Aiming for the horizon

Posted 8/15/17

While Fennell is not a painter, he is an artist: His canvas is 1,000 yards wide, 1,000 yards deep and 6,000 yards high. It’s a highly regulated box controlled by both a team of nine judges and the Federal Aviation Administration.

Fennell is a …

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Aiming for the horizon


Garland pilot seeking spot among nation’s top aerobatic airplane pilots

If Dick Fennell were a painter, his framed works would be created not by broad strokes, but by agonizing endlessly over precise lines.

While Fennell is not a painter, he is an artist: His canvas is 1,000 yards wide, 1,000 yards deep and 6,000 yards high. It’s a highly regulated box controlled by both a team of nine judges and the Federal Aviation Administration.

Fennell is a competitive aerobatic pilot — one of the best — and right now he’s reaching for the highest level, one occupied by less than a hundred in the world.

In September, the Garland resident and Ralston businessman will fly to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, to vie for a spot on the USA Advanced Aerobatic Team. If Fennell succeeds, he will compete at the FAI World Advanced Aerobatic Championships in Romania next year.

Actually, he’ll fly in the competition whether he makes the U.S. team or not: Fennell already has an invitation to fly for Canada. A native of Ontario, Canada, who enjoys dual citizenship, Fennell admits his attempt to make the American team is selfish.

“There’s a greater depth of experience on the U.S. team, including better coaches,” he said.

Fennell knows he needs the best coaches available as he prepares to move from the advanced class to the unlimited class — a goal he has been working toward for decades.

“It’s been a lifetime commitment of time, body and income,” Fennell said.

He’s not the type to accept anything less than the best.

At the age of 61, Fennell is making the final push for the top class of aerobatic pilots. This summer he purchased a new plane, an MXS-R. The low-wing monoplane is constructed of light-weight, high-strength composite and is powered by a 340 hp Lycoming engine developed specifically for high-performance competition aerobatics aircraft. The model is the same one used by pilots in the Red Bull Air Race World Championship.

But you don’t just buy a plane and find yourself an elite pilot anymore than you buy a set of oils and begin painting masterpieces. As an advanced pilot, he is one of about 100 pilots in his class in the world. And with his push to the new class, he’s seeking to join the top 10 percent of competitive aerobatic pilots in the world.

In the air, he’s an artist, but on the ground, what he sees as setting high standards, others can find off-putting or abrasive.

Fennell points to controversial people who set their standards high.

“Do you think Babe Ruth didn’t have high standards? Barack Obama — I don’t even like him, but he was a man of high standards,” he said.

Adrenaline junkie

Fennell relocated to the area to build Diamond Truss in Ralston 11 years ago, but his aerobatic flying pursuit is more than 30 years in the making. One might call him an adrenaline junkie. He raced motorcycles in his early years and is an accomplished downhill skier, recently being credited with a first descent — an extreme skiing term for being the first to ski a mountain slope — in Italy. He had to climb down a frozen waterfall to begin his run.

Ironically, Fennell’s first flights ended poorly. He felt nauseous and had to fight hard to work through his fears. Despite feeling destined to be a pilot, things didn’t go as planned when he was starting out.

Now, Fennell can withstand 10Gs in his new plane. Everything is planned so meticulously that it’s more of an exercise in discipline. Before he even climbs in the plane, Fennell twice goes through the flight on the ground using a program diagram — a script of maneuvers.

First, he envisions each move while memorizing the program. As if in a ballet, he walks through each move dressed in his bright red flight suit — arms in the air and contorting his body as much as he can to simulate the flight from the tarmac in front of his hangar at the Powell Municipal Airport. Then, he uses a model airplane to go through the same program in a somewhat comical, but deadly serious rehearsal for when he is behind the controls of his plane, flirting with an unforgiving earth.

He knows the sport is deadly, relying on both talent and a little luck.

“I’ve watched very talented guys that didn’t get through it. And I’ve been lucky enough to have a field below me when my engine has died,” he said.

Three times he has had to land without the aid of an engine, including an emergency landing in an agricultural field last year while practicing for an airshow in Idaho. The last thing he does before climbing in the cockpit is to put on a parachute, in case everything goes wrong.

Every moment of preflight is scripted — everything from the moment he checks the weather and wind at altitude, the preflight maintenance check, even the opera music he chooses as the soundtrack to his practice in front of the hangar. And his attention to detail doesn’t stop at the airport.

‘Perfection in everything’

“He demands perfection in everything he does. In his business, our personal life, skiing — everything this man does, he expects perfection,” said Gail Fennell, his wife.

