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Sun, Apr 18, 2004

Fastest Way To The Top

Exxon's Flying Tiger Shatters Climb Record

"Do you wanna hear my prediction for how long this will take?"

That question from Exxon Flying Tiger pilot Bruce Bohannon Saturday was directed at a bunch of bleary-eyed reporters at Sun-N-Fun in Lakeland (FL) Saturday. No one responded. Tough crowd.

"Ten minutes."

That got some attention. The previous record -- coincidentally held by Bohannon himself -- was 15 minutes 35 seconds. In the sparkling sunshine of a perfect Florida morning, Bohannon had just promised to utterly destroy his old record by cutting a third off the time to climb to 9000 meters (29,528 feet).

Several reporters stopped shoveling the Exxon-provided scrambled eggs and sausage into their mouths and picked up their pens.

Bohannon already holds just about every record imaginable for speed-climbing in his highly modified RV-4. You know, the one with the turbocharger, black with tiger stripes? Yeah, that one. While there was no question that Bohannon could set another record if everything went just right, there were certainly some looks of bleary-eyed astonishment.

Bohannon says he does all his record-breaking flights at noon. "It may not be the best time of the day, but it's certainly a time that people can remember." So at noon Saturday, Bohannon took off from Lakeland Linder Regional Airport and began his climb. Soon, he was out of sight.

A half hour later, the Flying Tiger was pushed back into Exxon-Mobile's display area with Bohannon keeping a pretty close eye on the proceedings. He was poker-faced.

"So," a reporter asked, "how did it go?"

I stupidly predicted we'd do this in ten minutes," Bohannon deadpanned. "I was wrong. We did it in nine minutes, 51 seconds. Or less."

That's when he smiled.

"It couldn't have gone any better," he said, amid congratulations from Exxon-Mobile workers at the display as well as fly-in attendees who stopped in to shake his hand.

When pressed for details, Bohannon said, "I certainly could have flown it better. I constantly had to adjust the manifold pressure and I got distracted several times."

At that point, an air traffic controller walked in and Bohannon was instantly on his feet, shaking hands. "This is 'Eddie Munster,'" Bohannon explained. "He made all the difference in the life and death of breaking a record." Munster -- aka Albert Ensell -- coordinated with Tampa Approach and ATC operations in Orlando and Miami to make sure Bohannon's record attempt wasn't shot down by an altitude hold.

For Bohannon, it was a unique experience, in spite of the file drawer full of records he holds. "I've never flown this aircraft above 15,000 feet," he said. "I was learning from 15,000 upward."

It's an important lesson. Bohannon plans to attempt another record-breaking flight at Oshkosh later this year: He'll try to climb his RV-4 to 50,000 feet. By doing so, his would become the highest-flying piston aircraft in history, breaking a record currently held by the B-29 Superfortress. Stay tuned.



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