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Aerobatic pilot aims to dazzle in ‘Wings’ show

October 5, 2018

When Debby Rihn-Harvey tries to describe the feeling of flying a high-performance plane, one word fits best — freedom.

“You get up and you can see the whole world from another perspective,” she said. “You are such a small speck of green in the whole earth that you realize your problems are not really that big. It gives you a perspective of the importance of things.”

Rihn-Harvey, 67, will perform both days at the Wings Over Houston Oct. 20-21 at Ellington Airport, where her Hurricane 2 one-seater plane will dip, roll, dive and soar anywhere from 50 to 500 feet above the crowd all the while bringing the audience in with her own commentary.

“To me, aerobatics teaches you what your real abilities are because you see the edges of the envelope, you see what you can get by with and can’t get by with,” she said. “Aerobatics makes a safer pilot, and it is a challenge. It’s nice to know that you can make that airplane do anything that you want it to do. That’s a thrill.”

Rihn-Harvey has been a aerobatic pilot her entire adult life.

Aviation was a rite of passage in Rihn-Harvey’s family when she was growing up in Omaha, Nebraska. Her grandfather manufactured a plane in the 1920s, her father was a military pilot in World War II, and she and her older brothers followed the family tradition.

She flew her first glider at age 13.

“My dad taught us all to fly and we first soloed when we were 16,” Rihn-Harvey said.

By the time she graduated from college, Rihn-Harvey had earned the necessary ratings, certifications to be both teach flight and fly commercially. But Rihn-Harvey made her living as a medical technologist.

In 1975, Rihn-Harvey moved to the Houston area and supervised a medical lab at Southmore Hospital in Pasadena.

There, she met a doctor who asked Rihn-Harvey to teach his children to fly, especially his teenage daughter.

“He had started them in aviation, but he had a daughter who didn’t see other women (in aviation) and was starting to lose interest; so that’s where I came in,” Rihn-Harvey said.

In 1979, Rihn-Harvey started a La Porte flight school, Harvey & Rihn Aviation, which will celebrate its 40th anniversary in 2019. She left the medical field and devoted herself to aviation, going on to work at Southwest Airlines as a captain for 27 years before retiring 2 1/2 years ago.

Along the way, her late husband, Dr. Eoin Harvey, who was an aviation hobbyist, taught Rihn-Harvey aerobatics, and she welcomed the challenge. Rihn-Harvey would go on to compete internationally, including representing the nation in world competition for 31 years. Aerobatics, she said, is about precision and accuracy and requires much practice.

Rihn-Harvey, who has lived in La Porte since 1984, never thought of herself as a female aviation pioneer.

“When I was young, I didn’t realize it was an odd thing,” she said. “There were not many women, but the women I knew were great pilots and really promoted aviation.”

Now, she relishes her role as mentor and trailblazer. That doctor’s daughter she taught in the 1970s is now a captain at Southwest Airlines.

“I’m very passionate about aviation and I want to help others not be afraid of flying and to want to fly, and have the life and some of the experiences that I’ve had,” Rihn-Harvey said.

About 7 percent of pilots are female, she said.

According to Bill Roach, director of Commemorative Air Force Wings Over Houston Airshow, Rihn-Harvey is a great ambassador.

“Debby holds a seat among the very best aerobatic pilots in the world, and it’s an honor to have her fly in our show,” he said.

Rihn-Harvey is a member of the Wings Over Houston airshow board of directors, and according to Roach, has been served as a mentor and inspiration to female pilots.

“She also is an outstanding ambassador for encouraging women to become aviators, whether they want fly a private plane, pursue a military aviation career, or train to become an aerobatic performer like her,” he said.

Wings Over Houston will recognize the contribution and history of women like Rihn-Harvey and Celeste Graves, a former member of Women Air Force Service Pilots during World War II, who will also be at the event.

“Aviation has a rich history which includes women, and it’s becoming more commonplace to see women in the cockpits of private, commercial, and military aircraft,” Roach said.

Rihn-Harvey’s performance is interactive, engaging the spectators through a microphone as she steers her Hurricane 2.

She admits that being a professional pilot comes with sacrifices, such as being away from family for extended periods while traveling all over the world. But it’s rewarding, Rihn-Harvey said.

Aviation fulfilled her desire for adventure, allowed her to carry on a family legacy and provides a platform to empower other women to fly.

“It’s a crazy life, but the career that I’ve had has been really dynamic,” Rihn-Harvey said. “I want to show that woman can do this. If a little old gray-haired lady can do this, anybody can.”

For more information, visit the site Harvey & Rihn Aviation, visit https://bit.ly/2zSwPrH

For information on Wings Over Houston, visit https://bit.ly/2No44XE

yorozco@hcnonline.com

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