Engine and parachute failures don’t faze her. So flying loops over Tacoma is easy

Stunt pilot flies biplane around the Tacoma area

Stunt pilot Vicky Benzing flies her 1940 Boeing Stearman biplane around the Tacoma area. She will be performing at Freedom Fair on July 4.
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Stunt pilot Vicky Benzing flies her 1940 Boeing Stearman biplane around the Tacoma area. She will be performing at Freedom Fair on July 4.

She once set a speed record in a jet and on Tuesday afternoon she’ll do loops over Tacoma in her red biplane.

“But this is my favorite type of flying,” Vicky Benzing said Saturday as she flew so low across Puget Sound that it seemed as if she could reach out the cockpit and drag her fingers across the water. “There’s just something special about flying low.”

Flying low but at least 500 feet away from man-made objects — as federal rules require — she could almost see the smiles on the faces of the kids waving and jumping on the Fox Island Sand Spit.

“It’s about the freedom for me,” Benzing said. “... Flying expands your habitat.”

From reaching speeds of nearly 470 miles per hour in a jet to skydiving or performing aerobatics, Benzing is at home in the sky.

While rolling her 1940 Boeing Stearman in front of miles of spectators might sound nerve racking, Benzing finds it peaceful.

“In the cockpit, I feel comfortable,” she said. “… Public speaking or talking in front of a camera, that makes me nervous.”

She talks about the two times her plane’s engine failed last year with the nonchalance of cyclists talking about a flat tire.

The first time it ran out of fuel while she was training another pilot. The other time, she believes, the engine vapor locked.

What did she do?

It’s about the freedom for me. ... Flying expands your habitat.

Vicky Benzing, pilot

“I landed the plane: They’ll still glide without the engine, but not as well as a glider,” said Benzing, who’s also a licensed glider pilot.

Tuesday afternoon, Benzing will fly over a Fourth of July parade in Steilacoom and then head for Commencement Bay, where she’ll perform aerial stunts for the sprawling Tacoma Freedom Fair crowd.

A white card covered in squiggly lines sits in the cockpit. It’s the set list for a performance that seemingly includes 13 loops. She is one of several performers in an airshow scheduled to also include historic planes and other aerobatic pilots.

Benzing figures she was destined to live in the clouds. She took her first small plane flight as a child with her uncle.

“I was so young, I didn’t know if what I was seeing below me was real or toys,” she said.

She gave an example of what she was talking about as she flew high enough to see much of Tacoma.

“It’s better than Google Maps, huh?” she said over the plane’s intercom.

Benzing earned a degree in chemistry from the University of California Davis and her doctorate from California Berkley. Shortly after finishing her doctorate, she took her first solo skydive and the chute failed.

469.831The speed Vicky Benzing reached at the 2015 to set the record for fastest woman aver at the prestigious Reno Air Races

She dumped the primary chute, deployed the reserve and landed safely. Her instructor gave her a new chute and sent her up for another jump.

The experience didn’t leave her scared. It left her brimming with confidence.

“I’d saved my own life,” Benzing said.

She retired young (She declined to share her age: “That’s like asking a women how much she weighs,” she said with a laugh.) and started flying full time.

In July, she’ll perform for the fourth time at the AirVenture Oshkosh airshow in Wisconsin. It’s the largest air show in the world, she said, “and an honor to be invited.”

Benzing will also compete in the Reno National Championship Air Races in September.

“My goal is to win gold but it will depend on who brings what,” she said.

Vicky Benzing keeps a stunt set list affixed to the control panel of her 1940 Boeing Stearman biplane.

She’s bringing a new jet that she says is capable of reaching 500 mph and covering the eight-mile course in about a minute. She’ll do this while pulling 5 G’s and racing against seven other planes about 50 feet above the ground.

Even if 500 mph is not fast enough to win, it’ll set a new record for the fastest woman at the national championships.

Benzing set the current record in 2015 when she hit 469.831 mph. She made her first appearance at the championships in 2010 and won her first race and Rookie of the Year honors.

Through all of her aerial activities she hopes to inspire others to learn to fly. She did as much for her husband, Jeff Benzing. When he retired she convinced his employers to give him flying lessons instead of a gold watch.

He’s now a license pilot and flies regularly, although he says he has no interest in learning to do the aerial stunts his wife performs.

“It’s still the golden age of flying,” Vicky Benzing said. “It’s relatively inexpensive and it’s not over regulated. You can still get in a plane and go without filing a flight plan.”

Some days the Benzings wake up at their Bay Area home, warm up a plane and fly off across Northern California looking for a place to have breakfast.

“It’s just the best experience,” she said. “Sometimes I just throw the sleeping bag in the plane and go. It’s a great feeling of freedom.”