Monday, July 9, 2012

Why I Did It: Pilot JoAnne Alcorn races across the country

From  Why I Did It: Pilot JoAnne Alcorn races across the country

I was thinking about early retirement from Eli Lilly and Co., and I wanted to do something different in my life. I was 52, single and a manager in information systems. I didn't know what it was, but it had to be really different.

An advertising sheet was put in my mailbox for a company offering flying lessons. I said, "That's it. I'll learn to fly." So, I went to Eagle Creek Air Services.

I had always found flying -- airplanes or helicopters -- fascinating. But I never considered myself as the pilot. The sense of freedom and independence I felt from the very first takeoff -- I knew I had made the right decision. It was exhilarating. I took ground school, where you learn about flying techniques and the airplane.
After seven hours of instruction, the company ran out of aircraft for me to rent because so many people were renting them. I had saved some money and thought that I could buy a cabin on a lake or do something crazy like buy an airplane. I bought an almost-new Cessna 172, a four-seat, high-wing airplane, and took possession in January 1999.

Then I really started learning to fly. I could get lessons whenever I wanted.

Flying is such a delight. The world looks fresh, clean and orderly. You really see how limited you are in your view of things when you have this broad panorama in front of you.

I got my private rating in 1999. It requires written, oral and flight tests.

I retired from Lilly in 2001 and continued flying lessons. In 2004, I got my instrument rating and got my commercial license in 2009. One of the reasons I wanted to get my own plane was so I could visit my mother in Fargo, N.D., whenever I choose.

Aviation is a small community. Only 3 percent of pilots are women. Once you learn to fly, you learn about all of these little airports in places like Noblesville, Frankfort and Franklin. You meet people and you share common acquaintances. I met my husband, Steve Alcorn, at an airport in 1999. We soon married.

He is an experienced pilot and a former air-show performer who learned to fly at the age of 16.

A pilot friend, Susan Port, and I went to a Women in Aviation conference and saw an exhibit for the Air Race Classic. It's a 2,500-mile annual transcontinental air race for women. It was created by Amelia Earhart in 1929 because she wasn't allowed in the men's race.

We signed up and did our first race in 2006, and I just finished my fifth race on June 22. This year, it started at Lake Havasu in Arizona and went through New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Michigan and finished near Cincinnati. Two female pilots are in each plane. About 100 women, ages 20 to 85, participated.

It's a scored, proficiency-type race, broken into eight or nine legs, each of which is timed. The race depends on your skills, the capability of your airplane and luck. Weather can be a big challenge.

We have four days to do the route. They release us in about 20-second intervals. In my airplane, I fly about 21/2 hours per leg. The fastest pilot gets $5,000, and other winners get prize money or a medallion. I have a charm bracelet with my medallions. The best I've done is third place in 2010.

I enjoy the camaraderie with the other women. You become friends for life. Most of us have to save money and get sponsors. The entry fee is $400, and the fuel is about $5,000. But it's worth it.

My husband, who is a mechanic and instructor, and I have a small business, Bachman Aviation, that we operate here and in Winter Haven, Fla., during the winter. We provide services and instruction and broker aircraft for people.

We'll just go exploring places by air and have fun together. I have 1,400 flying hours now. I think it keeps me younger and active. I love my life now.


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