By Kevin Knight
NASCAR champ and Conquest II pilot Bill Elliott seems like a character from The Andy Griffith Show who would have been nicknamed “Rocket.” He lives at the base of the Blue Ridge mountains in Dawsonville, Georgia, an hour north of Atlanta. He speaks with a pleasant drawl and has countless stories, from working at his father’s building supply store as a 10 year old, to building car motors in his back yard, to wondering if he’d survive an F-16 crash. (More about that later.)
Strip away the “aw, shucks” exterior, however, and it’s clear that “Awesome Bill from Dawsonville” is detail oriented, focused on success, and embraces technology that won’t let him down when push comes to shove. That’s what made it possible for this fit and funny 59-year old to win the Daytona 500 twice, capture the 1988 NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship, and set speed records at Talladega and Daytona. Elliott recently entered NASCAR’s Hall of Fame, just as his 19-year old son Chase is now shifting the gears, becoming the first rookie to win a NASCAR national series championship when he took the 2014 NASCAR Nationwide Series.
“I got started flying in ‘76 when I was 21, but before that I had never been in a small plane,” he said, speaking from his building complex full of race cars and parts. “I went to the local airport, met an instructor, flew around the pattern once and thought, ‘Yep, I’d like to do this.’ I didn’t realize you could fly in the pattern and have time to talk on the radio.”
He laughed about his solo flight, since there’s little he doesn’t know about engines. “We were doing touch-and-goes when my instructor got out and said, ‘It’s time for you to solo.’ I took off with the carb heat on and the engine sputtering. I was thinking, ‘Oh, Lord!’”
Within 50 hours he had his license and joined a flying club. He’d rent a 172 for $15 an hour to pick up parts in Charlotte or Asheville. “I’d go to 12,000 feet ‘cause I thought that’s what it took with the mountains around here. Looking back, you thought you knew everything but you knew absolutely nothing.
“One time my brother and I went up on one of those terrible, hazy summer days. I raced at Bristol Speedway in Tennessee that weekend, then took off on Sunday and got into the clouds. I wasn’t IFR rated but had the good sense to turn around, land, rent a car and drive home. I decided I’d better get my instrument rating.”
Fast forward ten years. After logging nearly 2,000 flight hours, owning several single engine planes, and earning lots of victory laps, Elliott bought a Piper Cheyenne II in 1986, then a Cessna Conquest II in 1992, since he was flying 150 to 200 hours annually for his racing team.
“At FlightSafety you learn how much stuff can tear up on these planes. They fail this, they fail that in the sim. At the end of that school I couldn’t remember my own name. It was a lot of learning in a little time. “
In January 2008, he bought his current Conquest II in Ohio, after owning several Cessna jets. “I asked myself, ‘Why did I ever leave this thing?’ I can’t recall many trips where I’ve had to stop for gas. And the Conquest can go into any short field. It’s a great plane with all the benefits of my Cessna jets but none of the problems.“
In May 2008, West Star gutted the plane and put three Avidyne Entegra screens in the panel. A Garmin 540 and 430 provided the GPS. However, Elliott is always looking for better technology that’s easier to use. When Avidyne introduced a distinctive, yet familiar, new system last July, he made a move up.
The ID540 is a plug-and-play replacement for Garmin’s GNS 530. (The IFD440 upgrade for Garmin’s GNS 430 should have FAA clearance this spring.) Avidyne’s goal was to produce a modern GPS/NAV/COM that can be installed in a Garmin 530 or 430 tray in less than a minute. It does everything the old Garmins do – and lots more – thanks to Avidyne’s powerful Flight Management System, built-in WAAS, terrain awareness, WiFi and Bluetooth integration, and aural warnings. It has a full-featured touch screen that can be zoomed in and out, plus a compliment of buttons for easy use in turbulence.
Elliot compared the IFD540 with Garmin’s GTN650 and GTN750 units, which would have required costly new installations, assuming they could even fit in his center console. He also didn’t like that the interface on those units is nearly 100-percent touch screen. That’s a nightmare in turbulence, said Elliot.
