Monday, June 29, 2015

KDOT Aviation Director reports on her experience at the Air Race Classic

KDOT Aviation Director Tiffany Brown (right) and her teammate Taylor Humphrey pose in the plane they used in the Air Race Classic.

I think it’s rare to go into an experience knowing that two weeks of your life will be a once in a lifetime experience. The personal and financial sacrifices it took to make the race happen for Taylor and I will be hard to replicate but we both agreed we left the finish line with no regrets.

An aerial view of the Mississippi River.
The race started on Monday, June 22 when groups of 5 airplanes would be signaled to start their engines together and taxi to the starting line one behind the other. There were over 50 teams so the time between each engine start was long enough that I was able to watch about the first 20 before getting in my airplane. Hearing so many engines roar all at once gave me goosebumps. One by one we would make our radio calls onto the runway. Aviation radio calls have a simple structure: where you are, who you are, what you are doing, where you are. The race started at Stafford Regional Airport in Fredericksburg, Virginia and when our turn came we made our first race call. “Stafford, Classic Racer 45, line up and wait Runway 15, Stafford.” We proceeded onto the runway and waited for the flag drop. As it dropped we went full throttle and made our departure call, “Stafford, Classic Racer 45, on the roll Runway 15, Stafford.” The Cessna we flew has traffic awareness in the cockpit that visually and audibly warns the pilot of nearby traffic to assist in preventing mid-air collisions. As we departed our screen lit up with targets, “Traffic, 3 o’clock, high” then “Traffic, 1 o’clock, low” our heads were on swivels as we were approached and passed or were passed by other racers. The first leg was the busiest and the traffic naturally spread out after our first stop and fly-by.

Each race leg is timed individually and to stop the clock a racer would do a “fly-by” at 200 feet above the ground at a selected airport. These fly-bys would make or break your race score. If you did anything wrong a racer would be penalized anywhere from 4 to 10 knots. Penalties came from missing one of your required radio calls, to forgetting to turn on your landing lights, or flying the fly-by to high or low or in the wrong corridor. Our team encountered one penalty during the race for missing a radio call on the first of the nine stops and we flew the rest of the fly-bys perfectly.

My co-pilot, Taylor, and I would switch off legs. At each leg we would do a fly-by and then circle to land, refuel, check the weather, eat something, and then takeoff again.  The pilot in left seat was responsible for flying the airplane or managing the autopilot and the pilot in right seat was responsible for everything else. Weather is such an integral part of flying and was the basis of all of our decisions to continue on or to stay at a stop and wait. In-between Lawrenceville, Ill., and Kirksville, Mo., we took a chance on the weather. A storm was approaching Kirksville that we would not want to fly into but the leg from Kirksville to Union City, Tenn., had killer tailwinds we wanted to fly in. A tailwind is when the wind is moving in the same direction as the airplane and a headwind is when the wind is moving in the opposite direction of the airplane. The difference between a headwind and a tailwind dramatically increases or decreases the ground speed of the airplane and plays a huge part in our score. Think of it as trying to swim upstream versus trying to swim downstream. We were one of two airplanes that took the chance on beating the storm and made our plan B to land off route if the storm beats us. Plan B would have completely taken us out of the race but no guts, no glory so we pressed on. The turnaround in Kirksville was the fastest turnaround of all our stops. It was luck that Kirksville prides themselves on their speed of refueling planes. There was no delay and while the other planes were on the ground waiting for the storm to pass we were making our departure fly-by to make it to the next leg. Taking that chance paid off and that leg was our highest scoring leg in the race.

The rest of the race was relatively uneventful. The leg to the finish line in Fairhope, Alabama was riddled with isolated thunderstorms. The thunderstorms popped up on both sides of us as we were about 20 miles out of Fairhope and closed up behind us. As they closed up they caused about 6 racers to have to divert and fly into the airport from the south instead of the most direct route from the north. We concluded that we had gotten lucky and were relieved to be done. In three days we spent 20 hours in a cockpit side by side. Taylor was the youngest racer to fly the race this year and she did a phenomenal job. Taylor has an uncanny ability to stay calm under stress, which is a great trait to have in someone sitting next to you.

Our team ended up placing 42nd in a field of 55 registered racers. We ended up with a technical penalty for unreported maintenance to the airplane that resulted in a 5-knot penalty on every leg. While the technical penalty killed our score we were both extremely pleased with how we flew the race and both think we did the best we could have done.

We both came home with 40 hours of flight time in conditions and terrain completely unfamiliar to us and landed as better pilots than when we took off. At the end of the race we kept getting asked what’s next. So what is next? Taylor will finish her summer working on her instrument rating so she can fly in the instrument conditions I described in my first blog (June 23). She will start college in the fall at Southwestern University in Winfield with plans to join the Air Force after college. I will continue working on my flight instructor rating so I can start to pass down all of the knowledge I’ve worked so hard to gain. It’s humbling to think for two weeks we spent time in the ranks of the modern-day Amelia Earharts. These are woman with the same adventurous spirit she had when she and a group of woman started the air race in 1929. It was a life changing experience filled with contacts and friendships we will keep for a lifetime.

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