Video Interview with Stephanie Penney – Wife of Unlimited Pilot John Penney & Mother of Jet Pilot Heather Penney


On Saturday – the last big day of racing at Reno this year, I snagged a moment of Mrs. Penney’s time while her Husband John Penney was visiting his favorite fans in Section 3

 Saturday was hot – about 98 degrees.  It was mid day in the direct sun and Stephanie was so sweet to indulge me as I placed her behind the box seats in front of the Section 3 fans.  Her back was to her husband who just happened to be wowing long time fans by signing tee-shirts, caps, bodies, programs, taking photos, shaking hands, or whatever…  it’s Section 3 after all…

John Penney being the accessible pilot for which he’s known, takes time each year to personally meet and greet the loyal race fans of Section 3.  You can see some love for the fans in the background of this video interview.

 For years I have been watching Stephanie & John Penney walk hand in hand from the pits to the tarmac line where the Rare Bear sits waiting to be flown in Sunday’s final big race.  (The only time media is allowed to be close to all the aircraft at race start.)

 Even though the gregarious Pilot John Penney shakes hands with all other pilots, RARA officials, Pace Pilot Steve Hinton Sr., the friends, crew and some long-time photographers with whom he’s made friends; Stephanie is always the last person to touch her husband before he enters the cockpit of the Rare Bear

 I so admire passion when I see it in others.  Observing only a small sliver of time, I’ve witnessed the mother load of passion in the Penney family. I’ve seen a quiet ritual between them for many years.  

With a small kiss and a few spoken words, they share a confirmation of knowing the inherent risks and potential dangers in the next flight.  And in so knowing, choose to embrace the shared passion of flying with a meaningful moment of understanding, support and affirmation of what is most important: each other

 So there is my inspiration for wanting to talk with Stephanie Penney.  Now that she has two members of her family flying, I thought it would be interesting to learn how she copes with the stress, if any, and see if there really are rituals that keep the family strong. 

 Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us Stephanie!

 Good Luck and God’s Speed to the Flying Penney’s! 

Interview with Heather Penney Pilot of L-29 Raju Grace

What a pleasure it was to interview Heather Penney while at Reno this year.  She was quite a sought-after woman on this her debut year of racing at the National Championship Air Races flying Raju Grace, a beautiful L-29 in the Jet Class.

I was pleasantly surprised by her graceful manner in handling the multitude of photographers, press and fans who were literally screaming for a moment of her time – wanting photos, autographs, interviews and any conversation with her – almost as thought many would be satisfied if they could just look into those pretty eyes!

I met Heather while out photographing color (fans) for RARA.  All  of a sudden, I heard a big commotion the grandstands to my left.  Fans were hooting and hollering, people were standing up and waving.  Then, ever so slightly, I could make out the name the fans were shouting…”Heather – Hey Heather!”  I turned around and wouldn’t you know it, there was Heather, flanked by a photographer no less, walking through the box seats towards the pits, everyone within ear-shot going wild!

Of course I seized the moment…(opportunity)…being a fan myself, and journalist…  quickly I turned around and immediately began taking her photograph…wouldn’t you?  “This one will make it into the program next year, ” I thought to myself with serendipitous excitement!  In my mind I was shouting, “Get out-of-the-way! I wish that flippen photog would just move already..!”  Somehow he read my mind and moved to the side – evidently I have a powerful unspoken language.  I was able to get an uncluttered photograph of Heather in her smart, army green flight suit…with the name of the aircraft she was flying hand written on her leather name plate.

To my amazement Heather approached me with her giant smile and introduced herself.  In turn I asked if she wouldn’t mind a modest interview for the WarBirdBabe Blog.  Quite straight-faced she asked me to hold on for a moment while she looked at her schedule on her “Palm Pilot.”  …While waiting and observing this tiny woman I wondered how in the world she handles the G’s in the L-29 and F-16’s she flies for the Air National Guard?   Finally I noticed she found her pen.  She asked me what would be a good time for the interview and then, wrote the note to herself on her palm…a.k.a  the “Palm Pilot”  …That was a good one.  Down to earth and funny…  Then she followed up with, “OK, that’s 2:30 by the jet – see you then!… and by the way, my mom and dad (Pilot John Penney) are in Section 3 if you want to interview her (Heather’s mom)!” 

