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Air Race Olympics

A 15,000-mile sprint around the world

A little cheer went up in the Rockwell Commander 690 as the controller's voice — clear and well-modulated — came over the speaker. With no more of an accent than a Nebraskan, she assigned our squawk code and cleared us to Nome, Alaska. The seemingly routine radio exchange marked the end of our week-long journey across Russia, where the English language only comes buried under a thick accent, and high-quality com radios exist only in transient airplanes. The entry into U.S. airspace also marked the beginning of the "real" air race.

The highly structured air traffic control systems in Europe and Russia forced the pilots of the 27 airplanes participating in the first around-the- world air race to fly specific routes from Geneva, Switzerland, to Helsinki, Finland, and then Moscow, Russia, and across Siberia, with little room for even altitude changes. The pilots, springing from 13 countries, used that time to scope out the competition and to learn how to stretch the race rules to within a cable strand's width of the breaking point — information they would need in what amounted to a free-for-all, all-out sprint down the coast of Alaska and Canada to Victoria, British Columbia, then on to Fresno, California, before the 2,000-nautical-mile, all-day marathon across the United States to Frederick, Maryland, home of AOPA. After a two-day breather, sightseeing in Washington, D.C., the racers packed up for the home stretch to Goose Bay, Newfoundland; Godthaab, Greenland; and one last fuel-tank- stretching cannonball run to Cannes, France, where the winners' circle awaited one crew from each of two categories: piston and turboprop airplanes.

For those in the 21 piston airplanes and six turboprops vying for a winning spot, the final week of the 21-day globe-spanning tournament was one heady leg after another. But even the most competitive in the eclectic group of pilots still cherishes most the memories and thrills of being with the first large group of general aviation airplanes to fly across the former Soviet Union in at least 70 years, and probably ever.

At every stop in Russia, the racers were met by curious onlookers, many of whom had never seen a person from outside their own country, let alone a ramp full of foreigners and a band of airplanes varying from a Glasair III kit-built to a Fairchild Merlin.

I accompanied the race as an onlooker from its start June 20 in Geneva until the stop in Victoria. I then headed back home to Frederick and covered the group's stay there and later watched enviously at the airport fence while the last airplane launched for Goose Bay.

Quietly closing my notebook and shifting the heavy Nikon from one shoulder to the other, I hiked across the Frederick ramp to the office, watching a Cessna 210 and a Piper Malibu fold their wheels one after another and head northeast. On board the Cessna were three new friends from Sweden and Belgium. The Piper carried a remarkable family from Atlanta — husband, wife, and two sons, all pilots — on the journey of a lifetime. They are just a few of the cadre of international friends one makes on such an excursion. I was glad to be home but missed them and the competition already.

If my parting from the group was bittersweet, I can only imagine what it must have been like a few days later in Cannes for Bernard Lamy, race director for Arc en Ciel, a nonprofit French organization that promotes general aviation through air races. Arc en Ciel means rainbow in French and was the name of a French airplane flown in the early days of airmail delivery. Lamy is a former French air force pilot and an ardent supporter and enthusiast of general aviation. He and his team of organizers, including wife Maryse, spent more than two years planning the race. He made a reconnaissance flight on the route last summer.

After that run, he made several changes to the proposed Russian route, finding some of the approaches and many of the accommodations unsuitable.

Over the years, Lamy and Arc en Ciel have planned many air races, including a 1987 Paris-Beijing-Paris race and 1990's Malaysia International Air Race, but by far, he says, the legs across Russia for this race were the most challenging. Every detail was in doubt almost to the last minute. Just when all seemed to be set, the Russians would begin to change things. Even after we arrived in Moscow, the routes for the next legs, the availability of the fuel Lamy shipped in, and the positioning of controllers seemed ready to collapse at any moment. That in mind, things all in all went well across more than 5,000 nm of Russia, much of it over sparsely populated Siberia.

Lamy explained the two biggest challenges during a quiet minute as we cruised on a boat down the Lena River near the eastern Siberian city of Yakutsk. The challenges were importing the 87,000 liters of aviation gasoline and positioning the English-speaking Russian controllers on the domestic airways, where the controllers normally speak only Russian.

