A native of Omaha, Nebraska, Debby Rihn is as plain American as you can get. Rihn-Harvey has been on the United States team for every WAC since 1984. For that matter, she is a third generation pilot, having learned to fly from her father at age 13. By now she has 14,000 hours of flight time logged and a wallet full of ratings. She is a Captain with Southwest airlines and owner/manager of Harvey and Rihn aviation in LaPorte, Texas. In her spare time she is on the United States Aerobatic team, and flies a few airshows once in a while. On the surface, it's a resume that many pilots would die for, and indicates a successful career of steady accomplishment, the plateau of life euphemistically referred to as the active years, when one has it made, and is still healthy enough to enjoy it. It's not that simple a story. There was a lot of gender prejudice to overcome along the way. The first time she turned in an application for an airline job, she was laughed out of the office. So she took her love of aviation in other directions and did charter and freight work. Time passed, and attitudes changed, and finally Southwest was looking and took her application seriously. By now she has the rank of Captain but bids to fly the right seat so as to be certain to get the schedule she wants that will allow for 5:30 am wake up and a daily competition practice flight before work. That's the kind of down home pragmatism that this lady is all about. You get the idea that when the flash flood takes out the only bridge to town, it's just a good excuse to go build a better one. She is relentlessly cheerful in the face of life's hard knocks, and views a problem as a reason to roll up your sleeves and invent a solution.
One look at Debby Rihn's airplane is all you need to figure out where she's coming from. Back when Leo Loudenslager introduced the mid-wing monoplane to competition aerobatics in the US, Debby Rihn thought that was the way to go, and, although she was competing at the time in an S1S Pitts Special, she bought a set of Stevens Acro plans and began building the hod rod monoplane that would take her the next level. Coming back from South Cerney in 1986, Rihn decided that the lay-back cockpit of the then new Sukhoi Su-26 was an advantage she could not give away, so she had the boys in the shop chop up the already welded fuselage and install a lay back seat to give her more G tolerance. Coming back from Red Deer, Alberta in 1988, it was clear that 200 horses were not going to be enough to compete with, so she had the boys in the shop chop off the engine mount and redesign the nose to accommodate a 300 horsepower engine, which accounts for the Hurricane's pug-nosed look. Although the airplane flew for a year or two with the original Stevens/Laser wing design, it was clear after WAC XV at Yverdon, Switzerland in 1990 that the wing was becoming dated compared to the Walter Extra thick point forward composite wing design. So she had the boys in the shop rework the fuselage wing mounts and bought a trick custom acro wing from Zivko up in Guthrie, the folks who make the Edge 540 acro machine. Just before coming to the Spring training practice in late May, Debby Rihn decided she needed a little more rudder authority, so she had the boys in the shop take the rudder off and extend it by a coupla inches and add a servo tab to keep the pedal forces down. And there was some concern about wear on the elevator hinges, so she told them to "do what ever it takes to fix the elevators, as long as I can fly it tomorrow." So the boys in the shop cut hole in the fabric of the elevator and stab out near the tip, laid some wet cloth on the area so the tail would not catch fire, and welded on an extra hinge just so's the elevator won't come off. They kinda ran out of the nice blue paint, so Debby showed up with a silver patch where they put the new cloth over the hole they cut. It ain't pretty, but it works. So does the new rudder. The airplane pivots very sharply around a hammerhead now, and during one outside rolling turn she got a little heavy on the rudder and she snap rolled right there in the turn. Rihn-Harvey just held the snap for one full turn, popped it out, and kept on going with the roller, telling team trainer John Morrissey over the radio to never mind the snap roll. Now she knows how much rudder to use in a rolling turn.
The Stevens/Laser/Rihn/Harvey/Edge Texas Hurricane, for all its utility trappings, gives nothing away to the store bought airplanes in the box. It's got just enough paint scheme to let the judges know for sure which side is up, and where it's headed at the moment, and not much more. It's got the roll rate, the vertical penetration, the control authority and the mean looks to get the job done. And she has the experience, the finesse and the determination to do so as well. It's a potent combination. Taken together, however, it's more than. The Texas Hurricane and it's cheerful little pilot are a metaphor for almost the entire history of the American aerobatic effort at the world level. Strong willed, diligent, patient individuals evolving one of a kind, very personal airplanes to meet the changing demands of the competition arena.
Painted on the cockpit frame is the name of Dr. Eoin Harvey, Rihn's life companion, partner and co-designer of the Texas Hurricane. WAC XVIII should have been the grand finale to the development story of Doc Harvey's monoplane. But he succumbed to cancer shortly after last year's U.S. Nationals, taking from Debby Rihn an inestimable part of her life and her avocation. She loved the man dearly, as did rest of the aerobatic community. Somehow, in a way she won't mention to a journalist, this WAC won't be the same without him there to watch her fly their joint creation. But that is not a point to be dwelled upon, or allowed to diminish the achievement. Debby's got the grit to press on, and does so with a ready smile and a quiet, relentless persistence. This one's for Doc.
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