Dreams Take Flight : At 8, Katrina Marie Mumaw was considered the youngest person to fly even make-believe dogfights. Now she's 10, and her passion for planes soars.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

One mile up, above the clouds over the San Pedro Channel, 10-year-old Katrina Marie Mumaw of Lancaster stalks her prey.

At speeds exceeding 200 m.p.h., she fearlessly maneuvers a dual-control Marchetti SF-260 prop plane--sometimes flying upside-down --in mock combat with a veteran flier in the same kind of aircraft that trains NATO fighter pilots.

In these competitive sorties promoted by Air Combat U.S.A., Katrina wears a parachute, a custom-fitted helmet and an olive-drab jumpsuit embroidered with her call sign, "KAT-ONE."

But she's the canary , bird-dogging her opponent, the cat. As they dodge and dive, spin and roll, swerve and soar--each with a flight instructor alongside--Katrina finally out-finesses her opponent, Mike Darcy, 32, of Woodland Hills. She lines up her target, 500 feet away, and fires an electronic beam.

ZAP! Smoke spews from a device on Darcy's plane, signaling a "kill." Score one for the canary.

Katrina, pilot prodigy, straight-A student, spelling bee champion and honoree for encouraging peers to say "no" to drugs, has wounded another male ego--just when the Defense Department has nurtured her dreams by recently lifting its ban against women flying in combat.

After all, it wasn't too long ago that Katrina, then only 3, told her father that she wanted to become an "astro- nut ." At age 8, she became what is believed to be the youngest ever to fly even make-believe dogfights.

Today, she's six years too young to be licensed to fly solo, so small that she sits on two stacked seat cushions just to see through the windshield, and she still drags her favorite doll, Brittany, to and from the competition.

And it's bad enough, Darcy says, that his own instructor has screamed insults at him in mid-flight against Katrina, but worse when the instructor snaps, "How come you can't beat a 10-year-old girl ?"

Well, as Darcy explains: "She's different. She's so much smaller and lighter than the rest of us--and that gives her a tactical advantage right off the bat."

Accordingly, Katrina can withstand all that gravitational pressure--"G forces," aviators call them--caused by her high-speed dipping and darting, without blacking out or getting sick. At flight's end, she nonchalantly walks away, retrieves her doll, then wolfs down a ham-cheese-and-mayo sandwich and a soda.

At the same time, many of her opponents--mostly in their 30s and 40s, and some even combat fliers--stagger off their aircraft with, as Darcy says, "their barf bags filled."

As Katrina's father, Jim Mumaw, 36, points out: "She pulls 7 Gs in the airplane--that's seven times your weight. Most adults can't take 7 Gs unless they're really used to it. But it doesn't bother her. She's young. Her mind is in the right place, where she's having fun and not caring about it. And she has a shorter distance from her heart to her brain. That helps."

He says one rival flier whom Katrina defeated paid grudging tribute: "I got shot down by a parachute wearing a helmet!"

When a writer asks Katrina if flying simulated combat is like "patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time," her head bobs up and down.

"I can do that , too!" she says.

She grins. "But I can't chew gum and fly," she says, "because I get too busy chewing."

Katrina also keeps busy winning awards and making personal appearances. She'll be honored in opening ceremonies of "A Tribute to Women in Aviation" at Aviation Expo '93 at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at the Van Nuys Airport (the event concludes Sunday). She also will be "Miss Cal Aero '93" at the Cal Aero Expo today through Sunday at the Los Angeles County FairPlex in Pomona.

A precocious, poised youngster who dreams of attending the Air Force Academy after high school graduation in 2001 and someday joining a mission to Mars, Katrina has a "situational awareness that's unusual for someone so young," says Tom Smith, director of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots, based in Lancaster.

"And she's especially good at thinking ahead ," says Smith, also an ex-Air Force instructor pilot. "Let's put it this way: She's got the big picture."

