airplane and got hugs from Team #15 – Arlene and Julia.  They had been worried about us and were glad to see we had caught up for the final day of racing.  The field was beautiful as the sun began to rise and a thin layer of mist gave us the feeling that this was our Brigadoon.  Three more legs to complete by 5pm.  In less than 12 hours I would be home.

The pivotal leg

June 29, 2010

Hot Springs to Cameron was our make it or break it leg.  We knew that if we could make this leg…with enough time to get to Carbondale, IL….we would have a shot.  Problem was: we had WEATHER!  A line of thunderstorms had formed to the northeast of our location and lie directly in our path.  We would be unable to fly a straight line from Hot Springs to Cameron, instead, we needed to fly in a more westerly direction to get around the front that was slowly moving to the south-west.

Heather’s GPS has XM Weather – a service she pays for that isn’t cheap, but is well worth it when you can see and avoid.  We are self-proclaimed chickens when it comes to lightening…and both agreed that we would give a wide berth to any storm with convective activity.

As we headed out from Hot Springs Heather  began looking for a fix that would get us around the storm.  We grabbed the sectional and located Fort Smith, AR – a military airport surrounded by MOA’s (Military Operations Areas) as well as a Restricted area.  Heather called the tower to make sure they knew what we were doing, and we were relieved to learn the MOA’s and Restricted areas were not hot.

Meanwhile, we noticed that our airspeed indicator was not working.  It was seemingly pasted at zero.  We weren’t far from Hot Springs and I asked Heather if we should consider making a return to the ground.  Heather scanned each instrument – all of which were working properly.  She pointed out we had two GPS units – both of which were showing us speed.  She asked if I was comfortable with continuing – and I was…so we continued our trek away from the storm.

From the cockpit we could see the storm clouds as they moved towards where we had been.  On the XM Weather we were able to watch as they intensified, but could also see that once we got past the front, we would be in clear weather for the rest of the day. 

It was on this leg that we both won and lost the race.  Had we stayed on the ground and waited for the storm to pass, we would not have had time to complete the race by 5pm.  We may have made it to Cameron, MO later that day – but we would not have had time to complete 4 legs on Friday in time.  Leaving when we did was key in getting us to the finish line in time.  However, the fact that we had to fly around the storm added significant time to this leg, and ultimately caused us to have one of the longest times en route.

Once we were clear of the storm, we made a direct line for Cameron.  The sky was blue, the scenery beautiful, and we tried to make up some time as we cruised to our next timing line.  Cameron was a picturesque airport.  A one strip runway surrounded by green, green grass, a blue, blue sky with puffy white, white clouds!  The FBO was a cute and inviting building with an American flag waving against the beautiful sky.

We were greeted by the three gentlemen, all of whom were eager to help us get fueled and on our way.  They had a variety of snacks and drinks for us, and even had airplane shaped cookies.  The interior of the FBO carried the aviation theme through the fabrics, pictures and even the signs on the restroom doors!

Heather checked weather to confirm what we already knew….we had High Pressure from here on out and it was just a matter of finding the most favorable winds.  I called my Uncle Bruce (which I had been doing at every stop along the way,) for his synopsis of what would give us the best time.  At this point we started seeing a headwind at lower altitudes and a possible tailwind if we climbed.

Back in the plane, we once again encountered difficulty getting Bravoski started.  We knew we needed to get going soon if we were to make it to Carbondale, IL by official sunset. [Note:  the rules of the race state that we had to get past the timing line by the sunset time stated for each stop.  We didn’t have to be on the ground – just past the timing line.]  The guys all gave us suggestions on how to start her, and the stop chair even googled  a hot start on a piper warrior.  The resulting suggestion was to prime her 2 or 3 times and crank….which was the norm for Heather prior to all the trouble we had.  Heather went back to her old faithful way of starting the plane – and she started right up.  We were ready to go and make this 4th and final leg of the day.

