FRESNO — Although rich in raisins, Bakersfield jokes, Class A baseball and William Saroyan anecdotes, this city is poor in aviation history.
There was Loxla Thornton, famed barnstormer of the '20s, who lost his arms in railroad accident but learned to fly a plane anyway.
The 461st Bombardment Group was based here during World War II and set a record of sorts by crashing four B-25s during training exercises in two weeks.
Now comes lawyer Judy Lund-Bell (with only 200 hours as a private pilot) and attorney husband Jim Bell (kept from a military aviation career by high arches) who, in all seriousness and with risk factors in the mid-to-upper range, plan to race a single-engined Cessna from Paris to Beijing.
And back. That's about 19,000 miles. Their route will be close to itchy Middle East areas more accustomed to aircraft armed with missiles. One leg will be a lonely, empty run across 1,000 miles of the South China Sea, after crossing remote areas of China where populations haven't seen a single-engined aircraft since the Flying Tigers went home.
Jim and Judy and Winged Quest--the 1985 Cessna Turbo 210 they and the bank have owned for two years--will start the race Saturday from an airfield outside Paris.
They are the only husband-and- wife team among the 20 crews, which include two other American entries, in this inaugural Arc-en - ciel (rainbow) air race for general aviation aircraft sponsored by the National Aero Club of France.
Yet their nine-leg, monthlong odyssey certainly won't do for Fresno what Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager and Voyager did for Mojave.
"But it should prove there's more to Fresno than being a flat, hot spot in a valley," said Lund-Bell, a family-law specialist. "It will show that Fresno is a city where people do interesting things . . . as a place with a good sense of community and friendship."
Functioning as an airborne Chamber of Commerce, however, is only a portion of the couple's motivation.
Their six-year marriage is the second for both and the flight will continue the fullness of new and many travels together . . . "For those who dream," goes Lund-Bell's favorite homily, "there is no such place as far away."
It will extend their personal brief for general aviation. . . . "I think that general aviation to some extent has fallen on hard times," Bell said. "Sales are down, people think it's difficult to do, it's dangerous and not something for the common man. But if we pull this (race) off it will show that the (general aviation) airplane has a certain utility."
It will indulge Lund-Bell's sense of adventure (she's a Scuba diver who also has raced cars) and faith in international cooperation. . . . "One of the things I want to do is learn how to greet people in their own language wherever we stop. I've learned namaste . That's how you greet someone in Hindi."
Above all, the event will feed their passions for flying. Anywhere. Anytime. They have flown the Cessna to the Caribbean and Mexico. To Washington and the National Aerospace Museum. To Oshkosh, Wis., for the annual fly-in of the Experimental Aircraft Assn.
But these, they agree, are jaunts compared to flying from Paris to Beijing via Abu Dhabi and Bangladesh then back to the French capital with stops in Hong Kong and Singapore and Bombay.
"We'll be leaving Paris and flying close to the Swiss Alps," said Lund-Bell, 47. "Can you imagine landing at Luxor (Egypt) and taking off over the Valley of the Kings?
"Hong Kong to Singapore. To me that's going to be fascinating. I like the navigational challenge of flying over 1,000 miles of water, then hanging a right and over the jungles of Borneo.
"A little more water (about 800 miles) then we drop down into Singapore, a very beautiful city. Now that's exciting.
"We will be landing at Kunming where the Flying Tigers were in World War II. And the race will end at Le Bourget Airport where Charles Lindbergh landed after his transatlantic flight in 1927."
Three in the Cabin
Bell, 49, a 1,300-hour commercial pilot who has been flying since 1972, isn't quite so romantic about spending a total of eight days aloft. Especially with a third person, observer-photographer Allen Funch, a Fresno businessman, cramped into the same small cabin. To say nothing of facing oceans long on emptiness, uninhabited regions short of navigational aids and the unpredictable weather patterns of deserts and Asian summits.
"I think it will be fairly difficult, very tiring," he said. "I'm not really looking forward to flying over Saudi Arabia at night. We'll have to stay exactly on the airways. I don't think they'll shoot you down if you get off course, but they'll certainly yell at you.
"One (course) intersection is 14 miles off the coast of Iran. I don't think there's any danger, but I'd prefer to be further away."