Win or lose, Katrina takes it all in stride--so much that Nettie Sheppard, her fourth-grade teacher at El Dorado School, says, "I see a kindness in her that I don't see in others. You never hear her brag about anything, even though she's got so much to brag about."

Indeed, Katrina's enthusiasm ("really neat," she says of flying) runs a distant second to that of her father, a mortician, who pays $600 for each of Katrina's flights, which occur as often as three times a week, as infrequently as once every two months or, as he puts it, "when business is good enough."

What's more, he has crammed the front room and back yard of the Mumaws' modest Lancaster house with so much aviation memorabilia--jumpsuits (many on mannequins), helmets, goggles, engines, propellers, tires, fuselage carcasses, documents signed by Orville Wright and Charles Lindbergh--that some call it "Smithsonian West."

"After the divorce, the table went out, and the storage and china cabinets went out--to make room for some good stuff," says Mumaw, now a single parent rearing Katrina and her brother, Nick, 7, an achiever, too, with a spate of ribbons he has earned in gymnastics.

As Mumaw and Katrina show off their home-turned museum to a visitor, their colloquy fittingly takes on the glib, rapid cadence of a pilot talking by radio to an air-traffic controller.

"Oh, tell him about your Barbie house," he says to Katrina. "Where did that go?"

"In the garage," Katrina replies, as if on cue.

"Her idea, not mine," her father says. "She wanted a place for the B-70 tire."

Katrina's hobby took root in 1986 when, at 3, she accompanied her father to watch test flights of the Voyager, the first airplane to fly around the world without stopping or refueling. "I met the pilots," she says, referring to Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager, "and I just wanted to be a pilot."

Her father adds, "I thought that would last only 'til bedtime. The first thing she had asked was, 'What do they do?' And I told her.

"Then she asked, 'Do they go to the moon?' 'No,' I said, 'those are astronauts.' She said, 'I'm going to be an astro-nut.' And I said, 'Well, by golly, if you want to, you can. You can do anything you want.' Who knew it would mushroom into this?"

Katrina took her first airplane ride at age 5--with her father in a 1929 open-cockpit biplane, just west of Lancaster, the pilot performing mild aerobatics. Afterward, she asked the pilot why he hadn't flown "upside-down." The pilot explained that Katrina had no parachute, whereupon she said she saw no problem because "Daddy would catch me."

From there, she took her first hot-air balloon ride at 5, her first glider ride at 7 (over the Tehachapi Mountains), her first para-sailing flight at 7 (twice over Catalina Island's Avalon harbor) and her first inverted flight at 8 (in a World War II P-51 Mustang fighter, modified with a second seat), even videotaping the flight herself.

Along the way, she watched space shuttle landings at Edwards Air Force Base, cultivated friendships with Chuck Yeager and other aviators, and meshed her hobby with honor-roll success at school. When Katrina and her classmates were assigned to write papers on "famous women" not long ago, she wrote about Joann Osterud, a veteran pilot and air-show performer she met when she was 6. Three of Katrina's classmates turned in papers about their famous classmate, Katrina.

At home, inspiration clearly plots Katrina's flight plan to her tomorrows, the walls (and part of the ceiling) emblazoned with autographed photos of achievers--astronauts, pilots and Presidents, among others.

One photograph of late Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay is inscribed appropriately: "My dream was for the sky. Yours can be for the stars."

For now, it's all enough to crowd boyfriends out of Katrina's busy life, she tells a visitor who asks.

Again, her father chimes in: "The way I figure it, when she gets old enough, if a guy wants to take her out, he's going to have to afford to take her up in a plane and beat her in competition."

Katrina grins coyly. "I might let 'em," she says, "if they're cute."

Where and When What: "A Tribute to Women in Aviation," honoring Katrina Mumaw and others. Aviation Expo '93. Location: Van Nuys Airport. Pedestrian entrance at 8050 Balboa Blvd. Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Opening ceremonies, 10:30 a.m. Saturday. Price: Free. Shuttle to and from parking areas also free. Call: (818) 773-3293.

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