Russia's avgas contains high concentrations of lead, which isn't suitable for the high-compression engines on most airplanes from the West, especially at high power settings. Intent on importing 100LL avgas into Russia, he sought out a company that ships it in barrels, only to find that most every refiner ships fuel these days in large containers. Finally, in Scotland, he struck a deal with British Petroleum to provide the fuel in 55- gallon drums, but the drums each could be only partially full because eventually they would end up in the hold of an unpressurized Aeroflot cargo airplane. There must be room for expansion.

After trucking the 500 barrels from Helsinki to Moscow, he sent what wasn't needed at the Moscow stop on to Omsk, Irkutsk, Yakutsk, Magadan, and Anadyr by Ilyushin II-76 cargo aircraft. Irkutsk and Yakutsk were resting points for the competitors. The other three were refueling stops only.

All said and done, avgas in Russia cost the competitors about $12 per gallon, payable in advance. Jet fuel, readily available in Russia, went for 90 cents a gallon. Pilots of larger piston twins ended up paying about $15,000 for fuel in Russia, compared to as little as $2,000 for the turboprops — one case where a turboprop definitely is cheaper to operate than a piston-powered airplane.

Positioning the controllers was more a bureaucratic issue but one that a few years ago would have been an absolute impossibility, according to Lamy. Early in the planning, the Russians insisted that the participants fly on international airways, but in many cases, there would have been no suitable airports within range of the aircraft. Lamy's unrelenting enthusiasm for general aviation, French stubbornness, and quick wit eventually paid off, and the government agreed to position English-speaking controllers on the domestic airways — for a fee, of course. In the end, they simply shut down the airspace all along our route; nonetheless, there were strict warnings about staying on the airways lest you be met and then forced down by a MiG. No one had a problem in Russia, but one crew can verify that Swedish Viggen interceptors truly can cruise as slow as 190 knots. On the Geneva-to-Helsinki leg, the pilots looked back at their 4 o'clock position to see one of the nimble fighters flying at an extreme nose-high attitude off their wing tip; another loitered behind. The competitors had stumbled into Swedish airspace while flying VFR. At the Finnish border, the Viggens banked sharply right and dashed back home.

Though it's been weeks since I waved adieu to the competitors at Frederick, I still find my thoughts drifting back to some incident or a particular moment — like the night in Helsinki as the standings for the first leg of the race were about to be announced. Everyone knew that though the finish line was still thousands of eastbound miles away, the standings after the first leg would begin to define the pecking order, separating those along for the fun of flying around the world from those along for the fun of flying around the world and also trying to win the race.

The mother/daughter team of Marion Jayne and Nancy Palozola, flying a Piper Twin Comanche — and the eventual second-place winners — took that first leg for the piston airplanes. Jayne, the winner of more than 20 air races, is no stranger to the competition. She and her daughter knew what it would take to win this one and used every trick they knew to do it — flying with the air vents closed to gain an extra knot or two; coasting up to the fuel barrels, propellers stopped, at points where the clock kept ticking, giving the refuelers an extra second to get to work; sucking the landing gear up as soon as the airplane left the runway, and then banking toward the desired course with the gear still in transit — no sense wasting time climbing out on a runway heading. Each tactic individually maybe chiseled only a minute from the leg time, but this was a 15,000-nm race, and in the end, only 65 minutes would separate first from second place among the piston airplanes; some legs were won and lost by tenths of minutes. Shave a minute off here and there, and pretty soon, you might find yourself collecting the first-place trophy — and that was the prize. No one was along to win huge sums of money — there was none, only a trophy and the personal satisfaction. Participants paid $25,500 per crew of two, which included aircraft entry fees and food and lodging. The trip cost most American competitors between $125,000 to $150,000, by the time they added in the cost of fuel, oil, maintenance, and special equipment, such as survival gear for the North Atlantic.

Of course, this wasn't an all-out speed race, otherwise the winners would be easy to predict. Instead, the winner was the crew that could beat its "reference speed" by the greatest margin or, in the case of headwinds, get beaten by the reference speed by the least margin. For the piston airplanes, the reference speed was the standard day, maximum gross weight, 75-percent cruise speed as published by the aircraft manufacturer or modifier. A mod that increases horsepower or mandates a change to performance charts would change the airplane's reference speed. For the turboprops, the reference speed was the published maximum cruise speed.

