Wild memories of the blue yonder beckon for Jim and Judy Bell, Fresno pilots who flew a historic race
In the introduction to her new book “Flying With a Dragon on Our Tail,” Judy Lund-Bell sets the scene for her scariest moment in the 1987 Paris-Pékin-Paris Air Race. She and her husband, Jim Bell, were flying from Wuhan, China — a city name that a few decades later would become a household word — to Beijing in their single-engine Cessna T210, named Winged Quest. It was a dark and (very) stormy night. The aircraft navigation systems on the ground were down because of power to the countryside was spotty. They had no radio contact. They were navigating with a watch and compass.
The engine began to sputter and cough.
The two Fresno lawyers didn’t panic. Lund-Bell recounts that all they could do was fly on and hope that sputtering didn’t turn to silence. Judy didn’t talk because she didn’t want to distract Jim, who was concentrating on the sounds emanating from the engine “as though willing it with his mind to continue running” as he piloted the plane. Instead, she thought about their four children — and the grandchildren she might never see. They’d known there might be risks. Was crash-landing in the middle of China one of them? She didn’t want Jim to see her tears.
Obviously, the trusty engine made it through, albeit with fouled spark plugs. (Turns out that the Chinese aviation gasoline might not have been the 90 octane it was supposed to be.) On the trip, Judy made history as the first American female private pilot to land an aircraft in the People’s Republic of China.
Thirty years later, Judy and Jim have written a book about the race. (It’s available in print and e-versions on Amazon and other major platforms.) The result is many things: a glimpse inside the world of non-commercial aviation; a travelogue to a list of fascinating countries, some of which weren’t commonly visited by Americans; a moving portrait of a blended family with adult children; a snapshot of a Fresno that supported the Bells’ entry in the race financially and emotionally. Through it all, there is La Girafe, mascot of Valley Children’s Hospital, a stuffed version of which risked life and neck to raise money for the hospital. Above all, it is a story of perseverance. Judy and Jim waited 30 years to write their story, but they did it. That’s impressive.
After reading the book, I conducted a spirited email interview with Judy. She signed my book, “Live your dreams!”
Q: I’m not afraid of flying (commercially), but I do get nervous in small planes. I lived in Alaska for several years, and my cousin — who was putting in hours for his pilot’s license — took me on little jaunts outside Anchorage. The thing that struck me most is that once we got a few minutes outside the city, we’d be flying over total wilderness without a sign of humans in sight. It made me feel so vulnerable. So, I guess my first question is, did you ever have those kind of nerves when you started flying? And how did you get over them?
A: No, I have never felt vulnerable or uncomfortable flying. “Vulnerable” would be the furthest feeling from my mind. In 1980, the first time that I sat at the controls of an airplane, gathered speed and lifted off from the runway, I felt a surge of freedom, excitement and happiness. I was finally living my childhood dream of joining the birds and flying high, over and around the beautiful clouds. I smiled inside and still recall that feeling of not only elation, but also peace and happiness. Of course, when our engine was having problems in China, I was worried about the possible outcome, but that is different from feeling the joy of flying.
Q: I love the story of how you got involved with the 1987 Paris-Pékin-Paris Air Race in the first place. After reading a small article in Flying magazine, you basically had to send away for information by writing a $60 check to a guy you didn’t know. This was before the internet, so it wasn’t as easy to do research about people on the other side of the world. How long did it take you and Jim to fully commit to the idea that you were actually going to do this race?
A: Our commitment to fly the air race evolved slowly. As we received more information and talked with Marc Mosier, the representative of the race sponsor, Arc en Ciel, our questions were answered and we moved toward making the decision. In thinking back, there may have been a sort of competition between us to support the decision that each of us was headed toward individually. Neither of us wanted to be to be the one to nix the adventure that we would have the opportunity share.
Q: How did the Fresno community respond to your request for support? Did you have a certain amount of money that you had to raise? Did Fresno media cover the progress of the race?
