"Air Connie" and the Flight to Phoenix By Todd Myers Todd Myers is the public relations representative for Kalitta Motorsports, an NHRA professional nitro drag racing team based in Ypsilanti, Mich. The following is his first-hand account of a ...
"Air Connie" and the Flight to Phoenix
By Todd Myers
Todd Myers is the public relations representative for Kalitta Motorsports, an NHRA professional nitro drag racing team based in Ypsilanti, Mich. The following is his first-hand account of a recent adventure in the sky with his boss and NHRA drag racing legend Connie Kalitta to the NHRA national event in Phoenix.
On a blustery and frosty morning at Willow Run Airport, just outside of the Detroit city limits, the usual suspects, I mean - passengers and I gathered at Kalitta Charters to board the plane to go to the race in Phoenix. Now, I could be describing any commercial flight leaving the Wolverine state Friday morning with members of Kalitta Motorsports, but not this time. This was to be my first trip to an NHRA event, or anywhere else for that matter, via "Air Connie".
Conrad "Connie" Kalitta is an iconic figure in the sport of drag racing as a driver, a team owner, and as a crew chief, but he is also an incredibly accomplished pilot. His Kalitta Air, which also resides at Willow Run Airport and sponsors the Funny Car driven by his son Scott, makes cargo flights around the world every day with a fleet of pilots and 747s. Connie, who turned a quite spry 68-years old on this day, has logged more hours in the air behind the controls of a Learjet than almost every other pilot in the world, and this particular voyage was aboard such an aircraft.
Connie and his nephew Doug Kalitta, driver of the Mac Tools Top Fuel dragster and the owner/president of Kalitta Charters, a charter airline service, travel to all 23 NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series events as pilot and co-pilot respectively. Two or three race team crew guys, team sponsor Rick Fischer, and often Doug's wife Josie and their children Mitchell, who just celebrated birthday No. 5, and Avery, 2, usually complete the flight roster.
On my first flight with the executive set was Mr. Fischer, Josie and the kids, Doug Kalitta Sr. (Doug's dad, Connie's brother, and team parts washer), Scott Finnis (crewman on Hillary Will's Top Fueler), Dave "Dingo" Griffiths (crewman on the Mac Tools team), and, of course, me.
We also had a lot of suitcases, bags, coolers, jackets, and other assorted goodies including two boxes of clutch discs sent from the race shop for the StriVectin-SD Top Fuel dragster driven by Dave Grubnic. The particular model of Learjet we were riding on was not the roomiest of aircraft, so we were just a tad cramped. In fact, trooper Scott Finnis was relegated to riding the five-hour flight (I was told later that this was an unusually longer flight to Phoenix due to a strong headwind) atop of one of the aforementioned coolers, but it was still a pretty nice ride to the desert. The compass pointed us SW, and we were off.
As we taxied out to the runway, we could somewhat hear the radio transmissions from the flight controllers to our plane since the cockpit is open to the rest of the aircraft. Doug handles the radio duties, so when the flight controller recognized who he was talking to, in this case N72CK was our plane's identification, He gave us permission to take off and wished Doug and Connie the best of luck racing in Phoenix.
The first thing you notice about a Learjet, besides the fact that this particular model was void of a lavatory, is the powerful take off. I felt as if I had taken my first jettison as a human cannonball in the Kalitta Family Circus. I then found myself mesmerized by the gauges in the cockpit that I could plainly see for the first time on board any plane. I tried to figure out what each one was reading and its significance in guiding "The Flying Kalittas" safely to Phoenix. I was able to recognize the altimeter and watched it steadily climb as we did to 38,000 ft. There were a few other gauges, knobs and switches that I could take a guess at telling you what they do, but I don't want to embarrass myself in this exposition.
Once we reached our cruising altitude and speed of just less than 400 mph, we settled in as best we could and starting reading the Detroit-area newspapers and a few magazines --
And that was just in the cockpit. Needless to say, I was a little shocked at seeing our flight crew doing all sorts of things except flying our plane, but after a quick lesson in how an auto-pilot system works from "Dingo", I was eased. Well, I was somewhat eased. I'm sure that happens in the flight deck on commercial aircrafts too, but they have closed cockpit doors and I can't see them not flying the plane, so out of sight is truly out of mind in this case. Connie seemed fidgety during this time too. I'm not sure if it was because he wanted to still be flying the plane manually or if he was thinking about gasket sizes and tire pressures for his cars in Phoenix
Somewhere over somewhere a tuna sandwich made it way over my shoulder and then another, and another, and another which were passed forward carefully. This was obviously lunch, but instead of a handful of peanuts and a soda, this was a very tasty sandwich made with care by Josie. After lunch, Mitch and Avery, being the toddlers that they are, began getting a bit antsy and wanted to see dad. Each made trips to the cockpit a few times to see dad and Great Uncle Connie. In fact, on each of their first visits, they both wanted to wish Connie a happy birthday. Connie has been described as gruff and he can be abrasive from time to time, but to see his eyes and his smile brighten up the entire plane when Mitch and Avery wished him a happy birthday would make anyone realize that he's got a really big, yet sometimes inconspicuous, soft side.
The rest of the flight went incredibly smooth. Avery, showing enormous potential as a future interior designer, decorated most of the inside of the plane and its occupants with tiny round stickers that featured a number of characters like a smiling star, a laughing ladybug and even a slimy snail. Her dad even helped her out by placing a smiling star decal just above the compass in the cockpit. The landing was just as smooth, and it could be easily seen that Connie and Doug have done this so many times that they have made it an art form.
After touch down, we all de-planed and got to the business of going to Firebird Int'l Raceway to go nitro racing again. So, happy 68th birthday Connie and many thanks to you for all that you do for me and all of us at Kalitta Motorsports, but mostly, thanks for getting us to Phoenix in one piece.
About Kalitta Motorsports
Based in Ypsilanti, Michigan, Kalitta Motorsports is a Top Fuel and Funny Car drag racing team in the NHRA (National Hot Rod Association) POWERade Drag Racing Series. The racing operation was started in 1959 by now legendary drag racer and team owner Connie "the Bounty Hunter" Kalitta. His son Scott Kalitta drives the Kalitta Air Funny Car. Scott's cousin, Connie's nephew, Doug Kalitta drives the flagship Top Fuel dragster for Mac Tools. Native Australian Dave Grubnic drives the StriVectin-SD Top Fuel dragster, while Hillary Will drives the Kalitta Motorsports-managed and Ken Black-owned Top Fuel dragster.
Connie serves as head tuner for all Team Kalitta entries. He is assisted by crew chiefs Rahn Tobler (Mac Tools dragster), Jim Oberhofer (Hillary Will-driven dragster), Jon Oberhofer (StriVectin-SD dragster), Johnny West (Kalitta Air Funny Car) and Larry Meyer (Kalitta Air Funny Car co-crew chief).
Associate sponsors on all Kalitta Motorsports' race cars include Red Line Oil, Summit Racing Equipment, Technicoat Companies, Zantrex-3 and Fischer Honda.