Any Pilot Can Set a Speed Record

The flying is quite easy, the paperwork, not so much.

Speed Record Feature Ercoupe

Ercoupe

Lisa F. Bentson

I'm front-page news. The lead story in my state's big daily newspaper. On Page 1, above the fold. Where the Albuquerque Journal announced that my plane and I have "earned a spot in aviation history."

How did I do that? Simple. I set a world speed record.

And you can too.

WHAT DO YOU NEED TO SET A RECORD?

You need only three things to set an aviation record, which I call the Three P's: pilot, plane and paper. (A fourth P is for perseverance.)

First, you need to be a pilot. A licensed pilot. Sorry, no students allowed. Other than that, the sky's the limit. Light Sport pilot? Recreational pilot? Private pilot? You bet!

Second, you need an airplane. It doesn't need to be a jet or a speed-­demon, 18-cylinder terror of the skies. Since the time of Orville Wright, who was involved in creating the original rules, aviation records have been set up so that planes of similar ilk compete with each other. The bottom line of that legacy is that today the guy in the Piper Cub doesn't have to compete head-to-head with the gal flying the Learjet.

Third, you need to be ready for a planeload of paperwork that needs to be done just right, in just the right order, and at just the right time. Not to worry: I'm going to walk you through that. There's also some of that green paper involved, but that's true of everything in aviation.

That's it. Three P's and you can become part of aviation history, and a member of a very select group of pilots — holders of aviation records.

MY SPEED RECORD

So how fast did I fly? Five hundred miles per hour? Six hundred miles per hour? Seven hundred? Eight?

Uh … no.

I flew at the "blazing fast" speed of 139.66 miles per hour. OK, I know that doesn't sound very impressive, but before you judge me, you need to know that I was flying a vintage 1947 airplane with an 85-horse engine and a climb prop. This is a type of plane that rarely shows more than 92 miles per hour on the airspeed indicator.

But thanks to Orville's foresight, I could still compete. And win.

WAIT, WHY SET A RECORD IN THE FIRST PLACE?

There are lots of good reasons to set an aviation record. To prove something to yourself. To impress your grandkids. To trump any insufferable blowhard at a cocktail party. To use the fact as bait on dating websites. Or simply to leave something truly remarkable for people to (someday) put in your obituary when you go west. It's also a good way to bring attention to any cause, because, after more than 112 years of pilots setting records, people — and the press — still love aviation record-­setting stories.

Personally, I chose to set an aviation record to salute the 75th anniversary of the type certificate of the family airplane, an Ercoupe, and to show the world that old planes like ours, and old pilots like me, can still achieve new things. The fact that someday my grandkids will be impressed, and that I'll leave behind an interesting obit, is just icing on the cake.

THE PLAYERS

For pilots flying in the United States wanting to set a world record, there are two major players to deal with. The first is the National Aeronautic Association, or NAA. The NAA is the official record keeper of aviation records in the United States. These are the folks who give out the Collier Trophy. The NAA traces its roots back to 1905 and is a charter member of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) — the international organization that certifies world records.

What kind of record can you set? Records can be set for altitude, speed or distance as well as for time to climb, greatest payload or efficiency. Regardless of the type of record you go after, the process is much the same.

I chose to try to set or break a "speed over a recognized course" record. A recognized course is simpler than it sounds: Any two public-use airports the right distance apart will do. For a U.S. record, the two fields must be 125 miles apart. If you want to shoot for a world record at the same time — and why wouldn't you? — the two fields must be at least 249 statute miles apart.

SPORTING LICENSE

To attempt to set a record you must be a member of the NAA, which costs $50 a year, and you must have a valid FAI Sporting License. Not to worry: There's no check ride, no flight review. This international license is the piece of paper that allows pilots to compete in air sport competitions or attempt records. The license is free with NAA membership.

SANCTION

After getting a Sporting License, the next step in setting a record — once you've chosen your route and your plane — is to apply for an official sanction for the attempt. Once approved, the sanction gives you a 90-day exclusive on the record you're aiming for.

This is not moot. In 1964, two competing pilots both set out to be the first woman to successfully circumnavigate the globe. Eastbound was Jerrie Mock in a Cessna 180 that was more fuel tank than airplane. Westbound was rival Joan Merriam Smith in a twin-engine Apache. For a time it wasn't clear which woman would "win," but as far as records were concerned, it would not have mattered. Mock had the FAI sanction. If Smith had beaten her — and she didn't — the official record would still have belonged to Mock.

I was pretty sure I didn't need to worry about another Ercoupe pilot beating me on my remote route, but you never know. Still, a sanction is part of the ­record-setting process, and a required part. Getting a sanction can take up to 21 days, and sanction fees, which are nonrefundable, are based on the takeoff weight of the plane. The more your plane weighs, the larger the sanction fee. Prices are subject to change, but in the spring of 2015, my sanction fee was $350. That would cover any plane up to 3,858 pounds. For comparison, if I had been flying a plane that sat on the ramp at more than 55,116 pounds my sanction fee would have been a bit above $1,000; if I'd been flying an ultralight it would have been a mere 125 bucks.

