NASCAR drivers take ‘awesome’ ride to the sky

DOVER — In less time than it takes to race 400 laps around the Monster Mile, three NASCAR drivers and their teams traveled to Richmond and took a right over Tennessee before swinging back to Dover Thursday.

Then, after an “assault landing” at Dover Air Force Base, MAKE Motorsport’s Travis Kvapil and Ryan Ellis hustled up the road to Dover International Speedway to log a few more miles for the day in the Camping World Truck Series’ final practice.

After all, what’s a few more miles once you’ve flown 1,463 in a 3.5-hour C-17 Globemaster III orientation flight?

Dover Air Force Base has offered tours of the base to NASCAR teams coming to town for the weekend races since 2010, according to 2nd Lt. Alannah M. Staver, deputy chief of public affairs for the 436th Airlift Wing Public Affairs at the base.

Thursday’s flight, however, was only the second time teams have joined the flight crew for an already-scheduled training mission that included in-flight air refueling and ended with the assault landing.

C-17 GLOBEMASTER III Mission:  A flexible cargo aircraft capable of rapid strategic delivery of troops and cargo Features:  • 174 feet long with a wingspan of 169 feet, 10 inches. • Four engines with 40,440 pounds of thrust • Operated by a crew of three • Cargo area can accommodate military vehicles and palletized cargo • Maximum payload is 170,900 pounds an dmaximum gross takeoof weight is 585,000 pounds • With a payload of 169,000 pounds and an initial cruise altitude of 28,000 feet, the C-17 has a range of 2,4000 nautical miles • Cruise speed is 450 knots (517.5 mph) • It can drop 102 paratroopers and equipment • Manufacturer is Boeing

C-17 GLOBEMASTER III
Mission:
A flexible cargo aircraft capable of rapid strategic delivery of troops and cargo
Features:
• 174 feet long with a wingspan of 169 feet, 10 inches.
• Four engines with 40,440 pounds of thrust
• Operated by a crew of three
• Cargo area can accommodate military vehicles and palletized cargo
• Maximum payload is 170,900 pounds an dmaximum gross takeoof weight is 585,000 pounds
• With a payload of 169,000 pounds and an initial cruise altitude of 28,000 feet, the C-17 has a range of 2,4000 nautical miles
• Cruise speed is 450 knots (517.5 mph)
• It can drop 102 paratroopers and equipment
• Manufacturer is Boeing

Dover Air Force Base usually does three to four orientation flights a year for civic leaders, congressional members and top-notch airmen, Lt. Staver said. Each flight averages about 40 people.

“We always welcome opportunities in which we are able to share our mission with the public and give insight to the types of tasks we are conquering on a daily basis,” she said.

Mr. Kvapil, the 2003 truck series champion and driver of the No. 50 Silverado, appreciated the opportunity.

“Driving out here is an experience,” he said, looking toward the flight line of C-5s and C-17s.

“Driving by here to the track, you don’t realize what’s behind the gates — the people, the resources.”

Mr. Ellis agreed.

“This is foreign,” said the driver of the No. 1 Silverado truck. “It’s so different from what we do.”

An air base is not quite foreign territory to Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year contender Matt DiBenedetto. His brother, Austin, is in the Air Force and he’s visited him on various bases.

But flying in a C-17 would be a new experience for the driver of the No. 83 Toyota Camry, fielded by BK Racing.

“It’s cool,” he said.

Equally cool would be the speed of the C-17, which cruises at 450 knots. The equivalent of around 500 mph, that’s more than three times how fast Mr. DiBenedetto circled Dover in 2009 when he set the K&N track record for Dover, 155.166 mph.

Joining Mr. DiBenedetto on the flight were the 83 crew and crew members from BK Racing’s 23, 26 and 93 teams in addition to MAKE’s No. 50 and 1 crews and a number of airmen.

“Can I fly it?,” asked Bobby Bakeeff, a pilot and BK mechanic, when the bus stopped in front of the C-17. “I really want to fly it.”

