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

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.