OBSERVERS

It takes more than saying you did it to take home an official record. You need official observers who independently observe, record and report on your flight to the NAA. In the United States, air traffic controllers are most commonly used as observers, and it's the pilot's responsibility to find observers.

I called up the tower supervisors at both ends of my route, and it turned out to be an easy process to organize. That said, it did cause me no end of stress, because I knew that, if the controllers dropped the ball on either end, the flight would be pointless and I'd have no record. But I need not have worried. The air traffic controllers ­ended up being almost as excited to be observing aviation history as I was to be making it.

FORMS, FORMS, FORMS AND MORE FORMS

More than pure speed, excellent flight planning and precision flying, record setting is really about filling out the right papers in the right order at the right time. In the case of a record like mine, speed over a recognized course, the NAA has a 13-page booklet, complete with checklists to guide you through the process.

Remember those observers we were talking about above? You'll need to supply specific forms, called Certification of Takeoff and Certification of Landing, to your observers on both ends of your flight to record wheels-up and touchdown times to the second. The observers send the forms directly to the NAA, ensuring that no hanky-panky takes place with the times — a key part of how aviation records are approved.

You'll also be required to complete the Certification of Weight form. It specifies the exact weight of your plane, fuel, crew and baggage on the day of the record attempt. Along with the weight certification form, you'll need to send a photocopy of the pages of the airplane's flight manual that show the maximum certified takeoff weight and standard fuel tank size of the type, and the most recent FAA Form 337 or other documentation showing the actual empty weight of your airplane.

As you can see, documentation planning should be part of your flight planning from day one.

Once you've made your flight, you need to claim your record. This is a three-step process. Within 72 hours you must file a claim at either the NAA website or by email. Within 24 hours of making that initial claim you must call the NAA to confirm that the claim was received. Within 30 days all the physical forms and supporting documentation, including a paper Record Claim Statement, must have been sent in, along with a registration fee. In my case, and for any airplane up to 3,858 pounds, the fee was $400. Just as with sanction fees, as weight goes up, so too do registration fees.

COMPETITION, OFFICIAL AND UNOFFICIAL

There is such a thing as an "absolute" record, which means the fastest, the highest or the farthest of anyone. But most records, thanks to Orville's forethought, are more limited in scope. My record is for my class and my route. I was in Class C-1, Subclass b, Group 1 — meaning I flew a land plane, with a takeoff weight between 1,102 and 2,205 pounds, equipped with an internal combustion engine. The route for my record flight was Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Amarillo, Texas, along the historic airmail route. My record will stand forever unless someone else in a C-1b, Group 1 plane flies the same route and beats my speed by 1 percent or more.

Could that happen? Sure. That's the nature of aviation records.

Of course pilots, being competitive by nature, sometimes view records through a different lens. In my case, there was only one other pilot who held a world record in an Ercoupe, Robert J. Swanson back in 1993. As I couldn't be first, I wanted to be fastest. I wanted to "beat" Swanson's record.

I did beat it. His record was 109.15 miles per hour, actually a pretty respectable speed in an Ercoupe. But at 139.66 miles per hour, I totally smoked him. Except that I didn't, really, because I flew between different cities than Swanson did. His record still stands, and the fact that I "beat" him is fiction, at least as far as the FAI Sporting Code is concerned.

That doesn't stop me from patting my plane on the spinner and calling it the fastest Ercoupe in the world.

WHEN IS A RECORD TRULY A RECORD?

I first celebrated my record (in my head) on the 13,502-foot stretch of asphalt called Runway 4 at Amarillo's Rick Husband International Airport. I hadn't even reached the taxiway before the tower radioed congratulations and told me that I'd made the flight "in about 40 seconds short of two hours."

When I flew back home I found the apron at my home base covered with chalk-art congratulations and my hangar bedecked with blue and white ribbons. Friends gave me a "ticker tape" parade using canned spray string.

It's not official until it's official, though. In my case, I made my flight on April 8, 2015, and my United States record was approved by the NAA on May 6. The association then forwarded the documents to the FAI, where my "dossier" was under review for not quite another two months. Right after the Fourth of July, I received word that the FAI had ratified my record and that I am the current world record holder at 224.76 km/h, because the Swiss convert U.S. records to metric. Then it was time for champagne.

HOW MANY RECORDS ARE THERE?

How big a club did I join? A.W. Greenfield, the NAA's director of contests and records, said there are close to 8,500 aviation records in the NAA's database dating back to 1928, with about 100 new ones recognized in the USA every year. Wanting to know how my speed compared with others', I asked him what the slowest and fastest speeds on record are.

When it comes to the low end, Greenfield said, "in the past, there were some records set in the single digits. Many of those were set over very long courses where weather or maintenance became an issue, and the clock keeps ticking during that time. A few years ago the rules were changed so that all performances now must be equal to or greater than the stall speed with flaps up.

And the fastest? The SR-71 Blackbird, flying at 2,193.17 miles per hour, or almost 16 times faster than my record. Wow.

Thanks, Orville. I literally couldn't have done this without you.

William E. Dubois is an aviation writer who holds a commercial pilot certificate with instrument rating, and advanced and instrument ground instructor certificates. Of course, he now holds a world speed record. He blogs his personal flying adventures at planetales.net.

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