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Star Pupil Under a Veteran's Wing : Mentor, Ex-TWA Captain, Gives Lofty Rating to Pilot, 20

April 21, 1985|PAUL DEAN | Times Staff Writer

SANTA PAULA — For fortunate youngsters--among them Australian teen-ager Rod Laver and a London choirboy named Laurence Olivier--there have been discerning elders. For Shana Karam, 20, there is Bob Van Ausdell, 64. . . .

He's a grand old artisan of the air. She's a beginning pilot. But he says she's got it. The Touch. Better, he believes, than Amelia Earhart and Jacqueline Cochran, who were adventuring feminists first and aviators second. Superior, he suspects, to Wiley Post, Yeager, Rickenbaker, Lindbergh and other legends of brilliant yet mechanical flying skills.

"The Touch is absolute, complete, perfect control of an airplane," explained Van Ausdell, an accredited airline, combat and air show pilot for almost half a century. "It is being a precision pilot constantly searching for zero tolerances. It is flying all traffic patterns, all approaches and all landings in a perfect attitude all the time. That's how Karam flies.

"I've seen it before . . . but damned seldom in a man . . . and never in a woman."

On the strength and inspiration of all that, retired TWA captain Van Ausdell has become a patron while active Santa Paula Airport bum Karam has agreed to be his protege.

From Transports to Home-Builts

And for aviation sexists who might think a female flier's place most definitely is not in his hangar:

--Karam, while in her teens, had flown more than 63 types of aircraft, from vintage military transports to single-seat home-builts.

--She once performed a series of spins in a Ryan PT-22, a World War II primary trainer, as a personal test of her resistance to dizziness, nausea and disorientation. Thirty-three consecutive spins, to be exact.

--As a member of the Confederate Air Force, a worldwide organization dedicated to the preservation and flying of World War II airplanes, she has been checked out in a replica Japanese Zero, co-piloted a twin-engined C-46 transport and is qualified to fly in the organization's annual air show.

--Van Ausdell has spent 11 years restoring to pristine condition a Staggerwing Beech cabin biplane. The 1944 classic is worth at least $150,000. Only two other pilots are allowed to fly his primrose yellow treasure. Karam is one.

--In February, after only two hours of familiarization flight with Lockheed test pilot Skip Holm, Karam was performing solo aerobatics in a P-51 Mustang. That's a 430-m.p.h. World War II fighter. "The Lord put some people on the face of the Earth to be pilots, and she (Karam) is one of them," declared Joe Kasparoff, president of a Montebello aerospace firm and owner of the restored, feisty, venerable, $240,000 Mustang. "It (Karam's flight) was absolutely magnificent. All her procedures, takeoffs and landings were textbook."

There is, clearly, an inheritence here. Karam's parents, although divorced since she was a babe, are pilots. Mother flew for pleasure, father flew the Alaskan bush. From Dad, says Karam, came an aviation experience that was close to spiritual.

'Just Natural'

"It was my first flight," recalled Karam. "I was about 11 years old, visiting my Dad, and we went flying in a Cessna 172. The day was light rain and patchy cumulus clouds. . . . He asked me if I wanted to fly the airplane. . . . I just put my hands on the yoke and immediately there was this eerie feeling.

"It was like I had done it all before, like I'd always been able to fly. When the wings banked it was just natural to move the controls the other way to bring them back. No overcorrecting, no violent maneuvers. The airplane just stayed where it was.

"It was an incredible thrill, a tingle, something I will never forget. That day, the airplane, the intense exhilaration."

The bug that bit, then dined on Karam's soul, also munched every other interest in her young life. At an age when she should have been hanging out at gallerias, Karam was haunting airports. School homework was whatever history and English could be crammed between books on aerodynamics and navigation. One of her high school term papers was on the P-51 Mustang. Odd jobs meant money for flying lessons.

And at 15, from Santa Ynez Airport, Karam soloed a Bellanca Scout. Two years later, scrounging rides and working to buy advanced instruction represented all her spare time, and that's how Karam happened to be flying from Santa Paula that Saturday in a 40-year-old, 65-horsepower, tail-dragging Aeronca Champ. . . .

Touch-and-go. That's the name of the exercise. Touchdown, rollout, and go again. Takeoffs and landings by the dozen. Over and over to establish rote within instinct. Again and again until a polish appears.

"I was really fascinated by the way this airplane was being handled," remembered Van Ausdell. "The traffic patterns and approaches were perfect, identical. Always landing on the same spot, no bounces, nice power-off approaches without variations . . . and the airplane landing in a perfect attitude without even a squeak from those little wheels.

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