A 500 mph Day At The Races


 The "…need for speed" so famously proclaimed by Tom Cruise in the movie "Top Gun" is a very real phenomenon among a certain small group who find fulfillment in velocity - but not all of them are muscle-bound, testosterone-fueled young men with crew cuts.

Consider, for example, Heather Penney, the petite, blonde, 36 year-old single mother of two young daughters who will be piloting a distinctively-painted jet called the "Raju Grace" at 500+ miles an hour 50 feet above the ground in this year's famed Reno Air Races, September 14 – 18.

She certainly manifests that need for speed, and proved it with a 2nd-place finish in the Jet Silver class at Reno last year during the debut performance of the team for which she flies, AirRace21.  And in many ways, she is a real-world combination of the Tom Cruise (fighter pilot) and Kelly McGillis (astrophysicist and civilian Top Gun instructor) characters from Top Gun.

Penney is a third-generation pilot who shares a birthday with the U.S. Air Force -- September 18 --  and is the daughter of legendary air racer John Penney, a four-time Unlimited Gold champion at the Reno Air Races piloting the famed "Rare Bear."  She is now a rising star in her own right as a member of the AirRace21 team and also works for Lockheed Martin as Director, USAF Air Superiority Systems, focusing on F-22, F-35, and F-35 training matters.

As an F-16 pilot for Washington D.C. National Guard, Penney was in the first two-ship airborne over the Pentagon and our nation’s capital in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, escorting the President and Air Force One back to Andrews Air Force Base.  Over the next decade, she accumulated over 1,000 hours in the F-16 Viper, including two combat tours in Iraq.

"My involvement with AirRace21 and flying the Raju Grace in the Reno Air Races last year was both destiny and the fulfillment of my family legacy," says Penney.  "When Deane Barker and Raju Mann, the owners of AirRace21 called asked me to become their pilot, it was a dream come true.  When I hung up the phone, I began dancing around the kitchen with my two daughters and told them that I was going to race in the Reno Air Races, just like their grandpa."

Penney grew up next to the Reno-Stead Airport where the Reno Air Races take place and attended the nearby Lloyd Diedrichsen Elementary School where her fourth-grade teacher, Carolyn Eck, is the wife of Bill Eck, current Director of Flight Operations at Reno-Stead Airport.  Education and aviation continued to dominate her life when, after flying lessons from her father in a Cesena 152, she earned her pilot's license in the summer after her freshman year at Purdue University. 

While pursuing a Master's in American Studies, congress rescinded the law prohibiting women from participating in combat operations and Penney immediately began applying to Air National Guard Units around the country with the goal of flying military jets.  She was selected by the 121st Fighter Squadron, 113th Wing, DC Air National Guard, to be the first woman in the DC Guard fly the F-16 where, in the fighter pilot tradition, she was given the predictable nickname "Lucky."

Being a single mom, she made the difficult decision to leave the demanding life of a fighter pilot in order to spend more time with her young daughters. In addition to flying the Raju Grace for AirRace21, Penney now flies the C-38 Astra in the 201st Airlift Squadron as a traditional Air Guardsman and has over 2,000 hours in multiple military jets, antique and vintage taildraggers, and occasionally co-pilots the Collings Foundation's B-17, “Nine’O’Nine.” 

"I'm proud to be part of the lineage of women in the jet community," says Penney.  "I was part of the first cadre of female military jet pilots and one of only two women ever to race a jet in the Reno Air Races.  But ultimately the jet doesn't care if you are a man or a woman, it only cares that you are a good pilot.  I feel very fortunate to have been able to achieve both dreams with the opportunities I have been given."

Penney will again be in the cockpit of AirRace21's Raju Grace jet for the premier air racing event in the world, the 48th annual National Championship Air Races, September 14 – 18 at Reno-Stead Airport.  The Raju Grace is a race-modified version of the Aero Volochody L-29 Delfín two-seater military light attack jet that was built in Czechoslovakia and widely used by the air forces of Warsaw Pact nations from the 1960s.  The engine has been upgraded to a Rolls-Royce Mk 601-22 'Viper' that produces 4,000 pounds and a top speed of 540 mph.

About the National Championship Air Races

The upcoming 48th annual National Championship Air Races is the premier air racing event in the world.  Air racing is 'the world's fastest motor sport' and more than 200,000 people attend every year.  The first Reno air races, in 1964 and 1965, were organized by WWII flying ace Bill Stead.  The event features multi-lap, multi-aircraft races between extremely high performance aircraft on oval courses which range between 3 miles for most types of planes and 8 miles for the jet class.  Many of the pilots competing are astronauts, space shuttle commanders and military fighter pilots.  The event features six racing classes, a large display of static aircraft and several military and civil flight demonstrations.  The air races take-off on Wednesday, September 14 through Sunday, September 18, 2011 at the Reno Stead Airfield. For tickets or more information, please visit airrace.org or call 775.972.6663.

About AirRace21

AirRace21 is one of the most unique teams currently competing in any form of high-speed motorsports.  Co-owned by Raju Mann, who started life as a foundling on the doorstep of Mother Teresa's orphanage in India, and former pro athlete/racer/investor Deane Barker, AirRace21 competes in the Jet class at the Indy 500 of airplane racing – the legendary Reno Air Races. 

The AirRace21 race jet, an Aero L-29 Delfín military light attack jet built in Czechoslovakia in the early 1960s, has been race-modified to fly 50 feet above the ground at 500 miles an hour.  Now named the Raju Grace and painted a striking shade of orange, the jet is further distinguished by the striking image of co-owner Raju Mann rendered in a stylish composite of ancient Indian and modern tattoo art created by Victor Whitmill, the artist who designed and applied the controversial facial tattoo to former boxing champion Mike Tyson.  The Raju Grace is piloted by Heather "Lucky" Penney, the daughter of one of air racing's most famous pilots and herself a former F-16 fighter pilot for the Air National Guard.  

The AirRace21 team placed second in the Jet Silver class during their debut appearance at the Reno Air Races, in 2010.  Since the end of the 2010 race, the Raju Grace has been undergoing further modifications, including the installation of a new, more powerful jet engine, in preparation for a move up to the Jet Gold class at the 2011 Reno Air Races (September 14-18).