A: There were some who supported us immediately. Friends who could do so became sponsors and several business who knew us or our photographer stepped up quickly. We approached the Raisin Bargaining Association for support and although they denied us, the Raisin Wives became a sponsor, and we took raisins with us to give as gifts throughout the race. A friend had a school, the International English Institute, with students from many of the countries we would visit, and we distributed t-shirts and posters from the school. We did not have a specific financial goal, but obviously the race was costly and we tried to raise as much money as possible. The rest would be paid by us—we told our children that we spent their inheritance.
The Fresno media covered us extensively before, during and after the race. The organization frequently sent information to update them during the race. The LA Times also wrote a very nice article about us.
Q: La Girafe is a major “character” in the book. Please introduce him.
A: When we decided to use the race to benefit Valley Children’s Hospital, we elected to take their mascot, a stuffed giraffe, with us. The brochure we prepared to encourage donations to the hospital had a stylized picture of the giraffe on our airplane. “La Girafe” was a big hit and was immediately adopted by the competitors and race officials as a participant. When we were in Jordan, Queen Noor asked about the giraffe and requested a brochure. She and King Hussein subsequently donated $10,000 to the hospital. After the race, we returned the giraffe to the hospital, but when they received the check, they gave the giraffe to us to keep. He is sitting behind me as I am writing this.
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Q: An air race isn’t simply a matter of saying “ready, set, go” and seeing the winner at the finish line. There are lots of breaks between flying, staggered departures, weather delays, meeting dignitaries, overnight stays in hotels, etc. Was there still a sense of urgency, competition and rivalry between the pilots?
A: Yes, there was competition and rivalry between many of the crews—some more than others. One crew filed a protest against another crew. As to us, we did not think much about rivalry or competition as we knew that most of the crews had professional pilots, many who were captains of various airlines. They had a lot of experience flying internationally, and their planes were either faster or had more fuel than ours. We initially felt a rivalry with the Chronopost team who flew a plane similar to ours and who managed to push in front of us at the first fuel stop because they had friends on the ground. It ended up as a friendly competition, particularly after our stop in Dhaka, Bangladesh where we met “Papa Chronopost.” We all shared such unique experiences, in the air and on the ground, that many of the competitors became long-time, valued friends.
Q: You had a bit of meltdown in Calcutta thanks to a recalcitrant weatherman whose dawdling over a required report was delaying your takeoff. I like how you write about your irritation; it’s hard to be self-reflexive about oneself in a moment where you aren’t presenting the best face to the world. On a scale of 1 to 10 on the Judy Anger Scale (1 being totally chill, 10 wanting to set off a nuclear bomb), how would you rate yourself that day?
A: Oh yes, my meltdown in Calcutta! I am usually not one to allow my anger get out of control, but I certainly did that night. I was very tired, because we had left Singapore late, had a long, frustrating fuel stop in Bangkok and then landed in Calcutta in the middle of the night. It was my turn to handle the paperwork while Jim tended to the refueling. After being driven to a “bank” in an open jeep with heavily armed guards to change money, I thought that my paperwork would be completed as soon as I paid, but I was told that I must get a weather report. The weatherman was uncooperative for no apparent reason and took a long of time to do something that could have been done in two minutes, so I “lost it.” It was about as close to a 10 as I have been in as long as I can remember. It was only after I was escorted to the “toilette” down a dark hallway by another heavily-armed guard who then stayed to hand me toilet paper that my rage turned toward humor—though I still sulked until I had the weather report.
Q: You thread together various themes in the book. One is what it’s like to be in the cockpit as you fly over (and land in) countries that most of us will never see. Another is the inevitable logistical hiccups and cultural differences along the way, from going through customs to surviving an alcohol-soaked Chinese banquet. Part of the book is a travelogue and what it was like to visit the Forbidden City (long before most American tourists got the chance), Singapore, Bombay and other legendary places. And part is about the way you and Jim — who each brought two grown children to a second marriage — created a life in which you blended together a family and forged a bond by sharing an unforgettable adventure. When you wrote this book decades later, which of those themes resonate most with you? Which memories are strongest?