“I wanted more than a Direct To button. Garmin makes good boxes but they really don’t have flight management systems, or Victor airways. Inputting every intersection in a 530 or 430 takes lots of time since you’re scrolling to each one. If the airway’s straight, it’s easiest to string VORs together. But you’ve got to really pay attention and pray you don’t have a dogleg with an intersection.
“I fly a lot up and down the East Coast, and it’s work putting in all your intersections. It seems you get rerouted four or five times every flight. I’ve loaded many flight plans into my box, blasted off and then gotten a new flight plan issued before my gear is barely up. You need to make changes quickly easily and accurately, especially single-pilot IFR. The 540 has made my flying a lot more relaxed and safer.”
Although Elliott could have sold his Garmin 530 to offset a lot of the IFD540’s cost, he kept it for a homebuilt sitting in the corner of his large hanger. When the IFD440 is available this spring, he’ll pop out the Conquest’s 430 and find another use for that older GPS.
After 50 hours with the new system, he’s shared some feedback with Avidyne’s Steve Jacobson, principal designer of the IFD540/440 systems and a decorated A-10 “Warthog” fighter jock who flew sorties in Iraq and Bosnia. His team is continually upgrading the software at no extra cost to pilots.
“It’s an easy box to learn, and the FMS system is terrific. I’ve had experience with other FMS’s and it’s very sophisticated. I go to a lot of different places and routes so it’s really opened up what I do trip to trip. You can even practice in your living room by downloading an app on your iPad or computer.”
He then shifted the discussion to a memorable F-16 flight in autumn 1987. Elliott had been going toe to toe with racing legend Dale Earnhardt all season when the folks at Dobbins Air Force base asked if he’d like to fly in an F-16 after winning the Atlanta Journal 500 race on Sunday, November 22.
“I thought, ‘Man, that would be great.’ I tire tested on Monday, then went to Dobbins on Tuesday.
The base commander said it would be neat if they could do some combat maneuvers. What did I know? We took off and went afterburners straight to 10,000 feet. It was unbelievable. I’d done some aerobatics but never experienced g-loads like that.
“We were at 2,500 feet and did a couple of engagements chasing each other around. Then we went to 14,000 feet. An F-15 was crossing at 2 o’clock on the heads-up display. It was so close I couldn’t focus on it. We turned left and he turned left when our right wing went through his plane’s belly. He punched out while his plane went down.
“We immediately went wings level and I lost communication when our intercom went out. I thought we were going to eject. This was right after the movie Top Gun and I figured I was Goose. You know, the guy who punches out, smacks his head on the canopy and dies.
“The pilot had some control over the airplane and handed me a note. It said ‘I’m going to try and land but if we lose control we’ll have to eject.’ He had underlined ‘eject’ about three times.
“We got down low and that thing has two big fuel tanks under the wings. The one on the left came off and the one on the right was so badly damaged it came off. We slowed down, dropped the gear and I saw three green. He eased down to about 180 knots and the plane started shuddering and breaking towards the bad wing. The aileron was stuck straight up and fuel was pouring out of the wing. I thought, ‘We aren’t going to make it,’ but he put that thing on the runway at 200 knots.
“The funny thing is, I was at Daytona in 2007 or 2008 and met a guy who knew the F-16 pilot I flew with. He told me our crash was the number-one film in the training class!”
Elliott laughs at his good fortune before jumping into a fire-engine-red Dodge Viper and driving a quick half-mile back to his office. An hour later, he’s programming the IFD540 and heading to North Carolina with his son, who recently soloed. The young racer, who’s already learned from his Dad that great equipment and training are critical to success, could hardly have a better teacher.
Author Kevin Knight is a 1,000-hour instrument-rated pilot who owns a Mooney in Dallas, Texas. He regrets his father doesn’t own a Conquest II, or several buildings filled with race cars.