Comanche 400 Race Team: The Co-Pilot's Perspective
by Melody Horton
When asked to write an article for comanchepilot.com, I at first couldn't imagine what I could contribute that would be of any interest. But, I do have something in common with you all. I'm a Comanche pilot. And I'm very proud of that accomplishment. I now own and fly N5162P, a beautiful 1958 Comanche 180. But my original Comanche experience occurred in a 1963 fuel-injected 250. In 1993, I transitioned from a Cherokee 140 to the Comanche 250 and went on to log more than 450 hours in that airplane. That experience in the Comanche 250 is the sole reason I got into air racing, and thus, brings me to the subject of this article: Air Racing.
Melody's beautiful Comanche 180
I have had a ball air racing. I would recommend it to all pilots. It's fun, you meet lots of nice people, and it makes you a better pilot. So, with the thought in mind that some of you might like to try air racing, let me address two issues. One, how I got into air racing, and two, what's involved in air racing. And, beware, there's a lot of hangar flying to follow.
How I became involved in air racing
Well, I was pushed and pulled into air racing. I really never thought that I would want to race. However, there was one lady pilot who always encouraged me. It was Marion Jayne. Marion was a member of the Dallas Chapter of the 99s. When I joined them in 1992 and went to my first meeting, I sat meekly in the back of the room. A nice older lady came in and sat down next to me and introduced herself as Marion. I didn't have a clue who she was until one of the other members asked her about a race. A light bulb clicked on in my head and I realized she was that lady air racer I had read about! Well, over the years, I got to know Marion pretty well. She regularly prodded me to get into racing. She flew a Twin Comanche and knew I was flying a 250 Comanche. She kept telling me I needed to race that Comanche. Well, I kept saying "yeah, yeah, maybe someday". In 1995, Marion established the U.S. Air Race, a 2,000 mile cross-country race. The course was from Napa Valley, CA to Fort Worth, TX, Meacham Field. She came back from that first U.S. Air Race telling me about a first-time air racer who won the race in his Comanche. A Comanche 400! That was the first time I heard the name, Charlie Horton. The years went by and Marion occasionally prodded me about getting into air racing. And, of course, I never did anything about it. Sadly, Marion passed away from cancer in December of 1996, and it was a great loss for our chapter. I was chairman of the Dallas 99s then, with no one to prod me along, I didn't think too much about air racing at that time.
The U.S. Air Race was renamed the Marion Jayne U.S. Air Race and continued on. In February, 1999, out of the blue I got an e-mail from Marion's daughter. It was a very simple e-mail. It just said an experienced air racer with a Comanche was looking for a co-pilot for the U.S. Air Race in June and she asked if I would be interested. She thought of me because she also knew I flew the 250. I almost said 'thanks, but no thanks' because I really didn't think air racing was for me. But it occurred to me that this might be a great opportunity for me to learn from an experienced air racer, and besides, it sounded like fun. So I called and asked for details. After talking with her, she gave me the name and phone number for the racer who was looking for a co-pilot. It was Charlie Horton. The guy who won the 1st U.S Air Race in 1995. The guy Marion had told me about! Well, that was on a Friday night. On Saturday morning, I paced for a couple hours trying to get up the nerve to call this Charlie Horton guy, and finally did, about 11 o'clock. He was out in his hangar doing some pre-race planning for the Great Hawaiian Air Race. After talking with him for a while on the phone, he offered me the job as his co-pilot. He was looking for a new racer; someone who wanted to learn about it, and he was willing to take a novice like me and show me the ropes. After that, the fun began.
We decided to meet in College Station, TX to get to know each other and do a little practicing. We did that on March 6, 1999. We did a little "ground school" on race procedures and then went out to fly the airplane. He introduced me to a couple of simulated fly-bys in the 400, and I was immediately hooked. But it was obvious I needed some training. He was planning to fly the Sun 60 Air Race at Sun 'n Fun in April, and decided that would be a good "starter" race for me. Before I knew it, I was signed up for the Sun 60. It is a 60 mile race around a triangular course. I was Charlie's co-pilot for that race, but I didn't have a clue about what I was supposed to do. It was a sink or swim operation and I think I sank pretty far that day. But, we won the race! Or should I say, Charlie won the race. I came away with a first place plaque, but I didn't feel I deserved it.
I'm sure Charlie was a little worried about his new co-pilot. I needed more practice. Lots of practice. So, we decided to run the Illi-Nines Air Derby in May. What a fun race! The 99s who sponsor that race are really a fun group of people. We ran that race, and things started to click for me. I started to feel like I knew what my job was. We went to the banquet that night after the race and for the first time I saw all those beautiful trophies on display. I "oohed" and "aahed" over them. I even took pictures of them. I would have been thrilled to have any one of them. But, oh, those 1st place trophies were magnificent! Well, they started announcing the winners one by one, until they finally got to first place. And they hadn't called our names yet! Did we do that bad?? Did we not place at all?? No! We won!! We took home those beautiful first place trophies! I was thrilled to death. And for the first time, I felt like I deserved it. I felt like I had done my job and contributed to the win. That trophy is by far my favorite. That's because it was my first.