So the graceful Pilot Heather Penney gave me an interview under the wing of the L-29 Raju Grace she’s flying this year. (Only after asking me if I wouldn’t mind if she quickly spoke to an old family friend, someone whom she hadn’t had the opportunity to see yet at the races… a General Sherman I think she said as she ran up to him…and, after having just completed a lengthy video interview in the hot 98 degree sunshine, tarmac radiating heat (and melting shoes), with reflective video panels purposefully shinning on her face, and while still in her long sleeve flight suit), Heather Penney asked me if I wouldn’t mind if she made me wait a moment longer??  …No problem!

She’s a talented, graceful, mother, daughter, fighter pilot, jet race pilot and in my humble opinion, Woman of the Reno Race Year.   I hope you enjoy this simple interview…

We all hope to see you make this an annual event!

Good Luck and God’s Speed Heather Penney!

Kimberley West, WarBirdBabe

Interview with George Andre: Former SR-71 Test Pilot, Owner/Pilot of Race 3 “Zipper” a Pitts S-1C

George Andre is a fun-loving, serious pilot whom I throughly enjoyed talking with early in the week at Reno.

George is the oldest pilot racing in any of the six classes presented at the Reno Air Races and most likely is one of only a handful of men racing who have flown, within the earths atmosphere, at +2,200 mph – about mach 2.2.

George has quite a collection of aircraft experiences, knowledge and skill under his belt and still yearns to fly the fast-moving jets screaming overhead throughout the week – like the screeching F-18 heard during this interview.

George, a former fighter pilot, flew one of his favorite aircraft of all, an F-86 while in the service.  Other aircraft included the F104, F101 Voodoo, and George – a man of skill and nerves of steel, was a test pilot for the F104 Starfighter (a rocket with wings…also capable of mach 2.4).

In 1960 George worked for Lockheed as a Test Pilot and then moved on to Skunk Works where he worked with aeronautical genius  Kelly Johnson and as a Flight Test Engineer racking up over 55 hours of flight time in the SR-71.   (Did you know the SR-71 flew at an altitude of over 85,000 feet?!)  Listen to his description of what the earth looks like from that height and the incredible speed he flew.

George is honored to have been inducted into the Mach 3 Club as its 16th member by Kelly Johnson.  What incredible aviation experiences this man possesses- and he’s here,  flying a Bi-plane in the Reno Races.

I hope you enjoy this 9 minutes of interesting stories – I only wish I could release the other half hour of conversation about the secrete projects, area 51’s Groom Lake and things that go bump in the night…but if I did, I think the men in black might track me down…

tee hee hee…!

Windy Conditions & Close-Call Accidents Cancelled Unlimited & T-6 Gold Races…

Thanks to the windy weather and two unfortunate accidents, the 2010 Reno National Championship Air Races ended in disappointment for those waiting for the big T-6 and Unlimited Class races on Sunday. This is the first time in 47 years (baring 9/11/01) that the Gold Race for the T-6 and Unlimited Classes were cancelled.

With the emergency support staff stretched at both ends of the field and gusty winds blowing up to 29 mph, the limit being 30 for take off, the core group of pilots decided to stand down for 30 minutes and see if conditions would improve. Sadly, the winds continued to howl.

Unfortunate for race fans and especially disappointing for the crews and pilots who didn’t have the final opportunity to show what they really had under their hoods – so to speak, many of whom worked into the wee morning hours tinkering, or for that matter, exchanging engines in preparation of Sunday’s big Gold race. Crews for Voodoo & Rare Bear were some of the most disappointed I’d imagine…

The final Gold Races for the T-6 and Unlimited Classes were called off officially by Reno Air Race Association CEO and President Mike Houghton mostly for safety reasons.

In those windy conditions, only runway 26 was be available for landing. In the event of a may-day, runway 26 would be out of commission leaving those in the air with limited fuel and options for landing. Not a good scenario.

