- Associated Press - Saturday, May 7, 2016

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - As an airline pilot pulled her 737 to a gate at Eppley Airfield, passengers still buzzed with excitement.

They had already cheered and applauded from the cabin when they learned the significance of this flight: her final landing of a commercial-airline passenger plane in her hometown. Now the 143 people each filed by the open cockpit with smiles and warm words.

“Congratulations, Debby!”… “Great landing!”… “Good luck!”… “Thank you, Captain!”

She grew up in Omaha as Debby Furstenberg, soloed at 16 in a small plane at Eppley, became an internationally acclaimed aerobatics pilot and spent 27 years with Southwest Airlines.

The Omaha World-Herald (http://bit.ly/24zIHGd ) reports that the aviation world knows her as Debby Rihn-Harvey, and she turns 65 on May 8. By Federal Aviation Administration rules she must retire as a commercial airline pilot.

But before she did so, she arranged for one last flight into Omaha. She touched down lightly at 3:20 p.m. last Friday.

“It’s a little bittersweet,” the pilot said upon arrival. “I soloed at this airport. I remember that they asked a United flight to slow down so I could land. I thought of a lot of things today.”

She thought of her aviation-loving family. Her barnstorming grandfather, Roy Furstenberg, “sold rides for a quarter,” she said, and manufactured the first commercial airplane in Omaha. In the 1920s he also operated an aircraft-engine mechanics school.

Her dad, Jack Furstenberg, taught his three kids to fly at the North Omaha Airport near 72nd and McKinley Streets. Even before that, said brothers John and Scott, who welcomed her at the airport Friday, she wasn’t like most other girls.

She drove quarter-midget go-karts in races, and was the only teenage girl in a couple of demolition derbies at Sunset Speedway.

“I didn’t know that girls didn’t do things like that,” Debby said. “My dad always told me I could do anything the boys could do.”

She graduated from Burke High School and Hastings College and became a medical technologist, but the skies beckoned. She eventually saw an aerobatics show, amazed at the stunt pilots - and puzzled.

“I thought those people were nuts,” she said. “Why would anybody want to do that in an airplane? I wasn’t even one who cared for carnival rides.”

So guess what? She became one of the best in the world.

––

Debby Rihn-Harvey was the top-ranked U.S. women’s aerobatics competitor 18 times and the U.S. national aerobatics champion three times. In 2011 she was named “First Lady of Aerobatics.”

If aerobatics were an Olympic sport, she would have been all over TV, winning a couple of gold medals. In France, Hungary, Switzerland, England, Germany, Spain and the United States, she competed 15 times for the U.S. in World Aerobatics Championships.

Though no longer competing at the top level, she will continue to fly in air shows. She is passionate about aviation education and operates a mentoring camp for high school-age kids near her home in La Porte, Texas, in the Houston area.

She also runs the full-service Harvey & Rihn Aviation, with three full-time mechanics and two flight instructors, as well as several part-timers.

She has been inducted into the Texas, EAA (experimental aircraft) and Nebraska aviation halls of fame and received many other awards.

“Once the aviation bug has bitten you, you miss it if you’re not flying,” Rihn-Harvey said. “On a beautiful day, you know what it looks like from above. That’s the freedom of flight - looking at the world from another perspective.”

She has flown more than 34,000 hours in all types of planes. Her aerobatic flying, she said, made her a more skilled pilot overall.

Debby has endured a few bird hits, she said, but hasn’t had any bad experiences. She was preparing to fly on 9/11 but was sent home when all flights were grounded.

“Now it’s all changed, including the security of the cockpit,” she said. “It used to be a pretty relaxed environment.”

She sometimes talks to people who are scared of flying or who freak out at turbulence. She tells them that rough air is just the equivalent of a bumpy gravel road - nothing bad will happen.

Pilots, she noted, are trained to recover from any air emergency. She got into aerobatics for safety reasons. “I wanted to know how to recover from any attitude without hurting myself, the airplane or anybody else.”

––

Debby Furstenberg married fellow Hastings student John Rihn and moved to Houston, where they lived nine years before divorcing.

She later married Dr. Eoin Harvey, a physician and pilot, and they started a flight school, where she helped give flight training to her stepdaughter, Christine. Dr. Harvey died of cancer in 1995.

Debby began flying for Southwest in 1989, its 11th female pilot. (Today, she said, only 6 percent of airline pilots are women.)

She soon campaigned for the airline to serve Omaha. So did the Omaha Airport Authority and many others.

It finally happened in March 1995, and Debby Rihn-Harvey had the honor of piloting the airline’s first departing flight out of Omaha.

The Omaha-Southwest match has been good for both parties. Paul Jensen, the airline’s station manager in Omaha, says Southwest flies 1.2 million passengers a year at Eppley, the most of any airline.

Debby loves Southwest, including its good humor. In 2003 I wrote about her startling a planeload of passengers - and then making them laugh - by announcing that they were on an unmanned flight.

Both pilots were women, she explained, as were all the flight attendants.

––

She started last Friday in Houston. She first flew to Dallas, then to Pittsburgh and then to Midway Airport in Chicago. The flight to Omaha, she said, was a bit emotional.

Flight attendant Katherine “Kat” Gicante announced to the passengers that their pilot was a famous aerobatics flier and veteran airline pilot who would land in her hometown a final time.

“I told them she was a rock star,” Kat said. “I’ve told Debby that when she retires, she should come back as a flight attendant. She said she’d probably get fired the first week.”

Debby’s co-pilot on the flight to Omaha was Jamie McKeon, 49, an Air Force Academy graduate with whom she hadn’t previously flown.

By coincidence, he had an Omaha connection, having attended Papillion-La Vista High School when his father was stationed at Offutt Air Force Base.

The pair flew out of Omaha early on April 30.

Debby Rihn-Harvey’s final airline flight was Wednesday from Harlingen, Texas, to Houston, with about 40 friends and relatives on board. Her co-pilot will be the stepdaughter she helped teach to fly, Chris Dale.

Afterward, everyone will celebrate her career with a Cinco de Mayo party at her flight school.

“People say ‘You can’t retire, it’s too early,’ ” the captain said. “But my birth certificate says it’s not early.”

Regardless of the calendar, she said, she will remain active in promoting aviation. She and her brothers also plan to finish building a replica of their grandfather’s Overland Sport plane, and to help revitalize the North Omaha Airport.

“Aviation is definitely a passion that I have gained so much from,” she said. “I want others to experience the joy that aviation can bring.”

As for those who wonder if they could fly an airplane, Debby says with a chuckle: “I tell people if a little old gray-haired lady like me can do this, anyone can.”

___

Information from: Omaha World-Herald, http://www.omaha.com

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