The trick in selecting an airplane for such an event is in choosing one that can be modified to allow it to best its book speed. The overall winner, for example, was an F33 Bonanza, dubbed Spirit of Rochester, with a turbonormalizing system. The addition of the turbo system boosted the Bonanza's reference speed from 172 knots, which it was for the two stock Bonanzas in the race, to 191 knots. But owner Robert Wahl from Rochester, New York, and copilot Steven Nagorny from York, Pennsylvania, used the turbo and an oxygen system to take advantage of tailwinds up high. Also helping them out were two spar-flexing 100-gallon tip tanks that give the airplane 280 gallons of fuel. Even at a rich 17 gallons per hour, that's more than 16 hours of cruising, though the Federal Aviation Administration limited them to only 80 gallons per tip tank. Overall, Spirit of Rochester flew the entire trip in 73.1 hours at an average speed of 196.26 knots, 103 percent of reference speed. Jayne and Palozola in the Tailwinds Twin Comanche took 83.2 hours to complete the course for an average speed of 172.39 knots, 101.4 percent of their 170-knot reference speed. Third place went to Double Eagle, a Cessna 310 flown by Harlon Hain, a former U.S. Air Force SR-71 pilot, and Paul Hamer, both from Omaha. Their time was 74 hours for an average speed of 193.87 knots, 101 percent of their 192-knot reference speed. The leg time and speed were based on the wheels-off to touchdown time at mandatory stops. During intermediate refueling stops, the clock kept running, giving those, such as Spirit of Rochester, with range enough to make many legs nonstop yet another advantage. Double Eagle used their knowledge of terrain to help them on the Fresno-Frederick leg. They stopped for fuel in Cheyenne, Wyoming, where the elevation is 6,156 feet, decreasing their descent and climb time significantly.

Spirit of Rochester was one of four Bonanzas; the other three were A36s, one of them also turbocharged. Double Eagle was joined by two other 310s, and one other Twin Comanche competed with Jayne's Tailwinds airplane. Three Cessna 421s competed, along with three Cessna 210s, a Cessna 340, the Glasair, a Mooney 252, the Malibu, a Jodel D.140 Mousquetaire, and a Piper Aerostar 601P. An A-26K Invader was scheduled to compete, but maintenance problems kept it from starting. It did, however, join up with the race in Fresno and go on to the finish line.

The turboprop category consisted of an Aerospatiale TBM 700, two Beech Super King Air 200s, the Fairchild Merlin, the Rockwell Commander 690, and a Piper Cheyenne III, named Hors Ligne, that won the category. The Cheyenne was piloted by Swiss crew Bruno Keppeler and Nicholas Poncet. They completed the course in 48.9 hours at an average speed of 293.61 knots, 98 percent of their 300-knot reference. The pair of King Airs, one from France and one from Hong Kong, took second and third.

The countries represented were nearly as varied. The United States dominated with nine piston crews and two turboprops. There were three French, two Swiss, and two Swedish crews, and one each from Canada, Germany, Finland, Belgium, Norway, United Kingdom (though the crew of the Welsh Dragon prefers to be considered Welsh, thank you), Guatemala, Austria, and Hong Kong. The Invader crew also was from the United Kingdom.

Upon our rainy departure from Geneva, practically everyone claimed to be along just for the experience of flying around the world — no one would admit to being evenly remotely interested in actually winning the race. By the time we reached Moscow, however, the attitudes had changed. The competition was shaping up.

The long leg from Moscow to Irkutsk, with a fuel stop in Omsk for those who needed it, really set the stage for the rest of the race. From there on, the intensity was ratcheted up with each passing mile.

We rested anywhere from one to three days between legs, with spare time spent touring and participating in activities arranged by the race organization. On the ground during such times, the mood of the crews was jovial and cordial, but as take-off times neared, each crew became more and more introverted and focused on the day's flying. Communication and sharing of weather and wind information on the air-to-air frequency was common early in the race, but later, especially over Canada and the United States, the frequency was mostly used for disinformation. Crews would attempt to deceive competitors about the actual winds they were experiencing; no one wanted to admit their real groundspeed.

