In its 24th year, this premier women's air race — whose roots go back 70 years, to the first Women's Air Derby — attracts pilots from all over the country, from college teams to former WASPs. This June, the flyers enjoyed mostly fine weather and fair winds as they raced from the desert, across the mountains, to the Atlantic coast. AVweb's Mary Grady was there as the pilots crossed the finish line and filed this Special Report.
June 29, 2000
AVweb Special Report: Air Race Classic 2000 Sands to the Sea
Flying At Full Throttle
Only one thing is certain when 102 women climb into 51 airplanes in Tucson,
Ariz., on a June day in blazing 110-degree heat and race toward the cool
sea breezes of Hyannis, Mass., more than 2,000 nautical miles to the east:
Chances are, they will encounter the unexpected, the unforeseeable, the
problematical; but without a doubt, they will have an unforgettable adventure.
Exuberance, tinged with a bit of exhaustion, overflowed at Griffin Aviation's
FBO in Hyannis on Thursday. Competitors in this year's Air Race Classic, laden
with luggage, arrived from their tie-down spots in a minivan driven by a
tuxedoed chauffeur, and alighted on a red carpet to sign in with race
officials. Gathered on the ramp with bottles of ice-cold water, sandwiches,
champagne, news reporters and the local Ninety-Nines, the racers swapped
stories, caught up with friends old and new, made sure their airplanes were
looked after, and scrambled to find hotel rooms the organizers had expected
most of the flyers to arrive on Friday, but here they were, a day early.
"The tailwinds this morning were too good to pass up," explained
racer Royce Clifford, of San Diego.
Mary Rawlings, of Palm Springs, Calif., pulled from her pocket a tattered
scrap of paper that listed her air time, to the minute, over the last three
days. A quick tally showed 17 hours of flying in a rented Cessna 172 with her
co-pilot, 82-year-old Ruby Sheldon, of Phoenix, Ariz. "It's a test,"
Rawlings said. "It's very tough. You've got to use your weather
information, get the best out of your airplane and your navigator, and you've
got to hold it all together. That's what wins the race."
Strategy Is The Key
The cross-country competition, now in its 24th year, rewards that kind of
strategy. Teams can enter in any stock airplane that meets race parameters,
and they're assigned a handicap by the race committee. They must follow to the
letter the rules and regulations for every phase of the flight VFR only,
taking off and landing only within prescribed daylight hours, attending
mandatory briefings, flying by or landing at each of the eight designated
airports along the route. Penalties are plentiful and strictly enforced:
"If your landing light's not on during your fly-by, that's a
penalty," said Sue Gray, treasurer for the all-volunteer race committee.
Only after all the airplanes are in and all the details scrutinized are the
winners announced and the No. 1 team takes home a $5,000 prize.
This year's fleet included an array of Bonanzas and Skyhawks, various Piper
products, a Grumman Tiger, a Beech Sierra and a few Mooneys. Chris Bently, of
Littleton, Colo., talked to the folks at Cirrus Design Corp. and got them to
loan her an SR20 fresh from the factory. "I'm on the list to get a Cirrus
by next July, so I called and asked if I could borrow one for the race,"
she said, and the company agreed. "It flies great! But we'll have a low
score we got a big handicap, because it's new and everyone said, it's so
fast! It is fast, but it's not a rocket. Maybe for next time we can get the
handicap lowered and do better."
Many of the pilots come back year after year, but every race brings new
fledglings into the fold. Western Michigan University sponsored a team for the
first time this year, sending flight instructor Jennifer Richard and senior
Jo-Elle Warner to compete in a Mooney Ovation off the school's flight line.
Dean Richard Wright arrived on the ramp in Hyannis to greet the two, and soon
cellphones appeared for the young women to talk to the school's PR folks
and their local media back home. "Jo-Elle had her picture on the front
page of the paper," Wright beamed, amazed at the support for the team
from the university and the community. "Everyone's so excited about
The Freedom Of Wings
Other first-timers this year included Gail Lively, of Santa Rosa, Calif., a
wheelchair aviator who wrote that learning to fly "gave me a wonderful
feeling of freedom, independence, and power." Sarah Dittman, 19, a
sophomore at Purdue University, flew her first race with fellow student Erin
Conner, 23, "the older and wiser one," back for her second go. They
left Indiana on June 9, flew to Hyannis, flew the whole race route in reverse,
then started out again from Tucson. After two solid weeks on the road with
their Piper Warrior, they were still having a great time and ready for more.
And the race organizers had more in store for them: a full weekend of
activity, including a whale watch and a clambake, and an awards banquet to top
it all off on Sunday night.
Ruby Sheldon, whose teammate Mary Rawlings described her as "one hundred
pounds of energy," lived up to her billing, happily talking to reporters
and clearly in no hurry to leave the airport for the comforts of a hotel room.
Sheldon retired from the U.S. Geological Survey, where she flew a wide variety
of airplanes and helicopters. Asked if she chose that career because airline
jobs in those days were closed to women, she shook her head: "I had no
desire to fly for an airline! Going from A to B, A to B, and back, that's not
flying! I've flown all over the country, and I've enjoyed every minute of it.
They've got the money, I suppose, but I've a got a lifetime full of memories
enough; I don't worry about the money."
This year's winners were: first place, Denise Waters of New York and Ruth
Maestre of Ohio, flying a Grumman Tiger; second place, Margaret Ringenberg and
Lynn Van Etten, both of Indiana, flying a Cessna Skyhawk; and third place,
Judy Bolkema-Tokar of Florida and Esther Lowry of Georgia, flying a Cessna
Skylane. Next year's Air Race Classic departs from California on June 26 and
finishes up at Sporty's Pilot Shop in Ohio.
For more information about the Air Race Classic, check
the Ninety-Nines' Web site.
coverage includes more images of race
participants and their aircraft.