Cheating on an Air Race

A pilot does what it takes to win.

Martha Lunken and her sister Mary
My sister, Mary, and me after winning an air race a couple years ago.Couresy Martha Lunken

Since competing in a local air race a few weeks back, on the heels of the Kentucky Derby and the Indianapolis 500, I’ve been ­wondering if this ­fascination—this lust to ­compete—is just part of our DNA. Are we ­genetically programmed to pit ourselves against each other to prove who’s the fastest, the most ­cunning, the most daring, the “best”—or maybe the ­cleverest cheater? I suspect research will eventually establish that this obsession has roots a million or so years ago when a Homo neanderthalensis challenged a Homo sapiens to a race across some frigid Eurasian steppe. At stake was the deed to an exceptionally warm and dry limestone cave in the best part of town (­location, location…). When the ­underdog—the sapiens guy—won, onlookers jumped up and down, ­brandished big sticks, and grunted: “Hey, dude, this is fun. Let’s chisel a trophy outta that rock. We can sell T-shirts, maybe roast a ­mammoth or two.”

As usual with us Homo sapiens, things got out of hand. These days, we’re racing more than ever: on foot; with bicycles, motorcycles, go-karts, tractors and heavy equipment; using cars, dog sleds and skis; and in powerboats, sailboats and airplanes. If it moves, runs, slides, floats, rolls or flies, there’s a race. Even some animal friends—dogs, horses, turtles—have learned they can earn approval, and treats, by racing against each other. It’s interesting that birds, the closest thing to airplanes, don’t race—nor do cats, who don’t give a damn about attention or treats…or much of anything.

I’d decided not to compete in the recent 32nd Flying Knights Air Race. See, it’s sponsored by some guys at the airport who won’t invite me to join their club. It doesn’t matter that I wouldn’t accept—in fact, I admire the few all-male bastions left—I just want to be asked. But a friend gently suggested I quit acting like a prima donna.

“C’mon, it’ll be fun. And there’s gotta be a way to cheat…or maybe we can just fly it backwards.”

So I put on my big-girl pants and taxied my 63-year-old Cessna 180 to the ramp, joining 14 other entrants for registration and briefing.

Race rules may change slightly each year but usually involve ­estimating your time around a 100-mile-ish, three-legged course. Supposedly, spotters are stationed at the mandatory turn points, but I think that’s debatable; I won one year in a Cub by turning onto the second leg when the target airport was getting close but not exactly in sight. Time starts when the tower clears your airplane (by its racer number) for takeoff and ends when, cleared for the option, ­contestants fly down the runway past the Knights’ clubhouse.

But race officials decided to spice things up this year: They required participants to base their time estimates around the course on something assigned as “the ­manufacturer’s maximum speed.”

“What do ya mean ‘manufacturer’s maximum speed’? Vno? Vna? Redline? Where in the hell does it say a 1956 Cessna 180’s ‘maximum speed’ is 144 knots?”

Outrage and threats from most ­flyers had no effect, and, grumbling, we used the questionable, ­mysterious and highly inflated speeds. With ­horror, I realized that normal cheating strategies wouldn’t work, so I resorted to the “Fran Bera Recipe for Air Racing.”

In 1962, when I was learning to fly, a wonderful publication called Flying magazine ran a story titled “How Fran Flies Faster.” This iconic California lady was setting unequaled records—a seven-time winner of the All Woman Transcontinental Air Race (Powder Puff Derby), with five times in second place, and a contender in the Great Race from London to Victoria, British Columbia.

Fran’s secret was no mystery. She just gunned it and used full power from takeoff until landing—first, in her Piper PA-28 and, later, a ­pink-and-white PA-24-260 named Kick Ass. She said Lycoming had no problem with this strategy, so—closely watching my temps and pressures—I assumed Continental wouldn’t either.

I stayed pretty low and even flew the assigned route...because this time I knew there were spotters. And my time looked pretty good when I ­completed the course and was cleared by Lunken Tower for the option. Things looked even ­better after a high-speed fly-by over the ­clubhouse. And other than consuming a ridiculous quantity of 100LL, 72B ­performed beautifully.

Race official: “You won, Martha. Wow…third time. You won!”

I gave a sheepish, modest aw-shucks grin.

Race official: “No, wait, looks like you’re second. Karl Reik has beat you by...” Milliseconds.

But who can be too disappointed losing to a 90-knot, flat-out gorgeous Stinson 108 flown by a good guy!

If it sounds like I make a habit of cheating in (not-for-money) competitions…you’re right. But what fun to be disqualified from bomb drops for flying too low (true) and from spot-­landing contests for allegedly ­adding power (a dirty lie). My life of crime began 50-some years ago, shortly after my sister and I were licensed and entered a Cincinnati Airman’s Club annual “efficiency” race.

Read More from Martha Lunken: Unusual Attitudes

The other entrants were older, rather smug, proprietorial, longtime club members in Cessna 182s, Beech Bonanzas and Piper Comanches who smiled condescendingly at these two young girls flying a 75 hp Ercoupe. In this race, you estimated not only your time around the course but also your fuel consumption. Officials were ­stationed at a line on the runway to note your touchdown time, and a fuel truck on the ramp topped your tanks when you parked. Scoring depended on both estimates.

“Cheating” simply involved adding ten minutes or so to your calculated time, carefully determined in those days with a chart, plotter and E6B. You’d fly circles to use up the extra time and fuel and then make a beeline for final approach, carefully counting down the seconds to the touchdown point. Mary was appalled that I would cheat—and kept telling me so.

It worked beautifully. Our time was nearly to the second. But when the lineman topped the nine-gallon wing tanks on the little silver Ercoupe, we were about a gallon short of our estimate…and that wouldn’t win in this group. But Ercoupes have a six-gallon header tank, fed from the wing tanks (albeit with no fuel pump) but not meant to be filled when refueling.

So I said sweetly to the lineman, “Did you fill our nose tank?”

“Oh, gee. No. Sorry, I forgot.” He carefully dribbled one gallon of fuel to the top of the tank.

We won the race—me alternatingly giving an aw-shucks grin and glaring menacingly at my sister, threatening violence if she breathed a word.