Up, up and away

Before everybody climbed into the belly of the beast, Capt. Adam Franklin outlined the day’s itinerary: The plane would climb to 28,000 feet, head south before turning west above Richmond, Virginia. After an in-flight air refueling somewhere north of Tennessee, the C-17 would return to Dover.

“The weather is decent,” Capt Franklin said, before closing with, “have fun.”

Once aboard, everybody tightened their one lap belt — far less than the multiple belts inside a race car — and listened to 1st Lt. Katy Moffett’s safety briefing on what to do if smoke filled the plane and where to exit in case of an emergency landing.

White bags were distributed in case anybody became ill during the flight. (Delaware State News/K.I. White)

White bags were distributed in case anybody became ill during the flight. (Delaware State News/K.I. White)

Plain white bags were handed out, “just in case” they were needed.

“Puke in the bag and not on the floor,” Lt. Moffett said.

Folks also were handed disposable earplugs to counter the noise of the engines as the crew went through their check list. Familiar with the sound of jet dryers on race tracks, many of the NASCAR people initially set them aside.

The hatch closed at 9:54 a.m. and with a rumbling somewhat louder than 43 cars circling the Monster Mile to take the green flag, the C-17 jerked forward and then began its ascent into the clouds, barely visible through small portholes in the emergency exits.

Once the C-17 reached its 2,800 altitude and leveled off, people walked around the cargo hold, looking out the few portholes at the checkerboard landscape below.

Meanwhile, Mr. Kvapil and Mr. Ellis, up in the cockpit behind the pilots, had a bird’s-eye view.

“I’m spoiled,” said Mr. Ellis. “I’m never gonna to want to fly any other way.”

The cockpit communications and “lingo” impressed Mr. Kvapil.

Asked how it compared to radio chatter with his crew chief during a race, Mr. Kvapil said with a smile, “I can tell him to shut up.”

Later, Mr. DiBenedetto replaced them in the cockpit and declared the experience “awesome.”

Everybody on the flight had the opportunity to visit the cockpit and ask questions.

Anticipation

Michael Briggs, who builds shocks for BK Racing, said he had toured a C-5 before. “But that was on ground,” he said. “This is cooler because it’s in flight.”

While some airmen appeared to be napping, others were eager for what was to come, especially the promised combat, or assault, landing.

Senior Airman Taylor Altrichter, of Lancaster, Pa., said it was her first time on an orientation flight.

“It’s normal now,” she said, “but I’m looking forward to the combat landing.”

Seated next to her, Staff Sgt. Leo Galindo, of Casa Grande, Arizona., warned about the sudden vertical drop the plane would take and usually with no warning.

Is it fun, he was asked?

“Oh, yeah.”

About 50 minutes into the flight, everybody was ordered to their seats and told to strap in again as the refueling exercise began. As the C-17 lined up under the tanker from Rickenbacker Air National Guard Base in Ohio, the smooth ride became less so as the two airplanes stirred up the air.

Mr. Kvapil later said there were a few tense moments. While one lap around Dover might be more intense, he said, what the C-17 crew do during the in-air refueling is “more amazing, in how they are mating up two planes and make it look easy.”

“We were going 500 mph and there looks like maybe six inches” between the planes, Mr. Ellis said. “It’s absolutely incredible seeing what these guys do.”

With the refueling complete, the C-17 headed back to Dover.

Folks were told to tighten belts for the assault landing: “It will be a bit harsh.”

Harsh, indeed, as the C-17 rocketed across the runway, people tilted sideways before the plane came to sudden stop. Sliding boxed lunches came to rest against feet.

Once the C-17 taxied to a stop, NASCAR passengers shook the flight crew’s hands before heading down the narrow steps to the waiting bus and van.

“That was pretty sweet,” Mr. Kvapil said, on the van ride back to his vehicle at the Blue Hen Corporate Center.

Nobody had to use the plain white bags.

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