Charlie and I were starting to work like a well-oiled machine. We were ready for the U.S. Air Race. In June we flew to Gallup, NM, for the start of the "big" race. That race was approximately 2,000 miles long and went from Gallup, NM, to Hereford, TX, Hutchinson, KS, Knoxville, IA, Oshkosh, WI, Kirksville, MO, and finally to Bloomington, IN. We felt a little behind in our planning and almost didn't fly the Gallup 300 the day before the "big" race. The Gallup 300 was a 300 mile "warm-up" race from Gallup to Kayenta to Winslow, AZ and back to Gallup. At the last minute we decided to fly it, but we really didn't expect to win. But, guess what. We won that one, too! We had three wins in a row! We didn't find out the results of the Gallup 300 until the morning of the "big" race. We were awarded our trophies, and then we rushed off to start our 2,000 mile journey across the country. Since the Comanche 400 is one of the fastest airplanes, we're usually one of the first ones to take off. I always feel a little rushed at the beginning of the race because of that.
We went all the way to Oshkosh the first day; then on to Bloomington by noon the second day. We had two mechanical problems. On the first leg from Gallup to Hereford, we had two fuel injectors clog up, apparently from a bad load of fuel we picked up in Gallup. We were able to stop in Hereford and clean the injectors. On the second day, when we stopped in Kirksville, MO, we got out of the airplane to discover oil pouring from the cowling. The pressure fitting connected to the Hobbs meter had come apart and oil was pouring out. We lost seven of our 17 total quarts of oil. If we hadn't stopped in Kirksville, well . . . . I don't even want to think about what could have happened. We were very lucky. When all was said and done, we placed second in that race.
We participated in four more races together in 1999. In August, we ran the Okie Derby, where I flew the 400 as pilot and Charlie was my co-pilot. J That was a proficiency race where you have to estimate your time and fuel beforehand. I flew the airplane while Charlie continuously calculated our time and fuel burn enroute. We placed 2nd in that one. We finished that race within 3.7 seconds of our estimated time, and our fuel estimate was within four tenths of a gallon! That's pretty good considering we were burning 30 gallons per hour. Our overall average score was 99.41 pecent. The winner's score was 99.39 percent. As you can see, these races can be agonizingly close.
The next race was the Kitty Hawk Classic. We won that one and I'll discuss it more later. After that, we placed second in the Catbird 500 in Louisville, KY, and we came home with another first place trophy from the Florida 400. I could "hangar fly" all day long about all these races, but I want to share with you some of the details about what's involved in air racing.
How an air race works
Most speed race events start out the day before by handicapping the airplanes. The PIC and a check pilot go out and fly a pre-determined course. The check pilot is there to insure that the airplane is being flown full throttle and that the pilot is not doing something "questionable" to slow the airplane down. They take a number of GPS readings and then calculate an average number which becomes the handicap. This levels the playing field, so any airplane can participate. In the end, whoever beats their handicap by the highest amount, wins the race. It, therefore, becomes a test of pilot skill. It becomes a test of how well you do your pre-flight planning, how well you read the weather, and how precisely you can fly.
Then there's a pre-race briefing where the race director hands out the course and points out anything special the racers need to know. And sometimes, as I'll point out later, they don't tell you everything. You still have to do your homework. Most times the course is not published prior to the race. So, about 8:00 pm on Friday night, you get the course with all the intermediate stops or fly-bys, procedures for the fly-bys, etc. Once the briefing is over, the pre-flight planning stage begins.
Winning an air race is due to a combination of things. As Charlie says, it's the total package that wins the race. First, you need a good reliable airplane. We were lucky in the 2,000 mile race with regard to our two mechanical problems. In both cases, we were able to make it to the airport and do the fly-by to stop our time. Although our time was negatively affected from the clogged fuel injectors, we were able to fix the problem without having to drop completely out of the race. At the time, continuing to the checkpoint at Hereford seemed highly unlikely. I knew we had a serious problem when Charlie told me to "find a place to land". We were in the middle of nowhere east of Albuquerque with no airports within range. Not only did it appear that we might not be able to continue the race, it looked like we might have to make an off-airport landing. We definitely didn't want that. Second, you've got to do your pre-flight planning. Third, you've got to be able to read the weather. And, fourth, you've got to fly precisely. You can't make any mistakes. Any mistake will cost you precious time.
