Four days of adventure

Here is the race as seen by the co-pilot.

It all started Tuesday morning. We woke up early, got a quick weather briefing and start briefing, and then headed to the airport. We had to wait for fuel for quite some time so the start was delayed, and as #50, we departed almost 2h after the initial start time. It was all a mix of stress to know where to go, what to do, to make sure we were ready at the right time and always at the right place. There was a long line of airplane holding short for the departure runway but everything went pretty much as expected, at least for us, and at least until take off.

Then, off the sky we were, climbing not too high but high enough to clear the Appalachian mountains coming up. Then about 20 min later, I saw our alternator on 0. Our battery was still showing close to 12V but that 0 was no good news. I had the pleasure to consult the yellow checklist for the first time in flight, that’s the one a pilot wished never have to consult, the one for emergency procedures. We followed it, tried to switch off and on all we could, but the alternator still showed 0. We looked on the chart for possible off-race airports with maintenance available with the help of our awesome ground crew, but we decided to continue on and see how fast the battery voltage was dropping. Nicoletta was optimistic and thought we could make it to the next race stop with no problem, but we still had 150 miles to go! To save the battery, we turned off our GPS and radios, at least until we were close to Pittsburg airspace. There, we needed our altimeter to work so we had no other choice. The battery was still around 11V and all was looking promising. We decided that as long as we were not under 8V, we would continue. But what we didn’t know is that actually the radios don’t transmit anymore close to 10V. So less than 30 miles before Millersburg, OH, we lost our way of communication with the outside world. Fifty planes were coming to the same airport at about the same time, full speed, either for landing flyby or departure flyby, and they had no idea we were there. We couldn’t make any announcement on the radio, so the timers didn’t know either. We had a procedure for flyby with no radio, and we tried to follow it. Nicoletta lined up with the runway and descended to 200′ AGL, I flashed the landing light, and she rocked our wings, at full speed, at 200′, pretty fun! Then we climbed out to Coshocton, OH, for the landing airport. We had no AWOS so didn’t know the altimeter setting or the wind direction, or the runway in use. I tried to call the FBO, but of course, my phone wouldn’t sync with my headset, so I had to yell in the phone our location before arrival and in the pattern but I couldn’t hear them. We finally followed a plane until we landed. Then we were happy to have made it!! The maintenance people were expecting us, and another plane who had lost their alternator at take-off, and they worked on our plane for at least an hour. So we planned the next leg because we had faith into these guys and we got the plane fueled. Everybody was so nice with us, feeding us, taking care of our plane and us. They found the problem pretty quickly but of course it takes a bit of time to take things apart and put them back together, so by the time they had finish to replace the broken wire, we were ready to go. 

We hoped for only one thing: a less memorable second leg! These people were so nice, they even didn’t charge us for the repairs, all they asked for was a picture with us.

To leave, they had to jump start us as the battery was not charged enough, but it worked and our alternator was showing a full charge. Yay!! We were ready for Indy!

This second leg was not that memorable, which was exactly what we needed! This second flyby was a lot less stressful, as we saw downtown Indy skyline in the background. With a radio, things were still a little hectic as a lot of planes are arriving and departing the same airport, and with traffic moving at full speed for flyby to land or departure flyby, everything goes really fast in every direction, but it was easier than our first flyby. 

The next leg to Decorah was the longest one and we couldn’t afford to divert around weather or we would have run out of fuel. The radar was showing weather coming in on the way so we decided, after lots of debating and looking at a million forecasts, to stay in Indy overnight. That’s how I got my first “Bob Evans” experience (for my French people, it’s just a chain restaurant). Our hotel was a lot less nice than in Frederick but a good pilot (and co-pilot) doesn’t dwell on little details like that and just get the sleep they can get!

Next day we finally departed to Decorah, Iowa, after a little storm passed through to offer us another beautiful rainbow.

Luckily we had favorable winds most of the way and the leg wasn’t as long as it could have been. Only 2.5h for 384 miles, or an average speed of 152 mph. One of our fastest speeds. Actually the next leg to Minnesota was even faster at 158 mph average. And it was nice to see lakes everywhere, and forests, all green and blue. It was also a little bumpy but smooth air was pretty rare during the race. In Bemidji, MN, we knew some weather was coming in and we had to make a decision promptly as to stay there overnight or leave to Spencer, Iowa. After checking the weather a billion times and calling the weather briefer, we decided that it was now or never. So off we went again. And it started to rain. The very dark clouds to our west let us taking off and do our flyby under VFR conditions (rain is no big deal, only visibility and cloud altitude matter), but I took a picture of the METAR on my phone, just in case someone contested… We escaped just in time and we were the last (or one of the lasts) to be able to that day. The winds were looking more favorable the next day, but the weather was iffy and, as we found out along the way, the winds aloft forecast is pretty unreliable. We ended up being pretty happy with our decision since a storm headed to Bemidji that next morning and pilots who stayed there overnight got delayed. Once in Spencer, we had flown more than half the distance in half the time allowed. We had only 4 legs left and 2 full days. That’s when we realized that we could actually do this for real and get to New Mexico before the Friday 5pm deadline.