Gail has trained to be a certified judge in the sport to help coach him during his daily practice sessions. She’s on the ground watching almost every flight.

Fennell appreciates his wife’s commitment to his chosen sport. She helps with light maintenance in the hangar and provides critiques. And when he fails, she is unafraid of speaking her mind. That goes for his business and their personal life as well.

On one practice this summer, he turned the wrong way.

Gail met him at the plane before he was able to get out of the cockpit. She sternly critiqued his performance; he was obviously upset. But in the end, he accepted her judgment and apologized.

“Every day I fly, she’s on the ground watching,” he said. “I don’t know what the maneuvers look like from inside the plane. Today I wasted her time.”

Gail is a busy woman. She’s often seen driving a large load of trusses across the region and helps run the business — especially when her goal-obsessed husband is off at a competition. When she does get to attend the competitions, she has to make the long drives alone or with the couple’s dogs, Marco and Independence, while he flies to the location. Fennell’s plane is a one-seater.

Performing at a price

Fennell also performs at airshows. He’s a crowd favorite and is paid well for his 12-minute performances. But money is relative. The income he receives is just a small fraction of what it costs to compete. He doesn’t like to think of the money as the highest cost.

“It’s not the money — it’s the time,” he said.

He’s not only on a time clock during competition, but he knows his body can only take a few more years of the abuse that gravity doles out in the aerobatic maneuvers. While he heads into a flight full of energy, he returns visibly spent.

“Most people black out at 4Gs. My programs start at 6Gs and go to 10. I lose 5 pounds doing a program,” he said.

Dagmar Kress, who flew for the German national team in three world championships, knows the beating you take to fly at the advanced and unlimited levels.

“You come out of the airplane and you are black and blue,” Kress said of competitive flights. “All the blood goes to your head and your eyeballs try to come out of their sockets,” she said.

Kress adds that Fennell faces an extra barrier to success due to living at a high altitude. Planes fly differently at higher altitudes, so Fennell will be forced to spend more time practicing at lower-altitude competitions to acclimate to the different performance level.

Fennell’s goals are emotionally taxing as well; expecting perfection is futile and often ends in disappointment.

“The problem is you fail a lot,” he said. “It’s heartbreaking. But if you can stand being heartbroken often, you can reach a pretty high standard.”

When all is said and done, there is no money for competitive pilots — they get a cheap trophy when they win. It’s all about the competition. At a recent competition in Ft. Morgan, Colorado, Fennell placed second while flying his new plane. He was happy with the outcome, but is always pushing for better results.

Gail is being replaced as coach as Fennell reaches for the unlimited class. He’s hired aerobatic pilot Bob Freeman — who’s competing in the 2017 world championships in South Africa — to help perfect his maneuvers.

“Dick [Fennell] is a very talented pilot. He should do very well at nationals,” Kress said, adding that now, he needs to constantly practice.

But Fennell has distractions — and for a cause about which he is passionate.

Before the U.S. National Trials, Fennell is organizing the talent for Saturday’s 2017 Wings ’N Wheels Fly-in and Car Show at the Powell airport. The show is in its 13th year, and the organizers are trying to raise enough money to start a flight school in the area. The goal of the school is to help make aviation accessible.

“Everybody thinks you have to be rich to be a pilot,” Fennell said. “It’s not true, you just have to be healthy and committed to flying.”

Yet starting the school comes at a high cost. The $60,000 to $70,000 to purchase the training plane is a small part of what is needed. Infrastructure, maintenance, insurance, permits, legal assistance and use of the airport all come at a stiff price.

“They are trying to lower the price of getting into aviation over other area options,” said Powell Airport Manager and Operator Debbie Weckler.

The show will feature several flying acts — including a nine-plane formation act, the Rocky Mountain Renegades, and a WWII bomber from the Legacy Flight Museum. There will also be more than 30 aircraft, 80 custom cars and local car enthusiasts’ autos on display.

“Dick [Fennell] is working very hard and has it all outlined,” Weckler said.

The annual Wings ’N Wheels Fly-in and Car Show arrives Saturday at the Powell Municipal Airport. Now in its 13th year, Wings ’N Wheels is the longest running airshow in the West.

This weekend’s event will feature great flying acts — including vintage aircraft and aerobatic feats — more than 30 planes on the ground, 80 customized cars as well as local muscle car heroes. Pilots at the show will be available to answer questions from all interested in aviation, as well as for photo opportunities and autographs.

Things start with a 7 a.m. benefit breakfast, followed by the car show beginning at 9 a.m. and the air show at 10 a.m. A trophy presentation is set for 2 p.m.

Admission is $10 per person or $30 per car. Kids 12 and under are free.

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