A: Each of the themes was strong in a different way. They all weave together to create so many wonderful and special memories for Jim and me. Perhaps my most precious memories involved the interactions between us and the people we met. Not only members of the organization and other crews who became life-long friends, but also the people at the various stops who shared a part of their life and culture with us. I loved the contrast between the countries we visited. We flew from Abu Dhabi, in one of the richest countries in the world to Dhaka, in one of the poorest but with wonderful, memorable people. I wish that everyone could share such rich and varied experiences.
Q: You describe a scary part of the race involving engine trouble (on your single-engine plane!) on the leg from Wuhan to Beijing. I won’t give away all the details, but, obviously, since you’re here now answering these questions, we know that you and Jim made it through safely. Of all the years you’ve been a pilot, was that your closest call?
A: Yes, that was probably the closest that I have ever come to thinking that death may be imminent. Even later when our engine stopped in Egypt as we were about the cross the Mediterranean, it was daylight, and I knew that we could find a clear, flat place to safely land. That was not true in China, as it was very dark and we had no idea what the landscape was below us.
Q: Do you think La Girafe was frightened on that leg of the race?
A: No, La Girafe always slept when we were flying. He was always very brave.
Q: Speaking of frightened, what would you have done at your royal audience in Jordan if the obviously smitten Princess Iman, the youngest daughter of King Hussein and Queen Noor, hadn’t given La Girafe back to you after she asked to hold him? Were you worried you’d have to grab him and run?
A: It did cross my mind that Princess Iman may not give him back, and I recall thinking that I would allow her to carry La Girafe around with her for a time. I trusted that Queen Noor would make sure that he was ultimately returned to me.
Q: One thing that struck me reading this book is how the race made your world much “bigger.” Being able to experience other countries is an incredible gift, and it’s something I wish for everyone. That was the case with your children, too, who traveled to Europe for the first time to meet you in Paris for the end of the race. Decades later, I find it fitting that the Edward O. Lund Foundation, which raises money in memory of your son, enables Fresno State art students to attend the London Study Program. It’s another way of making the world bigger. What are your thoughts?
A: I believe that our adventures have encouraged our children to travel and explore the world. When each of them graduated from college, their gift from us was a round-trip ticket to wherever they wanted to go. It was the best gift that we could think of to give to them. Kevin, our oldest, went to Australia and New Zealand. The other three, Karen, Edward and Lisa went to Europe and all have returned many times.
Through the Edward O. Lund Foundation which was established in our son’s memory, we are able to give the gift of travel to students who otherwise may never be able to have that experience. I have spoken with many of the scholarship recipients about how the London Study program opened the world to them and enriched their lives. I am so happy that we can do this. Unfortunately, we had to cancel the trip which would have been scheduled for this January, but we intend to continue the events and the scholarships in the future.
Q: When you look back on the race, what was the most important thing you learned?
A: Wow, that’s a difficult question, as so many things come to mind. Probably one of the most important things I learned was that life can be made more rich and meaningful by living one’s dreams, and that it is important to not be afraid of challenges.
Q: Finally, this question is for people who took a big trip or had a major life event years ago and still haven’t gotten around to “putting it all together” (writing a book, making a photo album, editing together those video clips). You managed to do it decades later. Any advice for the rest of us?
A: It was easier for me to write the book because Jim and I had each written about 300 pages of notes about our memories as soon as we returned from the race when everything was fresh in our minds. We also kept our flight plans, weather reports and other documents, plus we had 10 albums of photographs and many hours of video. I took the lead in writing, as I retired the end of April. I had the time to put everything together and then edit, edit and edit some more. Of course I subsequently had the assistance of a professional editor prior to completing the book. I worked hard during about 4 months, not letting it get stale during the time I was writing it. I could not have written if over a long period of time. It was almost a “one sitting” project (not really, of course) because I didn’t want to lose my train of thought by putting it down and returning to it later.
Q: Anything we haven’t covered that you’d like to add?
A: Jim and I flew another air race in 1992, the First ‘Round the World Air Race across Russia in a twin-engine plane. Because of our participation, one of the longest stops during the race was in Fresno. Jim is encouraging me to write about that and perhaps I will someday, but probably not soon.