Pre-flight planning and the weather
The first thing we would do after the race briefing was start planning the course. I would start by plotting the course on sectional charts. And, let me tell you, drawing an accurate course line out on multiple sectional charts on a carpeted floor or on a hotel bed was quite a challenge! While I was struggling with that, Charlie was programming the course into his laptop computer. He has the Jeppesen FlightMap program which interfaces with his Garmin GPS. By using the FlightMap program he could program waypoints anywhere we needed them. The published GPS coordinates at an airport are typically located at the center of the airport. If we used those coordinates to fly to the airport and then tried to make the turn to go out and fly the mandatory fly-by down the entire length of the runway, going to the center of the airport initially wouldn't work. But with the Jeppesen FlightMap program, we could pick up lat/long coordinates a little ways off the end of the runway, maybe ¼ to ½ mile. We could then fly to that waypoint and be able to make the turn to the runway for the fly-by. At 250+ mph, there is no way we could make it to the runway threshold otherwise.
After the computer was programmed, we then would program both of our GPS's with all the waypoints. Once all that was done, we could check the weather. We would get the winds aloft forecast for the next morning at 3,000, 6,000, and 9,000 feet. Charlie would use his electronic E-6B to do all the calculations for each altitude for the departure, enroute, and destination winds. After several hours of intense planning, we would finally get to sleep. There were times it was as late as 2:00 am when we finally got to bed. We would have to get up about 5:00 am to finish our planning. Early the next morning, we would get the winds again and Charlie would go through all the calculations again. He would also get the previous winds in order to establish a trend. At that point, we would identify our target altitude. That's the altitude we would go to initially, no matter what. However, on the way up to our targeted altitude we would look for what Charlie calls the "sweet" spot. Charlie would hold a constant rate of climb and we would watch the GPS for a "kick" in groundspeed. He wouldn't stop at that altitude, but would make a mental note of the altitude in case we got to our target and the speed wasn't there. If that was the case, we'd go back down to the altitude where we got the "kick". Also, if we got to our target altitude and the speed wasn't there, we might go up or down a little, again looking for the "sweet" spot. We might change 100 or maybe 200 feet and find better winds. On the way up we also watched the Outside Air Temperature. You can sometimes identify two air masses by a change in OAT. In many cases, the best winds can be found where the two air masses converge. If there was a significant change in OAT at a certain altitude, we would again make a note of that altitude in case we needed to come back to that altitude later. I can't give you an exact way to find that "sweet" spot. Give it a try sometime when you're climbing to a pre-determined altitude and I bet you will start seeing those "kicks".
Precision flying and navigation
In addition to planning and reading the weather, you have to fly precisely. Navigate precisely. Don't wash out any turns. Remember, seconds count. You have to perform the fly-bys correctly. Incorrect fly-bys will cost you precious time and could result in a penalty by the race officials. You must be precise.
I've told you a lot about what Charlie did as PIC. What was my job as co-pilot? First, and probably most important, I was another set of eyes outside the cockpit; looking for threats. Any threats. Birds, other airplanes, towers, any obstacle that might be in our way. As Charlie was flying the airplane precisely, many times his eyes were on the instruments, holding the heading and altitude. He needed another set of eyes outside the airplane. In addition, I had all the paperwork on my lap. Charts, flight guides, fly-by procedures, frequencies, announcement procedures. I did all the radio work. Most times you have to make call-outs a certain number of miles out from the airport. This is so the timers at each airport know you're coming. They clock you as you do the fly-bys, and they verify that you made the fly-by correctly. So you have to let them know you're coming. Sometimes you go into controlled airports and you, of course, have to let the Tower know you're inbound. I also briefed Charlie on the fly-by procedures prior to arriving at the airport; what altitude to be at, the specific fly-by procedure such as "fly the full length of the runway at 500 ft AGL". Then I would confirm with him the heading to the next checkpoint, so as soon as the fly-by was complete, he could turn PRECISELY on course. Races are won and lost by seconds, by 1 mph. So I can't stress enough the importance of precise flying. I also helped spot the airports. Again, at 250+ mph, you come up on an airport pretty quickly. You don't want to be on top of it before you see it coming. Not at 250 mph.