Though no crew would go so far as to compromise safety, there were times when some were less than honest with ATC. Controllers near Victoria, for example, wouldn't let one crew descend when they wanted, so they claimed to be picking up ice. The controller finally relented, just as another crew blurted out that they were at the same altitude a few miles behind and picking up no ice. The second crew then asked to descend, with the addendum: "We want down to win the race, not because of ice." They, too, got the descent.

Enroute refueling stops conjured images of the Indy 500, with crews priding themselves on how quickly they could get in and out — sometimes sucking up several hundred gallons of fuel and taking off again in fewer than 10 minutes. Outside of Russia, the refueling locations were entirely up to the crews — you were on your own. I was flying with the Guatemalan team in the Aerostar between Nome and Victoria. We swooped into Sitka, Alaska, minutes ahead of the Canadians in the Glasair. Eighteen minutes later, we launched with full fuel tanks and empty bladders. I can tell you without a doubt that the fixed-base operation there has practice in delivering quick turns.

Every participant came away with hundreds of such memories. Russian box lunches, for example, formed one communal memory and were the subject of frequent jokes. Before each flight, the participants were provided with a box lunch for the day. The Russians never quite got the concept down, however. Whereas the Swiss provided us with gourmet foods neatly packaged on compartmentalized trays, the Russians took a different tack. On the Moscow- Irkutsk leg, the competitors were surprised to unwrap a whole boiled chicken, neck and all, in each lunch sack. We had no utensils and really no inclination to eat such a thing, but just watching each unsuspecting crewmember unwrap his lunch broke up an otherwise long and rather dull flight.

By the time we left Yakutsk in eastern Siberia, the competitors were more suspicious of their lunches. Before the flight, they peered curiously into the plastic sacks, gross weight about 15 pounds each, this time to discover three large tins of ham and fish — no pop tops, can openers, or utensils. The natives seeing us off at the airport ate well that night.

The Russians seemed fascinated with the idea of women pilots. We had two all-women teams — Jayne and Palozola in Tailwinds, and Faith Hillman and Sue Nealy in the Spirit of Paul Mitchell, a Cessna 310. There were three husband/wife teams and several other women pilots, including Ilse de Vries, a 64-year-old California grandmother flying a Bonanza. The Russian press was anxious to find out how the women could leave their families for such a long time; it didn't seem important to them that the men were away from their families, too. Apparently, the Russian controllers thought the women's place was at home and not in the cockpit. Upon departure into IFR conditions off of Irkutsk, the two female teams were told to turn north for routes away from the mountains just east of Lake Baikal. The controllers couldn't be convinced that the "women-girls" were quite capable of flying in such conditions. (In fact, Hillman is a 747 pilot for a major U.S. airline.)

The Russian controllers seemed perplexed not only with the women, but with the volume of traffic. Upon our arrival into Yakutsk, one approach controller walked out, unable to handle the arrival of several aircraft at once. A supervisor had to take over. The Russians demanded that all the pilots report their positions at waypoints spaced only 10 to 15 minutes apart. The civil controllers had few radar sets and then only primary radar; the transponder reply lights didn't blink once across the whole country.

Armed with two and three GPS satellite navigation receivers each, the crews had no problem flying to the waypoints, but reporting the positions proved somewhat more complicated, as the Russians demanded distances and speeds in kilometers and altitude in meters and then provided altimeter settings in either millibars or millimeters of mercury. Winds aloft were in kilometers per hour, but surface winds were in meters per second. Needless to say, the pilots saw little of Russia from the air, but they are proficient with their whiz wheels.

Despite the charm and excitement of flying in Russia, about everyone was ready to leave the primitive ATC system, overly sweet Russian champagne, and mud-water coffee behind for at least some semblance of Americana in Nome. The cafe on Nome's main street (nearly its only street) sold out of steaks as most all the pilots opted for steaks and eggs for breakfast, after flying with the midnight sun from our fuel stop in Anadyr on Russia's east coast.

Perhaps the best souvenirs any of us brought back from the adventure — better than any snapshot or videotape — are the memories — memories spurred by everyday occurrences and conversations with colleagues and family. Ask any competitor how the trip was, and he'll probably stumble around for a simple answer; live and work with him for a while, though, and one by one, the memories and tales surface, clearer than any photograph.

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