Living an impossible dream

The Adventures of Vance Breese

Nipomo resident Vance Breese almost died 15 years ago while attempting to set a land speed record on a streamliner motorcycle. Years later, he has recovered and can be seen in area skies piloting a unique experimental gyroplane aircraft with his girlfriend, Edna. The two have plans to fly cross county in a new gyroplane in the coming years and create a book about their experiences.

When the Santa Maria Times wrote about local pilot and former motorcycle racer Vance Breese more than two years ago, the Nipomo resident had recently received medical clearance to pilot an experimental gyroplane. He was content learning how to fly his unique aircraft on solo trips around the Central Coast.

In the years since, however, Breese — who lost vision in his left eye and suffered a brain injury in a high-speed crash 15 years ago — earned a full-fledged pilot’s license in the summer of 2008 and the right to legally carry passengers. And that’s a good thing, because Breese and his girlfriend, Edna Arlt, are pursuing a dream of flying cross-country in a new gyroplane that they are designing and building with the help of friends.

Their goal is to arrange a publishing deal before the journey and create a coffee table book about their adventures along the way, documenting what they call a “Route 66 in the sky.”

Breese and Arlt, who had been a couple years earlier, reunited shortly after Arlt read that article about Breese in the Times in January 2008.  When Breese invited Arlt to the Santa Maria Airport to see the gyroplane at his hangar, Arlt was not impressed.  “I thought he was insane,” she said with a laugh. “It doesn’t even look like it can fly.”

Gyroplanes, also known as autogyros, are a type of aircraft with an unpowered rotor for lift and an engine-powered propellor for thrust. Developed in the 1920s by a Spanish engineer, gyroplanes have a small but devout following in the U.S. and abroad.

Despite her initial misgivings, Arlt eventually became a gyroplane convert and is now just as passionate about the machine as Breese is. During their flights in the two-seater, Arlt snaps pictures from her bird’s-eye view behind the pilot’s seat, listens for any unusual rumblings from the craft and works as a spotter, alerting Breese to other pilots in their immediate air space.

“We’ve had some close calls,” Arlt said, adding “we’re kind of small up there and blend into the sky.”

A bright color scheme for higher visibility is one of a litany of improvements Breese and Arlt have in store for the new version of their gyroplane. The updated machine will replace the Predator, which Breese purchased from a friend in the fall of 2007.

Breese, an engineer at heart and the son of Vance Breese Sr., a renowned pilot who tested many of the planes flown by the Allies in World War II, is excited to shepherd his new gyroplane from the design stage to reality.  “It will be a better machine in a lot of ways,” he said, noting that the navigation systems and additional creature comforts will make the open-cockpit vehicle, tentatively named the Mariah Gale, that much more enjoyable to fly.

Breese recently turned 61 and considers himself incredibly lucky to be alive and pursuing his passion for flying.

Doctors once thought he’d barely be able to walk and talk after his crash in 1995, which occurred at more than 260 miles per hour as he was trying to set a land-speed record at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah on a specialized motorcycle called a streamliner.  He credits Jodi House, a treatment center in Solvang for people with brain injuries, with helping him find ways to cope with the frustrations of living with disabilities resulting from his crash. Those include difficulty multitasking and speech aphasia, a language impairment that sometimes leaves Breese searching for the right words to express himself. 

“I feel very grateful,” Breese said, adding that his survival and recovery are due to a combination of determination and luck.   “A lot of people I raced with are dead or crippled and can’t do the things I’m doing,” Breese said. “I try to spend time each day being grateful for the gifts I have.”

After owning the Santa Maria Harley Davidson dealership for more than a decade, then developing and marketing software to help other motorcycle dealers run their businesses more efficiently, Breese is looking forward to the freedom and adventure of the cross-country journey he and Arlt are planning.

They are plotting a coast-to-coast itinerary that includes aviation events, visits to small regional airports and a lot of reunions with friends and fellow gyroplane enthusiasts.  Breese expects to complete his new gyroplane within a year. The couple wants to set out on their cross-country odyssey no later than the summer of 2012.

“It’s got romance. It’s got old people having fun. It’s got impossible dreams,” Breese said.   “How could it not work?”

By Mark Brown / Staff Writer / mbrown@santamariatimes.com

Posted: Monday, August 2, 2010

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