I want to hangar fly here for a few minutes and give you some reasons why I think we won some of the races. This will help reinforce the importance of planning, reading the weather, and precise flying. Let me start with the Gallup 300. Although our pre-flight planning seemed a little shaky to us, we decided to fly that race anyway. Two things stand out in my mind about that race. One was that we went high (12,000 feet) on the last leg. That's where the winds were. We got up there and weren't totally sure we had picked the right altitude. But as it turned out, there were only two planes that went high. We came in first, and the other "high" airplane came in second. We had made the right choice on the altitude. The other thing that stands out about that race is the runway at Winslow, AZ, our second checkpoint. We were three miles out and couldn't see the runway. The visibility was clear as a bell. Why couldn't we see it?!! It was a north/south runway and we were coming toward it from the north. It should be a piece of cake to spot, right? Well, not necessarily. We were three miles out and couldn't see it! Again, at 250+ mph, three miles is not very far and there wasn't much time to find that runway! Charlie was beginning to doubt the GPS and started to make a turn to the left to see if we could spot anything. But he immediately decided to turn back on course, to rely on the GPS, to maintain the precision of his flying. As soon as he turned back on course, I spotted the runway. It was a GRASS STRIP!!! It was not mowed and blended in with the surrounding countryside. We weren't looking for a GRASS STRIP! We made the fly-by! Whew!!! We almost missed that one. Several people did in fact miss that fly-by. We didn't know it was a grass strip. We weren't told that little bit of trivia at the pre-race briefing. Those race directors can be a little sneaky sometimes. However, if we had referred to an airport directory during our pre-race planning, we would have discovered that important piece of information. That would have been a nice thing to know. Again, that's another example of the importance of planning.
Another race that stands out in my mind was the Kitty Hawk Classic. The Kitty Hawk Classic consisted of two different race courses. We were supposed to run one course on Saturday and one on Sunday. And it was our choice which one we flew first. One course was a mountain course to the north and west of Charlotte, NC. It had six checkpoints. The other course was a flatland course to the east and south of Charlotte. It had 20 checkpoints. The race briefing didn't get over until 10:00 pm that Friday night. That's right. At 10:00 pm we started our planning. We could have just planned the 6-checkpoint course and it would have been much easier and taken a whole lot less time. But did we do that? Noooooooo! We planned both courses so we could choose the best course based on the weather the next morning. As it turns out, the winds indicated the fastest course that day would be the flatland course. That's okay, because we were ready for either course. So the flatland course was the one we took. As the race planes were taking off, the race director was watching. He had already figured out which course was the fastest. All the airplanes went toward the mountain course, except one. Us. We were the only ones who flew the flatland 20-checkpoint course. And, guess what. We won best overall speed over both courses. We picked the right course. The fastest course. That's due to the nearly all night planning session and picking the best course based on the winds that day. I think most people didn't want to stay up all night planning, so they planned for the easier of the two courses. They only had to program in six checkpoints, not 20. Believe me, I sure was tired that night doing the planning. But it paid off. We won. Let me tell you one other thing that stands out about that race. I giggled throughout the whole flight! That race was when I finally felt like I knew what I was doing and, therefore, I could relax and have a good time. Halfway through the race Charlie asked me if I was having a good time. Boy! Was I ever! I was still giggling after we taxied in and shut the engine down. What a rush that one was!
Another race that stands out in my mind with regard to reading the weather was the Florida 400. The morning of the race, the weather was a little "iffy" on the leg from St. Petersburg, FL, to Waycross, GA. There were some low clouds and fog along the route. We had calculated our target altitude to be around 6,000 feet. That presented a couple of problems for some people. Climbing that high takes time. Some people didn't think the winds up there would be worth the climb. Climbing that high also meant going through the Tampa Class B airspace. Chances are somewhat likely that if you go through airspace like that, the controllers might just vector you somewhere you don't want to go, or they might not give you the altitude you want. We took a chance and called up Tampa Approach. They cleared us into the Class B. We explained to them we were in a race and requested AROUND 6,000 feet. The controller was wonderful. He granted our every wish. We told him we were looking for the best winds. He told us to tell HIM what altitude we wanted to stop at. I think we ended up at around 6,300 ft. I can't believe that controller. I'm sure if we had created a traffic conflict, he wouldn't have been so nice. But, that wasn't the case. He let us do exactly what we wanted. We were the only airplane that made the decision to go high. Everyone else stayed low and fought the low clouds and poor visibility. Even though we climbed high, the winds up there were worth it and we won again. The other racers are still shaking their heads about that one.
I could easily continue hangar flying about the air races, but I'll stop for now. Racing is so much fun and you get so much out of it. You go to places you probably wouldn't have even thought of and you meet some of the nicest people. Friends for life are made all across the country. It's another great excuse to go flying. And, as Charlie says, after air racing, you never run out of stories for hangar flying. But, the most important thing I want you to get from this article is that you can race, too. Try it sometime. There are a number of short weekend races that are good starter races. Anyone is capable of racing. And, you never know, you might be a winner, too!
Oh, I married Charlie Horton on June 14, 2002. So, this was really a love story you just read. And, you thought it was about air racing. J
Melody Horton holds a Bachelor of Science Degree with a major in education. Formerly employed in various administrative positions with several companies, and in the property management field, she moved to Louisiana and is now office manager for an auto repair business. Melody learned to fly in the Dallas, TX area and earned her private license in 1992 in a Cherokee 160. In 1995, she earned a multi-engine rating in a Cessna 310, and now has over 870 hours total time, with more than 560 hours in Comanches.