The next day was my second most dreaded leg, Kansas. For those who don’t know my former adventures through Kansas, or have never been to Kansas, it’s the most windy place ever! They have the worst storms and high winds is what they get on a daily basis. I still don’t understand how Cessna decided to settle there, and how planes can fly there. As expected, it was the most windy and bumpy leg, and the scariest approach into the airport. We departed with 46 kts of headwinds. It’s huge. It’s about 1/3 of our speed right in our face. Imagine driving a car with as much gas as going 90 mph but the car would move at only 60 mph. During a race, when you are trying to go as fast as possible! Thanks to wonderful competitors, we were told to climb up to 8500 ft to get about no headwind. Climbing hurts performance since the energy used to go fast and forward is used to going up instead. But that day, it was worth it. We managed to limit the disaster and our average speed was 126 mph (our handicap – base speed being almost 145 mph). And up there the air was much smoother. But close to the airport, we had to descend and the air was so bumpy, it was hard to just set up the radio frequencies and read all my documents. The approach to the airport was pretty scary with the winds and bumps all over the place, but Nicoletta did a good job keeping the plane under control. At this point, all I wanted was to leave Kansas and be over this! But, problem, again, there were clouds in Oaklahoma, near the next destination. And we cannot fly if the clouds are too low. So if we decide to leave, go through a flyby, then we are on the clock and if we have to land to wait the weather to pass, then we waste time and we are pretty much done. So we needed to be sure to make it through. It seemed reasonable to think that we could so we left, eventually. The headwinds were still pretty strong so we had to climb high again, at 7500 ft. We had some complicated airspace to cross on that leg and it was actually easier to be higher, so it worked out for us. Then Oklahoma was a lot smoother and the flight was way more enjoyable. So much that we decided to make it to Texas. We had our ground crew the whole time trying to decide do we go or do we stay, but the threat of high winds and high density altitudes on the last leg was such that we wanted to do it early in the morning, if possible. So we left Oklahoma to Texas that day. We could have made it to the final destination that same day, but decided to wait for the morning for New Mexico. It was so hot in Texas! We stayed there overnight and early morning we were ready to make it to Sandia and Santa Fe. 

The flight was smooth and pretty boring to New Mexico. A few mountains and windmills to clear, but the desert was so empty! Except for the crop circles everywhere. But pretty much nothing.

We were afraid that we would not find the last flyby airport easily because the runway is very narrow and in line with a street, in the middle of nowhere. But we found it! It was exciting! We did our last flyby super easily, because we were pros at it by then! Then we climbed and turned right towards Santa Fe, avoiding the mountains in front of us. Then it was just a relax extra 30 miles to get to Santa Fe to land. Of course the tower sent a jet towards our direction for take off as we were approaching for landing, but no factor… That’s how we made it to the terminus of our first Air Race Classic! 

The best in my opinion about this race is the pilots and all the volunteers. At each stop, we were greeted with cold water bottles that were very appreciated. People took care of us, fed us, helped us in any way possible. We signed dozens of autographs and people kept saying how they admired us. It was so weird and fun at the same time, unexpected but very touching. All these volunteers were so helpful and wishing to help as much as possible the whole time, at every stop. The pilots were also awesome. The camaraderie was remarkable, concurrents who could (should) have kept advice for themselves to win the race, helped everybody get the best tailwinds and the less bumps. It was not about winning the race, but getting there and having fun the whole way. We met great people and hopefully we will all stay in touch. We heard great stories about flying, and it was such a great experience and adventure! 

We heard today that we have only small penalties for supposedly flying a flyby too low, twice. Our GPS said otherwise but we don’t have any word on it. So we’ll just take the judge decision as it is. We had penalties for the first flyby that we didn’t announce on the radio (actually I did make the call but the radio was dead and only Nicoletta heard it) but these should be lifted as we followed the procedure for lost radio and got all the paperwork for en route maintenance done in time. Overall, we went beyond our expectations by finishing much earlier than the finish deadline and our time doesn’t look that bad. We’ll know the final results at the banquet tomorrow, so suspense for now!

We also learned a lot about the plane during this race. Flying full throttle in a Piper Warrior for 4 days in a row is not advised of course, but we did and the plane did great. We know now that when the engine heats a lot, the GPS gets dark, may reset its database, the iPad turns off, and all kind of useful technology onboard becomes unusable. That’s why piloting a plane with the basic instruments is good skills to have! Also, I would recommend to anybody flying in the summer in the super hot southern states to keep their vents open, it was a luxuary for us that we couldn’t afford to go as fast as possible, but we appreciated them for the last 10 min between flyby and landing!!

And to finish, some pictures of cool planes we saw along the way. If you didn’t know, in my world, there are small planes, big planes, and cool planes. These belong to the cool plane category.

Now, we have to fly 10h back home on Monday, with no more fun company on air to air radio, and back to normal life on Tuesday. We hope the tailwinds will be in our favor this time, and maybe we’ll see interesting things on the way, like an ovni or something?

See you soon Indiana!

Chloé 

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