On to Alabama and then to Hot Springs

June 28, 2010

On Thursday morning Heather and I got to the airport at 5:30 a.m.  We loaded the plane, handed in our flight plan, thanked Bill for coming in so early, did a preflight inspection of the plane, and got in ready to go.  She started with no issue…and we knew we were on our way.

We took off at just after 6:30 and headed out to gain speed before coming back for our fly by to continue.  There’s several things that have to happen all at the same time.  First, we’re flying full throttle….and that means the plane is going fast.  (Now, for those of you who know aircraft….the Piper Warrior is not the fastest plane around….we realize that…. but still, we were flying her full-out, which is not how we usually fly.)  Most of the fly bys were prescribed to be flown at 200 or 300 feet AGL.  This means Above Ground Level.  Again….we don’t usually buzz past this low going this fast.

My job was to start our timer at the timing line.  Prior to the race we had been given specific instructions for executing the fly by and part of that included being told exactly where the timers would be marking time.  We had 2 timers in the plane and each started one on my cue.  We then noted the exact time as well – just in case there was a discrepancy later on, we would be able to show our data.  We did the fly by and headed towards Alabama…we were racing once again!

In Tuscaloosa we were met by the stop chair and offered soda, water and snacks…though it turned out all he really had to give us was water.  Apparently they had a decent spread for the teams on Tuesday – but since we were two days behind, the staff had raided the soda and snack supply.  We didn’t mind – we had other priorities like checking the weather and moving on.  One team was stuck there, waiting for a part.  We tried not to be rude, but quickly got out of there and headed to Hot Springs.

The plane didn’t want to start and after several attempts, we finally phoned Mitch.  I think both Heather and I were silently holding our breath…hoping we weren’t in for more of the same…problems!  Mitch talked Heather through what to do and she handed me the phone while she executed his instructions.  The plane started, I yelled thanks to Mitch, hung up, and we were off.

This leg was uneventful and by now we had a rhythm for cockpit management.  Heather would handle the take-off and landing portion of the flight including the fly bys.  She also handled radios because it played to her strength as an air traffic controller.  I was in charge of the paperwork and logistics for each stop, handled the timing start and stop and took the controls for the straight and level portion of flight.  We were both responsible for spotting traffic and every decision was discussed so that both opinions were heard.

While Heather flew, I reviewed the fly by procedures, timing line position, and my checklist for what needed to be accomplished at the next stop.  (This was also my chance to eat something!)  We had specific paperwork required for fueling and other lists or papers we needed to sign or submit depending on our intent to fly, stay or require en route work – so I spent time filling out forms as needed.  While in the plane, I kept the sectional in hand and periodically updated Heather as to where we were.  Once at altitude, Heather would trim the plane and I would take over.  I was careful to stay as close to our flight path as possible to gain every possible knot.  Heather would take time to get something to eat, and then review the procedures for the next airport.

As we got closer to Hot Springs, the haze grew thick.  We could see down to the ground without issue, but our view out in front was compromised.  Finding the airport was challenging, though we knew if we flew the GPS line we would be led right to it.  Problem is, we had to drop low for the fly bys, and that meant losing a lot of our ability to find things (like the airport) in the distance.  We arrived at Hot Springs and were greeted by Team Up!  (Classic #34)  Mary and Leah were also stuck – waiting for parts to arrive to get them back on their way.  In the true spirit of sisterhood, they had already told the fuel truck to get out to us ASAP, and they greeted us with hugs and bottles of cold water.  Knowing we were on a tight timeline, they offered to help with anything we needed, and understood when we were quick about checking weather and winds and heading out again.

Bravoski was hot by this point.  We had flown 2 legs so far and the temperature in Hot Springs was over 100 degrees.  It took several tries to get her started and we noticed the affect on the ammeter during our run up.  We quickly pulled all electrical equipment that wasn’t vital, and reviewed the result.  Slowly, we began to see the numbers register normally and we felt comfortable taking off.  We were on our way to Cameron, Missouri…