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Local pilots make mark at Reno Air Races

Kevin Harper and Marie-Claire LaBerge met at the South Atlanta Flight Training school but their teacher-student relationship soon turned into true love and resulted in them both making their aviation dreams come true by taking part in the 55th Anniversary National Championship Air Races, Reno, NV as Team Silver Linings.  ’This was a dream that I thought would never happen,’ said Marie-Claire. ‘It was an amazing experience. It’s like a family at the air races and the sportsmanship out there is inspiring.’Â  The couple met three years ago as Marie-Claire was earning her Commercial Pilot’s certification at Kevin’s flight training school. After ferrying a biplane from Seattle to Atlanta,  they fell in love with each other – and biplanes. They married this January, in a helicopter over the Atlanta skyline at dusk, piloted and officiated by two of their closest friends. And a visit to the Reno Air Races last year spawned the idea of racing this September. Marie-Claire was the intended primary pilot, but medical issues put Kevin behind the controls of ‘˜The Yellow Bomber,’ their Pitts S-1S biplane.  ’Chasing her down was a lot harder than racing at Reno,’ he said, although flying at top speeds at only 50 to 250 feet on a 3.1-mile course against eight other planes is no easy feat.  Kevin is also an airplane mechanic and helped other pilots prepare for their laps at the Reno Air Races this year. He earned fourth place in the Silver Heat for biplanes in Reno, flying six laps with an average speed of 173.5 miles per hour. He was also named the Rookie of the Year by the president and officers of the biplane class. Other pilots in the biplane class were polled as well and he beat out three other rookies to earn the honor. Kevin has sold his flight training school and is currently a pilot for PSA Airlines and a Designated Pilot Examiner for the FAA.  ’We’re very much a team, and had support from all types of people to make our dream of flying in the air races come true,’ said Kevin. ‘We’d like to thank our top notch crew chief, Greg Lammers, our dedicated pit crew, Deborah Katvala, Mike Arce, and Michael Fitzpatrick; and our local sponsors Rendrag Aviation of Thomaston, and Fitzpatrick Ford of Newnan.’ Marie-Claire was his alternate for the races this year but she plans on piloting ‘˜The Yellow Bomber’ in 2019. ‘˜The Yellow Bomber’ bears a nickname given to Marie-Claire by Pat Hankins of Meansville. Marie-Claire earned the title as a young girl when she would visit the Hankins’ lake wearing a yellow bathing suit, and she would run straight from the car to dive into the lake without stopping to visit everyone.  Marie-Claire grew up with aviation experience learned from her father and mother at their Concord home. She flew her first airplane – a Piper Cub – at age 4 with her Dad as instructor. The family had their own landing strip and a hangar which was built by her father and Concord mayor John Strickland.  Her father, the late Phillip LaBerge, was a Delta pilot, and her mother, Nellie LaBerge, was Georgia’s first certificated female A&P, airplane mechanic, and she was also a pilot. The two met at college where they were both pursuing careers in music and Nellie has since taught piano and flute to generations of young musicians in the area. Phillip dropped out of college to learn to fly and joined the U.S. Navy, serving two tours in Vietnam before becoming a commercial pilot.  ’My mother is the real unsung hero of aviation in our family,’ said Marie-Claire. ‘She bought her Piper Cub in 1965 with her first year’s salary as a teacher and flew it back east from California with a Scottie dog in the back. Then in the early 70s she earned her A&P certificate from Atlanta Technical College. She was pioneering the way for women in the industry.’Â  Marie-Claire moved away from home at age 17 and returned to Concord in 2015, leaving a successful administrative career at UGA to pursue an aviation career and spend time with her ailing father. She and Kevin plan to restore her mother’s Piper Cub as well as modify their own plane to compete in the Gold Heat for biplanes at next year’s competition in Reno. They are ‘˜going for gold’ as the planes in that category are much faster. Their Pitts S1S is a work in progress and is currently called their ‘˜Red Headed Step Child.’

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