Pilots

Bob Hannah

March 1, 1999

Bob "Hurricane" Hannah is a man who loves speed. He has won no fewer than seven National Motocross and Supercross racing championships, making him something of a living legend among motorcycle racing fans. Since 1995 he has also raced one of the hottest P-51 Mustang racers on the Unlimited air racing circuit, turning in the top qualifying speed at the 1998 Reno National Air Races. His personal airplanes have included a Pitts aerobatic biplane and a Yakovlev Yak-3 Russian fighter.

But of all the airplanes Hannah flies, his favorite — the one he would own if he could have only one and money was no object — is not the Pitts, the Yak, or even the hot-rod Mustang racer. It's his lowly little tube-and-fabric Piper Super Cub.

"Don't get me wrong," he adds quickly. "The Mustang's a great airplane. But if I could only have one airplane to fly for the rest of my life, it would be the Cub."

How can a little fabric taildragger that goes 100 miles per hour compete with one of the most legendary high-performance airplanes of all time? Simple, according to Hannah. "If I lived somewhere else, maybe I'd prefer a different airplane," he says. But the back country of Idaho, where Hannah does most of his flying, is custom-made for a Cub — especially one with 30-inch tundra tires (see " Wilderness Wings," May 1995 Pilot).

"Where I go in the Cub, you can't go in a Mustang," he explains. Flying through the canyons of eastern Oregon's remote Ohwyee mountain range, Hannah points out riverbeds, remote hilltops, sand bars, and small open patches in the rocky landscape where he and his friends have landed their Cubs. Many times each winter, he packs one of his three beloved golden retrievers into his airplane and sets up camp in the Ohwyees, flying out to even more remote spots to hunt the chukar partridges that nest on the region's rocky hillsides.

Sunday-morning breakfast trips are not only an institution among his pilot friends, they are also adventures in mountain navigation and short-field landings. Hannah and a friend once even landed their Cubs on the main road that went through a small town in eastern Idaho (having called ahead to get permission for the landing). They taxied up to the town's hotel, where they spent the night, and half the town turned out to watch them take off the next morning. "That was fun," Hannah recalls with a grin.

Fun, in the end, is why Hannah really prefers the Cub. "Racing a really hot Mustang is exciting," he explains, "but it's not really fun. When you're going over four and a quarter [425 mph] on that [Unlimited race] course, you don't have any room for any other thoughts, or an awareness of it being fun. It's also a lot of work. You can't see well, you're always worrying about your systems, and you have to be ready to Mayday or jump out at any time."

Hannah knows from whence he speaks. At last year's Reno Air Races, he had three emergencies, including a cowling fire and a broken elevator that pitched the racer into a 10-G pull-up, overstressing the airplane and causing Hannah to black out for several seconds before he regained control of the airplane. "It's a real thrill to fly that fast," he admits, "but I can get enough of a thrill in one week of flying Voodoo [the Yamaha-sponsored P-51 that he races] to last me a whole year." He pauses for a moment, then grins. "There's also a fine line between thrilling and scary."

Hannah began flying in 1980, after a broken leg put him out of motocross competition for a year. He had wanted to fly since he was a kid, inspired by the airplane stories his dad brought home every night from his job at Lockheed. But until 1980 there was either no money or no time. Since then, however, Hannah has made up for lost time. He bought a Piper Comanche before he even got his certificate, and he put 600 hours on the airplane in the first year. Turbo and pressurized Cessna 210s replaced the Comanche as he began flying himself around to motocross competitions, and he bought a Pitts in 1988. But the Super Cub, which he bought in 1985, is the one plane he has no intention of selling.

Puttering around the back country to find that perfect ridge on which to share a sandwich with his dog might seem like too abrupt a downshift for a man with racing fuel in his blood. But living on the road and the endless competition and pressure of a racing career can wear on a person, even if he's a national champion. And the Cub offers Hannah adventures that he can share with his friends and family. Indeed, one of the reasons he likes his Cub better than his Yak-3 fighter or his old Pitts biplane is that the Cub has two seats.

"I love flying anything I fly," he says, "but I really love giving rides and flying with people. And the Cub guys are some of the nicest people you'll ever meet."

Hannah still has the heart of a racer. He continues to do demonstration riding for Yamaha, and once a year he straps on a 450-mph Mustang and takes it around the pylons 50 feet off the deck to get his adrenaline fix for the season. But if Hannah's heart is that of a racer, his soul has the wings of a Cub. And most of the time, he would just as soon climb into his plane with his dogs, his girlfriend, or anyone else who wants to go flying, and take off for the back country. It may not be as thrilling, but it's every bit as much fun.