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Colleen Keller

First to earn the Smooth Achievement Award under new guidelines

By Rich Stowell


Colleen in her Skybolt


Photo by: Evinger Tumbler

Colleen Keller (EAA 759828, IAC 435485) of San Diego, California, has become the first pilot to earn a Smooth Achievement Award under the new guidelines. Recently modified to make Smooth Awards more accessible, the new criteria permit qualifying certificated flight instructors, in the same aircraft, to grant Smooth Awards in the Primary, Sportsman, and Intermediate categories. Keller earned her Primary Smooth Award on November 28, 2010, with Master Instructor Rich Stowell in the front seat of her 1990 Steen Skybolt. Sport Aerobatics (SA) recently talked with Keller about her achievement.

SA: How did you get involved in flying?

CK: I am an operations research analyst working for the U.S. Navy. I first caught the flying bug after several flights in carrier-based Navy aircraft (A-6Es and F-14Ds) in the early ’90s. After I found I was too “old” at 26 to join the Navy to fly, I started flight training in San Diego and took my checkride in a 1971 Cessna Cardinal RG, which I have owned and maintained since 1992. After 2,300 hours in the Cardinal, including instrument and commercial tickets, I still dreamed of getting back to the high-g excitement of the Navy jets that first introduced me to flying. 

SA: When did you start flying aerobatics?

CK: I earned my A&P rating in 2008 and spent several years trying to build a Firebolt biplane. I sold that project and purchased a flying Steen Skybolt in September 2009. As a new tailwheel pilot not wanting to get into too much trouble, I ferried the ’Bolt from Tennessee to California along with my tailwheel instructor. A period of maintenance trials and tribulations ensued, and after 10 months in the shop, the Skybolt (dubbed Red Tumbler by a fellow mechanic, after his Tumbler pigeons) was flying reliably, and I was able to start planning my next step: learning aerobatics!

SA: Why did you get involved with the IAC?

CK: I knew nothing about aerobatics or competition, but I realized I needed structure and training to get this right. Southern California is blessed with several active IAC chapters, and I attended every contest I could make in 2010. I volunteered at four events, focusing on working with judges so I could learn to recognize the elements of figures and the judging criteria. I joined the Los Angeles Aerobatic Club (Chapter 49), was elected secretary in November, and have become actively involved in planning 2011 events. I intend to participate in judges’ school this winter and am training to fly my first contest, a “mini” which Chapters 49 and 36 will jointly sponsor at Redlands airport (KREI) in March 2011.

SA: What kind of training have you received in your Skybolt?

CK: I had very little exposure to aerobatics when I started flying the Skybolt. Watching others fly figures, it seems so simple, but there is a lot going on and it can be very disorienting to a beginner unused to pulling g’s and inverted flight. I didn’t fully appreciate how easy it was to get in over my head in this airplane. Heeding the advice of several IAC friends, I started my formal education with Emergency Maneuver Training at CP Aviation in Santa Paula. My primary goal was to avoid unsafe situations and to learn how to control the aircraft if I ever got into trouble. My training initially focused on techniques to recover from spins and unusual attitudes, but has recently expanded to include the primary maneuvers that led to meeting the requirements for the Primary Smooth.

SA: What has it been like learning competition-style aerobatics?

CK: Well, I hate to use the “O” word, but it has quickly become an obsession for sure. I’ve started flying nearly daily, often before work to practice and develop muscle memory. It reminds me of instrument training—the precision and professionalism and self-discipline required—but it’s a heck of a lot more fun! I’d also found that flying my Cardinal had lost some of its luster, that the airplane had simply become convenient transportation. Flying the Skybolt is such a challenge—every flight is new, every landing and takeoff is incredibly satisfying, and every time I set a goal for a figure and meet it, I feel like a kid again. Training in competition aerobatics has made aviation new again for me. I love it! I am also indebted to my friends in the aerobatic community for insisting that I get instruction before trying all of these things myself.


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