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Dreams Take Flight : At 8, Katrina Marie Mumaw was considered the youngest person to fly even make-believe dogfights. Now she's 10, and her passion for planes soars.

August 20, 1993|JEFF PRUGH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

One mile up, above the clouds over the San Pedro Channel, 10-year-old Katrina Marie Mumaw of Lancaster stalks her prey.

At speeds exceeding 200 m.p.h., she fearlessly maneuvers a dual-control Marchetti SF-260 prop plane--sometimes flying upside-down --in mock combat with a veteran flier in the same kind of aircraft that trains NATO fighter pilots.

In these competitive sorties promoted by Air Combat U.S.A., Katrina wears a parachute, a custom-fitted helmet and an olive-drab jumpsuit embroidered with her call sign, "KAT-ONE."

But she's the canary , bird-dogging her opponent, the cat. As they dodge and dive, spin and roll, swerve and soar--each with a flight instructor alongside--Katrina finally out-finesses her opponent, Mike Darcy, 32, of Woodland Hills. She lines up her target, 500 feet away, and fires an electronic beam.

ZAP! Smoke spews from a device on Darcy's plane, signaling a "kill." Score one for the canary.

Katrina, pilot prodigy, straight-A student, spelling bee champion and honoree for encouraging peers to say "no" to drugs, has wounded another male ego--just when the Defense Department has nurtured her dreams by recently lifting its ban against women flying in combat.

After all, it wasn't too long ago that Katrina, then only 3, told her father that she wanted to become an "astro- nut ." At age 8, she became what is believed to be the youngest ever to fly even make-believe dogfights.

Today, she's six years too young to be licensed to fly solo, so small that she sits on two stacked seat cushions just to see through the windshield, and she still drags her favorite doll, Brittany, to and from the competition.

And it's bad enough, Darcy says, that his own instructor has screamed insults at him in mid-flight against Katrina, but worse when the instructor snaps, "How come you can't beat a 10-year-old girl ?"

Well, as Darcy explains: "She's different. She's so much smaller and lighter than the rest of us--and that gives her a tactical advantage right off the bat."

Accordingly, Katrina can withstand all that gravitational pressure--"G forces," aviators call them--caused by her high-speed dipping and darting, without blacking out or getting sick. At flight's end, she nonchalantly walks away, retrieves her doll, then wolfs down a ham-cheese-and-mayo sandwich and a soda.

At the same time, many of her opponents--mostly in their 30s and 40s, and some even combat fliers--stagger off their aircraft with, as Darcy says, "their barf bags filled."

As Katrina's father, Jim Mumaw, 36, points out: "She pulls 7 Gs in the airplane--that's seven times your weight. Most adults can't take 7 Gs unless they're really used to it. But it doesn't bother her. She's young. Her mind is in the right place, where she's having fun and not caring about it. And she has a shorter distance from her heart to her brain. That helps."

He says one rival flier whom Katrina defeated paid grudging tribute: "I got shot down by a parachute wearing a helmet!"

When a writer asks Katrina if flying simulated combat is like "patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time," her head bobs up and down.

"I can do that , too!" she says.

She grins. "But I can't chew gum and fly," she says, "because I get too busy chewing."

Katrina also keeps busy winning awards and making personal appearances. She'll be honored in opening ceremonies of "A Tribute to Women in Aviation" at Aviation Expo '93 at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at the Van Nuys Airport (the event concludes Sunday). She also will be "Miss Cal Aero '93" at the Cal Aero Expo today through Sunday at the Los Angeles County FairPlex in Pomona.

A precocious, poised youngster who dreams of attending the Air Force Academy after high school graduation in 2001 and someday joining a mission to Mars, Katrina has a "situational awareness that's unusual for someone so young," says Tom Smith, director of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots, based in Lancaster.

"And she's especially good at thinking ahead ," says Smith, also an ex-Air Force instructor pilot. "Let's put it this way: She's got the big picture."

Win or lose, Katrina takes it all in stride--so much that Nettie Sheppard, her fourth-grade teacher at El Dorado School, says, "I see a kindness in her that I don't see in others. You never hear her brag about anything, even though she's got so much to brag about."

Indeed, Katrina's enthusiasm ("really neat," she says of flying) runs a distant second to that of her father, a mortician, who pays $600 for each of Katrina's flights, which occur as often as three times a week, as infrequently as once every two months or, as he puts it, "when business is good enough."

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