Rookie Of The Year
Flying|January - February 2020
Joe Coraggio pushes his limits at the Reno Air races
Sam Weigel

The six-cylinder, 310-hp Continental growls and pops as I line up on Runway 7L then builds to a throaty roar as I open the throttle. I feed it in slowly, just like Joe told me to, in order to keep this Lancair with its castoring nosewheel, tiny tail and monstrous torque pointed straight down the runway. But around the time I figure I’m at full throttle, I discover I have another inch to “firewall power,” and when I get there, the acceleration becomes gut-wrenching. We’re up to 85 knots in no time at all. I ease back on the stick, and we leap into the dry desert air. This is my first time flying an airplane that has the power and speed to compete in the famed Reno Air Races in Nevada, and even in this bone-stock Lancair Legacy, it’s a bit like having a tiger by the tail.

My friend, Joe Coraggio, is in the left seat. We’ve known each other since we both flew the Embraer 175 for Compass Airlines, where Joe, a check airman, was assigned to give me my annual line check. We hit it off over two short legs, and a few days later, I flew over to Fleming Field in Minnesota to take a look at the Long-EZ project Joe was building in his garage. Over the next couple years, Dawn and I came to be good friends with Joe and his husband, Kevin Vernon- Harris; they’re friendly, generous people with an infectious enthusiasm for life in general and sport aviation in particular. I helped out on the Long-EZ build a few times; we flew together in my Cub and Pacer and a friend’s RV-7; Dawn and I camped with Joe and Kevin at EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin; and Joe introduced me to many of his seemingly endless pool of friends and acquaintances in the experimental, warbird, airshow and racing corners of aviation.

One of these is Eric Whyte, with whom Joe co-chairs the annual AirVenture Cup Race. Like Joe and me, Eric is a professional pilot who has been flying since his early teens, and in fact, it was Eric who gave Joe his first Young Eagles flight in 1995 and, subsequently, mentored him as he began flight training. Joe recalls, in those days, he hung around the airport so much that the other pilots started calling him “Ramp Rat,” a nickname that stuck. Both mentor and mentee have done a great deal to carry on the program that gave them and so many other young aviators their start; in 2017, Eric was the recipient of the Phillips 66 EAA Young Eagles Leadership Award, and Joe was the honoree the following year.

One cold winter evening in Joe’s basement, he and I got to talking about the AirVenture Cup Race, which takes place the weekend before Oshkosh and ends in nearby Wausau, Wisconsin. Joe made it sound so fun that, a few tasty IPAs later, we had cooked up a harebrained scheme to “race” my flying club’s 70-mph Piper Cub at the next AirVenture Cup. It was a great lark that made for a good shaggy-dog tale (“The World’s Fastest Cub,” December 2014), and the following year, Dawn and I raced our own Piper Pacer. At both races, I really enjoyed getting to know Joe and Eric better, along with their many racing friends— several of whom also compete at Reno— and another highlight was flying dozens of Young Eagles on the Saturdays before the race.

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