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AOPA Sweepstakes RV–10 goes to avid pilot

Under false pretenses, Pleasance led Benedetti out to the ramp on January 24 where the sweepstakes airplane was parked to meet AOPA President Mark Baker who pretended to be giving an interview. Baker broke off the interview and surprised the 57-year-old Boeing 787 Dreamliner captain with the news that he had won the airplane.

“This can’t be possible. The RV–10 is a phenomenal aircraft,” Benedetti said. “I’m speechless.”

AOPA President Mark Baker surprises Aaron Benedetti with the AOPA Sweepstakes RV-10. Photo by Chris Rose.

Benedetti asked his friend, “Darren, how long have you known about this? Did you tell him the whole story? How we were friends at college?”

Pleasance had been in on the ruse since December, playing a key role in helping pull off the surprise.

“When I drove up, I was completely oblivious,” Benedetti said. “I happened to notice the RV–10 and thought ‘What a coincidence.’ I’m still in denial.”

In addition to working as an airline captain, Benedetti is also an active general aviation pilot. He has owned several airplanes over the years, including a Pitts S1 and Aeronca Champion. He flies with a friend in his friend’s Van’s Aircraft RV–7, so he is familiar with the RV series, and the RV–10 is similar in many ways. He wants to use the RV–10 to visit smaller airports in the West: “My wife, Karen, and camping gear will fit nicely.”

Benedetti was quick to call his wife with the news. Sitting in the left seat of the airplane, he said, “Karen, you know all those flying magazines I get? AOPA Pilot? The whole thing with Darren was a total ruse. I’m sitting in this airplane, and they’re telling me it’s mine. It’s remarkable.”

I’m sitting in this airplane, and they’re telling me it’s mine.

Benedetti learned to fly in the San Francisco Bay Area before studying engineering during college at the University of California at Santa Barbara. He flew for a regional airline and then was hired by United Airlines in 1990. Now, he’s a Boeing 787 Dreamliner captain and mostly flies oceanic routes between San Francisco International Airport and destinations in Europe, Asia, and Australia. “I love the profession,” he said. “I love the people I fly with.”

Benedetti is an avid paraglider who has been known to bring a backpack parachute rig on trips so that he can soar from mountaintops around the world during layovers. He’s also a member of a flying club at Livermore and flies aerobatic and tailwheel airplanes.

Benedetti won the drawing when AOPA supplied all the sweepstakes entries to an independent judging organization that used its confidential and impartial computer program to select a winning number. AOPA traced that number to Benedetti in December and began planning to bring the airplane to him and set up a ruse—all without letting Benedetti in on the secret that he had won.

I flew the RV–10 to California in mid-January. The two-day, 15-flight-hour trip from AOPA headquarters in Maryland to Livermore loosely followed the transcontinental railroad route across the Rockies and Sierras. It also highlighted the impressive capabilities of the aircraft—the first experimental-category aircraft that AOPA has given away in more than 25 years of its sweepstakes.

The trip across the continent consisted of five three-hour legs: three IFR and two VFR. Altitudes ranged from 4,500 feet across the Ohio Valley to more than 11,000 feet over Lake Tahoe, and the airplane was an absolute pleasure to fly. Smooth, powerful, comfortable, excellent speed, range, and handling qualities. Cutting-edge avionics provide exceptional situational awareness. And a really fine heater was nice to have, too.

Outside air temperatures were in the low teens for most of the flight, but the cockpit stayed toasty. The AOPA Sweepstakes RV–10 was built in Canada in 2007, and Edwin French—the amateur builder—made sure it was optimized for cold temperatures. (A plug-in Tanis Aircraft Products preheat system kept the engine warm prior to each start.)

The AOPA Sweepstakes RV–10 is the first experimental-category aircraft that AOPA has given away in more than 25 years of its sweepstakes. Photo by Chris Rose.

Total transformation

AOPA managed the restoration of the Sweepstakes RV–10 with skilled work from master craftsmen over 18 months.

Rob Hickman of Advanced Flight Systems designed and installed a three-screen, digital IFR instrument panel with an Avidyne IFD550 nav/com at its heart; Geoff Combs of Aerosport Products provided a carbon fiber panel and center console.

“The panel is not dissimilar from the 787 I fly,” Benedetti said. “This one has three screens and the 787 had five screens.”

South Florida Sport Aviation installed a leather interior and overhead ventilation system; Craig Barnett of Scheme Designers drew up a distinctive new look; and a team led by Kendall Horst of Lancaster Aero applied its lustrous paint.

Champion Aerospace provided new magnetos for the 260-horsepower engine, and Whelen installed exterior LEDs.

The AOPA Sweepstakes RV–10's digital IFR panel from Advanced Flight Systems provides quadruple redundancy. Photo by Chris Rose.

Aerox gave the winner a portable oxygen system, SlideDown pitched in a new set of tiedowns, and Bruce’s Custom Covers provided a durable fuselage cover to protect the airplane from the elements. Tin Tail Numbers contributed an aluminum panel painted to precisely match the Sweepstakes RV–10’s attention-getting N-number.

Van’s Aircraft provided RV–10 transition flight training for the winner with Mike Seager, an Oregon instructor who has given thousands of hours of dual instruction in the RV series. Benedetti has the option of doing the training in his own airplane or in an RV–10 at Van’s Aircraft.

Setting the ruse

Pleasance, a veteran GA pilot and longtime friend of the winner, lured Benedetti to Livermore Municipal Airport for the surprise airplane giveaway.

Pleasance lives in central Oregon and sent his college buddy a text in early December saying he planned to be in the Bay Area on January 24 and would like to meet for lunch. Elevation—the airport restaurant overlooking the ramp at Livermore—was perfectly situated. (AOPA chose that date with the assistance of United Airlines pilot Bob McSpadden, who confirmed Benedetti was likely to be off work that day.)

Benedetti agreed to the lunch meeting, and he and Pleasance confirmed the time and place as the date drew nearer. Pleasance did his best to keep his communications casual—but it wasn’t easy to stay low key.

AOPA President Mark Baker, general aviation pilot Darren Pleasance, and AOPA staffers surprise Aaron Benedetti with the AOPA Sweepstakes RV–10 at Livermore Municipal Airport in California on January 24. Photo by Chris Rose.

“I’m so excited to surprise Aaron with this incredible news,” said Pleasance, who also grew up in Livermore and learned to fly there. “He came up through GA, he absolutely loves aviation, and he’s a great representative of the flying community.”

AOPA President Mark Baker arrived in Livermore the morning of the giveaway and relished his role in springing the surprise, then handing over the keys.

“The look on a pilot’s face when they find out they’ve just won an airplane is disbelief,” he said. “It’s quickly followed by the realization that their life just changed for the better. With this RV–10, any pilot’s life gets way better.”

Be sure to stay on the lookout for the reveal of the next sweepstakes aircraft—just a few weeks away.

Special thanks to Judy Shezifi of Attitude Aviation at Livermore for safely stashing the RV–10 at its hangar prior to the giveaway and Livermore Municipal Airport managers Dave Decoteau and Sean Moran for their invaluable logistical support.

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