Karen Greenfield (Maryland)

Karen Greenfield flies a Pitts Special from Annapolis, Maryland.

Karen Greenfield in her Pitts Special

Karen Greenfield in her Pitts Special

June 14, 2009

“Sometimes, people would say things like, ‘Why are you here? Why aren’t you home with your family?’ ” she says, sounding less bitter than intrigued. “It did make you kind of angry for a while. But you learn to let it roll off you. The best thing is to show you know what you’re doing. Then it’s just not an issue. I suppose I did that.”

She retired a year and a half ago after a 31-year career.

Time to fly!

One day in 1984, a workplace colleague told Greenfield he was a flight instructor. She’d always thought she might like flying, and when he told Greenfield he could take her up that afternoon, out of Dulles International Airport, she jumped at the chance. She loved the feeling of soaring, of controlling the small plane, of being able to see as far afield as Sugarloaf Mountain to the west, so much she went up twice more that week and did the same for the better part of a year.

She got her license  in a mere four months.

“That’s unusual,” says Finigan. “It shows a real passion for this.”

As she developed her new interest, Greenfield says it never seemed to bother anybody that she was usually the only female at the airfield or at the four contests she usually enters each year. It certainly never bothered her.

“She can be a woman on her own time,” says Finigan with a hearty laugh. “Around here, she’s just one of the guys.”

Greenfield says she’d gladly take you up in her latest airplane – a $50,000, fire engine-red Pitts Special biplane with “Karen” on the side – but can’t, as it’s a mere one-seater. But as Pipers, Cessnas and Pitts Specials chug up and down a Lee Airport runway, taking off for flights across the Chesapeake Bay, she and fellow pilots Finigan and Wes Jones, 50, of Annapolis, offer a verbal tour of their avocation.

Aerobatics “means we’re not going to fly a straight line,” Finegan jokes. More specifically, aerobatic pilots fly different maneuvers such as loops (circles created in vertical space), rolls (rotations of the plane on its axis) and “hammerheads” (flying straight up, turning sharply, and flying straight down again).

At contests, pilots carry out an assigned sequence of such maneuvers, and judges on the ground, eyeballing the figures, assess points to each just as figure-skating judges do for lutzes or triple axels.

Four or more times a year, the pilots fly their planes to contest sites where they must carry out their routines within a specified “box” that measures 3,300 feet by 3,300 feet. (They may fly no lower than 1,500 feet.) Judges award points, with 10 the highest score per figure.

Last month, Greenfield placed second in the Carolina Boogie, percentage points behind Jones in the “sportsman” category.

“It was a razor-thin margin,” says Jones, who flies a factory-built two-seat Pitts Special he says cost him about $230,000 – and which, unlike Greenfield’s, allows the pilot to rotate the propeller to alter the “bite” taken out of the air.

Greenfield says it was the pure love of flying maneuvers that drew her from generic piloting to aerobatics in the mid-1990s. Working largely with Finigan, a retired Navy admiral, she commuted to Lee at least twice a week and, sitting in the forward cockpit of his two-seater, boned up on the basics.

None strikes her as harder to execute than the others, though the violent, downward g-force of loops nauseated her at first.

Today, she especially enjoys hammerheads. “There’s something fun about flying straight down,” Greenfield says.

What a life!

What a life!

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