The RARA staff considered the option to postpone the final Gold Races to the following morning; however 99% of the 2500 volunteers that it takes to mange the event, especially the Pylon Judges, were all planning to leave that Sunday evening. Really, a logistical nightmare avoided should the races have taken place on Monday morning…

So the awards went to the winners of Saturday’s races. Steve Hinton Jr. took the Gold in the Unlimited Class, making this his second win in Race 7 Strega, and Dennis Buehn brought home is 1st Place Trophy for in the T-6 Gold race in his beautiful Race 43, Midnight Miss III .

The Jet Class was able to race their Gold event and pilot Curt Brown, flying Race 77, Viper with a posted speed of 515.582 , blasted in to first place, passing Mike Mangold in Race 12, Euro Burner.

Do we need an introduction for the newest female Jet pilot on the block? Yes we do – the fans were delighted to see the aviation abilities of newbie Heather Penney, Pilot of Race 21 Raju Grace, a beautifully painted L-29.  Her father, John Penney flies Rare Bear Race 77 a Grumman F8F Bearcat. Look for an interview with Heather and learn about her aviation career as an F-16 pilot in the 121st Fighter Squadron, Air National Guard, in Washington D.C.

The Super Sport class has and incredible story of survival this year. Pilot George Giboney had a may-day in his Thunder Mustang, Rapid Travel, Race 75 and safely landed near the runway.

Unfortunately, just when he thought the worst was over, his lightweight checker-board painted aircraft hit a swale in the dirt and tumbled nose over end, loosing the engine to the left (barely missing him inside his canopy); both the wings snapped off with the fuel spraying into the air like a water balloon and tail departing. Miraculously, when what was left of his aircraft came to rest, George was sitting upright in his chair, seatbelts on and canopy gone. What a ride from which to walk away… God has surely blessed this pilot.

Pilot Gary Davis flying a Cassutt, Race 40 named Miss USA had a wind related accident on the runway just as his class was in formation and taking off. The wind blew hard enough to tip him on his nose thus ending the race for him. Fortunately there were no other planes on his tail that got too close.

So this is only a summary of events at the 2010 Races.

Look for these interviews to be posted soon:

SR-71 Test Pilot George Andre;    Heather Penney, Pilot Jet Class;    Bill “Tiger” Destefani, Owner Race 7 Strega;    Chris Rushing Pilot T-6 Race 42 Honest Entry;    Mrs. John Penney & Section 3;    Dan Martin Pilot P-51 Ridge Runner;    Rick Martin – President of the Van Nuys Flying Condors;    Curt Brown and my friend and favorite – Bob Hoover, Living Legend, Test Pilot, Pilot, Aviation Pioneer.

Reno 2010 – Another Great Year at the Races!

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This year I had an opportunity to interview more pilots and crew than ever. I am so pleased to post these interviews in their entirety. With special permission from the RARA, I talked more candidly with the pilots and crews in the pits and was not concerned about hitting key points in only 30 seconds.

I really enjoyed hearing the individual stories of past flight experiences, interesting aircraft flown and or tested and what draws pilots and fans to the races each year. I take pleasure in learning more about the illustrious careers of these interesting people and I hope you will as well. I’ll be posting these interviews throughout the next few weeks and months.

Like every year, I wish there were more days to this event. I never seem to meet my goals for those I hope to interview. As the races approach the final two days of events, the crews and pilots are increasingly busy and focused.

This year the pilots and crews were all so very nice and gracious to let me steal a moment of their time – I appreciated every minute. My thanks to all who let me in their world for a moment – I truly loved meeting everyone.

Thank you Reno Air Race Association and all the volunteers, (especially media personnel who shuttle us around for a week) and for coordinating a wonderful event for the world of race fans scattered on every continent – it’s always amazing to see who shows up from where.

I for one think it’s the best spectator sport out there and seems to getting better every year – don’t you think?!

For those who didn’t have the opportunity to be there in person this year, here’s a tiny sliver of what happened for a few days in September, 2010 in Reno…